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Short Fiction

For the first time since she’d started routinely storming out of the house to go God knows where, I was going to let her go without a fight. I’d turned a corner from my unending groveling. I’d done what I could, it hadn’t been enough, and so be it. I’d had enough of Cheryl Ursula Trenton.

Fingers steepled, eyes still trained dutifully on the newspaper in my lap, I listened to the magnificent noises of her departure. The unfurling of her coat and then the rustle as she draped it around her shoulders. The tumbling of boxes in the coat closet (they must’ve gotten in her way, or, more accurately, she in theirs). The fluttering, jingling keys. It seemed for a moment that her exit would be forever delayed by these intermediate preparations and annoyances. Then it came. The door swept open.

But though I expected to hear the predictable slam, followed perhaps by her heavy-footed descent down and across the walk, I heard her instead say, quietly: “Dave … there’s someone out there. Someone’s here.”

Only a moment ago I had been struggling to stay put and let her leave–an attempt, admittedly, to purge myself of whatever filthy residue still remained of my love for that wench. Now that quivering, gelatinous resolve had curdled and solidified, and I found myself angry that she was finding reasons not to leave. It was fitting that the exact moment I’d found the nerve to let her go, she’d found an excuse to stick around. I came out of the study and down the hall to where she stood, cowering ever-so-dramatically by the front door.

“Who’s here?” I asked. We never had visitors on Mabel’s Ridge. None of our West Coast friends dared come so far east, and none of our East Coast friends came this close to the mountains. We had to drive fifteen miles to a post office box if we even wanted to pick up the day’s mail.

She had to be either making things up or imagining something, and I was sure the difference was semantics.

I’d already formed the sentence, There’s no one out there–had it poised in the back of my throat in the same way Cheryl had that door poised to slam–when I looked out and saw that there was, in fact, someone there.

There was someone standing in the rain at the far end of our front walk.

From where we were, it wasn’t clear whether the stranger was male or female. An umbrella shielded the person’s head from both sight and a fine, misting precipitation. It was then that I noticed –

“Dave … how is he holding that umbrella?”

— Something very strange: our visitor’s arms hung straight down, the sleeves of the unremarkable tan overcoat smooth and unbent. The umbrella’s black shaft rose from somewhere behind the silent individual, who had started to tentatively approach us. The shadowed head beneath the umbrella’s canopy brewed a vaporous grin. It came into focus and dragged the rest of the face with it as the person neared the front steps.

The man licked his lips with a quick flick of the tongue. “Is this the house that’s up for sale?” he asked. “I heard this house was for sale.”

“Not this one,” I said. “You must have made a mistake.”

“They said Mabel’s Ridge. Not many homes like this on Mabel’s Ridge.” He peered over my shoulder into the hallway. “Can I take a look inside?”

“Look, this house isn’t for sale, all right?” Cheryl said. “Do you see a goddamned sign out front?”

“Well, no, but … Even so,” he said. His tongue shot back over his lips. I was reminded of a lizard. “You think I could get a drink of water? I feel like I’ve been walking forever. I’m a bit parched.”

“You’re parched? But it’s – ”

“Come on in,” I said. “If there’s one thing we never lack here, it’s refreshing beverages.”

I took the door from Cheryl and opened it wider. The man began to come forward but stopped. He looked at us sheepishly. Then he nodded to the umbrella behind him.

“Ah, I have this problem … Do you think you could …?”

“The umbrella?” I asked.

He nodded. He raised his coat sleeves. There were no hands to speak of, it seemed; the cuffs were gaping, empty. I might’ve seen something deeper within, but I could be trying to give myself too much credit in light of what was to come.

“No hands,” he said.

“No problem,” I replied. I grabbed the umbrella’s shaft and lifted it smoothly out from the collar of his coat. I shook the precipitation off as the stranger stepped into the house.

He smiled at Cheryl and stood still, waiting for something.

“What?” she barked.

“My coat,” he said. “I could use a little help getting it off.”

“You want me to take your coat off?”

“Could you, sweetheart? That would be a big help.”

With all the tenderness of an airport strip search, Cheryl yanked the coat from our guest’s limbs. She hung it carelessly on the coatrack, it fell, she hung it again, and only then did she finally turn to see what I was already openly gaping at:

The man’s arms – well, what should have been his arms – were two pulpish columns, not unlike freakish mammoth-sized sausages. Thick veins wrapped around four lumpy globes that only on second glance (after the shock of revulsion had abated the slight degree necessary to allow in more detail) revealed themselves to be four misshapen human heads.

One slept.

One looked bored and barely took notice.

One looked around at all of us as if awaking to a joyous, summer morning.

The fourth face strained, its eyes bulging, its face florid and sweaty, trying to say something, but what that something was I couldn’t tell; all four mouths had been sealed with exactly the same size rectangle of duct tape.

“Yes, I know,” the stranger said, his voice flat. “They’re quite a sight. I get it all the time. Mostly, I try not to let them be seen. People never know how to react.”

That much was certainly true.

He looked down at the faces. The eager one – the one on his upper right appendage – looked back at him. I thought I saw it smile behind its sealed face. The man smiled and looked lovingly into its mutant eyes.

“But no one ever sees what I see,” he said, stroking the side of the face. “How beautiful they are.” He looked back up at me. “How could you live with yourself if you’d so much as thought about amputating such things? Tell me that.”

I shook my head. “No … I’m sure I don’t know. Cheryl, about that water, huh?”

“Sure,” she said, seeming happy to have an excuse to leave the room. My stranger and I took our places in the living room. I offered what I hoped was a welcoming, not-too-horrified smile.

“So I’m Dave. That was Cheryl,” I said. “What’s your name? Where you from?”

The man chuckled. “That’s a good one.”

I was still trying to figure out what he meant by that when Cheryl came in with the water. “Here you go,” she said, offering it to him without thinking.

When he didn’t take it, she realized her mistake. “Oh, of course.”

“Just tip it in, that’ll be fine,” he said. He titled his head back and opened his mouth.

This seemed to drive the eager face quite crazy. The maddened head puffed its cheeks. Cheryl poured a bit of the water down the visitor’s gullet.

“More?”

He nodded.

She poured more. And more. And more. Until the glass was empty.

“Well,” he said. “That was quite refreshing. Quite refreshing. I thank you. There’s just … one other thing.”

“What’s that?”

He looked down. “They’re thirsty too.”

The happy head nodded.

I had to give it to Cheryl. For someone who had just had her house invaded by a man with four heads dripping out of his shoulder sockets, she seemed quite calm and collected. She gave the glass a small shake and said, “Well, then, I suppose I’ll be right back, won’t I?” Then she turned to me, a bright smile on her face even if her eyes hid the injustice she was truly feeling, and said, “I guess that means you’ll have to peel the tape of their mouths, doesn’t it?” Then she was gone, off to the kitchen, leaving me with the foul monster on our sofa.

I grinned like a fool for a frenzied second before I gave chase, hastily excusing myself from the room with a wordless nod.

I found Cheryl staring at the tap, breathing deeply. “What the hell is that guy?” I said.

She turned on me so quickly I almost expected to see fangs. “Oh, cut it out. I’m so sick of your needling little duplicitous ignorance! As if you don’t know!”

“But I don’t know.”

“Oh yeah? Then kick him out.”

“You think I don’t plan to? After he gets his drink, off he goes.”

“As if you didn’t have any control. You brought this on us.”

“That’s not true.”

“You let him in here.”

“Cheryl.”

“I want him out! I’m sick of your fucking games. I’m sick of all this.”

“Cheryl, I – ”

“No! Shut up. You won’t get him out. I know you. You’ll let him walk all over us, like you let me walk all over you. Yeah. Go ahead. Deny it. Things never change, do they, Dave? Things never fucking change.”

She filled the glass and left me standing quite dumbstruck in the kitchen. I went back into the living room, where I found her slumped in my chair. The stranger only had eyes for the glass of water which now sat on a coaster on the coffee table. I saw it, saw Cheryl had no more plans to help me that night, and I knew what had to be done. Just do this, I told myself, and then you can ask him to leave. Just get him this last drink of water.

“Let’s get those strips of tape off, huh?” I said. I looked at the faces. “Who wants to go first?”

At least, that had an easy answer. The happy face could not be denied.

“Looks like it’s you,” I said, and stripped the tape off its mouth.

I couldn’t tell you now what exactly it was I expected, because the memory of what happened after I tore the tape off is so ingrained in my head: all the excitement, all the eagerness vanished. It turned into the face of a thirsty person, in need of a drink and only a drink. I gave it a sip of water, and that was it. Where I expected a torrent of shouts and screams, I got not even a whispered murmur.

“Oh, you’ve done him a good service, my friend, yes you have,” the stranger said. “But you’d better hurry up. I think this guy’s about to burst his bubble.”

I met the eyes of the angry face. This was the moment I feared the most. This one, with its hatred, with its mockery, with its viciousness so wisely held back; who wanted to risk letting filth like that loose? Not me. But if it was the only way I was going to get rid of this loathsome man …

I ripped the tape off, the face snarled, and then went as quiet as the last. I gave it its drink, pulled the tape off the third. Three heads, all the same bland reaction.

“I thought you said they were going to be rowdy,” I said to the man.

He shrugged. “Don’t ask me. Guess they’ve got minds of their own.”

Yeah, I thought. Of course they do. But to look at them, you would almost think that they’d been versions of the stranger’s own face, digested and shit out the other end. There was his nose, bent a thumbnail’s distance from the bridge of his eyes. There the cleft chin. The pock marks. Even the crow’s feet and the laugh lines looked like bastardizations of the man himself.

I wasn’t thinking much at all was going to happen when I stripped the tape off the last face. It had been sleeping the whole time, and it continued to sleep even when it was finally freed to say whatever it wanted to.

“Hey, you thirsty?” I asked it.

“He is, don’t you worry. Just slap him in the face a little. He’ll wake up.”

Cheryl said from her chair: “Dave: don’t do it.”

“Huh?”

“I said don’t. Not that you’ll listen to me. You’ve never listened to me.”

I shook my head. Everyone was talking in riddles. I slapped the sleeping head. “Come on. Wake up, buddy. Have a little – ”

“BWAHHHHH!”

The face gaped at me, its eyes wide and milky-white, its mouth gaping open, a chill wind pouring from its throat, and this is what that wind said to me:

*     *     *

I’m coming home one night. The lights are off. Cheryl is somewhere, god knows where, I think she said it was a play of some kind. I’m thinking, “Maybe I’ll have a beer …”

I open the door. Kick off my shoes. Look for the mail but I can’t find it anywhere. I go to the bathroom, take a leak, and head to the bedroom to change out of my work clothes. I always love this change of clothes at the end of the day. It separates me from a life I never liked. A life of being boring office guy, with my papers, my pens, my computer, my fucking tie.

I turn on the light in the bedroom and start to change. I have my shirt off before I notice that there’s a strange lump in my bed. A human-sized lump. I pause to think about this – or, rather, I pause to not-think about it, because I suddenly can’t think. I can’t make sense of this.

And then I hear someone’s muffled chuckle.

“Just do it already,” the muffled voice says. It comes from beneath the blanket. It’s a woman’s voice. A voice I know well.

I pull back the sheet. Cheryl laughs, exposed, completely naked on the bed. She smiles at me and says, “Hi, honey. How was your day?”

I’m about to – to – who knows, ask her, What the hell, Cheryl? when a knife is plunged into my naked back, and I turn to see the completion of this triumvirate: a naked man, holding the knife, his erection still lively, still snug in a condom.

“Sorry, pal,” the man says. “We meant to do this later. Only here today to plan it out, but one thing always leads to another, eh?”

And I don’t get it. I don’t believe it. It’s all so weird. I drop to the floor and he stabs me again. And again. Until the glass is empty.

*     *     *

The glass was empty. I was back in the living room. Looking at a sleeping face.

“That ought to do it,” said the stranger, smiling. He stood up and stretched the heads. I looked to Cheryl.

“How could you?” I asked.

“Oh, enough,” she said. “I get it. You’re pissed. Get over it!”

“I loved you.”

“Loser.”

“But I did. I still do.”

But the stranger moved in. He headed for Cheryl. The heads – all but the one sleeping – became more excited about everything.

“If you love me, call him off.”

“But I don’t – ”

“Yes, you do, Dave. You always have. Oh, Christ. Here we go, huh? Fine. Come on, you fuck,” she said as the man closed in. She kicked and fought momentarily, but he wrapped his heads around her, and the fighting stopped. She started to wail. She wailed for me to make him stop. To call him off.

But I had no power. How would I have had power over this?

*     *     *

I sit in my study as dawn breaks. The stranger has long since left. He took Cheryl – what was left of her – with him. Already my memory of last night is thinning, like a fog burning off in the morning sun. But in this short space of time, I know everything. I know how she’ll stumble back, hungry and cold, because there is nothing out there. There is nothing else out there but Mabel’s Ridge. There’s not even a post office box to go to to pick up the day’s supermarket fliers. She’ll come back, and I’ll be so happy to see her after all the terror and fear that I’ll forget everything. I’ll remember only that we love each other.

Or, at least, that I love her. And I can forgive anything – anything – so long as she sticks around one more day.

I’ll go to the door to let her in, and once she’s safe inside I’ll close it behind her, locking out the madness of the Ridge. And there, in the glass of a small window set in the middle of the door, I will see my reflection. And it’ll have a lot in common with those four, hideous faces. It’ll have a lot in common with what’s to come later tonight. And tomorrow night. And the night after that. And the night after that.

Until the glass is empty.