Cousin Claude

 Yet another horror short story, kids.  It's not Halloween anymore, but the world's still fookinspooky iddnit?   It is if I've got anything to do with it!  So, here ya go.   Hope it delivers dread.  If it doesn't, tell me why it didn't.  Feedback's always helpful.  In fact, it's all I really get out of this, so, pay up.

There's still a few more to come, potentially, sometime.  Got a couple of things already written but not typed up.  And I write more all the time.  And until I decide I care about trying to submit things for cash (which so far I don't, oddly enough... I like money, but not as much as I dislike hassles), it's free.

And, as always, we maintain the Table of Contents so you can easily access all the other stuff here, at least some of which is just bound to be good, so, explore!  And tell us why they work, or why they don't. 

My stuff:
And little descriptions of actual nightmares I’ve had



                                                         COUSIN CLAUDE


            Jack had quit smoking eight years ago, a long struggle that’d felt like climbing an icy mountain.  After eight years he’d been pretty confident that he was all done with backsliding.  


Wrong again, Jack.


            Five minutes ago he’d lit one of his dead aunt’s Salems, musing that this butt was from the very pack that had finally killed her.  He looked at the fuming cigarette, thinking he’d never had a Salem. Burn little witches, curse us from the pyre.   He was a little mad at himself, hardly able to believe he was really holding one again.  He’d had a hard time lighting it, partially because of reluctance to commit to wrecking almost a decade’s clean record, but mostly because his fingers were shaking so badly.  The cigarette and the shakes were there because he was now faced with an even bigger, steeper, icier mountain than the bastard he’d just skied back down.


            He had to open a door.


            Christ, how was he going to do it?  He’d been in her house an hour already and he hadn’t even worked up the nerve to look at the damn door yet.  He’d just been moping, listening, building even more fear when he already had plenty.


            It was just down the hall, there, right through the living room.   He hadn’t been here in decades but he knew exactly where it was.  He’d dreamed about it enough times.   This was a small house, the door wouldn’t be more than a dozen steps away, but damn if he felt able to take them.


            He’d have to walk down that hall soon, though, to get to the bathroom.  The need to piss had been getting worse since he’d pulled up outside, but he’d been holding it in, afraid to get that close to the door he was going to have to open anyway.  It’s what he’d driven three hours to do, after all.  But now that he was here it seemed okay to take a few more hours.  As long as there was still plenty of time before dark.  Yeah, he was not gonna be here after dark, for sure.  He would NOT be in the dark with it.  Him.


            Just get it over with, he told himself.  You’re making it worse, smoker.


            If nothing else, he should at least be brave enough to visit the bathroom.  Getting a urinary tract infection wasn’t going to help anything.  Or, hey, be a coward and step outside and water the honeysuckle.  There sure was enough of it to give him all the privacy he needed, even if there’d been any neighbors around, which there weren’t.  There were few houses around here and they all looked empty, lawns unmowed, that lonely kicked-around-dog look unloved houses get.  He’d passed one house he remembered a hundred yards up the road but it was just a chimney in the woods now, the rest burned.  There were vague memories of the old guy who’d lived there, a bald skinny horsey-toothed jovial fella on a lawnmower and wearing a lady’s gardening hat who’d given him little bags of Red Hots when he was a kid.  Probably had them around for making stewed cinnamon apples, a lot of people did.  He'd been a nice old guy and Jack hoped he hadn’t died in the fire, although by now he was bound to be dead of something.


            Too bad that fire didn’t happen here; a thought that came with an instant pang of guilt for thinking it, but hung.  If Aunt Dorothy were going to die from cigarettes, it might have been better if it came from smoking in bed and just taken the whole house down, spared him this nightmare.  As long as she didn’t suffer.  Maybe have her heart attack, drop the cigarette…


            But it hadn’t happened that way so there was no point in fantasizing about it, it was just more avoidance of duty.


            The place would have gone up like a bonfire, though, if it had only been given the chance.  Jack had been shocked by the decrepit state of it all.  In his memories from childhood this had been such a neat little house.  His mother was a terrible housekeeper and it must have been because when they were kids Dorothy never gave her a chance to practice.  Whenever he visited this place as a kid it was like stepping into a magazine.  Good Housekeeping, not Architectural Digest;  they never had anything fancy, all cheap furniture from the glory days of plastic, but it was all kept immaculately.   Mom would sneer that it was because Dorothy went crazy cleaning up for their visits and most of the year her house probably looked like theirs, but that was Mom’s sour old jealousy again.  Mom had always been jealous of her sister, up until Claude was born and nobody’d ever be jealous of her again.  Claude’s birthday, and Poor Dorothy’s.


            That must’ve been the last time the house was maintained.  The paint looked scoured off the boards outside but what was left was still that dark blue he remembered from childhood, something you might paint a crab shack but not a house.  If she’d ever gotten it repainted, surely she’d have picked something else. 


            He’d stepped on pieces of rotten trim that had fallen off, and a sill from a window, more sponge now than board.  Honeysuckle, sugaring the air, making each breath deceptively sweet, had devoured the back of the house like a crashing wave in a very slow ocean that would eventually drown everything.   And the ceiling in the living room was freckled with brown water stains from a roof starting to leak.  The busy kerchief-on-her-head, dustrag-in-her-hand, always-teasingly-shoving-him-aside-to-vacuum Aunt Dot he’d known would never stand for that.  Not unless bearing it had become easier than having people come around to make repairs.


            Because you had a seeeeee-cret.


            That was what the deal was.  She hadn’t wanted people coming around.  It was because of that thing in that room that was making him shake so badly he couldn’t build up a decent ash on the cigarette.  The floor around him was littered with them like snow; old-school Aunt Dot would’ve had a fit. 


            The Salem was done anyway, so he stubbed it in the ashtray.  The need to piss was turning into actual pain so he said the hell with it and headed toward the bathroom. 


            He pointedly didn’t look toward that door, just angled through the gloom, stepped into the bathroom.  He knew right where it was, as it was the site of a landmark bad childhood memory – puking violently after getting too greedy for spiced peaches one Thanksgiving – and a landmark happy one – it was where he’d read his first Jonah Hex comic book.   He flipped on the light, lifted the lid, unzipped, wrangled out, and started.  Standing there draining he had plenty of time to assess the bathroom.  Aunt Dot had made some effort to keep it clean, he saw, although it was pretty spare.  Some amber pill bottles, probably for the lung cancer that was supposed to kill her until a heart attack got her first.  God laughs a lot.  Especially at Poor Dorothy.   There was nothing in the way of cosmetics, and that was a lack he’d never seen in a woman’s bathroom.   Aunt Dot had just given up, he supposed, quit caring.  


Nobody was around to see her except Claude, and Claude was certainly in no position to fault anyone for their looks.  Prettier things than Claude had been hauled out of fatal car wrecks.


            Jack’s mind couldn’t even put together a full picture of what Claude might look like now.  There were hazy childhood memories, clinical images, as if from a yellowing case file, and his mind had blocked out some, probably, and likely built up others.  One eye bigger and lower than the other, a tusk, a head that looked melted to one side, those fingers that seemed as long as Jack’s arms.   When he was born, nobody had expected Claude to live more than a few days, much less end up as strong as he had.  Few babies born that biologically compromised survived more than a few hours, if they made it out alive at all, and that was a kindness nature did them.   But Claude… Claude was nature being uncharacteristically mean-spirited.  It must have really hated him to malform him as it had, and then, worse, have him live to bear it.  You didn’t look at Claude and keep believing in a God, at least not a benevolent one.  Whatever formed Claude had been a mad, laughing mean-streaked sonofabitch.


            And as twisted as his body was, lord, his mind was so much worse.  His body was something that stepped out of a funhouse mirror, but his mind was another funhouse mirror image of that.  Gnarled, folded, warped, insane, cruel.  From somewhere else.  Infernal.  He wasn’t just an unfortunate victim of birth defects, blameless and to be loved like any other child.  No, there was something far wrong with Claude.  Raising him with kindness, as he knew Aunt Dot had, had no effect.  Claude had been little more than a toddler the last time Jack had been here but even then he’d been all snickering meanness.   During the days when they still pretended Claude might end up as a person, they’d let him play with Jack.  He’d been chewing up Jack’s plastic army men and when Jack tried to rescue them Claude had pinched Jack really hard with those fingers, long and thin as twigs but strong as pliers.  He’d really locked them on and then imitated Jack’s squeals of pain and laughed so loud that Uncle Jerry – who’d gotten bitten for it, hard enough to bleed – came and pulled Claude off and locked him in his room, where Claude had scratched and screamed, becoming frantic with the desire to continue his tormenting.


            Uncle Jerry.  That was another story.  He remembered Uncle Jerry as a very happy guy back before Claude was born.  Uncle Jerry and Aunt Dot had toured Europe, Asia, even Africa before Claude came along, so the life of stifling isolation afterward was quite a contrast, a death of something.  Any child brings that, of course, but not to such a coffin-lid-slammed-shut degree.  Whenever Jack came to stay with them, Uncle Jerry was always taking him for ice cream, buying him comics (including that Jonah Hex), chasing him around the yard and playing ball with him.  He’d taken him to a little carnival once.  Jack had vague memories of thinking it was a pretty shitty one even at his young age, chipped chunks of plaster on red and blue merry-go-round horses that looked like they’d been gnawed on by something big, which dragged along at the speed of a dying, unmaintained motor.  An anaconda in a glass box that wouldn’t move.  Maybe it was dead.  A quarter’s worth of disappointment, but Uncle Jerry being a sport, making it fun, anyway.  They’d watched movies on the television, and Uncle Jerry stayed up late with him.  They’d watched Sands of Iwo Jima and Fistful of Dollars and Born Losers on the late show, even Curse of Frankenstein, which had been a bit much for Jack at five years old, but Uncle Jerry had made fun of it and wouldn’t let him be scared. 


            Yeah, Uncle Jerry, back when he was a great guy who thought he’d wanted kids.


            Then he’d gotten one, and became Poor Jerry.  A whole new family with the same black birthday.


            He’d toughed it out, stand-up-guy’d it for another six years, then abandoned Dot and Claude and went somewhere and drank himself to death in a couple of years trying to drown the guilt over having done it.  It made him hate himself but even that was easier than to live with Claude.  For a while, anyway.


            Jack finished and zipped up and washed his hands.  How had Aunt Dot borne it, that was the real mystery.  It was understandable that Jerry couldn’t.  There was not only the terror of having Claude in the house, but Jack couldn’t imagine the weirdness of knowing your DNA could possibly produce such a thing.  Into each life a little rain must fall, but Jesus, Jerry and Dorothy needed to build an ark.  And there wasn’t enough wood in the world.


            Jack dried his hands and stood there.  Usually, finishing pissing was a relief.  Not this time.  Now he didn’t want to step out of the bathroom.  Claude’s door was about eight feet away.  He’d have to look at it.


            Look at it, hell, eventually he’d have to open it, and step in there.  He could hear birds tweeting outside, insects buzzing, but it was still going to get dark in a few hours and he wasn’t going to be here then.  No.  In the dark, in a house with Claude?  No.  No sir, no.


            Carefully, like something might be standing on the other side of the door listening, Jack carefully reached out, laid his hand on the bathroom doorknob, tightened, and slowly turned it, pulling the door in.  He peeked out.


            There was Claude’s door.  It still had stickers on it.  He remembered Claude had had some strange fetish for taking the stickers off bananas and collecting them on his door, and neat-freak Aunt Dot had decided it wasn’t worth risking a fight and lord knew Claude wasn’t going to wring much happiness out of this life, so there it was, a massive mosaic of the most banana stickers in the whole world.  Blue vastly outnumbered red; Chiquita was whupping Dole’s ass in the banana wars.   Bananas were very popular in this house, maybe because Claude’s skull wasn’t a great design for chewing.  Then again, he’d done a bang-up job on those army men, so, who knows?  Maybe he just liked them.


            Higher on the door was a hasp and a padlock, so they could keep Claude in his room.


            The hasp hung free, the open padlock dangling from it.


            The hasp.  Hung FREE.  Open padlock.  OPEN.


            Claude’s room, apparently, had been left open.  He could come and go. 


            With ice invading his blood, Jack quickly, quietly went back up the hall, through the living room, back into the kitchen.  He shook out another cigarette and lit it. 


            Jesus, was Claude even in there?  Had Aunt Dot started letting him run loose?  How could she trust him?


            After all the things Dot had written to Jack’s mom about, about how Claude only got worse as he matured, she gave him free range?


            Jack rubbed his arm where Claude had pinched him all those years ago.  It’d left a hematoma like a ping pong ball, gone now, of course, but he’d never forgotten it, or the maniacal joy in Claude’s piss-colored eyes, one up here, one down there, as Jack had screamed.  Just because you couldn’t see or feel it didn’t mean there wasn’t a scar.  There was nothing more horrifying than Claude, nothing, and Aunt Dot left the fucking lock open?


            Puffing the cigarette, Jack searched the cabinets for booze.  He’d had a cigarette problem, also an even worse drinking problem (only four years free of that one, it being a bigger-icier-steeper mountain), but now seemed a good time to restart that habit, too.  Strap on the skis, motherfucker, and whoosh.  Jesus Christ, public nightmare number one having run of the place.  Aunt Dot had been insane.


            No booze, but the cabinets were full of pasta.  She sure hadn’t wanted to run out.  Bananas and pasta and your dear aunt’s soul, that’s what horror eats, I guess.  The whole place was a museum of loneliness.  Aunt Dot had Claude but Claude’s company would only make her more lonely, driving away every other kind.   He was like some leech in the back room, feeding, taking everything.


            Aunt Dot had died when Claude was born, really.  It’d just taken over thirty years to settle in.


            The drawers didn’t even have ketchup packets, like every other house in America had.  Hard to go out for fast food and leave Claude alone that long.  Lock someone else in, you’re locked in, too, minding them.  He imagined fast trips to the grocery store, maybe dared once a month or so, a brief respite turned to torment by having to go back home again.   Face that malevolence by yourself for thirty years.  Jesus.  If she’d been crazy, she came by it as honestly as anyone ever had.


            In one drawer he found letters from his mother, birthday cards with his own childish signature on them.  Love you Aunt Dot!  Birthday candles nobody’d ever use.  Her wedding ring, tossed in a kitchen drawer in a knot of old bread twist ties that the ring was being used to bind together.  Wow, I guess that’s what happens to sentiment when a man leaves you with an abomination-baby then escapes guilt with booze-bleared death.  It seemed worse than hate, something not even worth putting energy into.  The sight of that ring made him sadder than anything, except maybe the half of a wishbone she’d saved, the winning half.  He wondered what that was about.  Something from the last time she would ever be lucky?  The punchline to a joke she still had to find hilarious no matter how bitter it was? He’d never know now, there was nobody to ask.  And he’d never really known this Aunt Dot.  These were artifacts of the person who’d replaced her.


            The plates in the sink had holly leaves and berries on them.  Nothing says fuck-you-world-out-there, you-have-nothing-to-do-with-me-anymore than eating off of Christmas plates in July.


            Yeah, Claude’s door had a big lock on it, but Claude, through her obligation to him, was the real captor.  Maybe when she felt the heart attack coming she’d unlocked it.  They’d found her in her car on the side of the road, halfway to the hospital.  She’d escaped.  Maybe Claude had, too.


            What a lonely, depressing place, in a sorrowful stretch of country.  On the drive in he’d passed enough memorials to drunken car wreck victims to recreate Bellingrath Gardens in plastic.   Far more “I Don’t Call 911” signs with a gun on ‘em than welcome mats.  If you’re going to have a psychotic freak hidden away in your house, it’s lucky to live in a place where nobody loves anybody, anyway.  Loneliness must be easier when the environment presents no alternative.


            He wished he’d called her more, at least.   The last time he’d talked to Aunt Dot – and that’d been years – her lungs were already so bad that even on the phone she’d rattled like she had a chest full of dead leaves.  How had she gone on so long?  Duty?  Unkind periods of remission that only prolonged, not saved.


            He could see why she hadn’t quit smoking.  “You mean these things are killing me?  I’ll add a pack a day, then!”   Poor woman.  He just wished she drank, too, but she hadn’t rounded the bases with her vices.  Guess if you’ve got to live with someone who might attack you you’d want to keep your wits about you.


            And that someone might – or might not – still be in that back bedroom.


            Jack leaned on the sink and listened hard, trying to hear any movement.  Outside the birds sang and the air conditioner unit throbbed with a whine like an idiot forever blowing the same note on a harmonica.  Even if you didn’t start out crazy, that’d send you there.  But there was nothing else.


            He’d have to go down the hall and listen at the door.


            Or he could leave.  Make up a story to tell his mother and just leave.


            If he thought he could get away with it, he would, but he knew sooner or later, his mother would find out that he’d lied and she’d really think he was nothing.  Jack was Cajun on his mother’s side and she was already disappointed in him beyond all reason because he was the first in the family not to be able to speak French.  She was also disappointed in him for other reasons, having several to choose from.  For one, his marriage to Gail had been a disaster, such a disaster that he still wore his wedding ring, not because he couldn’t let go of the relationship but because wearing it was armor plate against starting another one.  Sometimes he thought he’d married her only because drinking alone seemed creepy.  His daughter Amber was absolutely indifferent to him and that had cheated his mother out of a grandchild.  He didn’t have the best job, either… but somehow she always focused on the French, maybe thinking that was one thing she could still bully him into changing.


            Her bullying didn’t work for that – he still saw absolutely zero use in French – but it worked for checking on Claude.  Guilt, that gun everyone puts to their own head and shoves.  He kept hearing the hammer clicking, and the live shell was behind that door down the hall.


            The fact is, he was doing this because he knew if he didn’t, his mom would nag his increasingly frail father to take her here so she could do it herself, and Jack could not – would not – let them face Claude.  He wasn’t up to it himself, and his father was well into his sixties, his mother almost there.  If Claude didn’t outright kill them, he’d take years off their lives.


            He’s taking years off mine, Jack thought, but I have more to spare.


            He wanted to panic.  Even in adulthood he still had reoccurring nightmares about Claude.  It wasn’t the way he looked – it was easy to forgive a thing like that – it was the way he was.  His soul was in there like a worm in an apple.  It had been apparent even in toddlerhood.  From Mother’s correspondence with Dorothy, it had only gotten worse with time.  Claude was intelligent, and used his intelligence to increase his evil.


            Once, as a kid, Jack had asked his mother if Claude was the Devil.  Mom had gotten very embarrassed and said that wasn’t a nice thing to say.


            But she hadn’t said no.


            He stared at the darkness of the hall and wondered if it’d be better if Claude just came out to him.  Any second that form, twisted like an old haunted tree, might float up from that darkness like a ripened drowning victim, pale and staring from uphere-downthere and smile a funhouse mirror’s smile and say hey cousin Jack, wanna play ARMYMEN?


            Could Claude even communicate?   His mother said he was capable, at least with Dorothy, but all they had to go on was secondhand information filtered through his aunt.  Mother believed Claude would be sensible and reasonable enough to converse with, to discuss his new situation and make some kind of arrangements for his continued living, make decisions about what he wanted to do.  He was a toddler when you knew him, Jack, he’s a man now.  Impaired people grow, too.


            Jack felt Mother was overly optimistic, and doubted Claude’s mouth could even form speech.  He’d argued that they should just call the cops and send them on a concern check, let them work out what to do with Claude.  But Mother said Claude was family and deserved to have his wishes heard by family.  And if those wishes were unreasonable then the authorities would do what they do.  And Jack hoped maybe that’s how it’d go.  Maybe Claude had grown into a rational person.  Maybe even a nice one.


            But of course he hadn’t.  That’s why he was kept secret.  That’s why there was still a padlock on that door.  Hell, even though it was open now, there was its key, by the wall phone on a little hook, with a plastic tag, CLAUDE in Aunt Dot’s curlycue handwriting from I love you Jack! on  all the birthday and Christmas cards.


            Reasonable people who can be talked to don’t have their nametags on padlock keys.  That’s gotta be a rule of the universe.


            “Just open the door, Jack,” he whispered into the rasp of bugs and the whine of the air conditioner unit.  “Find out.”


            He could hear his own heart as he walked down the hallway, but he was walking.  It was like someone else was doing the moving and he was a passenger inside, but he was moving, he was doing it.  And then he felt banana stickers under his palm like the scaly hide of some beast and everything inside of him was being squeezed.


            His cheek pressed to the scaly hide and he listened.


            Muttering.  Something in there, talking low.


            Laughter.  Music.  A television, he realized, turned down very low, mumbling through a commercial.


            He held the knob and his heart drowned the TV noise.  He turned the knob.  Carefully, carefully, he pushed.


            There was blue-silver light in the room but not much of it.  Clutter was everywhere, filling the place, and a trapped sour stench of breath and sweat and worse.  They’d boarded up Claude’s windows, of course, like one did with everyone with whom one could have a reasonable conversation about their future plans after the death of nearly the only person they’d ever known.  Strung around the room were Christmas lights, forming absurd constellations, tacked and taped in madman’s geometry, a glowing web.  There was junk everywhere, dolls, big homemade and twisted scarecrow things.  A gnawed rubber baby glared at him from a chair, much abused.  Another three hung from the ceiling, things done to malform them, to make them not look so much like people.  Drawings covered the walls like pictographs.


            This was INSANE.


            He should shut this door, run to the car, drive away, call the cops from the road and let them come and do what they were going to end up doing anyway.  There was no one in here with whom he could have any kind of discussion.


            But there was someone in here.


            Draped with a blanket, it was sitting on the bed, the television’s flicker playing over it like a light show, revealing it and hiding it again.  The television made cartoon noises that just made the craziness of doing this even more absurd.  FA-DOINK!  BOING!


            The blanketed thing shivered.


            “Claude?”  Jack tried to say, but it was a rustle of breeze through a rotten cornfield, nothing.  He couldn’t talk.  He waved slowly.  Claude would be afraid, too, he realized.  Even a sane person would feel strange meeting someone new after nearly thirty years of only seeing one.  And Claude was, it was clear, not even remotely sane.


            Jack cleared his constricted throat and the shape on the bed dropped into a crouch.  It crawled to the side and mewled.  The blanket slid back and Jack saw waxy-white deformity and a shag of long black hair and it thumped onto the other side of the bed, plump and soft, and made snuffling sounds of pathetic fear.


            Jack stood, waiting, seeing his pulse in his vision.  There was no way, no way, he was going around that bed.  Claude would feel cornered… already did feel cornered.  The TV went to a dark scene and Jack forgot to breathe.


            “It… it’s okay, I’m your cousin… juh-Jack,” he managed to croak.  The screen lightened again, red, then green.


            Hairiness poked up over the edge of the bed, and they stared at each other as seconds dragged by.  The cartoon came to a brighter scene and Jack clearly saw eyes gleaming at him amidst the hair, shiny black eyes like huge drops of ink, spidereyes the size of golf balls, blinking rapidly.


            There were three of them.


            Jack wanted to scream.  Claude’s eyes were horribly mismatched but there were only two of them.  Hands came up to the edge of the bed, stubby ones, little more than mittens of flesh, while Jack knew very well that Claude’s fingers were long, freakishly long, like twigs on a winter branch.


            This was not Claude.


            This was… his child?


            Oh god.  What had Claude done to Aunt Dot?  Had he… or had she gotten so lonely, so deranged with it, that she…?


            Their offspring mewled, a horrible raspy cry of fear.


            And with a wheezing roar Claude burst out of a side door – the bathroom, of course there must be one – and he filled the room.


            Jack threw himself backward and fell and crawled through soured laundry and cardboard boxes and rattling cans as winterbranch fingers sought him, raked him, trying to grab but being kicked away.  Jack scrambled frantically toward the doorway as plierfingers nipped a piece from his leg, then brushed his face, seeking eyes.


            Claude had gotten BIG, a thin, spidery, spread-everywhere big.  He loomed, face all in darkness, a hairy shadow with gleaming wet parts in it, and his breath rattled as it navigated features not made for living.  It sounded like an accordion, wheeze-WHEEZE, then angry mumbling slurps.  The gabble was probably English but Jack hadn’t been trained to understand the deformed noises made by that ruinous mouth, so it sounded like someone shouting in their sleep.


            “Stay away from me STAYAWAYFROMMEEEE!” Jack yelled, kicking at long hands and bone-thin wire-strong arms, making it on all fours and diving through the door, and a gnarled veiny white hand slapped down after him, and he slammed the door and pressed himself against it as Claude battered the other side, raking it, wheeze-roaring.  In the background the offspring bawled like a tortured lamb.


            “Oh god, oh GOD!” Jack whispered, fumbling for the padlock.  Claude slammed himself at the door and pushed it half open before Jack threw himself against it to keep it closed.  The hasp didn’t want to fit.  As he fumbled the padlock nearly closed itself and terror shot through Jack because if that locked before he got it in place, then that’d be the end.  Claude would come out, he’d be dragged back into that flickering den, and he’d find out how long it took to die by pliers.   Fingernails thick as horn tore at the door, and they’d trail through his flesh like twigs through water.  And Claude, he knew, would laugh as he picked Jack’s bones clean.


            The hasp slapped over its eyelet and Jack’s shaking hands hooked the padlock in place, and he stared at the lock before he clicked it shut, making sure before he snapped it.


            Relief flooded him and he breathed again.  Claude, hearing that padlock snap, knowing what it meant, leaned against the other side of the door and snuffled and wheezed and slurped.  His offspring mewled.  The two conversed in gobbling babble.


            Carefully, still not trusting it wouldn’t be flung open or burst apart, Jack backed away from the door.  His mind still would not encompass what must have gone on in this house between Claude and Aunt Dot.  Two scenarios, both nightmarish.


            Unless, perhaps, there’d somehow been some other woman involved?  Some captive?  God, that might be even worse.  And more impossible.  Poor Dorothy would never let that happen, even if she allowed the other.


            Jack ran to his car, blindly drove through the honeysuckle and twittering birds, and was over fifty miles away before he even thought of calling the police.


            By the time they got there Claude had already burned the house down.  The two charred skeletons they dug from the ashes looked less like human remains than twisted driftwood washed up on a  beach in a dream.






                                                                                    THE END


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