Thursday, February 07, 2013

Another Short Story

Yeah, yeah. I don't have anything new to announce, so I'll continue to post short stories when I don't have a guest (coming up on the 9th: Pat McDermott with her delightful Irish Magical Realism series).

This is a longer story. I considered breaking it into two parts, but I think bringing an audience back two days in a row doesn't work. So here is a little paranormal/horror previously published in "Weirdly. Volume 2" from WildChild Publishing. It is also included in "Mixed Bag 2: Supersized."

The Vision

Charlie just had his first real vision, and it couldn’t have surprised him more. He glanced out at Mary Beth in the audience giving him frantic, although subtle, signals. He shook his head and almost heard Mary Beth gasp. Charlie shouldn’t move his head more than a centimeter, and he’d clearly moved it at least ten. Ten left, ten right, and ten left again.

He saw Mary Beth register his confusion. “Charles the Great is tiring, so that’s all the answers for this evening, folks. Next up, Gale and Her Magic Chickens!” she said.

Charlie took Mary Beth’s hint for a way out. He bowed to the audience a couple of times to a light smatter of applause, exiting stage left as fast as he could. Charlie collapsed on the folding chair sitting off stage as the startled Gale trooped by him with her colorful box full of chickens.

Just what is wrong with you?” Mary Beth hissed the instant she arrived behind the curtains.

I don’t know. I just got dizzy for a second,” Charlie said, bending his head down between his knees to emphasize his statement. He didn’t feel dizzy at all, but he wasn’t ready to tell Mary Beth about the vision.  He had to sort it out himself first.

The partners of the mind-reading act of Charles the Great stumbled through the dark backstage to their dressing room. Mary Beth sat at the dressing table, pulled off her costume jewelry, and applied cleansing cream to her face. By the set of her mouth, Charlie knew that the rest of the evening might not be a pleasant one.

Charlie and Mary Beth had a great little mind-reading act. Mary Beth selected a person from the audience and chatted with them for a few moments before holding up the microphone.

Charles, are you receiving anything from this person?” she’d say.

Charlie would already have taken on the glazed look of a person in a deep trance. Staring directly at Mary Beth, he picked up the cues which provided the information he used to ‘read’ minds.

The lady is married,” he intoned. The wedding ring on her left hand provided the clue. Mary Beth’s lips barely moved, no more than a ventriloquist. She held the mike close to her mouth, but angled slightly to one side. Her mouth formed the letters, and more often, the shorthand codes they used.

M. I see an M. The lady’s name begins with M?”

Mary Beth’s head twitched to the right. “No, she’s married to an M.” Mary Beth smiled.

Is it Mike?”

Mary Beth twitched her mouth to the left. “No, no. It is M A, I can see it starts with M, then A.” An imperceptible nod, and her right little finger curled a micrometer.

Marvin!” the woman blurted.

Yes, you are married to Marvin,” Charlie said.

Charlie loved it when the audience did his work for him. The smart ones kept a straight face and didn’t say a word.

Charlie noted the woman’s smile turning downward. Could it be? He took a stab at the meaning of the expression. “Is Marvin no longer with us?”

Yes, I mean no. That is, he died last summer,” the woman sputtered.

I’m very sorry for your loss.” Mary Beth moved quickly to the next person. A raised left eyebrow, and she hauled the microphone through the audience looking for the clues that told a person’s story. Wedding rings, expensive watches, callouses, scars, clothing…open books to Mary Beth and Charlie’s skills.

If the audience knew how they did their tricks, they might be disappointed. Unless, of course, they thought about it for a moment or two. The pair’s ability to guess as accurately as they did even amazed their colleagues who knew the score. The subtle secrets people thought hidden, were clear as glass to Mary Beth and Charlie.

But now, Charlie had experienced a vision, a real one. It didn’t come from Mary Beth’s hints or his own keen observations. The audience and Mary Beth had disappeared from his view, and another picture appeared. No, more than a picture, the scene played right there before his eyes.

Now, Charlie sat in the dressing room watching Mary Beth wipe cream from her face. The vision still vivid in his mind, he wondered what it meant. Maybe it meant nothing. They’d been working hard for several months with a show every night and matinees Saturday and Sunday. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he’d eaten something bad, like Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, more gravy than grave.

Mary Beth moved around the dressing room putting things away, not speaking to him. She didn’t have to tell him she was giving him the silent treatment. No. So attuned with one another, Mary Beth knew she needn’t explain the obvious to Charlie. Clearly, he had ticked her off.

I had a vision,” Charlie offered, ready to see what Mary Beth thought.

Humph.”

No, really. I saw it plain as day.”

Mary Beth spun the stool around and glared at him—not a subtle tell at all.

You’ll get us fired if we don’t do a full show. Times are tough, and acts like ours are a dime a dozen.”

It only happened this once. Besides, Gale was all ready to go with her chickens.”

You’re lucky. Most of the time, she’s out in the alley having a smoke before she goes on.”

Don’t you want to know what I saw?”

Well, I can’t imagine it’s important. I mean, you’re not really a mind reader or whatever, so your mind just hiccuped or something.” Mary Beth turned back to the mirror and started pulling pins out of her hair, which she wore in an up-do for the show.

No, it was more than that,” Charlie whispered, looking down at his hands. They rubbed against each other seemingly out of his control.

All right. If it will make you feel better, then tell me about it,” Mary Beth mumbled through a mouthful of bobby pins.

Charlie opened his mouth then shut it again as it dawned on him he didn’t have the words to describe the vision. Start with the setting.

I saw, um, the audience,” he muttered. No, more than that.

Yes?” Mary Beth prompted, “What about the audience?”

Well, at first the people looked just like they did in real life….”

And?”

But then they weren’t.”

Weren’t what? What are you talking about, Charlie?” Mary Beth demanded, her voice taking on that screechy tone it got when she became angry.

Alive.”

Mary Beth stared at Charlie for a good three count then slapped her hairbrush down. “You’re too much, Charlie. Okay, so the people were dead. Corpses, rotting? How about me?”

It didn’t last long enough for me to see much detail, but, yes, corpses. I don’t know if they were rotting, but they weren’t just, you know, skeletons.” Mary Beth stared at him. He added, “I didn’t see you.”

So why do you think you had a real vision? Do you really think you’re clairvoyant?” she said with a sneer.
Charlie shook his head, “Oh, I don’t know, Mary Beth. Quit asking questions I can’t answer. All I know is for about ten seconds I was looking out at a bunch of dead people. Sprawled across the seats, their heads lolled over, mouths hanging open, eyes staring. It was creepy, damn it!”

Mary Beth picked up her brush and stroked her hair in silence. Charlie watched her in the mirror. He knew she was considering what he had said, maybe thinking he was nuts. His gut twisted, and a chill made the hairs stand up on his arms. Mary Beth became a grinning skull, her bony hand smoothing a few rotted hanks of hair on her head. Then, the flesh and blood Mary Beth returned.

Charlie let out the breath he had sucked in when the vision started. Again, it lasted only a few seconds. Before he even realized what he saw, the vision disappeared.

The vision was too real to be an hallucination. He leaned over and held his face in his hands, covering his eyes. He didn’t want to see any more.

Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry I was mad at you. Don’t be like that.”

A hand touched his shoulder. He spread his fingers slightly to peek at it. He saw warm skin, and relief flooded through him. He looked up at Mary Beth’s face. Her eyebrows turned down in the middle forming those cute little wrinkles he loved so much.

It’s okay,” he said. “I’m okay now. Look, get changed, and we’ll go grab a bite.”

Sure, babe, that’d be nice.” Mary Beth walked to the small closet and pulled out her street clothes. She slipped off the gold lamé gown and high heels and put on her blouse and slacks. Sitting down, she shoved her feet into a pair of scuffed loafers.

Charlie decided these visions must be simply a result of overwork and stress. Reading minds was tougher when your eyesight began to fail. He sighed. He’d have to go to an optometrist soon. He could hardly read Mary Beth’s signals any more. He’d asked her to keep to the front of the room, but it wouldn’t look right to choose participants from only the front rows.

They left the theater through the stage door. Before the door swung shut, Charlie heard the squawk of Gale’s chickens. He shook his head, amused. Gale’s act was pretty strange, but still popular. Maybe the incongruity of using a chicken in a magic act instead of the standard pigeon appealed to the audience. Whatever the reason, Gale usually received a couple of standing o’s every week. That might be because she was always the last act and everybody was ready to stand up and leave.

The visions began to fade from his mind, and Charlie felt very ready to forget them. He’d happily write them off as some temporary phenomena resulting from overwork and fading eyesight. Still, the vision of Mary Beth’s skinless skull in the mirror hung behind his eyes. He shivered, and Mary Beth clutched his arm closer to her side. He loved her: a good woman, besides being a great performer, with the best tells in the business.

They walked out of the alley. On the street, they stopped for a moment to glance one way, then the other.

Barney’s?”

Sure, I could go for a steak.” They turned left and walked past the front of the theater. The sign read: VAUDEVILLE REVIVAL SHOW and CHARLES THE GREAT beneath. He enjoyed being the headliner. The show neared the end of its run, so they’d be on the road again, playing one-nighters in small towns. Maybe it was time to get honest work. He felt tired, dog tired, and this thing tonight showed him the end of the act had to come soon. I could sell real estate.

As they walked along the street, he got another flash. Parked cars held rotting corpses. He saw the details now, strings of flesh and tissue hanging from bones. The bodies sprawled back, caught in some strange throe of death. Sudden, sudden death. Charlie restrained his responses. Just pretend it’s not there. But he couldn’t restrain his pounding heart. He questioned his sanity, but wasn’t ready yet to scream for help.

Mary Beth stood still by his side. He clung to her while the flashes of death continued off and on. She looked at him with concern. Tensing, then stumbling, Charlie staggered as the visions came and went.

What is it? What’s going on?” Mary Beth gripped his arm tighter to hold him upright.

I don’t know.” Charlie’s voice trembled with fear. “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

Sure, Charlie.” Mary Beth’s reply shook almost as much as Charlie’s. His eyes were glazing, and he began to stumble. She grabbed his arm tighter and steered him back down the street toward the rundown hotel they had made their temporary home.

The visions came faster, flashing into existence for a second or two then disappearing, only for them to reappear in the next minute. All different, each flash showed a blighted view of reality: the bum grubbing in the trash can sprawled on the ground, mouth gaping in death; the couple walking across the street fell in a heap across each other’s bodies; a dead cat crouched in the alley forever stalking a mouse covered with maggots.

Everything living had died and decayed—horrible.

Worst of all, Mary Beth kept dropping away from him as each vision appeared. Over and over, he saw her ruined body lying on the pavement, her lipless mouth hanging open. The next moment, her warm hand gripped his again, and she led him down the street.

Charlie couldn’t take any more. What’s wrong with me? This was much more than just fatigue or overwork.

Hospital,” he said, barely able to speak through his clenched teeth.

Flash. Mary Beth flagged down a cab.

Flash. The cab driver laid over the steering wheel.

Flash. The streets filled with alternating living, breathing humans, then rotting corpses.

Charlie closed his eyes tight once in the cab; he no longer needed to see to walk. He noticed sound now accompanied the visions. He hadn’t heard anything when the gruesome visions first appeared. The background noise of traffic alternately blared or went silent while the visions continued. The traffic noise signaled the end of a vision flash, and he half-opened his eyes.

The cab pulled in front of the hospital emergency room. Mary Beth paid the cabbie, who helped her carry Charlie to the doors. An orderly rushed over, and the cabbie walked to the door, collapsing just outside. As Charlie turned to the orderly, the entire waiting room fell as silent as the bodies scattered in it.

Charlie closed his eyes, waiting for the end of the flash, but the silence persisted. The ding, ding of an elevator door sounded somewhere—the sound it makes when it repeatedly attempts to close on an obstruction.

The silence and dinging continued, and time stretched into a minute, then two. Charlie stood waiting for the murmur of voices, the strong arm of the orderly to take him.

Charlie knew he had to look. He opened his eyes to the expected moldering bodies. Peering down a long hallway, he spied the elevator. A man’s body stopped the door from closing. In front of Charlie, the orderly and Mary Beth’s corpses sprawled. He began to weep, first a few tears and then racking sobs. The vision continued. Why wouldn’t it end?

Slowly, his sobs faded. A memory came back to him, one he had made great effort to suppress. The memory had led him here to the hospital; Mary Beth’s body still lay on the floor, exactly where it had slumped two weeks before.

Charlie had come in for a bad neck pain. In the shielded x-ray room when the end came, only he had survived. The lead-lined room protected people outside from the minor effect of the x-rays. But the lead lining also protected Charlie from the immediate radiation and death of the neutron bomb.

The last world war came on fast and brutal and finished off nearly everyone in the city. Very few survived, and those who did tried very hard to forget. Charlie had managed to do just that for two weeks, but reality had a way of getting in his face. Charlie looked down at his hands and, for the first time, noticed the suppurating sores. He wondered how much time he had left. Charlie couldn’t forget anymore.


Where you can find my collections:


The first, Mixed Bag, is my "freebie" sampler with a dozen short stories. You can get a FREE ebook copy at Smashwords.

I doubled down on Mixed Bag II: Supersized to include a number of stories showing my darker side. Also available in ebook at Smashwords, I priced it at a bargain 99 cents.

Print editions are also available on Amazon.