Okay, Halloween's almost here. As is traditional, I wrote you a short story (remember Damp Basements of Heaven and Up The Stairs Where The Windows Are Painted Black? If so, you're the person who read them, I guess!). This year I even wrote you two! I'll post the other (mercifully shorter) one in a couple days. I b'lieve Kicker Of Elves has one in the works, too. And Igor wrote ya'll a song, which you should go hear if you didn't already.
Oh, and while I'm plugging things... go watch AminaMarx's review of The Walking Dead on YouTube. It's hilarious and brilliant. Go watch it now, it'll only take you five minutes, and the story'll wait. If you want to hang around and watch her other vids, the story'll still wait. I watch a good bit of YouTube and this is much better than most of the stuff on there, and deserves a big audience. Watch it, and tell your friends.
Okay, on to the story. This one's kinda long. Maybe a little slow (I can be wordy and there's no editor to yank my leash), but I was trying to use a Victorian kind of structure for it and build up an obsessive mood so I can (hopefully) slam the morbid into it. I don't know if I achieve it, but when I write horror, it's always with bad intent. I hope I'll entertain you, but mostly I want to fuck up your sleep, get in your head and do some psychological damage for a while, put a little fear o' the dark in ya. Otherwise, what's the point, right? Sometimes I'll just throw a lot of hyperviolent splat around, but sometimes I try something darker. This one's pretty dark. A few people I've described the plot to screamed "Don't tell me stuff like that!" which I always take as a good sign. :) Anyway, I hope it pays off and creeps you out baaaad, or at least doesn't waste your time. Otherwise, I fucked up! Feedback's welcome and helpful, so feel free to comment here or on Twitter. If you didn't like it, don't worry, I won't hate ya or nothin'... it'll just make me work harder next time, so give me reasons. :)
LONG TALL SALLY
Ralph had already been noticing some strange things happening in his apartment before he met the drunk with the three eyebrows, but after their talk those things were enough to make him afraid to go home.
His new job teaching college Spanish was going okay so far, but the new social life was not even okay. Any hopes of making friends at work wilted early on; the department was composed almost entirely of socially-crippled introverts who were painful even at lunch conversation. There were two exceptions, but the funny guy named Javier was married with kids and therefore not available for much hanging out, and a really fun girl named Lori was getting married in a month and so, same deal. Ralph wanted company; being alone in a strange town had him feeling trapped. So far luck hadn't dumped anybody in his lap at the grocery store or someplace, so, out of desperation, he was giving the bar scene a try, even though he wasn't much of a drinker. And that scene was turning out to be so oversaturated by people too young to want to hang out with him that it was just making him feel creepy. He was starting to clutch at straws, and that's how he ended up talking to Larry, of the three eyebrows.
Ralph guessed that Larry had split the caterpillar-like left eyebrow in some drunken stumble, because even though he looked like rough trade, he was so friendly that Ralph couldn't imagine him getting in many fights. His clothes hung on him like the sails of a becalmed ship, and he had a wallet chained to pants that might fall off sooner than the wallet would fall out. He was a missed haircut away from having a mullet and one of his front teeth had a chip out of it, probably from some other drunken mishap. Ever since he'd found out what Ralph did, he'd been popping out a "say something else in Spanish" every few minutes. It was meant to be friendly, but his impaired judgment was pushing it toward obnoxiousness, and that did make Ralph consider evening up his eyebrows and teeth, but not in any serious actually-gonna-do-it way.
Ralph had been getting bored with the rambling conversation, though, and was trying to engineer a way to peel this guy off of him. He'd been starting his "Well, I better be heading back to the house" lines when things finally took an interesting turn.
"So, wherebouts is tu casa, Ralph? Is that how you say it, tu casa?"
"Pretty much, yeah. I got an apartment in a big old house over on Railside Street."
"Railside? That's the old part of town, amigo. Real old, the oldest, like. Kinda getting run down now. Shame, too. Used to be real pretty, but they shut the railroad down and the neighborhood kinda went with it." Larry made a farty noise that represented urban decline as well as any.
"Yeah, it's kind of a gloomy area. Kind of a gloomy house, too. I'm not in love with it, but I'm getting paid kinda shit, y'know. It was in the budget."
Larry nodded, holding his cocktail glass in front of him like a crystal ball he was augurying. Almost empty; not much future there, but Ralph guessed its main purpose was to chase away the past. "My grandma used to live over on Railside, so I know it pretty well. Spent lotsa after-schools terrorizing that neighborhood when I was a sprout. Wherebouts you makin' tu casa?"
"It's a big, dark brown two-story with white trim. Almost black, really. I'm thinking it was a house but at some point they divided it into four apartments. It's at seven..."
"...forty-eight," Larry finished with him. "I know that house. Seven-forty-eight, that's the one, yeah?"
"Yeah, that's the one. You know your Railside."
"Well, hell, you don't have to be no kinda genius to know about 748 Railside if you were raised around here. Holy shit, amigo, you're living in Long Tall Sally's house! No wonder your rent's cheap!" He laughed, and it was nervous, sending chills through Ralph's guts.
"Who's Long Tall Sally?"
"Ol' Sally Longneck. Sally the goose. Holy shit, man, I never knew anybody who actually lived in that place. You seen anything crazy yet? Oh shit, dude, tell me you aren't in apartment three." Larry grabbed his arm, setting off another chill.
"Yeah, I am. What's wrong with apartment three? And who's this Sally?"
"Sally was an old crazy whore, and apartment three's where they found her. Holy shit, man, I don't even know if I oughtta tell you about this, you having to go back there later and all." He rolled the glass between his hands. Ice clinked like Ralph's nerves.
"Found her? What do you mean, found her?"
Larry shook his head, finished the dregs in the cocktail glass, crunched some ice, and said, "Let's go on out of here, amigo. I need some fresh air if I'm gonna remember up this story. I'm drunk enough, anyway, and they're about to shut down."
"Well, yeah," Ralph said, and they stood up. Larry had to hang onto the table for a second before he straightened up.
"Zombies, man. Nobody drinks 'em anymore. I had to teach the guy here to make 'em. But they sure knock the corners off everything. Whoo. I'm old for this shit. Okay, here we go. Just like walkin' across a record while it's playing. Whee! Look mom, I'm surfin'!"
Ralph followed him through the bar's dim multicolored schemes, which seemed patterned on rooms out of "Masque of the Red Death." One side room was all red and looked uncomfortably ambulance-lit, like drinking and dancing at the scene of an accident. One girl was gyrating and tossing her hair around even though Ralph couldn't make out any music amidst the blur of conversational noise. Her arms flopped around, as if boneless. Tentacular, he thought, wishing he could write the word down because he was pretty sure he'd just made it up, and he liked the sound of it. It cut through the dread a little; he was feeling chilled by this "Long Tall Sally" business, this "where they found her" ominousness that implied a dead body -- probably under weird circumstances -- in his apartment.
Ralph didn't look into the red room long, trying to keep up with Larry as he wove through the college kids until they found the front door. Larry headed over to a ratty old motorcycle that looked like a project-in-progress, heavy on the bondo, and sat on it. Ralph took a seat at a picnic table next to it as Larry shook a pack of Camels and lipped one out. "I lied a little, y'know. Didn't really need fresh air, I needed cig-air. Want one? Never too old to be a nicotine-ager."
"No mas, gracias," Larry mumbled, lighting up. "How you say cancer in Espanol? El too-mar de los lung-os, ai yi yi chihuahua. I am an asshole for smoking these things." The air was crisp and starting to turn cool, and the stars were remarkably clear, sparkling like glass scattered across asphalt. Leaves would be withering soon. Larry pulled a lungful, blew it out, then said, "Holy shit goddamn, Long Tall Sally's house. Grandma was so scared of that place she used to write the mayor to get it pulled down. She kept the curtains drawn and safety-pinned together on her window that had a view of it down the street. She was a little girl when they found her. Sally Longneck, that is."
"Longneck. Was that her last name? Sounds Native American."
"Naw, nothin' like that. Her name was... something, I dunno, seems like it was something Polish, like, one of those o-chek or -ski or -vitz or something sounds like a sausage. Some good ol' all-American foreign name." He snorted out smoke. "Naw, she was Longneck 'cuz of how they found her, after. In apartment three. Tu casa, holy by-god shit. Never thought I'd meet anybody from there. That place was such legend when I was a kid. Scared the be-Christ out of us."
Ralph was getting impatient and a little scared. He'd heard knocking and bumping sounds at night in his apartment, creaks and groans that had kept him awake but which he'd passed off as natural parts of living in an old building, or, at worst, rats. Once he'd thought he heard the tea kettle whistle in the kitchen just before dawn, but he'd dismissed that as air in the pipes. Now it was sounding like he was living in some notorious haunted spot, and even though he didn't believe in such things, he still had an imagination and the information he was hearing was giving it a good bending-over.
"Okay, see, back when the railroad was an active thing -- Grandma's daddy, he worked for them, at the station house, that's gone now, tore down back in the nineties out of some speculation deal nothing ever came of -- back then, your part of town was busy. And Sally O-chek-ski-vitz-whosis was working the tourist trade as a woman of ill repute." Larry made finger-quotes in the air and wagged his remarkable eyebrows in tandem. "Way they tell it she coulda just as well gone the carnival route as an India rubber woman or something 'cuz her bones were like cartilage, she was real flexible, so she could turn some tricky tricks, I guess. Tie herself in a knot and kiss her own ass, somethin’. You‘d drop a ten to see that, no?” Larry laughed and Ralph made a token effort at joining him, just to keep him in a talking mood. Larry finished the cigarette and scaled it across the parking lot, almost hitting some kids talking by an SUV. They were laughing for real, part of a better night.
“Anyway, she made a nice trade fucking for dollars, I guess, but then something happened, don’t know what. Some guy she was gonna marry run out on her or her brother got killed or something, depends on who you hear it from. Maybe she just got tired of wrapping her legs behind her head for strangers, who the fuck knows? She was supposed to be pretty crazy anyhow. Anyway, something got to her and she hung herself up there - in your apartment, holy shit. Strung herself up on some braided clothesline, and they didn’t find her for about a week.
“And by the time they did find her... with all those rubber bones or what-not... well. Her neck had stretched out to over a foot long. You ever read Alice In Wonderland? Grandma had an old copy of that, the classic one, with the drawings in it? There was one in there of Alice all stretched out between eat-me drink-me bullshits and Grandma showed me that picture and said Sally was almost like that and I had fucking nightmares over that for years, dog. They said she was like seven feet tall when they took her out of there, had to fold her up into a coffin and she’s off in that graveyard ‘cross the tracks from you. One good thing about your neighborhood, as bad as it’s turned out, can’t nobody say it’s the wrong side of the tracks, ‘cuz all that’s on the other side of those tracks is that graveyard. Woodside’s the name of the cemetery but we all called it Weedside ‘cuz it’s all grown up, and because that’s where all the heads used to hang out and smoke.” He tapped pinched fingers to his lips, unnecessarily.
“So, you said something about seeing anything crazy, if I’d seen anything crazy yet,” Ralph said. “Crazy like what? What do people supposedly see in my apartment?”
“Aw, you know, that’s probably just old ghost-story horseshit. I wouldn’t pay it much mind, man. I shouldn’t’ve even told you all this. Power of suggestion’ll have you seeing some shit, especially at two in the by-Jesus a.m., and if you’re half as drunk as me. And shame on you if you are because I’m goddamn irresponsible about my drinking.”
“That how you got the scar, there?” Ralph asked, rubbing his own eyebrow.
Larry reached up and touched it as if not realizing anything was there, then said, “That. Yeah. Know how every time something happens, some girl gets smacked around by her douchemaster boyfriend or something, they ran into a door? Well, hello, I ran into a door, for real. Woke up hung over, house all dark, the phone rings, I run to answer it, and crack, right into the edge of my bedroom door like a fucking spastic. Bled like crazy. Got to the phone and it’s some other drunk with a wrong number. Ha!” He rubbed at the eyebrow. “Scab just come off a week or something ago.”
“Jesus,” Ralph said. “So, about my apartment...”
“Yeah, I don’t know, man, just weird shit. Noises and all. Worst I heard was a single mom moved in with her daughter and didn’t know fuck-all about Sally Longneck’s story or anything, but she never slept well in there, and her daughter starts drawing pictures of a ‘giraffe girl.’ Eventually some blabbermouth like me told her what went on in there and she hightailed it out of the place that same day. That story'll set the spiders crawling up your ass, man. Another dude in one of the lower apartments, when he was the only guy renting in the place at the time, all three other units empty, he said one night this really tall woman was wobbling down the staircase from the second story. He ‘sent for his things.’ I’d’ve had some laundry to do, man, it’d been me. Just picturing it scares the gee-dee outta me.”
“Shit, dude. They didn’t tell me any of this when I signed my lease,” Ralph said, cold swirling inside him.
“Well, they’re not gonna do that, are they?” Larry said, pulling another cigarette. The kids in the SUV were backing out, dyeing him with more ambulance light from the taillights. “Hey, welcome, move right in, and please ignore the funhouse-mirror bitch you might see wandering the hallways.” He laughed and lit up.
“Might have to have a little talk with my landlady.”
“Hey, hey, man, don’t worry about it. Really, I didn’t tell you all this stuff to mess up your deal. I just babble, too much rum. It’s all probably a load of crap, you know? I don’t even know that there was a real guy who saw something on the stairs, or a real mom with a kid drawing giraffe-girls. Just stuff I heard, it ain’t gospel. Like I said, you’re the only guy I ever met who actually lived in that place, and you haven’t seen anything weird, right?”
“Well, no, I haven’t seen anything. I heard a few creaks and bumps and knocks.”
“Old house, right?” Larry waved the cigarette dismissively, scattering ash. “Noisy neighbors.”
“Well, that’s what I’d been thinking up ‘til now,” Ralph laughed.
“Oh, hey, don’t let my bullshit bother you, man. It’s just stuff I heard as a kid and I’m probably not remembering it right, anyway, and somebody probably made half of it up to begin with. Probably nothing wrong with your place. Hey, I’d like to see it sometime, just since I heard about it all my life. In the daylight, though. I’m too full of my own bullshit -- and Bacardi’s bullshit” - he pushed his chin at the bar - “to handle it at night.” He laughed. “So, what you hear in there, anyway, exactly?”
“Nothing too weird, really. I was worried it was rats or mice. Maybe it is, I’ve still got traps written on my shopping list. But, you know, just creaking, a few loud knocks. Loud enough that I’ve gotten out of bed to check the front door a couple of times. Once I thought I heard the tea kettle whistling in the kitchen and thought I left it on, but I checked and it was cold.”
Larry frowned at nothing, chewing on his cigarette. “House settling, probably, huh?”
“Yeah. Air in the pipes.”
“Air in the pipes,” Larry nodded. “Well, hey, man, it’s been good but I better be getting home, mi casa, while I can still do it. Nice meeting you. Ralph, am I right?”
“Right. And Larry.”
“No, I’m Larry,” Larry laughed, then held out his hand, all veins and bones. “I’m around here most nights so you wanna habla, hablo some more, look me up, alright?”
Ralph shook his hand and said, “Absolutely, I’ll do that.”
Larry nodded and stomped at his ratty motorcycle, which had probably been in good shape around the last time Larry was. Ralph asked, “You sure you’re okay to drive that thing?”
“Oh, yeah, do it all the time, and it’s only about a half mile, some shit.” He stomped again and the bike blatted shockingly loud for two a.m. Larry gunned it, monitored it a second to make sure it wasn’t going to die off, then grinned and gave Ralph a thumbs up. Ralph returned it and Larry saluted and slowly, carefully, wheeled out of the parking lot and was soon a red taillight in the distance.
And now Ralph didn’t want to go home. But the bar was shutting down already. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here, wasn’t that how it went? And at this hour nothing else was open but a grocery store and the Wal-Mart, and he was feeling too tired to wander around either.
He went and sat in his car for a few minutes, thinking about Larry’s “bullshit” story, and trying to remember that Little Richard song. That was about a whore, wasn’t it? Uncle John, hiding from Aunt Mary in the alley with his ‘built for speed’ woman? No relation, he was sure, but it made the song seem a bit morbid. Morbid, that was the word for the whole thing. A neck stretched over a foot long? He’d known people with rubbery cartilage, but Jesus, what an image. And even if it was just a local urban legend, the fact that it centered on his apartment, that was disturbing.
Could Larry have just been having some fun with him? Maybe he’d known that house for some other reason. But picking apartment three out of a hat? And those stories. He’d been too sloshed with rum to just make that stuff up on the spot. And the noises in the night, the disturbed sleep, before he’d even gotten here? No, Larry didn’t seem like a liar, and he’d been too drunk to be creative.
He didn’t want to go home but it was silly not to, so he started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. He was afraid to turn on the radio because if that song happened to be playing he wouldn’t be able to go home at all, but he tried it anyway just to conquer a little piece of the fear. Scanning the dial, the closest he got was “Love Me Do” on an oldies station, so, supernatural forces were evidently not aligning against him.
Still, he drove around a while, delaying it. This wasn’t a lively town, though, and it was 2 a.m., so the lack of life and movement didn’t do much to dispel the mood. Blinking red lights in the intersections, empty streets, black windows. A fat possum crept through a back yard full of swingsets and toys, eyes glowing like ghostfire. The lonesomeness of it was bad, but anyone he would see at this hour might be worse. “Might as well go home to Long Tall Sally before she shows up on the radio,” he said to the night, and drove home.
The house looked black. He’d left a light on in his apartment, not much of one, just the light over the stove, and he wished he’d left more now because that was so dim. He’d have to walk into a dark living room, a living room where a little girl may have drawn giraffe-lady pictures. And before he got there he’d have to go up the stairs where the guy had seen something bad enough to send him packing.
The kitchen window burned orange up there, and he stared at it, waiting to see if the curtain moved, if someone peeked out, if a freakishly elongated shape would pass across it...
Nothing did, but he felt it might, if only he waited a minute more.
“Idiot,” he told himself and shut off the car and climbed out. He went inside. The lobby was dim but a light was kept on all the time, so tenants wouldn’t hurt themselves climbing dark stairs. Looking at those stairs he could imagine something backlit, gently swaying, coming down. But there was nothing. They just led up, to apartment three, former home of Long Tall Sally and now him.
He climbed them, unlocked the door with the three on it, stepped in, and locked it behind him before flipping on the lights. The place felt chilly and was still and silent; it sounded like waiting. But he quickly checked all the rooms and no one was there, and any presence was just in his own mind. The stillness was unnerving, though, so he cut the television on for company, the volume low so he wouldn’t disturb his roommate.
Neighbors, he corrected himself bitterly. Despite Larry’s campfire tales, I have no roommate here.
He walked through the apartment again. The kitchen, he decided, was where she’d done it. The ceiling was high there, and there were beams you could snake a rope around, maybe. A braided clothesline, Larry had said, though how he’d known that was a mystery. Probably an add-on detail to the basic fact as it turned from incident to urban legend. Maybe a lonely woman had hung herself here in the 30’s or 40’s and, being a boring little town where not much ever happened, it remained an event worthy of decades of talk, a hand-me-down story that grew until it became interesting bullshit. Her neck hadn’t been a foot long (ridiculous!), her name probably wasn’t even Sally, it probably hadn’t been apartment three, and there were no ghosts or giraffe-lady drawings and maybe the whole thing had never happened, anyway.
But if it had, the kitchen would be the place, with those beams. He went back in and stared at them, looking for rope marks, but of course they’d been painted since, probably many times, and anything like that would be buried under layers of paint.
Had she swung back and forth in here, for days? Seven feet tall when they found her, over a foot of it neck? Probably touching the floor by the end, not hanging, just standing there, dead. If it was as cold then as it was now, decay would be slow to set in. And if it had been later in the year, say, November, she’d have been fresh as a daisy, a long-stemmed daisy.
“Idiot,” he hissed, turning out the light in the kitchen, trusting that nothing would fill the dark.
Something in the hallway behind him made a noise. An old-house creak. He’d have to stop granting it any more than that. Everything creaked here. Just crossing the room was like a Karloff movie. There was no one here but him, and that’s why he’d been driven out to talk to a guy like Larry in the first place, that loneliness. Now some silly story was doing magic tricks with the facts. There was no Long Tall Sally here. If there was a Long Tall Sally anywhere then she was crammed and grinning in the rotten velvet of her wet, crumbling coffin, buried across the tracks. He looked out the window, saw streetlights in the distance, through trees. Graveyard out there somewhere. Sally, out there, maybe that streetlight shining on her headstone. Long time dead.
Thinking like that did him no good. The point was, she wasn’t here, and fearing her was stupid. If she’d ever hung grotesquely dead and alone here, it’d been decades ago. Maybe almost a century if Larry’s grandma had been a little girl when it happened. There’d be no trace of the act now. It didn’t matter. It was just an apartment. The rent was low because it was on the shabby side, and not too close to campus, and on a side of town where the glamour’d rubbed off.
He sat down and watched television, but nothing was very interesting and the late-night lineup was a strange video-dumping-ground that didn’t help his mood any. He resisted turning it off because it meant silence and feeling more alone -- or not-alone, he supposed. Finally he got weary enough and angry enough with himself that he decided to go to bed. First he turned the heat up; the thermostat said it was 73 degrees but he suspected it was broken because he felt a chill in the air. A cold snap was starting out there and it was affecting the house as it would an old man, settling in its bones and making it complain.
He didn’t want the place too dark but he didn’t like the light coming in from the window, either. That was coming from across the tracks and Larry had said nothing was over there but the cemetery. Woodside, Weedside. Who over there needed light, anyway? Were utility poles set up for the convenience of the kids smoking pot? Be some brave-ass kids, getting stoned at 3 a.m. in a graveyard, with Long Tall Sally down there, all uncomfortable in a coffin that didn’t fit.
He curled up in bed and wanted to sleep, but he sensed bad dreams waiting to pounce on him and he was afraid to meet them.
Sleep was a long time coming, and was uneasy when it did, but there were no dreams that he could remember, just a feeling upon awakening that he'd been through some and they weren't good. More troubling, though, was a sense that he was coming down with something. The seasonal change, and maybe Larry's secondhand smoke (Ralph was mildly allergic), had left him with a runny nose and a slightly sore throat, as well as a feverish weariness. Groaning, he got up and decided he'd better go out and get some supplies before the illness really settled in. It was only Saturday morning, and if he was lucky it would run enough of its course to let him show up for work Monday.
As he got dressed the apartment seemed less sinister. It caught the morning light well and didn't look as much like something Long Tall Sally would prowl, so he decided Larry's story was silly. There was nothing here but aged atmosphere and a lot of suggestion. He went out and drove to the grocer's and drugstore, picking up some Gatorade in case his illness took some pukey/diarrheic turn, and some Sudafed that was harder to buy than a firearm.
A neighbor was out front walking his dachshund when he got home. Ralph had met the man before but couldn’t remember his name, although he knew the dog’s name was Charlie. Charlie Brown. Charlie’s Dad was an older guy from across the street, bald but for some lead-colored fringe around the sides, and a face made up of expressive creases and prominent teeth. Ralph remembered his first impression of the man had been an underpadded boxing glove gripping some dentures, and he wished he remembered the guy’s name instead of his snarky little quip. Charlie’s Dad was already wearing a coat, and Ralph guessed everybody else had gotten the memo that winter was coming before he had, because he wasn’t even sure where his coat was, probably in one of the boxes he hadn’t unpacked yet. “Hey there, Ralph!” Charlie’s Dad called. “Been out shopping, I see.” Ralph caught a whiff of pipe tobacco as he shook his hand.
“Yeah, I had a few things I needed to pick up.” Ralph adjusted his bags so he could crouch and pet Charlie, who snakedanced his head happily under Ralph’s palm..
Charlie’s Dad gestured at the drugstore bag. “Something for your mom? She sick?”
“Huh? No, my mom’s in Georgia.”
“Oh. I thought that lady I see in your window sometimes was your mother.”
Ralph felt that chill swirl through him again. “No, there hasn’t been any lady in my apartment.”
Charlie’s Dad’s wrinkles pulled together in great frown. “That’s your window there, second story, on the right? With the flowerpot on the sill?”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Ralph said, noting the yellow flowerpot a previous renter had left was still up there, complete with its sprout of dead something-or-other. Seemed to be the day for dead things previous renters had left behind. “But I haven’t had any women up there, or anybody else. Only woman who’s been in there since I moved in was my landlady when she showed me the place.”
Charlie’s Dad’s brows went up, building a leather ladder above them. “Well, you may want to take an inventory of your valuables, because someone’s been in there a couple of times when you weren’t home. Maybe your landlady? Is she really slim, dark hair, kind of...” He gestured around his head to indicate teased hair.
“Strange,” Ralph frowned. “No, my landlady’s a short, sturdy-looking woman, really short greyish blonde hair.” The color of a dirty pillowcase, he'd thought, and realized he couldn't remember her name, either.
“Well, I don’t want to create the impression we’ve been peeping-tomming your place or anything, but I’ve noticed this woman up there a couple of times. My wife Martha’s seen her, too. We never got a good look at her, but if you’ve had any break-ins we’ll be glad to talk to the police for you. She looked tall, thin, moved like she might be crippled.”
“I haven’t noticed anything missing, but I may have to see about changing the locks,” Ralph said, wiping at a sniffle. Changing locks won’t help me, he thought. Maybe an exorcist. Or a complete change of address as soon as I can afford it. He coughed into his fist and looked up at his window. Tall, thin, crippled.
“Peculiar,” Charlie’s Dad said. “I’m kind of relieved that woman’s nobody you know, to tell the truth. What I could see of her, she was an awful-looking thing. Like a street-woman, bag-lady, somebody stealing to buy drugs. She stared out at me one day all wild-eyed." He stretched his eyes at Ralph. "I hope she’s not some crazy former tenant who still has a key.”
I hope she is, Ralph thought, and hid a laugh in a cough. “It’s strange.”
“Spooky! I’d report it to the landlord and get your locks changed.”
“I’m definitely going to look into that,” Ralph said, wiping his nose.
“I would. Say, you’re the one coming down with a cold, aren’t you?” Charlie’s Dad gestured at the drugstore bag again. “Thoughtless of me, keeping you out here when it’s getting nippy and you’ve got no jacket. Get inside, you can’t be too careful when the seasons change.”
Ralph bid his goodbyes and headed inside, promising again to get the locks changed and send the cops by if he decided to call them.
He listened at the door to number three for a minute before he put the key in the lock and opened it up. Silence. More silence when he went inside. A motorcycle went past on the street and that was all. He didn’t feel any particular presence but knowing what the neighbor had seen had him unstrung. What went on here while he was away? He liked the crazy-former-tenant idea a lot better than the alternative, which he still found absurd. He had the creeps now, all right, but ghosts, for real?
He was definitely coming down with something, though. Coming down, hell, he already had it, and it was hitting him harder by the minute, so he poured some Gatorade over ice and washed down some vitamin C and a Sudafed, then settled in front of the television. Cartoons weren’t what they used to be, though, none of the teams playing interested him, and the only good movie on was almost over. He didn’t feel much like watching anything, anyway; his mind was too troubled. Every swallow felt like a scrape and fever was settling in. Physically he felt like ass, and mentally he felt hunted by some unseen thing, so he shut off the television, pulled down the shades in his bedroom, and burrowed under the blankets to retreat into sleep.
It was a bad sleep, though, full of vivid little nightmares about someone in the next room, and one in which he was outside and saw a pale face with dead black eyes peering down from his window. When he ran up to get in, his apartment door was chained from the inside and whoever was in there was making an angry gobbling noise.
Finally he woke up because the kettle was whistling again.
He lay there a while, listening intensely, waiting for it to stop. Air in the pipes, could be. He knew he hadn’t turned the stove on, unless he did it sleepwalking. After a few seconds it trailed off, and he lay there feeling chilled by it. The sheets were sweat-soaked and it was dusk outside. He’d been here all day, in and out of his jerky, Sudafed sleep. The medicine seemed to have helped his sinuses but he still felt rotten and couldn’t afford to take any more because he needed rest, and the crank in those pills jolted him awake every ten minutes. And maybe they made him hear things.
Then the kettle whistled again, and he held his breath. Maybe he had been sleepwalking after all, it was possible in this state, so he got up and stumbled to the kitchen but the whistle trailed off again before he got there. The kettle was cold. He dumped its water into the sink and put it on the countertop to settle that.
The apartment was dim and chilled and felt eerie again, some presence pressing at him, something waiting, always in the next room, wherever you weren’t looking. He dreaded night coming again. Everything was much worse here at night.
Maybe he could sleep through it. He took a shot of Nyquil and went back to bed and lay there, listening and watching the light fade, feeling too sick to worry about ghosts. If this got much worse, he might be haunting the place himself.
When he woke again it was fully dark, and the kettle was whistling again. He looked at the clock; nearly ten P.M. No way was that the kettle. Air in the pipes? Could be. Somebody running water in another apartment? Probably. He listened and it trailed off. After a minute of silence it started again. Louder.
“Fuck,” he snarled, getting up. The room tilted on him, almost dumping him back into bed. Nyquil-drunk, cocktailed with what was left of the Sudafed. And feverish. Probably how Larry had felt last night, but without as much sick. He cut on the bedroom light and weaved into the living room.
The kettle kept whistling (but it’s NOT the kettle) and he stood, holding onto the couch and listening, trying to analyze it. It was coming from the kitchen, for sure. He could see nothing in there, just the dimmest shape of the window facing the street. The whistling trailed off into a wheeze and then heavy silence.
He stepped toward the kitchen and held onto the door frame, waiting and listening. He was afraid to flick the light switch because there might be something in that darkness that he did not want to see, wouldn’t be able to stand, maybe only an arm’s length away and grinning down at him, distorted. He shook his head and held his breath. Surely the whistling wouldn’t start again now that he was right here in the doorway to catch it in the act.
But it did.
High and loud and horrible and he knew what it was immediately and he yelped in revulsion at the recognition and stumbled back.
It was her goddamn BREATHING! Air being drawn in through a throat stretched thin and flutish. Air in the pipes, oh yes, it was air in the pipes, ha ha!
A shape with something wrong with it passed in front of the window. Hair, a mess like a splatter of ink.
The light in the bedroom behind him went out, and the whole apartment was completely dark.
Something knocked against the wall, then again, stumbling closer.
A long wheeeeeeze and a fly buzzing.
Ralph yelled in panic, "GET AWAY! GET OUT OF HERE!" But it didn't leave. Someone was in the room with him, and it wasn't heeding him. He yelled again, and O God it wouldn't go away it wouldn't go away. He felt it approaching through the darkness and he thought he'd be part of Larry's next drunken story. “And then they found Ralph dead in tu casa with his neck pulled long as your thigh, holy by-Jesus shit.”
Ralph yelled again and staggered back toward the bedroom, found the doorway, found the light switch and turned it on and whirled.
Nothing. Empty, dimly-lit room. Black kitchen doorway.
He stood there, panting, waiting. Nothing happened.
“Fuck this,” he said, pulling on his pants. Sick or not, he wasn’t staying here. He’d go back to the bar, look for Larry, see if maybe he could stay at his place. He didn’t really know anybody else in town, but staying here didn't seem like an option with this thing stalking him. And anybody but Larry would think he was crazy.
He pulled on a shirt, turned on every light in the place, and left.
The rest was a blur because he was running too high a fever to be out, and when he got to the bar and couldn't find Larry he sat down and started drinking. In honor of Larry (and maybe Sally) he even ordered a zombie, and he wasn't used to those. He wasn't used to anything, really, and he knew this was a bad idea but tried to tell himself that there was something about drinking lots of fluids being good for a cold and that made him laugh. Feed a cold, starve a fever. What happened when you got a cold shitfaced? Let's find out! Jägerbomb a cold, push a fever down the stairs! Ha!
At some point he wandered into the red room and there was she the dancing girl, the young lady tentacular, and he yelled "Unmask! Unmask!" at her and tried to dance with her and somehow she found this amusing or charming, maybe she'd been drinking those zombies, too, he didn't know but she danced with him even though he was no more a dancer than he was a drinker and shouldn't have even been on his feet anyway, fever bleary out of control, nerves shot. The whole room was feverish, that red light (was it pulsing? maybe, like being in a big heart), and maybe he'd end up in an ambulance before morning but he couldn't be alone tonight, not in that apartment where he really wasn't alone at all now was he? Ha! Alone with that whistling bitch!
The aloneness, he realized, was the whole problem. Sally was or had been (still was, death only made her taller) a whore, and a whore is a specialist in loneliness, a cure for it was what they sold, and they were predators for it, it was blood in the water to them, and hadn't Ralph been thrashing his aloneness like a wounded fish, resorting to bars, talking to goofs like Larry? Long Tall Sally's pimp, that's what Larry was! He'd made him aware of her so she could get busy. Sally was drawn to him even though her mortal remains were on the other side of the tracks (under that streetlight, he felt certain) now even though he did not dare to go and see, because maybe when he found that headstone with Sally O-Chek-Ski-Vitz-Ha-Ha maybe his name would be on it, too. And he would be down there! Lonely no more! Ralph the customer! She was just trying to meet him and do her thing, fill his need.
And he suddenly knew how to fix it, even through the booze-floating-on-medication and nauseating fever and terror he figured out what he had to do. This cute little dancing girl, with her long straight brown hair with hipster pink streaked through it and those razored bangs playing peekaboo with some racooon-mascara-framed eyes (green? he thought green), if he could bring her home that'd chase Sally back to her muddy rotting velvet. You be the lonesome one, Sally, lonesome loathsome and sleeping alone on the wrong side of the grass on the wrong side of the tracks, because look what I got! Pretty! Young! Alive! Spec-tac-u-lar ten-tac-u-lar! The hunted would become the hunter!
Ralph didn’t know what he said. He knew he bought some drinks and that probably did it more than anything else but he also channeled his desperation into enthusiasm which probably flattered the girl. An older guy captivated with her. The attention she’d been dancing for. And who else was here anyway? Everyone else in the bar looked like freaks, ghosts, grey and drifting through the bad multicolored light like malfunctioning funhouse props. Some didn’t even have faces, he noted. Some were just blurs, here, then there. Suggestions of people in darkened corners, lurkers in the margins. Ms. Trendybangs was the only real person there even with her tentacles, which looked a lot more like arms now that they were holding a glass and pouring it into her laughing mouth again and again, drunker and easier and it was working.
And he didn’t even remember how he got her home. He didn’t remember leaving, but you can’t go home and you can’t stay here. When he should have been leaving he woke up and was wrapped in sweaty sheets in the terrible dark. Back in the apartment, his apartment, he recognized the numbers on his digital clock which were after 3 a.m., after closing time. He lay still. The dark gathered itself around him and loomed ready to pounce.
Had that been a dream? The whole bar visit? The girl? How about the whistling thing that came after him from the kitchen before that? Dream, too? All a night of bad dreaming? He felt disoriented. Drunk, maybe, maybe just drunk off dreams and just really crazy sick. God, if that had only been a dream, then he’d still be alone here, his loneliness dangling like bait for Long Tall Sally the Whore. He felt panic, like a stroke, and sat up gasping in the whirling dark room.
But, no, it hadn’t been a dream. He’d gotten home with the girl after all, because his sitting up had awakened her and she stirred in the bed beside him, stiff with sleep, making little noises. Maybe some of the sweat on the sheets was hers, from lovemaking he didn’t remember. It was so dark he couldn’t see anything, but he could feel her, there in the bed with him, his salvation. He rolled over to her and held her like a drowning man and she wound herself around him and he escaped into her kisses in the darkness.
Even though her lips were chilled and damp
And even though they were much higher, much higher than they were supposed to be.
copyright 2011 by me