Hellraiser

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 10 novels and 10 short story collections, as well as 1 non-fiction book, and has co-edited 2 anthologies. His work has won both the International Horror Guild Award and the Horror Writers’ Association Bram Stoker Award. He lives in Columbus, OH with his wife, author Lucy A. Snyder, and 5 cats who have no qualms about drawing blood when he forgets to feed them. His upcoming novel from Leisure Books, Coffin County, will be the 7 th novel to be set in his fictional town of Cedar Hill.

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 From A Visitor’s Guide To Cedar Hill; Spencer-Waters Press, January 1969, page 36:

 

“...Old Towne East is considered by many to be the feather in Cedar Hill’s cap. A popular area with both residents and visitors, Old Towne East features perhaps the widest range of our city’s attractions. Here you will find the original site, still open to the public, of the Licking County Pioneer, Historical, and Antiquarian Society (who have since opened a second and larger facility near the Buckingham House after changing their name in 1947 to simply the Licking County Historical Society); there are also art galleries, movie theaters, dancing and nightclubs such as the famous Talley’s Hideaway, restaurants specializing in international cuisine, and countless curiosity shops, to name only a handful of the establishments which have helped garner Old Towne East its glittering reputation. A bronze plaque which hangs by the entrance to the Legend Restaurant and Grille proudly proclaims: “Where Clark Gable ate ‘The best damned broiled steak I’ve ever had!’” Inside the restaurant, diners can see the same words, written by Mr. Gable’s own hand, on a framed photograph showing the movie star standing with the kitchen and managerial staff.

“Such amazing finds are typical of the discoveries waiting for you when you visit Old Towne East, the heart of Cedar Hill culture and nightlife....”

#

On the night of August 14, 1969, most of the citizens of Cedar Hill, Ohio were of the firm opinion that the whole sad-ass world was going to straight to hell on greased rails; it didn’t matter if you listened to Walter Cronkite, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, Eric Sevareid, or even God-bless-him Billy Graham—all the news was lousy: Kissinger and Xuan Thuy were in the middle of Vietnam peace negotiations that were laying goose eggs left and right; members of some psycho-cult led by a guy named Manson had butchered Sharon Tate and three other people in Los Angeles, and then turned around the next night and killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca; the Soviet Union and China were getting into some serious border clashes that everyone just knew was going to end up with bright nuclear mushroom clouds lighting up the Commie skies; British troops had been deployed in Northern Ireland to deal with the violence between the Protestants and Catholics after Jack Lynch eloquently pleaded with the U.N. to get involved; and as if that weren’t enough, as if a decent, church-going, hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying middle-class, just-keeping-their-heads-above-water American still didn’t have enough to make them shake their heads in despair, some farmer named Max Yasgur in Bethel, New York who should’ve known better had agreed to allow a rock festival to take place on his land, and “Woodstock,” as the kids were calling it, had parents and police losing sleep over how it was all going to turn out.

Nosiree, no damned doubt about it; everything was on the verge of being flushed right down the crapper.

And knowing all of this, Charlie Smeds, decorated veteran of WWII and Korea, now night watchman at the Franklin Beaumont Casket Factory in Old Towne East, was still the happiest man in the world.

Because in three days his son Robert was coming home from Vietnam. Yes, okay, right, the boy was now missing his left leg, both Charlie and Ethel had wept more than a few tears after getting that news, but Bobby was by-God alive, he’d made it out—and after that bloody business at the Battle of Hué, his son’s survival qualified in Charlie’s eyes as an indisputable miracle: three under-strength Marine battalions, less than 2500 men, had fought against over 10,000 soldiers from the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong who, still fired up from the Tet Offensive less than a month before, attacked the airbase at Phu Bai where Bobby was stationed. Bobby was injured late in the second week of the battle when a PAVN B-40 rocket was fired into the fuel depot less than fifty yards from the storage shed he and a dozen of his fellow Marines were using for temporary cover; Bobby’d taken some metal in the shoulder and lost partial (and temporary, thank God again for all blessings) use of his right arm, but that didn’t stop Bobby or the other men from fighting their way out. The longest and bloodiest battle of the war so far, and Bobby survived with minor injuries. “I feel like me and the rest of the guys are invincible after getting through that,” he’d written to Charlie and Ethel in his last letter, fourteen months ago. Then added: “Knock wood.”

And after all of that, after surviving one of the most terrible battles of the war—if not the most terrible battle, period—he lost his leg on a routine patrol because he stopped to pet a damn dog and in the process stepped on a landmine. The dog of course emerged uninjured. Charlie imagined that Bobby was going to make a lot of tasteless jokes about that, being a cat-lover like his mom. If he didn’t make the jokes, then Charlie would be obligated to. Bobby would expect nothing less from his old man.

So on this August night, three weeks into the worst drought Central Ohio had experienced in nearly forty years, the temperature finally bottoming out at 87 degrees as Charlie arrived at work at 9 p.m., the rest of the world might be going down the tubes, but Charlie Smeds’ world was as bright and cheerful as a child’s favorite storybook; say, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The Wind in the Willows, or The Story of Ferdinand. A happier man you couldn’t find.

Charlie entered the small but comfortable office that served as his HQ on the west side of the ground floor, turned on the lights, set his lunch pail and thermos of coffee on the desk, checked his pocket watch to make sure the time matched that on the wall clock, and then fired up the ham radio to check in with the Sheriff’s Department. Franklin Beaumont required that all watchmen check in with the Sheriff’s Department every two hours to let them know everything was fine. Charlie had been going through this routine for nearly twenty-five years, and it was now second nature to him—but not something that he took lightly. Too many guys who worked a job like this got careless and sloppy, thought it was okay to sit on their asses and read magazines or listen to music on the radio or catch forty winks or pick their nose to see if anything interesting had gotten lodged up there when they weren’t paying attention. It was too easy to get lazy when you worked alone and unsupervised. But there was no slacking on the job for Charlie—except of course on his dinner break. He rarely took his break at his desk, it felt too lonely, so he went outside, weather permitting, and ate his dinner on the bench facing the corner of Cedar Crest Avenue and East Main, giving him a nice view of the stairs leading up to Talley’s Hideaway; afterward, he’d tamp some tobacco into his pipe and have a nice, relaxing smoke.

But that was for later. Right now, he had a job to do, and Charlie Smeds, grabbing the high-beam flashlight from its hook on the wall, unlocked the office door that led out onto the main floor of the factory and set about the business of making an honest living.

Charlie had his routine down to an art form; first, check that all the stairway doors were locked and secured; next, do a sweep of the front-most area of main floor to make sure all the machinery had been properly shut down at the end of the shift; then it was on to the four elevators used by employees to access the top three floors, checking that the doors were open and the power was off; after that—and this was something Charlie had come up with on his own, much to Mr. Beaumont’s approval—he used the wall-mounted phone in the employee lunch room to dial the numbers of the lunch-room phones on floors #2, #3, and #4 to make certain no one had accidentally gotten him- or herself locked in when the place was shut down for the night (this because a young woman who worked on #3 had one night been sick and in the bathroom when everyone left, securing everything behind them; the doors could only be unlocked from outside, so if for some reason you didn’t make it out with everyone else, you were stuck for the night…as that young woman would have been had not Charlie, on a whim, decided to call the upper floors); the last part of Charlie’s routine involved going into the Display/Sales area of the building, where dozens of caskets were arranged in neat rows for funeral home directors to peruse before placing their orders. The craftsmanship that went into a Beaumont casket was known all over the country, and it wasn’t unusual to have funeral home directors fly up from as far away as California to make purchases.

The building itself was immense, taking up nearly two-thirds of the block, and a single pass from his office to the Display area took Charlie the better part of two hours, giving him just enough time to get back to the office and radio in to the Sheriff’s Department, maybe have a quick cup of coffee or rest his feet for five minutes before starting the whole process once more. Here, there, and back again; lather, rinse, repeat. To watch Charlie Smeds make his rounds, you’d think you were watching a workingman’s ballet, it was so well-choreographed; and on this night, knowing that he was less than seventy-two hours from embracing his son again, Charlie practically did dance through his rounds. He even whistled, something he almost never did on the job.

At one-thirty a.m. Charlie let himself out the door facing Cedar Crest Avenue and took his usual place on the bench. The night was still unbearably hot and dry, but he didn’t mind in the least. He had a nice view of the street, of the darkened clubs and shops and galleries, and—best of all—of the glittering night sky. The stars were out in full force tonight, and as Charlie dug into his enormous meatloaf sandwich on rye—nobody made meatloaf like his Ethel, just one of a thousand reasons he was the luckiest man in the world that she permitted him to be her husband—he watched the stars and remembered all those times that Bobby as a child had talked about being a spaceman, this being a dream born from watching those old science fiction movies that Channel 10 always showed on Saturday afternoons. Charlie wondered if Bobby and the rest of his buddies over in Vietnam had been able to watch last month when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong had done the impossible—set foot on a place other than Earth. Yessir, things weren’t nearly as awful as most folks thought, not if the human race could actually put a man on the moon. Miracles, meatloaf, and starlight were Charlie’s companions on the bench that night, a good woman was waiting for him back home, and his son would soon again be sleeping under the roof of the home where he was born. A man would be a fool to ask for more.

At the top of the stairs leading into Talley’s Hideaway, the door opened and out onto the landing stepped Eugene Talley, son of William “Bill-to-My-Friends-and-Customers” Isaac Talley, who’d opened the doors to his club way back in the 1920s. Eugene had his father’s onyx complexion, massive shoulders, and child-like grin, as well as a booming, musical, rich baritone voice that always reminded Charlie of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, God rest his gallant, embattled soul.

“Fine evening, isn’t it?” said Eugene.

“It was until you decided to come out and ruin the quiet.”

“As opposed to the way you ruin my perfectly good view of an empty bench? The high point of my day is coming out here after closing down and looking at that bench. It’s a splendid bench, as benches go. The Mona Lisa of benches, one might even say. But what do I get? I get to look at you sitting there, instead. By the way, I think I saw a pigeon take a shit on it earlier, ‘bout at the spot where you parked your bony butt.”

Charlie smiled. “You’re in a rare mood tonight, Gene, if I do say so.”

Eugene returned the smile. “Sorry I couldn’t get out here sooner, Charlie. Couldn’t get the receipts to balance out. Do my eyes deceive me, or is that one of Ethel’s amazing meatloaf sandwiches you’re eating?”

“No, it’s half a meatloaf sandwich. The other half’s still wrapped up with your name on it, if you don’t mind sitting in pigeon shit with me.”

Eugene spread his arms in front of him. “Now how am I supposed to turn down such a charming invitation?” As he made his way down the stairway—Eugene had arthritis in one knee, and so took them a bit slower than most folks—he said, “Any word about your boy yet?”

Charlie beamed. “I was wondering how long it was gonna take you to ask. Ethel and me got the word this morning. Bobby’s coming home in three days.”

Now Eugene’s smile became wide and radiant. “Oh, Charlie, isn’t that just fine? That is by far the best news I’ve heard in a while. Damn fine news, my friend. Damn fine.” He reached out and shook Charlie’s hand as he reached the bench. “Please tell Ethel that I am so happy for all three of you.”

“I sure will,” said Charlie, handing Eugene the other half of the sandwich, which Ethel had purposefully made twice as big as Charlie could have possibly eaten on his own, knowing how he liked to share with Eugene on his break.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Eugene, unwrapping his half of the sandwich and giving it a good, deep, appreciative smell, “when Bobby gets himself settled, you bring him and Ethel down here one weekend and I’ll make sure you get the best table in the house. Their dinners and drinks are on me.”

Charlie blinked. “What about my dinner and drinks?”

“Did you make this meatloaf sandwich?”

“I did not.”

“You just spend two years in Southeast Asia and get yourself wounded twice?”

“I couldn’t very well be sitting here with you if I did, now, could I?”

“Then you pay. I am a generous soul, not a rube to be taken advantage of.”

“That just warms me right down to my hemorrhoids, Eugene.”

“If you’d unclench your skinny behind once in a while, maybe you wouldn’t have any hemorrhoids to complain about. Ever consider that?”

“Why do I put up with you?”

“Because you and I are the only people in this town who can appreciate the aesthetic value of benches. Damn, this sandwich sure is something. Tell Ethel she really outdid herself this time.”

“She does live for your praise.”

“Hell, buddy, if it weren’t for you and Ethel, most nights I’d have to settle for fried eggs and—what is that?

Charlie sat up a little straighter. “You mean that noise?”

“No, the piece of cake you think I can’t see under your napkin—yes, that noise.”

The two men sat in silence for a moment, listening as the sound grew closer.

“If I didn’t know better,” whispered Eugene, “I’d swear that was the sound of

a—”

“—holy shit,” said Charlie, pointing toward the corner of Cedar Crest and East Main. “Tell me that ain’t what I think it is.”

Eugene, as stunned as Charlie, could only shake his head.

Charlie made the Sign of the Cross. A few moments later, as both men realized they weren’t imagining things, Eugene did the same.

#

From A Visitor’s Guide To Cedar Hill, pages 59 - 60:

“‘...has voted to make a plot of the grounds and graves in The Old Graveyard at the Eastern section, taking care to protect and preserve the tombstones as they and those whose final resting place they mark are transported to a less neglected site,’ wrote the mayor in his 1902 proclamation.

“And so the bodies which had lain undisturbed for nearly one hundred years were the first to be exhumed and transported to the expanded grounds of Cedar Hill Cemetery, now the county’s oldest and most famous burial site.

“With tongue firmly in cheek, one citizen at the time of the Old Graveyard exhumations wrote a snippet of verse that remains popular to this day:

 

‘The first cemetery was Beckwith’s back yard

Where formerly Murphy sold eggs, bread, and

lard.

The next was the corner of Cedar Crest and

East Main;

Where now the Museum stands amid sunshine and

rain.

Later they moved it to Cedar Hill North,

So Old Adam dug up his wives and set forth,

And through Cedar Hill Streets both the wide and

the narrow

Trundled their bones in an ancient wheelbarrow.’

 

“One mystery that has persisted concerning the remains of the Old Graveyard is the mound and lone stone by Cedar Crest Avenue. All sorts of tales have been passed around about it, the most popular being that a man and his horse are entombed there as symbols of those who were once buried in the area. (It is perhaps from the early Welsh settlers that this originated.)

“Why the stone was not removed is not known, nor does anyone know why the mound still stands. It is probable that there are still bodies buried in the area, under the sidewalks and alleyways, because the 1902 proclamation did not stipulate the removal of all corpses buried there, due to the fact that so many settlers perished during the Great Cholera Epidemic of 1805 that locating and removing all bodies would be nearly impossible. Many of those bodies are now most probably buried beneath the foundations of homes and businesses, with a particularly high concentration in the Old Towne East area. But with the continued expansion of the Cedar Hill population, it is expected that the city’s government will be seeking yet more land over the next few decades, and perhaps some of the still-buried forgotten dead can at last be exhumed and moved to a proper place of final rest...”

 

#

 

Charlie Smeds and Eugene Talley watched, dumbstruck, as an ancient, rickety, horse-drawn wooden wagon made its way down the street, the driver’s face hidden by a thick kerchief covering his nose and mouth.

The wagon was filled with dead bodies and unearthed tombstones. Some of the bodies were so badly decomposed that bits and pieces of flesh, loosened by exhumation as well as the rattling of the wagon wheels, fell off and were carried away by a non-existent breeze, vanishing into dust before they reached as high as the lowest streetlight. Many of the bodies—the freshest ones—were still bloated, some slightly, some severely; all were discolored, a few were desiccated, and some were more bone than flesh.

The clop-clop-clop of the horse’s hooves echoed much more loudly that it should have, not because it was a still, dry evening, but because as Charlie and Eugene watched, the shadow cast by the horse and wagon turned the asphalt street around and beneath it into cobblestone.

Charlie began to say, “What in the holy hell—” but the rest died in his throat when yet another wagon, this one much older than the first, came into view just as the other was swallowed in shadow. This new wagon also carried bodies, but these corpses, despite the sick-making color of their skin, looked fresh, as if death had claimed them only mere hours ago. There were two people in the front of this wagon; both had their noses and mouths covered with heavy winter scarves, and both wore thick gloves as well as heavy overcoats. The sound of the horse’s hooves hitting the cobblestones was muffled because of the snow blanketing the areas of the street where the wagon’s shadow fell. Behind this wagon, leaving footprints in the snow cast by their own shadows, marched a procession of people of varying ages: the elderly being assisted by the younger and stronger, the middle-aged who walked arm-in-arm or sometimes alone, and, at last, several children, all dressed in winter clothing over one hundred years out of date, all of them trying to look brave as they fought back the tears that sometimes won out, and then froze to their faces before getting halfway down their cheeks.

At the end of this procession walked one little girl, far too thin and pale, completely alone, hugging a tattered, hand-made doll to her chest. The frozen tears on her face did not stop her from crying even harder. Her eyes were the saddest that either Eugene or Charlie had ever seen. As the wagon and procession moved farther down the street and into the darkness, the little girl stopped, staring down at her feet and wiping her nose on the sleeve of her coat, which Charlie realized was far too light for the winter weather.

She exhaled, her breath misting into the air, squeezed her doll tighter, wiped her nose once more, and then simply stood there, staring at Charlie and Eugene.

“My daddy told me about this when I was a kid,” said Eugene, gripping Charlie’s arm, his voice a whisper as if he were afraid that if he spoke too loudly, the spell would be broken. “I didn’t believe him until I saw it for myself one night.”

Not looking at his friend, Charlie gave a slow nod of his head. “They’re all ghosts, ain’t they?”

“To us they’re ghosts. To them, they’re still alive in whatever time it is they lived in. If that little girl can see us, we probably look like ghosts to her.”

“What should we do, Eugene?”

“I vote for just staying put like this until everything’s finished passing by.”

The little girl held out her doll and said, “My mommy made this for me. But she’s in Heaven now with Daddy. They both got real sick and…and they went to sleep last night and they never woke up.”

Without thinking, Charlie said, “Are they in the wagon?”

The little girl nodded. “Yes, sir. We have to come along so we can say a prayer over everybody’s grave. Everyone left in town is going to be there.” She looked up the street, toward the shadows where the wagons and procession had vanished. “I’m tired, sir. I don’t feel good. It’s so cold. Could you maybe…maybe take me there? I won’t be a bother, truly, I won’t.”

Charlie pulled his arm from Eugene’s grip and walked out into the street toward her, reaching out with both hands to give her a hug and pick her up, but just as his hands touched her shoulders, she exhaled again and her eyes fell into their sockets, disappearing into the darkness within her skull; and then in a series of soft, dry sounds, her entire head began collapsing inward, her flesh crumbling and flaking away, becoming dust as her face sank back, split in half, and dissolved, vanished in a puff of winter mist. Charlie nearly lost his balance, not only because of the shock of what he’d just seen, but also because he’d been readying himself to pick up the extra weight.

Eugene made another Sign of the Cross. “You all right, Charlie?”

“Hell, I don’t know.” The lost, hopeless expression on the little girl’s face was still burned into his memory, where he imagined it would remain for the rest of his days. “Dammit, Eugene—why didn’t I think to ask her name?”

Eugene sighed and shook his head. “What good would it have done?”

“I…I don’t know. It just seems like it would’ve been the proper thing to do, you know? Good God—I ain’t seen a body just fall apart like that since my division liberated the camps at Strubing and Gunskirken Lager.”

Eugene sat back down and gestured for Charlie to join him. As soon as Charlie, now shaking, took his usual place on the bench, Eugene patted his friend’s shoulder and said: “Back in the Prohibition days, Dad had a fellah by the name of Granger who made rum-runs for him. Those days, Dad got most of his hooch from Kentucky, and Granger was always the one who made the payoffs and the pickups. Well, one night, just as he’s getting’ back into Cedar Hill, Granger runs into some Prohibition boys who didn’t take too kindly to his ‘uppity’ attitude—that’s what one of them called him, ‘uppity.’ That’s all the excuse they needed to pull out their pistols and start firing. Some uppity nigger in a Minerva full of booze gave them good target practice. But Granger, he was strong and he was big and he was fast. Made them Prohibition boys chase him all over hell’s half acre before they shot out his tires and he had to take it on foot. You know what those bastards did? They shot him in the back of both his knees and he dropped like a sack of wet cement. But that wasn’t enough, not for them and not back then, oh, no. Then they turned their dogs loose on him. After that, they tied him to the back of their car and dragged him all the way to the downtown square where they strung what was left of him up by the neck so the birds could have a little snack. Papers back then, they said he was still alive when they hanged him. He stayed there for damn near two days before some regulars from the place come to cut him down. Daddy was one of the men who helped do it.

“One time, after I come home from school crying because some other kid and called me a ‘coon’ and the rest of the kids laughed, Dad said to me, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty terrible, them calling you such an awful name, and I’m sorry it upset you, but if that’s the worst that ever happens to you on account of you being the color you are, count yourself lucky.’

“Then he told me the story about Granger, and said that on some nights, some real dark nights, if you’re down on the square around two in the morning, you can see the ghosts of the Prohibition boys as they string up poor Granger. I didn’t believe him, so one night he wakes me up about one-thirty, and we drive downtown to the spot where it happened, and…” Eugene shook his head. “…and I’ll be damned if I didn’t stand there next to the car and watch it happen all over again. Dad, he couldn’t look at it for too long—me, I couldn’t look away. I mean, I’ve seen photos in old books about some of the things done to black folks over the years, but I never thought about it too much beyond just what I saw in the picture, right? That night I had no choice, because even though it was two in the morning, the whole goddamn thing played out in front of my eyes clear as day. I could even hear the Prohibition boys laughing and calling Granger these foul, vile names, and then shouting up at him to kick harder after they strung him up from the streetlight…God, Charlie, I’d never heard a man choke to death before, and Granger, he was in so much pain. I still have nightmares about it sometimes.”

“I never much believed in ghosts,” said Charlie. “At least, not like in this way. Far as I was concerned, I figured ‘ghosts were just, y’know, something dreamed up by a guilty conscience.”

“Well, now you know better.”

Charlie gave a quick nod. “Damn straight I know better now.” He looked at Eugene. “How do you—I mean, I know you still have the nightmares—but how do you…how do you go about your day-to-day stuff, knowing that stuff like this actually exists?”

Eugene grinned. “As much as it terrified me, the more I got to thinking about it, the more I decided that these ghosts, like the ones we just saw, regardless of what time in the past they come from, I decided that these ghosts are proof that God exists. I figure it’s His way of reminding us of what’s come before, and also maybe His way of warning us to make sure we take care that it never happens again.”

“Does that make it easier for you?”

“Most days, yes.”

“And on them days it don’t make it better?”

Eugene shrugged. “I go to the movies or something—anything to distract my thoughts. But you know what I think, Charlie? I think once a man gets to be our age, when fifty is getting to be more and more of a distant memory and sixty’s so close you can make out its features, it’s kind of like a gift, witnessing something like this, even if it’s as terrible as what I saw with Granger. It’s a gift because it proves to guys our age that there are still great mysteries in this here sad old world, and I don’t know about you, but I like that right down to the ground. Yes, I certainly do.”

“You never try to figure out why this happens?”

Eugene shook his head. “I gave up trying to find an explanation a long time ago, my friend. I don’t think there is one…and I’m not sure I’d want to know even if it turned out there was.”

They sat in silence for a minute or two, both staring at the spot where the wagons and procession had passed by, but especially at the spot where the little girl had stopped to speak to them. The street was once again dark, smooth asphalt, with no traces of the snow both men had seen.

Eugene looked at his watch. “Damn, Charlie, I hate to do this, but I still got some work to do before I can head home.”

Charlie checked the time on his own watch. “Shit, it’s three minutes after two. I’m late checking back in.” He began gathering up his lunch pail and coffee thermos. “The Sheriff’s Department figures, y’know, that maybe some nights I go to the bathroom after I take my break, so they give me an extra fifteen minutes before someone calls.”

“Then why the rush?”

“I hate being late. Goes against my nature.” He saw the piece of cake under the extra napkin in his lunch pail and took it out. “Piece of cake for the road?”

“And here I’d thought you were going to hog it all for yourself.” He took it from Charlie. “Give my compliments to Ethel, and make sure you tell her and Bobby about the free dinner and such for all three of you. Be an honor to serve your fine lady and veterans like your son and yourself.”

“Thanks, Eugene.” Charlie shook the other man’s hand—which was so big Charlie probably could have sat in it—and then watched as Eugene made his way back up the stairs and into the Hideaway. Now assured that his friend was safely inside, Charlie let himself back into the factory.

Locking the door behind him, Charlie took a few extra seconds to lean his forehead against the cool steel door and steady both his breathing and the beating of his heart. Ethel was never going to believe this, not in a million years. Hey, hon, guess what happened at work tonight? I saw a bunch of ghosts walking down the street. One of ‘em even talked to me.

That’s nice, Charlie. Now, if you’ll just sit here real quiet, I have to go make a couple of phone calls, okay? Don’t panic if you hear sirens in a couple of minutes, all right? Here, have another piece of cake while you’re waiting. Use the plastic fork, please.

Forcing himself to laugh, Charlie decided to chalk this one up as a Mystery, thank you very much, Eugene. So it was a night for meatloaf, miracles, and mysteries. Men well past the age of fifty needed some mysteries in life, to keep it interesting. Like Eugene, Charlie had heard stories all his life about strange things happening here, but had dismissed them as local folklore or just plain old bullshit. Never again.

Exhaling, Charlie checked to make sure his hands were steady, lifted up his head, and turned to face the area of the main work floor that faced Glenn Carroll.

Eyes growing wide, breath catching in his chest, arms shaking again and his hands losing all of their strength, Charlie Smeds didn’t hear it when his lunch pail hit the floor with a loud, metallic clang and burst open, spilling its contents and shattering the inside of the coffee thermos that until this moment had lasted him nearly twenty-five years. All he could think of was Ethel’s face, her smile, her kiss, the feel of her hand is his own, the way the warmth of her body comforted him in the night whenever he awoke with night terrors, and how very much he wished he were back home with her right this second, the two of them making Big Plans for Bobby’s homecoming.

He stared at the thing a few yards away from him, and wondered if Eugene would call this a Mystery, as well, or if he’d be scared right down to the marrow of his bones. Charlie thought that maybe, just maybe, if he closed his eyes and didn’t move, the thing would be gone when he opened them again, and if that were the case, he’d put in for an early vacation like Ethel had been asking him to do. So he closed his eyes, pictured his wife and son, pulled in and released a slow breath, and then opened his eyes again; this time a sound did escape him when he saw what still stood less than fifteen feet away: Charlie Smeds gasped. Had anyone else been there to hear it, they would have known that it wasn’t just a simple gasp, it was more the precursor to a much more forceful and terrified sound, the kind of sound you wouldn’t expect to hear from a man who’d fought in two wars and had seen enough brutality and death and horror to last three lifetimes.

Without realizing it, Charlie pressed one of his hands against his mouth to prevent such a sound from escaping him. There very well might be mysteries and miracles in the starry night on the other side of the door behind him, but this…this….

 

 

 

(C) Gary A. Braunbeck 2008

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.