Monster Under My Bed
By: R. I. Tuesday
So there I was, standing on my porch holding a dead monster by the tail.
The sun was low in the sky and red. Humid and sweaty, I dragged Diaballein down my front path lined with the twelve carnivorous sunflowers I named after ex-lovers. They snapped and hissed at the corpse I was dragging behind me. Ahh, another evening at the end of the world.
I hissed back and starred them in the mouth. They retreated so I moved on.
I looked back at Diaballein. Its loose scales and jagged claws snagged into the cracked earth. It was too difficult to ignore the gaping hole in its skull. Or the trail of blood and brain matter forming behind us. Diaballein’s brain still pulsated in postmordic rhythm. Tragic.
“God damn, you’re heavy.” I half expected it to talk back; which it didn’t. I yanked harder and continued down my little walkway.
Now, the gate to my white picket fence had been broken for quite some time. I struggled with the rusty latch and had to put Diaballein’s body down to use both hands. I made a mental note to fix the busted thing and forgot about it just as quick.
Gate opened, through the fence, Diaballein’s grave was in sight. Right under my tentacle tree. This was the only solitary grave out of the whole lot of them. All 26 dead monster headstones were strewn about my front yard. Seeing each one, I got a little nostalgic and began to tear up. But only in one eye. I was bringing work home with me.
I couldn’t help it.
I let Diaballein’s body flop to the long decayed, petrified ground at the foot of the grave. I closed my eyes and waited for the earth to swallow us underneath Diaballein’s dead weight; no such luck. With my fingers laced around the shovel, I pretended to say a prayer and kicked the body into the pit. “Here lies Diaballein.” And not a moment too soon. I sighed. I smiled.
I could not help but think about the horrid mess that was my cabin,
Things were looking grim. Sunny side up, however, it only took me forty-seven minutes to fill in the entire grave. Which is eleven minutes than last time. I was coated in a thin exo-skin of sweat and grime from head to toe. The sun was burning hot that evening. I needed a cigarette. And a drink.
I thought I’d fix myself a whiskey.
Turning around to go back inside I smiled at my cabin. My home. The drooping glass windows, hazy with their dirt stains. The mud and motor imprisoned between the logs. I smiled at the zombie-apple tree growing just off to the side. A broken smoke pattern was coming from the chimney; the fire was dying.
I let out a deep sigh and smiled again.
Tucked away at the end of the world. An entire two-days trip from town. Right where no one could find me. I checked the mail. Nothing. I snarled and scoffed at the people who never sent me anything.
The gate was a pain in the ass. Again. As usual. And it made a terrible screaching sound and woke up my demon sunflowers. Again. As usual. They don’t have eyes, the sunflowers, but I could feel them glaring at me. “What?” I glared back and they bowed their heads. “That’s what I thought.”
That day was one of the better days. As far as the sunflowers went, anyway. I examined the various scars on my arms. They get uppity from time to time; (sigh) the bitches.
At my front door, I stopped. I just stood there breathing and wiping sweat from my face and eyes. I took a little me-time with my hand resting on the doorknob. I wasn’t prepared for what was on the other side. I took a few more deep breaths.
“Good-fucking-lord.” I couldn’t tell if I was home or in a slaughter house. My gun was still smoking on the kitchen counter. There was blood on everything I owned.
Monster blood. Of all things.
Most of my afflicted property had already started to dissolve leaving a thin, blue vapor in the air. In three, four hours tops, all of this stuff with be gone. Gone. Eaten away and converted to gas. I had to work quick. I didn’t have the time to refurnish nor did I have the energy. I vowed to clean my entire cabin from floor to ceiling.
But not before whiskey.
I ignored the blood on my cabinets and the eye ball on the counter and poured a good sized glass of whiskey and swallowed it in one abusive gulp. I tossed another log on the dying fire. I poured another whiskey, dragged my rolly and contemplated Diaballein. When it was finished I looked around for an ashtray, paused and laughed hysterically to myself. The place was already a sty.
I flicked the roach and it landed in a small pile of blood which, of course, burst into a horrid purple flame.
I slapped my palm against my forehead. “Okay. Where the fuck is that mop?”
I was armed to the teeth with all the cleaning supplies I owned:
Mop, 1 wooden
Sponge, 1 giant sea
Bucket, 1 5-gallon
Steel wool, 2 jumbo
Gloves, 2 pair vampire skin
Trash bag, 4 all purpose, heavy duty
The floor had a thick coat of blood and mucus to viscous to keep any sort of productive footing on. “Oh, if I slip in this.” My vomit was one of the last things this place needed. My eyes were already starting to water. I opened all the windows to clear the blue acidic vapor out of the air.
The sofa cushions had already dissolved. The sofa however, was intact. Tiny victories. Tiny. Victories. What was left of the cushions I threw out back.
The living room table. Destroyed. Absolutely shattered. It was reduced to nothing but blood soaked splinters. That’s where Diaballein finally crashed and sent wooden shrapnel everywhere. One of the legs did, in fact, survive. As did a single dining room chair. At that point I was holding onto such tiny victories for dear life.
And as far as my bookshelves, my curtains, various knickknacks and a wonderful painting of a mythical creature called a turtle – I didn’t like them anyway. So there. And, I threw all that outback into the pile. My cabin was reduced to a single armchair, a sofa frame, that dining room chair and a side table. I had to refurnish now. Fucking monsters, right?
I filled my bucket with bleach and then put some water in there. The blood soaked up easier than I anticipated. Though it was already starting to form into chuncky little clumps. I dreaded the potential of some sort of A-sexual regeneration.
Blood, bleach and water mixed. It swirled around on the hardwood floors. I had to wring the mop out by hand. That’s why I had two pairs, two pairs, of VAMPIRE SKIN GLOVES on. And even those were already starting to corrode.
I mopped and mopped. Bearing down as hard as I could. The thought occurred to me that I may have been wearing away at the floor. But, screw it. Anything less and I wouldn’t have a floor anymore. So I cleaned even harder. Bearing down. Scrubbing the floors left, right, up, down, sideways and every direction in between. I cleaned and cleaned until the mop handle broke in half.
Then there was spot cleaning to do. So I got down, on my hands and knees, scrubbing those little blotchy stains off the floor and wall and surviving furnishings. The bleach began to form a lather. And, on the wall, one particular blood splash pattern paid a striking resemblance to my late Aunt Genine. Her wiry hair. Her mole. Her other mole. Even the lazy eye she sported so fashionably were all there. You know, it’s odd. They don’t usually make such a mess; the monsters. Then again I don’t usually shoot them. Fourteen times. However, at a staggering coincidence, my late Aunt Genine always made a terrible mess wherever she went.
Still though, I’m not sorry.
“Diaballein, you had it coming.”
The bleach and blood and guts had joined forces and formed a superfunk that was burning my nostrils. Something worse than decomposing flesh. Something even worse than amphibious people. I tilted my head back to take a few non-toxic breaths. There was blood on the ceiling. There would be blood on the ceiling. And, “is that – no. No.” There was no way there was a lung stuck to the – I got a trash bag. And then another because you never can be too careful.
The lung peeled off the wall with a loud squelch. A string of entrail lining like warm peanut butter connected it to the wall. That was the precise reason I had a steel wool. I applied some elbow grease and held back to reflex to vomit and still found myself gagging.
So, okay. No. This place would never really be clean again. But, at the very least, I could make it not dirty. That much, I owed to myself. That much, I owed to my cabin.
I found a stray fang. It went in the bag with the lung. As did the three feet of intestine I found. I’m still shocked I didn’t vomit.
Especially because, when I found another organ – and that’s all I can really say about it. It was an organ. Nothing in the human anatomy was that shade of grey or covered in spikes – So when I found “the organ”, I was too terrified to touch it. Even with both pair of vampire skin gloves on. I poked it with the broken half on the broom handle. A fucking snake slithered out of it. Jesus Christ, how ungodly.
I asked nobody, “how many times will I have to kill today?” who naturally said nothing in response.
I got my gun and shot the snake. And then there was a bullet hole in my floor. This shit was starting to take a toll on me.
The snake went into the trash bag with the spiky organ. And then I heard tapping. With no build. No warning. Rain started to slam against the side of my cabin. “Of course it’s raining.” Of bloody course.
And my rug – I adored that rug. That rug belonged to my late grandfather. A kidney, six teeth and a tentacle were macerating in their own juices on the shag. I picked them all up and tossed them in the organ sack. “Wow.” I had an organ sack. How did I get here in life? What decisions had I made to achieve such a morbid trophy? Could I have seen this coming? Was this at all preventable?
Maybe I could have bleached the stains out of the rug. But, that would leave a series of white amorphous blotches. I rolled up the rug and threw that outside too. I’ve gotten a new rug since. I like it okay I guess.
It was time to give the floors a good twice over.
And then a third.
And, a fourth couldn’t have done any harm. I found an ear, pierced with a tarnished steel hoop at the tip of the cartilage. That, I threw out the open window and when I’d set fire to the pile of living room set and monster bits, I declared the job done.
I sat down in my armchair with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. Good lord. I had found peace.
There was a knock. It was unsettling. I wrote it off as nothing. And then another one came. ‘Knock’. Just one. A lonely, isolated knock. I blamed it on the wind. Yes. That’s right it was defiantly the wind. And nothing more.
I kept on starring at the wall. My head needed to rest. No time for – ‘knock’. “I need me time.” The wall was in the same speechless condition I’d left it in. The fire crackled again.
I rolled a cigarette. ‘Knock, knock’. That was deliberate. Something was behind that noise. I decided I needed a glass of water. Immediately. The faucet ran until the rust in the pipes settled out. More knocking. Two again.
Back in my chair, I chocked on my first sip when – ‘knock, knock’.
It was starting to get to me; the knocking. All I wanted to do what sit here and listen to the rain beat against my cabin. All I wanted to do was listen to the rhythm of my own thoughts. I would have liked to. It just wasn’t happening. There weren’t usually this many distractions at the end of the world. It’s actually quite peaceful there. But the knocking…I was never going to get to finish a – ‘knock, knock, knock’.
“Okay three?” I stood up. “Don’t do it.” I walked to the door. “Don’t.”
‘Knock’. ‘Knock’. ‘Knock’.
“I’m coming.” I opened the door. “Oh. Shit.”
“Hey, baby.” The corpse of Diaballein was standing in my doorway. Which I will repeat: The corpse of Diaballein was standing. In my door way. Just standing there. Sentient and everything. A living corpse half way between fresh and stale.
It was soaking wet. And covered in fresh, sopping grave mud. It pushed past me and walking into my kitchen. And, of course, it didn’t wipe it’s feet. So it tracked in mud and blood with it. Sludge a color I didn’t know existed dripped from it’s open wounds onto my kitchen floor. I rubbed the bridge of my nose with my thumb and index finger. I sighed again knowing it would do no good.
I was in a state of disbelief. Complete and utter disbelief. All I could manage to do was stand there with my mouth hanging open and contemplate whether or not I was hallucinating. Or, was the monster I killed, but a few hours ago, really going through my kitchen cabinets.
“Um – hey. What are you doing, there?”
Diaballein didn’t turn around to say, “looking for whiskey. I have a terrible headache.”
“I can see that.” No, really, I could. Its brain was exposed. Through the gaping hole in it’s skull. Right where the left horn used to be. You know, where I shot it – speaking of which, where did that horn go? I never found it.
“Here it is.” Diaballein retrieved my whiskey from the ice box and poured itself a glass… Itself. And only itself.
“No, that’s fine. I don’t need one.” Especially not with a zombified inconvenience that had been thrown into my lap. Diaballein stirred its drink. With it’s claw. A nasty lot of dirt and other post modrdic fluid mixed in. Nothing like muddy whiskey and blood and sludge after a hard day in the grave. Right?
“Oh. I’m. I didn’t-” I knew that. I was there. I watched Diaballein not consider me. “Do you want me to pour you one?”
“NO. No, that’s fine. I’ll get it.” So it went and sat on my cushionless couch, while I filled, and I mean filled, a glass with whiskey. It just sat down. Right there on the couch. Never mind the context of this garbage dump of a situation. There weren’t any cushions on the thing. That just wasn’t any sort of acceptable behavior.
“What happened to your cushions?”
“They got dirty.” I sat in my armchair. Diaballein looked at me and I could see the slime making its way into what was left of my sofa. I’ve gotten a new couch since then, too; by the way. I couldn’t help but stare.
Diaballein noticed. “Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like me to sit somewhere else?”
“NO.” For the love of god. “No. There is fine.” It’s jaundiced dead eye scanned the room. We both just kind of sat there. It was quite awkward and uncomfortable in the silence. I glanced around my cabin. There was dirt and blood and slime everywhere… Again.
I’d have to clean… Again.
And I sighed… Again.
Diaballein asked, “what’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? What was wrong? What was –
“You’re dead.” There. I had said it. Everything was out in the open.
“And I killed you.”
“Yep.” Its remaining claws drummed on the table. More sludge splattered about.
This was new. This was a first for me. I’d never conversed with the monsters I’d killed before. At least, well, not after I killed them. It was kind of – who am I kidding? This. Was. Fucking. Awful.
I said, “You seem fine with that.”
“Being dead isn’t so bad.” Drool fell out of one of the holes in Diaballein’s cheek. And no offer to clean up after itself whatsoever. More rude behavior.
“I was talking about me killing you.”
“What about it?”
“You seem fine with it.”
“Oh.” Diaballein lapped up whiskey with its two pronged tongue. “Yeah. That wasn’t your fault.” No.
No. That wasn’t right. It was quite my fault. I shot it. In the horn. Straight through to the brain. And then again in the chest. And then another twelve times.
It was entirely my fault that Diaballein’s teeth were rotting out of its head. I was willing to take credit for that. I was trying to take responsibility for my actions.
“How is it not my fault?”
Diaballein smiled. Its lips peeled off its mandible a little. Falling apart at the seems and uncomfortably happy, Diaballein said, “You didn’t meant to.”
My face went blank. “What?”
“You didn’t mean to. You just over reacted.”
You see, first degree murder can be proven within minutes of a killing. Within minutes of shooting my monster in the side of the face, I was loading all fifteen rounds into my .45. I was even anticipating the very act and salivating over the near future. It was all pretty intentional. I meant it. I meant every last shot.
“It’s okay though. I forgive you” It lapped up the rest of its whiskey. And then the rest of mine. It looked me in the eye. Its dead face closer and closer and closer and closer and closer to mine. Paused. Hesitated.
And. Kissed. Me. Good night.
“Are you coming to bed soon, dear?” I said nothing and after a while Diaballein walked away. With the same decomposing smile, it disappeared into my bedroom and took its place underneath my bed.
I would have remained sitting and paralyzed with disbelief but I could already feel my human flesh corroding. It sizzled and burned on contact with monster saliva. I ran into the kitchen and soaked a rag with rusty water. I washed my mouth out with whiskey and spit into the sink.
My home was covered in dirty monster tracks. The couch was dissolving again.
This would not do.
I marched my bedroom. Chin high and chest puffed out. I meant business. Goddamn it. The carpet had a brown and orange trail of blood leading to the bed. Diaballein’s remaining eye peered out from under my bed frame.
It was childhood all over again.
I could only imagine what terrible stains it was working into the carpet. Perhaps its exposed liver would leave a fashionable imprint next to a stomach acid holes that were inevitably there.
I’ve gotten a new bedroom set since then.
I could hear sobbing. “I know you’re under there.” Oh, fuck. “What’s wrong?” I sighed and swirled the ice cubes in my glass.
“Why did you kill me?”
“I kill monsters. That’s what I do. It my profession. I am a monster killer.”
Diaballein snorted back a helping of mucus and said, “but I was your monster.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you were.” It was awkward. Terrible and full of anxiety. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. They always stayed dead. I just didn’t understand what was happening to me. Or why. I took a sip of whiskey. “Listen,” I said. “I’m not going to kill you again.”
“Please?” I took another sip of whiskey.
“Diaballein.” – – – – – I took another sip of whiskey in vain.
It asked why we couldn’t go back to the way things were. “Remember the good old days? I informed Diaballein that I’d done my best to repress the good old days. “We used to stay up and just talk and talk until the sun rose.”
“Whispering that you were going to eat my soul from under my bed was not talking all night.” There was another terrible silence.
“Can’t I just stay here the night?”
“I can help you clean.”
“No.” No it really couldn’t. “No. You really can’t” Diaballein began to cry. “No.” It cried louder and I shook my head, “No.” I pointed toward the door. “Get out.”
“Listen. It’s the end of the world, you are in my house and I told you to go. So go,” I stood there and kept pointing. Diaballein got up from under the bed and left the room brushing up against my torso. I threw out that shirt too.
I listened to each sloppy step echo down my corridor. Waited for the sound of – the door creaked open. I didn’t hear it shut.
“Goodbye, Diaballein.” The door shut. And stayed shut. “Okay.” I sighed again. I smiled again. I said, “where the fuck is that mop?”
The Apocalypse Cell
By: R. I. Tuesday
It was my first trip into town with my kid brother and we stayed at Buckie’s Place a cozy little inn near the end of the world. Tommy and I woke up at some ungodly hour to an incessant banging coming from the distance. It was loud and echoed for miles. That steady 18.104.22.168. a pause and then, 22.214.171.124.
I groaned and rolled over in bed. Tommy was awake, starring me down, wide eyed and smiling. He said, “good morning” and I asked if it truly was. I wanted to go back to sleep. There was a long day ahead of us. It’s a day’s journey from the town back to the cabin.
“Are you awake?”
I opened a single annoyed eye at him. I said, “no” in hopes he would take the hint.
“You sound awake.” I said that I talk in my sleep and Tommy scoffed out a laugh.
“Oh, okay. Since when?” We shared a bedroom as kids. He wasn’t going to let me have this one.
“Since yesterday.” I rolled over and pressed the pillow against my head. That banging. That banging still got through. What in the name of — what was the point? I sighed.
“Hey.” No response. “Hey.” Still nothing. “Jack.” I tried to focus on my breathing and drift off again. Trying on the prayer that I could tune out that 126.96.36.199. 188.8.131.52. I could do that but not Tommy. “Hey. Jack.” Inhale. Exhale. “Jack.”
“What?” Both of my eyes shot open. “What, Tommy?” 184.108.40.206. I didn’t turn to look at him. He asked me if I hear that. Inhale. Exhale. I daydreamed for sleep. Suspended in morning haze and rude awakenings.
“Do you hear that?” 220.127.116.11.
“Of course I do.” I was awake. Full force. Nothing but a strong psychoactive would put me under now. The day had begun.
“What do you think it is?” I sat up in bed and rested my aching back against the headboard. My eyes darted around the room looking for my tobacco. Nowhere to be found. “Jack?”
I got out of bed. I could feel Tommy looking at me as I opened every drawer in our room. Waiting. Just waiting for some attention. I found my box of snuff. It would do for the time being. “Jack?”
“Jesus Christ, what Tommy?” I took a snort. He averted his optimistic eyes from my glare. I almost felt bad watching him study the fabric pattern on his blanket 18.104.22.168. I stretched the knots that had replaced my muscle structure.
“What’s that sound?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. Probably just some jackass raising a barn at — what time is it? I cracked every violent joint in my spine and neck.
Tommy picked up Dad’s watch from the bedside table. He said it was barley even morning. “That’s not a number.” He said it was five am. 22.214.171.124. I stumbled around trying to find something to smoke.
He spun the watch around on its tarnished chain. His eyes took him back in time, fixated on that dirty old pocket watch.
I knocked into a chair.
“What are you looking for?” He didn’t take his eyes off that watch. I said that my tobacco was not where I remember leaving it. “Where did you leave it?” I opened my mouth to speak but drew a void.
Confused, “I don’t–” maybe it was in my coat pocket “–know.” It was. I sat down and rolled a cigarette. I let out a groan that transformed into a rough hack. A bit of black mucus flew into my palm.
“What’s wrong?” Where could I begin? That banging? My aching body? My annoying brother? The recent death of my father?
I settled with, “everything” and lit my cigarette.
There was a silence. Nothing but the 126.96.36.199. 188.8.131.52. and the crisp burn of new tobacco. Tommy breaks the wordlessness. “Sounds like that story dad used t–”
“–Don’t start.” Tommy had this problem where he believed everything that came out of our father’s mouth. And our late father was a crackpot. A whacked out old man who sheltered my brother with the imaginary horrors at the end of the world.
He looked back down at the blanket, pulling at a loose thread. “Well it does.” We were bathed in wordlessness gain. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. I took a drag. 184.108.40.206. Tommy asked if he could have one.
I tossed him my bag and said, “sure. Roll one up.” Tommy can’t roll a cigarette. He tried. And failed. He looked to me helpless and sprinkled with flakes of tobacco.
“Can you roll me one?”
“Dad used to–”
“–Well dad’s dead. Grow up.”
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Tommy caressed the pocket watch. I felt bad but didn’t say I was sorry. It’s not like I informed him of anything new. Dad was dead. He knew it. I knew it. Even dad knew it. I suggested we go down stairs.
“What for?” I needed a stiff drink. Maybe a tentacle-fruit cocktail. A double.
“Breakfast. Get dressed.” Tommy’s face contorted. Mortified and paralyzed he looked at me without blinking. “What?”
“You’re going to eat here?”
“Uh, yeah.” I put my trousers on. “Get dressed.”
“Dad said that you can’t eat the food in town.” Which he did; to scare Tommy safe.
Dad used to say, “That shit is toxic, boy. Likely to kill ya dead before ya can swalla it.’’
“He was just trying to scare you.”
“Nuh-uh.” I tossed him his clothing. “Dad always said never eat nothing at the end of the world. Nothing you don’t catch, kill and cook yourself.” I fought off the urge to remind Tommy that Dad was a dead liar. And a terrible liar to boot.
“It’s fine. Let’s go. You ready?” He got dressed and stood up.
“That banging still sounds like the story.”
We walked down the stairs into a devilish pandemonium. The whole town was in the dining room. The sad, terrified lot of them were squawking on and on about the banging. “The end of days is here.” A dreaded upheaval over some annoying banging. In the midst of the chaos there was a two-headed holy man, sitting in a small booth, solemn as can be and contemplated the panic. Fortunately, there were two tables left. Tommy and I sat down away from the holy men.
I was reminded that Tommy would not be eating anything here. “Fine.” I said. What did I care whether or not the boy ate?
At the very least, the volume of the entire town drowned out the banging. That 220.127.116.11. was gone. But for how long? I reveled in my vacation from that infernal banging. Tommy seemed to be in paradise; more than at home with this paranoid gaggle of quacks. I’m sure they could swap campfire tales until the giant ants come home.
Buckie the waitress walked by and I flagged her down. In retrospect, I should have warned Tommy about things like this in advance. “Good god.” He said at the very sight of the girl. I kicked him under the table.
We exchanged glances but communicated nothing.
Buckie was standing at our table quite off balance on two different sized legs. I’d known Buckie since I started going into town with my father. She was one of those patchwork people. Her face was hers and about twenty years old; that was about it. From the wavy line of forehead stitches back, she had a head of eighty-year-old thin white hair.
“The devil is upon us!”
Tommy did his best to keep it together. He drummed on the table. 18.104.22.168. That banging infected his subconscious. 22.214.171.124.
“Hey there, Jack. How’s things?”
“Oh, you know. Bit of this. Bit of that. Say what’s that banging?” I gestured to Tommy. “This is my little brother, Tommy.” Buckie commented on his cute face. Tommy blushed and shivered at the same time.
“What can I get for you boys today?”
“Absolutely nothing thanks.” I kicked Tommy again. “Ow. What the fuck Jack?” I said that I’d be eating and not to mind my little brother.
“Okay, I have to warn you though, we’re out of a lot. The morning harvest wasn’t brought in — you know — with the banging. I mean it’s all still fresh; it’s been on ice and everything.” I asked if Buckie knew what the banging was. She did not. “People are saying the world is going to end again.” Crack pots.
I asked Buckie to let us know if she found out anything useful.
“Why sure. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll take a whiskey and tentacle-fruit juice there, Buckie.” Buckie informed me that tentacle-fruits were out of season. “Then I’ll just have a straight whiskey. No ice.”
Buckie asked if I was ready to order and I said I would be when she came back with my drink. She turned around and hobbled away on her dramatically different sized legs.
Tommy was giving me a look like I was the one made out of different people. “What?”
“You’re going to eat here?”
“Yeah I am.” Tommy said something about how he’d be sure to arrange a beautiful funeral. “You really believe that don’t you? You really think this food will kill you.”
“Dad said it would.”
“Dad also said that there was a temple out the middle of the forest containing a room called ‘The Apocalypse Cell’. And one day there was banging coming from it so some folks up and opened the damned place and what did they find inside?”
We hit another patch of fraternal silence again.
“All hope is lost!”
“One of every terrible thing in the world.”
“One of every terrible thing in the world. In one room, Tommy. And it all came out at once and that’s how the world ended. Tell me you know that’s just a bloody ghost story.”
He drummed on the table again. 126.96.36.199. Avoiding eye contact, he stared at the salt he was afraid of. “Tommy?”
“Dad said that’s what happened.” There was no winning with this boy. I snubbed out my cigarette just so I could roll a new one. Morally torn, I didn’t know whether or not it would be insensitive to tarnish the golden pedestal Tommy placed our father on.
Buckie dropped off my whiskey and held her notepad with her adolescent right hand.
“What can I get y’all?”
“Any giant beetle?”
“How about deer toad?” Buckie shook her head. “Buck slug?” No dice. “Serpent eggs?” They just ran out. “Well how about serpent?” The story never changes. “How about a bowl of ectoplasm and granola?”
“Sorry.” She said again.
“Okay. How about you tell me what you do have?”
“Well,” she held up a brown, middle aged index finger to her mouth. “I saw a whole mess of eyefish back there. And there’s dog. And — something’s sundried liver — at least, I think it’s liver. I can go check for y’all.”
I said the eyefish would be fine.
“Oh! There’s also glowberry pie. That was baked fresh this morning.” Buckie looked at Tommy who was still starring at the salt. “You look like you could use a piece of pie.” He said no. “It’s real good.”
“No, I won’t be getting anything at all.”
“Absolutely nothing.” Buckie smiled, said our food would be right out and hobbled away again.
I sipped my whiskey. “Tommy.” He kept looking at the salt. “Tommy, look at me.”
He looked up. “What?”
“Dad wasn’t — Dad — sometimes people aren’t who they seem to be. And sometimes those people are very close to us and that makes it harder to see the truth. And—”
I sipped my whiskey again and shook my head back and forth. I didn’t tell Tommy that not only did our father refuse, refuse, to help me kill the monster under my bed, but put it there himself. On purpose. With his own two hands. And that was supposed to “prepare me for the real world.”
I couldn’t tell him. I should have but I couldn’t, so we sat there. Wordless in the chaos around us. I tried to pick things out of the air. Anything worthwhile, but no hope. There were simply too many people talking all at once to make out anything comprehensive.
But I could still hear the banging. I think. It may have been one of those psychological phenomena. If I listened, and I mean really listened, I could still hear it. 188.8.131.52. Now, whether or not I heard it because it was there or because I was trying to — that’s all still up in the air.
Steady as the human heart.
After more wordlessness and anxious shifting, Buckie came back with my food. A steaming pile of eyefish. I asked how many eyes it had. Forty-five is a prize catch. Thirty-five is lucky. Buckie said there were, “Thirty-two.” Almost lucky. Can’t win them all.
I dug in, peeling away the outer, inedible layer. Tommy made such an authentic gagging noise I looked up from my plate to see if he’d actually vomited on the table. He didn’t.
“That’s rancid.” In his defense, eyefish is one of the ugliest things on the damn planet. It’s about half mouth, half fin and one-third eye. There’s viable meat in there somewhere. Which is delicious. Certainly not toxic. But ugly — that I could not refute. “You’re going to regret this.”
“Let me guess—”
“—Dad said he knew a guy who ate that stuff once and grew a third arm. Out of his face. His face, Jack.”
I maintain that, to this day, that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. And so, I said, “Tommy. That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” But dad said, dad said, so —
“We’ll see who’s dumb when you wake up with a face-arm tomorrow morning.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Tommy, I’ve eaten eyefish before. Dozens of times. Are you really going to believe a dead man over me? A liar of a dead man at that?”
I asked Tommy if he remembered the time that carnivorous sunflower bit him. “Yeah. Right in the ankle.” The goddamn thing gave him some brutal infection. Whatever it was, it turned his skin green. It was terrible. Only a three day crisis. But a sweaty, fevered three days if I ever saw one. He wasn’t really that sick. It was just an infection. And everything would have been fine but, “Dad said I was turning into a sunflower. And that’s why my skin was turning green.”
“Tommy, look at me. Are you a sunflower?”
“That’s right, you’re not a fucking sunflower, Tommy.”
“Not yet.” I rolled my eyes and kept my eating fish. I cut around the eyes and the optic nerve to get to the edible part. Tommy reached for my whiskey. I slapped his hand.
“I thought you weren’t—”
“—Alcohol is sterile.”
“Yeah, dad sure wasn’t shy about that.” Always saying, ‘it’s the end of the world, give an old man a break’. He used to rest a glass of whiskey on his protruding gut. Tommy started to drum again. 184.108.40.206. 220.127.116.11. I asked him to stop but he didn’t. I wouldn’t ask again.
“Judgment day!” “We must seek refuge.” Crazy, superstitious whackos. “The good books were right!”
It was already the end of the world. What’s the worst that could happen? Things could not be worse off than they already are; still people panic. Maybe it’s just a natural state of existence.
I ate my meal to the litany of faces Tommy made to express his disgust. When all the meat was eaten I sliced the ugly bugger apart and ripped out its heart. “That’s gross.”
“Yeah, but it’s full of protein.”
Tommy said something about my future face-arm and I asked what Dad specifically said about the food. “Why can’t I eat eyefish?”
“You mean besides the face-arm?”
“Yeah. Besides the face-arm.”
“Have you even seen the lake those things are fished out of?”
“Yes.” I’ve swam in that lake. Hell, I’ve bathed in that lake.
“It’s poison. Your skin will melt right off your bones.”
“Yeah? So why you afraid of pie then?”
“I ain’t eating nothing that grew out of soil drenched in monster blood.” I bit, deep into the eyefish heart, eating it like a hand fruit. A healthy volume of juice squirted out. Tommy shuttered and gagged for real this time. I smiled at him and popped one of the loose eyes in my mouth.
Buckie came by in a hurry. She had a big smile on her face and we could see her mouth full of recycled teeth. Some stained with coffee and nicotine. Others, pristine and white as the day they surfaced from the gums. And one, big, nasty, cavity infested, decaying molar. I smiled back and Tommy stared at the salt.
“Those gentlemen, over there, in the green robes. They’ve been doing an awful lot of chatter back and forth about that there banging.” I raised my brow and finished chewing my eyefish.
“What is it?” I sipped my whiskey dry.
“Well, they wouldn’t say much — you know how they holy men are, all secretive and the like — but they said something about a Temple out there, in the forest. And well they wanna go check it out but, they don’t got nobody to take them there. The whole town is scared up a tree about this whole thing.”
I could not blink. And I reminded myself to breathe. In one desperate gasp I restored air to my lungs. Tommy’s head perked up from the salt and asked, “what did you just say?”
“Yeah. What was that?”
“Them two holy men over there. I heard that them—”
“—No. The bit about the temple.”
“They said that the banging is coming from a temple out in the middle of the woods.”
I thanked Buckie for her efficient work as a sleuth and looked at Tommy. He had this big dumb grin on his face.
“You wipe that face off your head.” I said to him.
“Sure. Whatever, Jack.” I told him to shut up and suggested we go see the holy men. He agreed with a fearful sense of promptness. We got up and waded through the chaos and ignorant fear. I damn near incapacitated an old woman pushing my way through.
“The end is nigh!” Luckily, she landed, ass down, in her chair.
Now, when Buckie said holy men, Tommy assumed we’d find two people. No. Tommy and I sat down across from one man, in one robe with two heads jutting out of the top. The left one was fat and the other skinny.
“Good morning, padres.” The fat one was sweating profusely.
“Sweet Jesus!” Tommy said as he sat down. The holy men looked perplexed. I introduced myself and extended my hand for proper greetings. They did not take it. Instead, they brought their hands together and bowed. I did the same back. Tommy stared at their faces.
The skinny face did all the talking. “What can we do for you, my child?” The fat one wiped sweat from his forehead with their right arm.
I told them what Buckie told us. They were in need of a guide through the forest. “We’re willing to take the risk.”
Though the holy men expressed their deepest gratitude for our aid. They said, “We can’t pay you.” I said that would not be necessary and that the journey alone would be payment enough.
I didn’t care about getting paid. Shutting up my brother was all I wanted.
“There ought to be more charitable souls like you on this earth.” I agreed with both the heart beating in my chest and the one digesting in my stomach.
I said, “You know, there really should be.” The fat one wiped away sweat. “Just one thing.” I leaned on the table. I got my face real close to theirs and split my eye contact between the both of them. They said I should feel free to ask them anything. So, I felt free to say, “What’s that banging?”
They went silent. I stared at them. The fat one wiped more sweat from his greasy brow. They contorted their necks to look at each other. Tommy drummed on the table. 18.104.22.168.
They said, “The Apocalypse Cell.”
I obtained a bottle of whiskey and retrieved my machete for the four-hour trek through the woods. The machete was primarily for the tentacle trees. Those vicious bastards were bound to pick one of us off. Though the holy men said the trees were dormant this time of year, and were guaranteed not to be feeding, I took it anyway.
I sliced through a patch of foliage. “YAH!” The machete was also for personal amusement.
The banging only got louder as we got closer. There was no mistake we were on the right path. 22.214.171.124. Such a loud destination required no map to find it. We had primal echolocation on our side. 126.96.36.199. I was sure that some wicked beast would jump out of the bushes. Though the others, in their refusal to carry a weapon, seemed not to mind being gobbled up and picked off by some animal’s slobbering gowels. I had no intention of being a meal that day. Nor did I see myself getting mugged those pesky thieving dwarves.
Trying to make small talk, I inquired how the holy men took to the religious order. Mostly, I wanted to know how they both agreed on such a demanding profession. “We were born into this,” they said. They told me how their species is religious by nature. It’s in their DNA or their soul or destiny or whathaveyou.
The fat one sweat more and more. Their right hand shaking with the left head’s anxiety. Tommy tried to comfort them and said the worst had happened. “The door was opened once already.” And yet, there it was, calling out to any fool that would travel hours by foot to catch the main attraction.
We were just the guides. Those foolish priests were the one chasing ghosts and goblins. Which, I was convinced, goblins were a more likely culprit than one of every terrible thing in the world. I was ready to believe that a werewolf or something halfway plausible wandered its way in there. And got stuck.
Nothing that came out of the holy books was hiding in that place. Those books were full of lies and intoxicating doctrines. Rallying up lost souls the way they have been since nine years after the dawn of time. A leather bound, gold trimmed book of lies. Then again, here I was, a lost soul hunting ghost stories.
At about that moment, I could feel the banging in my feet, that’s when things started to change. That 188.8.131.52. 184.108.40.206. was pulsating in every last inch of my travel-weary flesh. All I wanted to do was be in my cabin, feeding some ravens to my carnivorous sunflowers. Maybe sipping a cold whiskey and enjoying a lovely sunset at the end of the world.
But instead 220.127.116.11. 18.104.22.168.
It didn’t stop and it was only getting louder. 22.214.171.124. 126.96.36.199.
Tommy was jumping around from place to place. Hopping on and off rocks. He planned out each step with a determined meticulous nature. He wouldn’t move one foot until he knew exactly where the next one was going to go. “Tommy.” I said. He kept hopping. “Tommy.” He stopped and looked at me.
“Don’t stay in one place for too long.” I gestured for him to start moving again. And he did.
This one time, one of my first trips into the little town at the end of the world, my father told me about the mouths in the ground. These horrid creatures that were but a mouth and a stomach laying in the dirt. A human mouth at that.
There you’d be, walking along minding your own business, carrying home the giant beetle or the moose toad you’d just killed for supper and — BAM. Right there in the middle of the ground you were walking on would be lips and teeth. Just waiting. Waiting there licking its idle lips and salivating for the moment something ignorant enough would walk into it.
And the planet would feed off the creatures that fed off it.
“Watch out for the mouths in the ground.”
“Huh?” He looked at me like I was a two-headed holy men.
“Don’t stand in one place for too long. I don’t want the ground to gobble you up.”
We exchanged glances and communicated nothing.
“Just watch out for the mouths in the ground. Okay?”
He said, “Sure. Whatever,” and kept on hopping
“I’m serious.” I said back to him. “Tommy. Tommy look at me. You’re all I got.”
We exchanged glances and communicated everything.
I watched as he applied caution to every step he took. I smiled and felt proud in a way that had never entered my perception before. We proceeded on through the forest in that manner. And when we got to the tentacle trees, I took out my machete. The holy men assured me that we were in no danger. I kept my grip firm on the hilt. Nothing would loosen my grasp.
But, low and behold, we waded through the flaccid limbs. Weaving in and out of their slimy branches covered in suction cups. All appeared to be in dormant order. When I found a tree that had a fresh brown ooze coming from it I stopped. I dug the tip of my machete just into the surface of the tentacle. The sap flowed out.
I took a glob off my finger and tucked it into my gums. I gestured for Tommy to do the same. He looked at me funny. I looked at him the way I did a moment ago. “Go ahead.” I took an appropriate glump onto my finger for him. “Look, I caught it and cooked it myself.”
Tommy moved his mouth closer. When he was inches away, I stopped his face and grabbed him by the cheeks. Exposing his gums and alarmed snarl in a terrible, awkward fashion. I applied the sap to his gums.
I gave Tommy control of his face back. When he came to terms with what had happened he tongued the sap around his gums. He started to smile and I could tell it was starting to take effect.
The holy men looked at us with two judgmental faces.
“Does it taste sweet yet?” He nodded his head with a big smile.
When we got to the clearing, the banging was impossible to ignore. “THIS MUST BE IT.” I said to Tommy.
“I SAID, ‘THIS MUST BE IT’.”
“OH NEVERMIND.” The holy men looked stricken with terror. Something had them by their sacred testicles and grabbed on tight. I felt it; too, in the way the banging shook the core of my chest. A force more prominent than my own heartbeat.
Tommy looked afraid and he damn well should have.
The temple that Dad and the good books talked about, it was more like a chapel. A Sunday school room at the very least. I expected stained glass and gargoyles and the whole sha-bang. But there was a chapel in front of us, the 188.8.131.52. rocking the thing off its foundation.
It did have double doors. That was up to my temple standards. But even those were shaking. I was shocked they were still on their giant cast iron hinges.
Perhaps one of those extinct beasts called a ‘moose’ had wandered in there. The last of the prehistoric moose. That would be quite a find.
Everything felt more concrete than it had since I was a child.
The holy men began their prayer. They recited an incantation in a language I didn’t understand. Both of their hands pressed against each other at the exact center of their being. 184.108.40.206. The fat one was drenched in sweat worse than ever. When they were ready they let out a holy “OMMMmmm…”
They gestured for Tommy to stand back.
They approached the chapel. They got closer and closer and the banging got louder and louder. 220.127.116.11. shaking me from the feet up. 18.104.22.168. The fat one wiped sweat from his brow one final time before they ascended the holy stoop before them. They walked up each step in the dreaded rhythm of the banging.
The whole way up. And when they were at the top, they took one more deep breath, grabbed the handles of the double doors, pushed them open and dropped dead. The banging stopped.
Just beyond the corpse of the holy men, in the center of the chapel, was a single room. A 4’ x 4’ x 6’ box that did not even reach the ceiling. There was a door starring at us.
Tommy insisted that we go open it and started to walk.
I stuck out my arm and stopped him. “No.” I said. “No. We shouldn’t.” I took an unhealthy gulp of whiskey. “I mean we really shouldn’t.” I held out the bottle and Tommy took it. He swallowed a mouthful back without coughing it back up. He corked the bottle and looked at me with an eyebrow raised. “You know, Dad said.”
The Madman’s Puzzle House
By: R. I. Tuesday
“My name is The Madman and I will never leave this house. And neither will you. Terribly sorry. You may now take this time to come to terms with this information. Please, have a glass of scotch. It’s located in the bottom drawer.
“I advise that you avoid the furniture in the parlour. Especially the grandfather clock. He lies. They only seem to be sympathetic to your cause. And certainly don’t sleep here. There are five luxurious clouds upstairs that you should avoid at all costs. I should know; I died in — one of them.
“You may have already found that the front door is locked. The key is … around here – somewhere. Not necessarily in here, but maybe in here. It won’t open the front door. I will refer you to the aforementioned, “you will not leave this house.” However, it’s a very nice key and feels rather good to hold in your hand. I am certain that it will provide you a great deal of stress relief.
“Don’t go in the basement. You’d think that would go without saying – but, people these days – you know? Which reminds me; on the subject of things that should go without saying: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He never does anyone any good.
“You may feel the house shake from time to time. It does that.
“Randolph is nothing to worry about. He may look scary but he means well. Just don’t stare at his head. He self-conscious about being bald. He’ll be glad to answer any questions you may have.
“Oh, and, don’t drink the wine. Do anything but drink the wine.
Bootsy Hayward threw the note on the floor and left the study where she’d found it. Sighing, she accused the whole Puzzlehouse to be pure lunacy. Absolute poppycock. A ghost story. Regardless, back in the main foyer, she found that the front door was, in fact, locked. The obligation to go back and retrieve the note was overwhelming.
“I’m rather happy you’ve returned. I forgot to tell you, bits of your life may be stitched together in random order during your stay here. Try not to believe the hallucinations. They’re hallucinations.”
Bootsy blinked a few times and dropped her mouth open. She stood there for a few moments blinking more and called the Puzzlehouse poppycock again. Maybe the note always had this information and she just noticed it. It didn’t. But that didn’t stop here from taking the stiff parchment again. She read:
“P.S. Dinner is served.”
A bell rang from another room. Bootsy thought, oh my. I’ve finally lost it. She left the study, passed through the foyer, tried to open the door again, failed and entered the parlour. It was empty.
Someone said, “don’t overestimate the helpful notes.”
Boosty’s eyes widened and darted around the room. Seeing no one, Bootsy confirmed that she was the only one in the room. At least the only human. However, still in the illusion she was still sane, Bootsy said, “Uh, hello?”
“Over here.” She followed the voice. “No. Over here.” Bootsy looked down at the footstool. “Yes, right here. Hello.”
Bootsy sat in an armchair and heard, “I know the footstool is talking. Try to get used to it.” The voice was muffled and came from under her. It was the armchair. But armchairs can’t talk.
She jumped up and said, “This isn’t happening. I’m going insane.”
“You’re not going insane.” Said the armchair. “But it’s perfectly natural to feel that way. The footstool is right.”
The footstool cleared its throat and said, “overestimating the helpful notes. The Madman is a liar. But you can trust me. Just ask the armchair. She’s just delightful.”
Bootsy turned to the pink, velvet armchair. She asked if the footstool could be trusted. “Oh my yes, honey. Anyone who enjoys holding up people’s feet can most certainly be trusted.”
Bootsy said, “and the grandfather clock?”
“Well you certainly shouldn’t trust the grandfather clock.” The footstool said. “Everyone knows that.”
Let me guess,” Bootsy said. “He lies.”
The footstool whispered, “all the time.” The grandfather clocked chimed twelve times. When it was finished, its hands swept around its face and settled at 10:22. “He does that.”
Bootsy sighed again. She tried to get the crazy out of her brain by shaking her head from side to side a few times. She said, “great. Good to know. I’m going to go eat dinner.”
“Dinner is served.” The coffee table said.
“Oh yes. Coffee table. This is Bootsy.”
The only thing more disconcerting than the talking living room set was the fact that Bootsy never introduced herself to it. Her heart kicked her in the chest. “Pleasure to meet you – all of you.” She said, “I’m going to go-”
“-indeed. Dinner is served.”
Bootsy walked away from the living room set and into the next room. There, she found her mother and deceased father, her Uncle Griff and Aunt Madeline, Cousin Jim-Bob and Susie Marie, Nana Patches, Papa Joe, her younger sister, her brother in-law and her niece Jenny. They were all sitting around the dining room table and just looking positively jolly about it. Cousin Willy greeted her first with a drumstick in his hand and mashed potatoes in his mouth.
She gasped. She froze and then shattered. Turning around she left the dining room, slamming the door behind her. With her back against the artisan crafted mahogany woodwork, she let out deep breathes, failing to scream. She thought, this place is playing with my head. There must be something in the air. I must be dreaming. Which she wasn’t, unless she was. A lot of stuff just became possible.
Mustering up courage and taking more deep breaths, Bootsy turned back around and opened the door to the dining room. It was empty save a grim looking bald, yet fashionable, man in white gloves standing at the head of the table. That was Randolph. He was on the far side of the room.
“Um – hello. I’m … Bootsy. I’m in the Puzzlehouse… again. I suppose.”
“Well, of course you are. Where else would you be at dinner time?” Randolph called Bootsy, “Miss Hayward” and smiled removing the silver cover from her plate.
Bootsy said, “what did you just call me? How do you know my name?” Randolph laughed and told Bootsy that she was acting more coy than usual. The smells from the dinner plate reached Boosty’s nose. She was delighted. “What am I smelling?”
“Dinner. It’s still warm.” Bootsy walked over to the other side of the room telling Randolph that he must be Randolph. And, because Randolph was Randolph, he said, “Indeed, Miss Hayward. I’m Randolph now, five minutes ago and I will be at sunrise.”
Bootsy sat down. She admired the melon grass garnished steak with mashed potatoes and a rice mixture on the plate in front of her. She said, “sunrise?” and stuffed food into her mouth.
“Why yes, I’m taking that vacation you’ve been insisting I go on for all these years.”
“Oh.” She said. “Yes. All these years.” With her mouth full, she asked, “what is this?”
Randolph said, “it’s called Maximus. It’s a delicacy on The Tipping Point. Wine?”
“Delicacy? It tastes like pork?”
“It is a sort of swine, yes. Wine?”
Skeptic, paranoid and afraid, Bootsy looked at Randolph through squinted eyes. “No thank you.” She said. “Is there any gin in this house?” Randolph laughed out loud and without hold. “Is something funny?”
“Oh. No. I thought you were being facetious. There is more gin than water available in this house, Miss Hayward. It is your favorite.” Which was true but Bootsy thought nothing of it. “Would you care or a glass in the lounge after your meal?” Bootsy said Randolph already knew the answer to that question.
Randolph asked, “shall I leave you to your meal Miss Hayward?” Bootsy grunted with food in her mouth and pouring raisin sauce over her plate of Maximus.
Time passed. Sort of. The grandfather clock had since chimed seven times and positioned its hands at 3:17. Bootsy finished her meal and decided to pay a visit to the bath. If anything, she thought she’d take advantage of the luxury that was the Puzzlehouse. However, knowing nothing – or forgetting everything – about The Puzzlehouse, Bootsy had no idea where the bath was. Or even what floor it was on.
The dining room, where Bootsy had just eaten, was on the first floor. The bath was up a flight of stairs, down the hall. Third door on the right. Bootsy stood up and exited the dining room and found herself looking into the guest bedroom. Her ex fiancé, Pirro, was standing next to the queen sized bed looking out the window. He turned around and looked at Bootsy with a smile.
“Pirro?” She said, thumbing the spot on her finger where she used to wear an engagement ring. “Pirro, what are you doing here?”
Boosty’s late lover moved his perfect jaw to say, “I’m just thinking about what this is going to look like when it’s the baby’s room.” Bootsy stood, shocked and frozen with inexplicable regression. “Look,” Pirro pointed out the window. “You can see the giant spider ranch from here. They’re grazing right now.” Which wasn’t true. It was night time. But more importantly, The Puzzlehouse is alone for thirty miles in all directions.
“Pirro? How did you get here?”
Bootsy felt her muscles go tense as Pirro took a few steps toward her. “You know,” he said, “I ask myself the same thing sometimes. And I wish I knew what I did to get here; with you.” Bootsy clarified. She asked how long Pirro had been in The Puzzlehouse. “I know. Three weeks in our first house feels like yesterday doesn’t it.” He went to touch Boosty’s sides and leaned in to kiss her.
Afraid of the touch of a dead man, she screamed and fled the room. She slammed the door behind her, putting her back up against it and breathing heavily. In her fevered panic, she slid down to the floor saying, “no, no, no, no, no.” Rocking back and forth she mumbled, “I’m splitting at the seems. My brain. My brain. MY BRAIN.”
With her face buried in her hands, she took a deep breath. Her dead ex fiancé was in the next room. She stood up, puffed out her chest and went to go confront a ghost.
Bootsy opened the door to the guest bedroom her and stepped into the master bath. This took her by surprise. She ducked her head back out the door to confirm that she had not moved. Which she hadn’t. Unless she did.
The tiles were polished to a shine and looking as glorious as the day they were put in. Bootsy screamed again and locked the door behind her. Afraid of the open space she dove into the tub where she hugged her knees and rocked. She took shallow, heavy breaths from the haunted air. Fear welled up over her eyes and fell down her cheeks. The tub made Bootsy feel safe.
There was another note pinned to the wall. It took Bootsy five years, or five seconds or five weeks to build up the courage to retrieve it. It read:
“I hope you enjoyed dinner – well, I know you did; Randolph is a fantastic cook. And rather endearing. Don’t you think? Either way, by now, I have no doubt in my mind that you have experienced that pesky jumble of your fragmented life in various rooms. Terribly sorry. Drove me mad too…
“There is nothing you can do about that. Well, I suppose there are two things you can do. Interact with your hallucination or don’t. Wow! How droll. I wish I could remember what I chose to do about them. I am almost certain that information would be helpful.
“P.S. The bathroom sure is nice. Isn’t it? I found the tub rather soothing. I think it’s the ivory.”
Bootsy crumpled up the note and threw it across the room. Knowing that The Madman and countless forgotten others had experienced the soothing aura of the bathtub was the first tactile horror of The Puzzlehouse. And it sent her screaming out of the tub, onto the floor and out of her mind. She thrashed on the tiles talking to herself and finding no response, she’d shout, “when are we going to wake up?”
When Bootsy didn’t answer Bootsy, she said, “this isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This. Isn’t. Happening.” Bootsy went on like this for a few hours. Or a few months. Or a few millennia. There was no difference. Time did not pass in the Puzzlehouse. The grandfather clock chimed fourteen times and positioned its hand to 5:25.
When she had finished and collected herself, Bootsy sat up. She squinted something scribbled in lipstick on the wall in the far corner. It read, ‘I don’t feel at all like I thought’. Standing up, she said, “I am not trapped in here.”
Bootsy ran for the front door. She passed through the parlour, where the foot still yelled. “Hey, it’s Bootsy. Look! Bootsy is back. Hi, Bootsy.” She tripped over the footstool. “Hey, you tripped over me!” She didn’t look back and the footstool said, “Okay! Bye, Bootsy.” In the foyer, she grasped the handles of the front door, paused for a brief second and smiled. They were locked. She yanked and pulled and kicked the wooden door over and over and over again.
Bootsy said, “AAAAHHHHHHH” a rational statement; considering… She began to cry. She blinked and discovered another helpful note.
“A meal before dawn. Those are the terms.”
Bootsy screamed again. She said, “I just ate dinner. You let me out. Let me out of here. Now.”
“P.S. The key is in the basement. I remember now. That’s where it is. The only problem is, the key is in the basement. And you shouldn’t go in the basement. Please.
When Bootsy opened her eyes again she was not in the foyer anymore. Randolph was looking at her from behind the bar in the lounge, polishing a glass and looking Bootsy right in the face. “Good evening, Miss Hayward.” Mouth-open-awestruck, she and blinked. And blinked and blinked. She turned around and did not see the front double door. She saw Randolph. Who said, “Wine?”
“Right away, Miss Hayward.” He poured her a tall glass of gin. Bootsy sat on her favorite stool and stared at the glass waiting for it to settle. But it didn’t. The liquid rippled and shook. Looking up, she noticed that the different bottles of spirits were also shaking and moving and clinking together. Be it insanity or earthquake, Bootsy asked Randolph what was going on. “Why, the house is shaking again. It does that.”
Bootsy recalled her first note from The Madman and said, “of course it does.” She asked, “how do I get out of here?”
Randolph laughed again thinking the idea absurd. “Oh, Miss Hayward, you never cease to amuse me.” Bootsy did not look amused. In fact she looked down right frustrated with the whole terrible situation. More serious now, Randolph said, “just go out the front door.”
Bootsy grunted in shallow agreement. She needed to go get the key. She had to leave The Puzzlehouse and return back to sanity. She thought about what the armchair had said. Bootsy shouldn’t trust The madman. His notes were tobbyrot. And they were. Bootsy would go in the basement if it was the last thing she ever did.
The basement presented itself in the same horrifying fashion that basements tend to. Not only was it dark but it smelled like something had been molding for the better part of a century. And, oh yes, the stairs creaked and moaned, cracked and echoed. Of course it was cold.
There was also a chorus of squeaking rats.
Bootsy had a childhood fear of basements. She also disliked rats but nobody likes rats. It was too perfect. Too terrifying to be real. Bootsy made a firm and level headed decision to stop allowing the scribbled notes of The Madman get to her.
The bottom step of the basement was fortunate enough to receive some light from the ground floor. Bootsy could see an oil lamp and the matches for its use hanging on a rusted nail. Beyond that, there was only darkness, rats and a man named Charles.
Not that she did, but if she waved her hand in front of her face, Bootsy wouldn’t have been able to see it. In perfect dark, the brain will create an image of your hand. It keeps one from going absolutely south, insane. Bootsy lit the lamp and saw another note:
“Well here it is. The basement. I hope it has exceeded your expectations and even left you speechless. Because coming down here was a poor choice. A poor choice indeed. That key you’re looking for is off in the corner and covered in dust. I hope it helps. You shouldn’t have come down here. That’s why I suggested not to…either way, don’t mind Charles. He’s more afraid of you than you are of him.”
“P.S. You should get some matches.”
Boosty’s lamp went out and she dropped the matches. “Here.” A voice said.
“Thank you.” Bootsy replied, struck the match, lit the lamp. A face lit up orange in the lamp light, decrepit, aged and bearded. It was smiling. And Bootsy screamed absolute genocide.
“HELP! Good Lord, please don’t hurt me!”
Charles scurried away from Bootsy, hunched over and sweating. From his corner, he said, “you stay away from me. You hear?”
“Stay away from you? You stay away from me.”
There was an awkward silence.
It lasted a bit.
Quite a bit.
So long that it was no longer clear who should speak next.
Bootsy backed away from Charles, glancing into the corners and trying to find that key. The basement of The Puzzlehouse was exceptionally dark; an advanced sort of darkness. The kind of darkness that has weight to it. Bootsy had to get very close to the corners to find a large skeleton key hanging on a peg. “Looking for this?” was written next to it on the wall.
She took her prize.
“So, you’re Charles then?”
Emaciated, bearded and wide eyed Charles starred at Bootsy. He said, “I am. Or, I think so. I was. Yes, at the very least I was Charles. But that was ages ago. Yes. Yes. That seems right.”
“How long have you been down here?”
“An eternity; fifty years in this house. Mostly here in the basement. I don’t believe in the end. Not anymore.”
Because Charles did not look fifty under his scruffy beard and stringy hair, Bootsy said, “Fifty years? You’ve been trapped in this wretched house for fifty years?”
“Oh my yes, fifty years. Or; a week? Two weeks? No, no, no, no. Not two weeks. Perhaps three months. Yes. At least three months. Fifty years at the most.” Charles stood there nodding with a concerned face on. He kept nodding and agreeing out loud saying, “yes, that sounds…about right.”
She didn’t know what to say. She was afraid to make any claims or state any facts which may have upset Charles – or rather, the blank slate formerly known as Charles. Which was difficult because the list of things that may have upset Charles was as limitless as his insanity.
She wanted to tell him she didn’t think he’d been down there for fifty years. His skin was still taut. Charles didn’t have white hair. Or grey hair. Or a grey hair. Suggesting age to a man with no concept of time could be quite dangerous.
With rational for the deranged swirling around in her head, Bootsy looked at that key. She held it in her hand. It felt rather good. Heavy and smooth. The Madman was right about the key. It did provide a great deal of stress relief.
She said, “How long have you been in the basement, Charles?”
“The basement?” he said. “No, absolutely not. You don’t go in the basement.” Bootsy walked around the perminiter, where all the wine was kept. She found another note:
“There is a fine bottle of botanical spirits in here. It’s almost worth the psychological trauma of going in the basement. Which, I wouldn’t do, as you know. But you stopped listening to me weeks ago. Didn’t you?
Bootsy rolled her eyes. She looked over at the various bottles of wine lining the walls. And the gin cache. One dusty old bottle in particular. She smiled and brushed off the label which read: Hayward Gin. That didn’t terrify her.
What terrified her was Charles’ response to -, “well I go in the basement. The good gin is in the basement.” She uncorked the bottle and ingested a mouthful or three.
-which was, “You’ve been in the basement?”
“We’re in the basement.”
“We are most certainly not in the basement.”
Bootsy turned around to look at Charles who was sitting in an armchair next to the full size bed. She dropped the bottle of gin. With, perhaps the only shred of fortune in The Puzzlehouse, the bottle did not break. She said, “how did we get here?” Bootsy poured gin into her mouth. “Why aren’t we in the basement?”
“Because Maximus goes in the basement but not in the bedroom. And I am afraid of Maximus.”
“Who is Maximus?”
Charles raised his caterpillar eyebrows at Bootsy. Who, in turn, looked around the room; at the dresser, the bed and the night table. “Why, the butler of course.”
Bootsy disagreed. And said so. Randolph was the butler. She knew this. She knew this without a doubt. Even if Randolph was a hallucination or a figment of The Puzzlehouse’s grim imagination, he had to good grace to be consistent about it.
“Randolph is the butler.”
“Is he now. Good for him. Bad for Maximus though. He was doing so well.”
It took Bootsy a little bit to understand dinner. When she did, she vomited on the floor. But it took a little bit.
Charles said, “The sun is coming up. Randolph will be leaving soon.”
Bootsy turned to see the shyest pink creeping over the distant horizon. She said, “Charles? Who was Randolph before he was the butler?” There was no answer. There was no answer because there was no Charles. There could have been. But there wasn’t. Unless there was.
Not in the basement.
Not in The Puzzlehouse.
Not in the room when Bootsy turned around.
Bootsy took a series of cleansing breaths of gin. When she was as calm as she could’ve been, she opened the door to the second floor guest bedroom, crossed the threshold and walked into the parlour on the first floor. She chuckled. She said, “of course. Of, bloody course.”
“Why hello there Bootsy! It sure is good to see you again! I’ve missed you oh so terribly.”
“Shut it, footstool, where’s Randolph?”
“Don’t play games with me coffee table. Tell me where Randolph is before I warm the hearth with you.”
“Bootsy. There is no one named Randolph here. You live alone because you’re afraid of people. Which is why you talk to furniture. Which I’m sorry, is not perfectly natural.”
Bootsy Hayward declared the parlour useless. Futile. “A gaggle of liars.” She left the room screaming Randolph’s name at the top of her lungs. She walked through the dining room and into the parlour. She found herself in the ballroom.
Bootsy walked down the hall.
And down the stairs.
And down the hall.
And down the stairs and down the hall.
And down the stairs.
Hand down the hall.
The paintings were following her with paranoid, moving eyes. They had become suspicious of her motives and, to be honest, quite tired of Bootsy.
She found herself with Randolph.
“Ah, Miss Hayward. You’re up late.” He had a servicemen’s smile on his face. Bootsy slapped it off his head.
“Who are you?”
Randolph blinked. He said, “Miss Hayward, it’s me. Randolph.”
Bootsy slapped him again. “Stop calling me that. How long have you been here?”
Randolph was dumbfounded. He said, “why longer than you Miss Hayward-”
“-My name is Bootsy.”
“I worked for your parents when you were born. I raised you when they passed.” Randolph offered Bootsy another glass of wine. She slapped him again. “Miss-” she raised her hand again. “Bootsy. Please stop hitting me. Have a glass of wine and try to relax.”
“I’m not having a glass of wine.” Bootsy hit him with the bottle of gin. “Your bald head makes you look creepy.” She hit him again. And again. And again. Randolph’s head became the floor as it was mashed into a pulp of brain and skull bits. The bottle broke. It didn’t stop Bootsy.
When she stopped, she stood up covered in blood and loomed over Randolph’s body. It had no head. Just sort of a puddle on his shoulders. Bootsy was heaving from the deepest regions of her lungs. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Nodding her head in sick satisfaction, she dropped the broken gin bottle.
Her footsteps echoed through the empty Puzzlehouse. Bootsy Hayward walked out of the ballroom and into the parlour. She didn’t say a word to the furniture and they didn’t say a word to her. They key slid into the lock in the front door. It clicked, stuck twice and clicked again. The front door to the Puzzlehouse opened up to a dreary, windy scene. It wasn’t raining. Everything was just wet.
It took Bootsy Hayward hours, maybe even all day or forever to get back to Barony. Bootsy arrived at The Jackal’s Alehouse, dripping wet and utterly off her rocker, nuts. Her mouth was moving but no words were coming out. Bootsy Hayward walked into the barroom step. By step. By step.
The broken, antique grandfather clock in the barroom was chiming. The patrons tried not to notice. They watched Bootsy Hayward walk up to the bar where she sat down on her favorite stool and stared at the counter. As usual, no one said anything to her. Except for the bartender.
“Good evening, Miss Hayward. Would you care for a glass of wine?”
Bootsy screamed. She fell off her stool and onto the floor. No one in the room knew what to do. The bartender ran over to scoop her up. She thrashed and kicked and demanded that everyone get away from her. She was gone. Absolutely batty. In no state of mind to be in a bar.
And with that, Randolph, the bartender, dragged Bootsy Hayward back to The Puzzlehouse.