The inimitable Mr. Joel Golby updated his Tiny Little Love Stories earlier this week, featuring two more guest posts by Yours Truly, plus a bunch by other fine fellows. Check it out!
When the zombie apocalypse finally happened
we were so primed for it, culturally speaking
that it almost didn’t happen at all.
At last all the truths universally acknowledged
all the rules of what to shoot and sever
all the jokes and Jane Austen mash-ups meant something.
We’d memorized our escape routes
and plans for barricades
long in advance.
We knew the best way to break a broom handle
and how to stab upward, through the jaw and cranium.
We knew to never turn our backs on the corpse’s corpse.
Years of daily dead-eyed aggression
were unleashed explosively
as we took down our families
our friends and our lovers
and though they were no longer those things
we pretended they were.
Still, in time, there was no denying it
was all over. Then we shuffled back to what we knew
home or office or school, and we
did what we had always done. Old habits
and manners fell back into place
like missing organs.
Now a new viral media craze
has come on so gradually
that we hardly know when it began.
In a recent hit film
a group of surviving scientists
concocts a cure and comes
to overturn our way of life
or rather the thing we have
which approximates it.
One half the world cannot understand
the guilty pleasures of the other
and we admit the premise is ludicrous, yet
now we’re going through all the old Jane Austen
and adding more chapters about the human characters.
My pal Joel Golby has a tumblr called Tiny Little Love Stories where he posts microfiction, which is to say, love stories, which are tiny. To celebrate Valentine’s Day me and several others have guest written some of the many stories posted there today! You should definitely go read them all, but in case you’re impatient and only want more ME, here are the specific ones concerning Yours Truly:
You who consider yourself enlightened may still yet laugh at me, but I say to you again: the mind of man, in his Troglodyte infancy, has never dared to imagine the terror I experienced during my two days and three nights wandering the foetid catacombs of the local convention center.
At every turn a new grotesque assailed my eyes: from shimmering diaphanous wraiths with silver hair, to abnormally corpulent beings whose very bodies seemed unnaturally imbricated in the bounds of our sublunary space, and also their homemade Sailor Moon outfits. My relief at spotting, in the undulating mass of terror, a pair of fuzzy cat ears turned quickly to extremest nausea when I saw they belonged not to a cute little kitty but a squamous youth protesting loudly to the price of a certain table’s merch.
I retreated to the balcony to recompose and it seemed, for a moment, as if a noxious cloud hovered over the entirety of that hideous scene, a condensation nearly visible in its dank iridescence. The cries of those foul creatures echoed up the columned walls, ululating cries for such incomprehensible entities as “huggles” and “glomps” — and even, in some tenebrous corners, were the hushed, mad whispers of “yiff!”
“Eh, you must be a stranger in these parts,” murmured a voice to my side and, turning, I saw a slight, yellowed old man who by his attire I recognised as a custodian. “Happens every year. Olways a young man not much dif’rent than yeself shows up to this here convention, not knowin’ what he’s in fahr.” His eyes regarded me with a lizardlike intelligence that inspired in the pit of my being a wordless unease. “‘T ain’t so bad onct yer used ta it,” the custodian continued. “I’m rememborin’ way back in Ninety-Eight when we began hostin’ this deal…. Wal, Sir, you can believe thar was a lot o’ outcry at the noise an’ the mess. I was one o’ them! But after some years had gone by and by ye start to git used to perty much anythin’, ye reckon.” He chuckled loathsomely.
“Anyhaow,” he said, shaking the leathery head when he saw my horror was not assuaged, “what it was fer me, was I seen ’em at their meals. This stuff called… ah, ah, Pocky, ye ken? Can’t tell ye ‘zactly whut makes it whut it is… a kinda… cookie dipped in… dipped in whatever one might imagine, d’ye see? An’ I saw ’em with it, monchin’ and snarfin and snackin’ and I jus’…. got a cravin’…. Queer haow a cravin’ gets ahold on ye, eh boy…?”
My mind pushed to the very limits of exertion, I made to flee for good. Yet the convention center maps, posted to the walls like horrid, unremembered glyphs, are all but unreadable and after more than one wrong turn I realised I had furtively stumbled into the very nexus of that maelstrom: the Screening Room.
That thing — that terrible unnameable thing — towered above me, projected through the fuliginous aether of that room to proportions unnatural, though it was dimly and reluctantly understood that even unprojected it was a being wholly disproportionate to any known body: its eyes hovered like gibbous moons, iridescent like pools of ichor suspended whole, against the natural laws of physics, in a malformed skull, while about it splayed in non-Euclidean angles, in a shade of the most decadent purple, structures that might have been in some perverse evolutionary perspective homologous to hair. Before I could leave the room that thing began to gambol, to the amusement of its wretched audience, and began to gibber in its alien tongue: “Onii-chan! Onii-chan! Itai!!!”
And then came the tentacles.
The world was saddened today to learn of the loss of author Cormac McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy lived a long life and anticipated his own passing some time ago, and thus wrote his own obituary well in advance. It is printed without editorial comment below.
The old man died this week. He was known chiefly in the region as a charlatan who peddled illusions to a people desperate to speak back into the echoes of its own savage past and there scrape up the dried blood on the worn stones of this country’s history. He had white hair and a face dry and cracked like an ancient arroyo scraped into the land by a presence perhaps implied by circumstance but far from tangible and at many points seeming to be a figment altogether.
The old man had read quite a few books and at some point took it to his own mind to produce a few which was hard but honest work and in the end the satanic engines had churned up and down the hillsides devouring the trees to make the paper on which his thoughts were printed. His works included Child of God, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. Several were bought by soft men in suits and these men went back to their luxurious cities and they made these stories into talking pictures not entirely to the old man’s taste but it happened regardless, inevitable like the onrushing dark as the sun sinks down into the parched earth and extinguishes the light of gods and reason. On account of one of his books he met the black woman Oprah.
The old man was not always an old man but was once a child. He was a child partly in the East where he was born but the currents of his life dragged him West and his fascination with this place was to become in some ways metonymic with the old man himself. When the old man was a child he once saw a dog beaten to death with a tire-iron by a local rustic and as the child who would become the old man watched the animal’s eyeball stalk and all drip like egg yolk down the cracked skull he thought, One day that will be me, and in the grand design of things he was not far off.
The old man’s favorite song was Always on My Mind but not as you would expect based on his demographics the Willie Nelson version but rather the recording from the 1980s by the Pet Shop Boys. It will be played at his services this Thursday no matter whatever his wife says.
The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.
It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more. Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource. Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.
It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling. On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read. On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.
This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands. You may be surprised at what you find.
I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone. It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project. I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks. Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.
Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem. Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby. After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.
I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.
It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely. I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind. I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment. Of course, all was not lost. I just turned the phone on.
I already mentioned it was a Motorola. It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript. It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard. It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach. Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half). My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.
I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank. The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.
I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious. This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was. That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.
So I set the phone aside, and went about my business. It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen. I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.
I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking. There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off. (I personally hate ringtones.) But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over, that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification. One new text message.
Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message. It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local. The message said
are you home yet?
I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to. I hit send and waited.
I expected a response within at least a few minutes. In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing. But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time. I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.
are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol
Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first. Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?
The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later. I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.
when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?
Still the same number. I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk. Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something. No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.
I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework. It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon. Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.
Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.
hes been weird since you left
By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me? I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project. Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts. I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.
That still didn’t make any sense.
I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.
i saw lights outside my window are you home yet
I swallowed. It had to be a trick. Someone’s dumb game. Would I be playing into their plans if I called?
Only one way to find out.
I called the number and waited. One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up. “Hello?” came a voice. It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.
“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts. I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”
There was a groan. “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Then she hung up on me.
I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again. It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided. I was getting texts from the woman’s number. I got one just before I called her. There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to. It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.
A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off. But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further. So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes. As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life. I went to bed.
I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next. How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room. That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound. The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.
I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere. I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.
The screen was dark. The light was coming from the other phone. Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.
That was when I caught sight of what the screen said. It was not a call, of course, but a text message. But not just one. The screen said there were now 15 new messages.
I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses. I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly. On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up. 16 new messages.
I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.
im coming now let me in
I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes. As I focused on the screen I noticed two things. The first was that it was past two in the morning. The second was that the battery icon was flashing.
But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant. But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.
Then I was alone in the dark.
I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it. I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.
“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”
“Sure do,” he said. “Lose something?”
I shook my head and showed him the phone. “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said. “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”
“Ninth floor?” said the man. “Thank you very much.” He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.
I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us. It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise. Or recognition. Maybe I had imagined it, I decided. Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.
Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number. I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.
This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.
“Hello?” I asked. I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.
“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice. “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”
I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level. I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.
But I still don’t know what came over me. I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say. I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
And then I hung up.
My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back. I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.
When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.
- On the day my brother and I were to meet our wives I found the aluminum crutches in the attic over the library, and thus was cast backward into memories of our childhood.
- “Ouch!” cried the man in front of the firing squad. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Then he fell to the ground, dead.
- “Is this your first time in the UK?” asked the magician, which was always the question people here asked Sharpe after they’d talked to him long enough to pick up on his accent.
- Ginger Sparkleshine’s eye is three hundred feet wide.
- “Gentlemen,” said the scientist, “we have a situation: Google is haunted.”
- Time is a strange thing — it makes all the difference between a mass murderer and a serial killer.
- Sarah was on her way home from the library when she first realized there was a clown following her.
- Ralph Dutch was born on a sunny summer’s day at the age of eight. The affair was a mess for all involved, particularly Mrs. Dutch, who refused to have children again.
- We were just across the Vermont-Massachusetts border when my sanity began to crumble and these huge lobster-bugs came swooping out of the hills and flying around the car. “Holy hell!” I shouted. “What the fuck are these goddamn things?”
- Rosemarie Ashfield lay in her bed and watched the dust motes back-flip in the blades of light that filtered through the lace curtains. She was not entirely sure what year it was, but she knew that outside on the lawn it had to be 1948.
- Hello my Friend I am writing you about your account in the Auxiliary Christian Bank of Nigeria.
- One morning Martin woke to discover that, much to his dismay, the entirety of his iTunes library had been converted to black metal.
- Elizabeth’s first instinct, when she realized her family’s new apartment was alive, was to let her parents discover and deal with the fact on their own time. But then it ate their cocker spaniel.
- My wife emitted a high, thin whistle much like a tea kettle, and also like a tea kettle, continued to do so until I took her off the stove.
Hey dudes — do you like stories I write??? Do you like spooky Lovecraftian monsters? Do you like Southern Gothic? Then you will probably LOVE my short story “In the Place Where the Tree Falleth”, available in the first issue of Arcane magazine and on sale now!
For the low price of $3 you get an eBook featuring my story as well as several other entertaining weird tales of various tenors and tones, and $8 will net you a hard copy. This is around 40,000 words of material — that’s half a long novel! Or all of a short one! So please, head on over to Arcane and check it out.
A maternal aunt of mine, a very reasonable and down-to-earth woman, told me this story at a family function whose precise nature I now forget. It might not be untrue to say that the extraordinary nature of the events my aunt related were enough to make any other details of the time, place, and situation indistinct. For sake of shedding some light, however contrived, on a tale rife with obscured truths and unknown facts, we may hazard it was Christmas.
My aunt was reminiscing about the early years of marriage to my uncle and happened to remark to me, offhandedly, that she did not recall ever telling me the story of a unique pair of curtains that had come into her possession during that time. I replied that indeed, I had heard no such story — and with the sullen impatience of a young man trapped in the grasp of an older relative, silently hoped she would not feel obliged to tell me since, quite naturally, I assumed a story about curtains was not likely to be exciting by any measure.
Amanda — my aunt — did not heed my wordless wishes and so, without a moment’s hesitation, calmly recounted the story of Grandmother Wilson’s heirloom curtains.
It was, as I have said, Amanda’s early years of marriage to my uncle, Donald. Their daughter, my cousin Victoria, was three years old and growing quickly. Donald’s advances in the law firm where he worked had allowed the couple to purchase the tidy suburban house where they still live today, and they were just finished moving in when Donald received word that his Grandmother Wilson, of the distaff side of his family, had passed away in Utah.
Donald left his wife and young child behind for a week to attend his grandmother’s funeral and, with the help of other family members, sort through the remainder of her belongings. Upon returning he produced for Amanda a pair of large, heavy curtains, off-white in color and patterned in tightly wound forest-green arabesques. It was a doubly fortuitous find: first, because the den of the new home featured a bay window of irregularly large size and Amanda could not find curtains to fit it properly, and second, because the wallpaper of said den was of a pattern and hue not at odds with Donald’s recent prize.
It should come as no shock to the reader, assuming you are acquainted with stories of this nature, that the curtains fit the bay window perfectly; furthermore, as Amanda describes them, they were of such singular, startling character that they brought to the den an unanticipated air of antiquity and taste. Amanda remarked upon the change in the room, asking Donald if the curtains had indeed been hanging in his grandmother’s house and if they engendered a similar atmosphere there.
Donald admitted that the curtains had not been hanging in Grandmother Wilson’s house, but folded away in an attic or crawlspace gathering dust. However, he had distinct memories of the curtains being in his grandmother’s own sitting room when he was a child, and as he recalled they were just as regal then, lording over the expansive room and seeming to make it somehow smaller and denser, like a parlor of a bygone era. At some point in his childhood the curtains were taken down, though he could not say exactly when. Upon rediscovering them in the attic, memories had stirred of Grandmother Wilson telling him many times in the humoring manner of the aged to the young that he, being her only grandson, would inherit everything she owned and, she hoped, one day have the curtains hanging in his home.
Amanda and Donald both understood this as meaning the curtains probably had a much richer history than either could suspect, and decided that they were probably heirlooms passed down from a prior generation. In order to preserve the fabric, Grandmother Wilson had likely put the curtains away in the attic, protecting them from constant exposure to the sun. Both my aunt and uncle agreed that the next course of action should be to find a way of treating the curtains chemically to ensure that they would survive for Victoria, and her children, and so on.
In the meantime, the curtains hung in the irregularly sized bay window of their tidy suburban house.
They had been there perhaps a week, Amanda told me, before one day young Victoria toddled into the kitchen and asked for apple juice. Amanda and Victoria were alone in the house; Donald was at work and Amanda, at this time, was content to stay at home and take care of domestic matters, such as Victoria’s desire for juice. As she was pouring her daughter’s cup, she inquired as to the child’s play activities so far that day.
Victoria described, in her usual precocious manner, of the imagination games she played in the backyard with a handful of neighboring children, whose mothers Amanda was in the process of befriending. Amanda half-listened for most of the monologue, but her attention was grasped sharply by a bizarre mention Victoria made of “the man who lives in the vines.”
Amanda, thinking like a parent, assumed her daughter was speaking of some stranger who had approached her and the other children through the back garden, which featured a trellis of clematis. “What do you mean, the man who lives in the vines?” she asked (I reproduce here their dialogue as I imagine it, a liberty I hope the reader will allow). “Was there a man in the backyard?”
“No,” Victoria said curtly. “Not the vines in the yard. The vines in the other room.”
“The other room?” asked Amanda, handing the apple juice to the child.
Her daughter gestured flippantly toward the den. “There. The vines in there.”
Amanda was accustomed to Victoria’s sudden flights of imagination — it was, after all, the prerogative of children to interlace reality and fantasy — but something about this did not sit easily with her. “What did he do?” my aunt asked.
“Nothing,” Victoria said. “He just hangs in the vines. He’s like a little monkey.” And with that she spoke no more; having drunk her juice she ran outside to play.
Amanda was troubled by this exchange for no reason she could adequately describe. An hour or two afterward, she ventured into the den to see what could stimulate Victoria’s imagination so; it was then she saw the heirloom curtains, and remembered their tightly curled arabesque pattern. Could the child have meant those when she spoke of vines?
Suddenly it all seemed very clear, and my aunt laughed at herself for her small moment of unease. Obviously the pattern on the curtain was not a pure arabesque — as was the pattern of the wallpaper of the den — but of that particular variation which, within its twists and curls of leaf and plant, almost seamlessly entwines distorted figures of animals, so that when looking at it one is surprised by the sudden appearance of, say, a wildly plumed exotic bird or, in this case, a leering monkey. Such phantasmagoria had no doubt inspired her daughter’s imagination.
Satisfied, Amanda returned to her household duties, though she made a mental note to tie the curtains back further in the future because, as they currently hung, the room seemed rather gloomy.
I cannot say how much time passed before Victoria once again came to her mother in the kitchen, this time from watching cartoons in the den at what Amanda was slowly realizing to be an unreasonable volume. “Mommy,” Victoria said, “the man in the vines is being too noisy! I can’t hear the TV!”
“What do you mean?” asked Amanda. Despite herself she was unhappy at the recurrence of this phenomenon. “How is he being too noisy?”
“He just is,” Victoria said irritably. “Make him stop, please?”
“What noise is he making, exactly?” My aunt, I imagine, was beginning to feel a bit curious.
Victoria brightened instantly and, with a wide smile on her face, began to stomp around on the tile floor in her pajamas, hissing and spitting like a riled cat. “Like that!” she said, and for her mother’s benefit, began to repeat the act.
Amanda put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder to still her. “Show me where he is,” she said, “and I’ll make him stop. He’ll listen to me.” Amanda told me that when she said this last part, she was attacked by the grim but groundless suspicion that she was lying to her daughter.
Victoria led Amanda into the den and pointed at the bay window, where the heirloom curtains hung heavily, a whole three feet of space between them and yet still somehow occluding the majority of the outdoor sunshine. Amanda, marshaling her courage, walked to the window and peered out.
It was a nice day; the window looked out on a green expanse of lawn and, a few yards away, the privacy fence of the neighboring house. Between the backs of the curtains and the wall there was not so much as a cobweb. She pulled her head out from the curtains and looked at her daughter. “I’m not seeing him,” she said.
“He went away,” Victoria told her, already turning down the volume on TV.
“Well,” Amanda said, once again starting to feel a bit silly for being so off-put by her daughter’s imagination, “if he comes back, you tell him to shut up. I’m sure he’s more scared of you than you are of him.”
Victoria didn’t respond to that, but instead returned to the couch, where she had left a coloring book, and went to work while the TV played on. Amanda, feeling the room was much too dim, pulled the curtains back further and refastened their ties. She studied the thick, antique fabric as she did so, tracing the loops and whorls of the vine-like arabesques for the bizarre animal shapes she knew were hidden there.
The reader may be unsurprised to learn she did not find a single one, not even an exotic bird, but at the time she assumed she simply wasn’t looking closely enough.
Again an interval of uncertain length passed, during which nothing notable occurred. The young family was pleased with their new house, though my uncle Donald, a light sleeper, often complained that he was awakened in the night by a neighbor’s cat howling. Other than that they were integrating well into the community, and so it happened that one weekend a few of the other young couples and their children from the neighborhood came to my aunt and uncle’s house for a barbecue.
The children had played outside in the late afternoon but as the light fell and mosquitoes worsened they, led by Victoria, ventured inside to take stock of her toys. The adults, for their part, remained outside, smoking, drinking lightly alcoholic cocktails, and hoping someone would eat the rest of whatever food they brought so they would only have an empty dish to take home.
At some point Amanda became aware of the sound of Victoria shouting from inside the house; at first thinking the children were having a serious fight over some toy or another, she shot Donald a bemused look and slowly made her way toward the door. Two things happened then.
First, she became aware of what exactly her daughter was shouting, something like, “Go away! Shut up, go away! I’m not scared of you!” Second, Amanda heard another sound below that, a sound her daughter was not making and could not make, something like the chittering buzz of a cicada.
And then one more thing happened: the children, all of them, began to scream.
Amanda burst into the house, running into the kitchen table and bruising her hip, but she continued straight for the den.
As she entered she saw the children, some dozen of them, standing together in a cluster by the coffee table, all shrieking in utter terror and staring with wide eyes toward the bay window. In the second it took her to turn her head, Amanda saw only the green arabesque curtains, thrust out into the room for a moment and now suddenly falling back in billowing waves to hang straight, as if a gust of wind had abruptly died way.
The other adults, upon hearing the children scream, had followed Amanda and now entered the room behind her, rushing to their still sobbing children. My uncle Donald asked my aunt something to the effect of “What the hell just happened?” but Amanda had not looked away from the curtains.
They had fallen in such a way that they obscured the bay window almost entirely, save a sliver of night that leaked in from the outside. But Amanda was quite certain that the curtains had been tied back earlier in the day, as they always were, and it was as she stepped toward the window to inspect the strips of cloth that served this purpose she saw, glaring at her from the splinter of darkness between the edges of the curtains, what was unmistakably an eye.
In her brief glimpse Amanda insists she could make out not only an eye, but a crescent of bare, greasy forehead (there was no hair), a fat cheek and dimple of nostril, and a section of a thin-lipped mouth overcrowded with jagged yellow teeth. Because of its position only a foot or so above the window’s seat, the owner of that horrible face was either leaning into the house through the window itself or possessed of inhumanly grotesque proportions.
It was the disgust prompted by these notions and the self-preservation inspired by the malice radiating from that terrible face that caused Amanda to reach out and, with a fierce growl, rip the curtains from their rod. Before they had even reached the carpet she began to stomp the fabric, hoping to feel the satisfying crunch of bone beneath her heel, to hear a squeal as something monstrous felt fear.
It was only about a half-minute later she calmed, her stomping on the curtains becoming less forceful, as she realized there was nothing below her feet save old cloth. She saw, through the tears of fear and rage that had come to her eyes, that the bay window was shut tight. With a deep, shuddering breath, she turned back into the room.
Her neighbors stood across from her, their arms clasped protectively around their children; Donald and Victoria were near the front. They all stared at her with white, frightened faces — the children more so than their parents. Amanda suddenly felt vulnerable, standing alone on the ruined curtains, and she kicked them away in distaste, dashing across the room to her daughter and husband.
This seemed to break a spell; the adults began to whisper to one another, to discuss their plans for leaving, and the children did their best to explain to their parents the situation: “It was crawling around in the curtains” — “It kept trying to get me to go to it” — “It said my name!”
Amanda knelt, looking Victoria in the face. “Are you okay, sweetie?” she asked.
“Mommy,” said Victoria earnestly, beginning to regain her composure, “I think you were wrong. I don’t think he was scared of me.”
Though if you were to ask Victoria — Vicky, as she likes to be called — she would deny it. She claims the entire incident never happened or, in the unlikely event it did, she certainly doesn’t remember it. My uncle Donald, for his part, is largely a silent man and apparently has no opinion on the matter. He at least does not discuss it.
My aunt Amanda, who in time overcame the disastrous evening of the barbecue and was accepted back into the fold of the neighborhood where she has now lived for most of her life, tells me she takes solace in the fact that, though the thing in the curtains was not scared of her daughter, it has very good reason now to be scared of her.
Later on — after they had been folded up on the barbecue grill, doused in lighter fluid, reduced to ashes, and scattered to the wind — Amanda made some calls to her husband’s family regarding a pair of heavy antique curtains once owned by Grandmother Wilson. Many recalled them having been in the old woman’s sitting room at a point in the past, but other than that they knew nothing. Finally, though, Amanda came into contact with a slightly senile great-aunt, sister to Grandmother Wilson, who knew not only the curtains, but the method in which they were acquired.
They were found one day many decades past at a flea market in Salt Lake City, an item of utmost quality for an unbelievably low price, and Grandmother Wilson, upon discovering them, immediately made the purchase. She had explained gleefully to the great-aunt (who, as a shopping companion, was jealous at not having spotted the deal herself) her intent to preserve the curtains as best as possible and, in time, ensure their status as a family heirloom. The great-aunt recalled that, after a few years of having them in her house, Grandmother Wilson had taken the curtains down, though she could not recollect why, and she insinuated that, since her sister’s passing, she would be glad to have them herself should they be found among her belongings.
Amanda assured her the curtains were likely lost for good.
The bay window of my aunt’s house is currently dressed with a set of cheap, plain blinds. They are slightly too small, not reaching fully to the edges of the windowpane, and thus let in an excess of light. My aunt is not displeased by this.
Occasionally, though, no more than once or twice every few years, she says she enters the den to find the plastic slats in disarray, as if someone of an ill temperament has hastily lifted them to peer outside. The reader no doubt can guess my aunt’s grim but groundless suspicion: that from time to time, through means unknown and unthinkable, something very ill tempered returns to peer in.