lost ironies

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Tag: Halloween

the distant song of gunpowder

to enjoy this Halloween
remain very still

find a corner
and say nothing, but

listen for the timid pops—
the distant song of gunpowder

listen
and learn the lyrics

ghosts go be dead
on the other side of town

 

 

 

 

 

 

history talking in tongues

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. Occasionally, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. Lester thought it odd, however, that he believed he recognised her, as if from another life. He even thought, for the briefest of moments, that this recognition was empathy in disguise—but it was a very brief moment.

In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween falls on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for devotees of all that is wicked. Lester’s career as a  cutthroat had begun on a Halloween Tuesday. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out an absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to track, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. He smirked. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a section, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween.”

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel. As he did, he massaged the long heavy leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement light came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be found.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor. Many of the old appliances were still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just stillness and silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings. Match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room had read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise, or did he? “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad?” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there were thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia Flint. Natalie, the lass who was his very first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back. That’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

ghosts

Look for a ghost. Call an old forgotten phone number, one that connects with a disremembered rotary dial-up model in a stylish 60s shade of yellow, sitting dusty on a side table in a house overlooked by the bulldozers, and ask whatever answers, “Are you a ghost, or do ghosts live there?”

Or find an abandoned cellar—they’re everywhere, according to Hollywood and the bottomless imaginations of children, and enter into the dark spider empire and whisper, “Any ghosts here?” Then wait for a whisper in return. You may need sensitive equipment, or hear it all on your own, so close to your ear that it’s almost a kiss. “Raphael?” it might say, mistaking you for a lover lost first in minutes and then the hours and then….

Don’t worry. There probably won’t be any ghosts at all, or if there are, they’ll be standing very still and won’t say a thing, their eyes working in a dead sort of rotating way, seeing you, through you, behind you, or you from behind, or from above you, a shadow on the joists, in the deep valleys between them.

What I’m suggesting is just an exercise; read a book if you’d rather, or wash the dishes. But beware the ghosts of those who died lonely, like the one of the man who died sitting next to the yellow telephone, which never rang in his life though he listened and practiced his disappointed hellos. The ghosts of them that died lonely. The ones who look expectant when you enter the room, even though to them you’re blind, and reach out a hand from where they sit, and softly take a piece of you, without you knowing, as you pass them by.

 

 

 

 

 

a fine spell of dark

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. And sometimes, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween will fall on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for the devotees of what is wicked. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

But that year Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out the absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to stalk, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a place, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween,” he smirked.

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel, as he massaged the heavy long leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be discovered.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor.

Many of the old appliances were in still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings, match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room could read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh, come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise. “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming more unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad,” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there weren’t just ten, but thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia. Natalie, the lass who was his first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum, and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back, and that’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.

Horoscope of the Apocalypse the Halloween 2014 edition

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Hey Aries, ever eat one of those little foil wrapped chocolate pumpkin balls without removing the foil first? That’s how Mars rules your sorry, haunted ass. You’ve got decisions to make, baby. But procrastination can be so fulfilling in a backward sort of way. Remember those skeletons in the closet? Yeah, John Wayne Gacy had those too.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Do you recall that time you were in Guatemala, and you were approached by that greasy drug lord who offered you a sack of money to deliver a parcel to an associate in Moose Jaw? Remember how you thought you just might take the guy up on it until you noticed he was wearing gold lamé huaraches and he kept insisting you call him Gladys despite the beard and sideburns? Remember that? No? Oops! Wrong horoscope.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Ain’t Halloween swell? Time to do those disgusting monkey things you want to do all year long. Let someone else be decent for once. You’ve always wanted to self-immolate. But without suffering all those nasty side effects. So why not find someone to wrap you up in latex and roll you down a hill? I know a woman who’ll do it cheap. She does good work. People respect her. She gives group rates, and she’ll retrograde Uranus for cheap.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Well, isn’t this convenient. Cancer is ruled by the moon. Halloween and the moon were made for each other. Did you know that there are alien space stations on the dark side of the moon? I know because I saw it on the internet. Did you know that they call the internet the World Wide Web? Spider webs are very well thought of round Halloween. Did you know that I have a canker on my tongue that’s been there since 1982? Is any of this helping you, Cancer? Am I revealing the invisible universe to you in a way that’s timely and helpful? No? Well, up yours!

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Leo is the fifth sign of the Zodiac. Five plus five equals ten, but I’m not sure why you’d add five and five together in the first place. Maybe you hate prime numbers and enjoy combining them to create non-prime numbers. Like three plus three equals six. Did you know that six is divisible by two, which is also a prime number? Why are you yawning and looking away, Leo? Does what we’ve had together mean nothing to you? Oh sure, just walk away. I’ve got a quart of gin and a medicine cabinet full of psychotropic drugs, partner. I’ve got incriminating Polaroids stashed away, baby. Eleven of them, actually. Did you know that eleven is a prime number…?

Virgo (Aug 23 – September 22)

Hey Virgo, it’s like this. I write horoscopes for decent people.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Libra is the only sign of the zodiac not represented by an animal. Like that makes you special, or something. Like everyone is saying, Oh look. Libra ain’t a fish or a bull or that creepy Capricorn goat/fish thing. Actually, that freaking Capricorn sign gives me the willies, man. Capricorn makes me want to run screaming from the room with nothing on but a Niagara Falls commemorative tea towel. Yeah, I have one of those. I bought it in 1999. Hey, stop looking at me.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Hey Scorpio, for you it’s all black and white, isn’t? You don’t care about subtleties and nuance. You don’t care that that freaky thing we did together in your Smart Car was like a religious experience for me, even though the door handle kept jabbing into my Airy Triplicity. And now that it’s Halloween, I don’t get any candy do I!?! When you gonna pay your Love Taxes, Scorpio?

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Do this for me, Sagittarius. Take a deep breath and hold it. I’ll tell you when to let go. Just think good thoughts. That’s right. Remember that Halloween back when you were eight years old? You went out as a dinosaur, but everyone said you were a dragon. Remember you got so angry that you wanted them all to die horribly, tied to their beds in an out of control house fire? Remember that? Oops, damn. That was me. Still holding your breath? Sucker.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Let’s just call this a UN Capricorn-free zone. And watch the progress bar below to see when you can go out for trick or treat.
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Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

When I was a kid, everyone wanted to be Aquarius. Aquarius was supposed to be sooooo cool. Well, I knew this Aquarius guy who was a taxidermist. He stuffed animals. One day they found out that he’d actually stuffed his brother, Murray. Murray was a real jerk, and he had it coming. But this Aquarius taxidermist posed Murray picking his nose. There stood ol’ Murray in the taxidermist’s basement, next to the moose and musk ox, with his finger all the way up his nose. I hate Aquarius.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Poor Pisces. You’re at the end of the list. Even Aquarius comes before you. Did you come last as a kid, too? Standing in line for trick or treats waiting and waiting and when you finally got to the front of the line all they had left were those crappy candy kiss things that stuck to your teeth and pulled out your fillings so your mother wouldn’t let you have them so you never got any Halloween candy and had to steal it from your siblings who all went to university and you only went to beauty school? Just asking.

happy halloween

October story

Halloween 1955

Death grasped the excess denim round his waist, and tugged his jeans up. Modern clothing never fit him properly. He leaned against a lamppost, and watched the downtown traffic. He sniffed and lit a cigarette.

It had been more than twenty minutes. Humans in any age were unreliable. He spit, looked down, brushed ash off of his oversized black leather jacket. He had time. He was flexible.

October, he smirked, kicking at some orange leaves. He did his best work in October. The line separating things was so thin. Humanity was somehow more prone to surrender in October. The numbers were the same, but the work was somehow lighter. He often thought of taking a holiday in October. Allowing the select to be the lone witnesses to their own demise. But he knew his presence was required. Always required. By some weird quirk of creation. And Death found it tiring.

Across the street now, waiting for the traffic light, there stood the woman. Rebecca Wick. 48 years old. Dull as devotion. Dressed like a frump. The world wouldn’t miss her. He considered his options. Hit by runaway trolley, fatal heart attack, stabbed by an attacker…. The options were many, but not unlimited. For example, he thought, piano falling from a height was out — too Bugs Bunny. And usually unavailable.  Bite of asp was another non-starter, ever since Cleopatra. A stray bullet perhaps. From a careless villain’s revolver. Or a policeman in pursuit. But Vancouver was boring and provincial in the worst way. Cops stood like statues on street corners, itemizing bribes in their pea-brains.

And so, he hadn’t yet decided the nature of Rebecca’s death.

The familiar lament nagged. He knew so little about the people whose terminations he presided over. It stunted creativity. Surely there was a more appropriate death for Miss Wick than a traffic accident or heart failure. Perhaps, despite her appearance, there was some redeeming thing about her. Could the unattractive woman in the brown overcoat have been a great heroine at some stage in her life? Was she an artist? An intellect? A despicable scoundrel? Yes, he liked the scoundrel idea. Perhaps she’d secretly hacked her mother to death and composted her. No, he’d have been there for that.  He was death. He was stumped.

The light changed. He threw his half gone cigarette into the gutter, and once again hoisted up his jeans. Rebecca Wick stepped off the curb with a crowd of fellow pedestrians.  He’d meet her halfway. Introduce himself. Be completely honest about his identity. What choice did he have? She’d know him immediately. They always did. No disguise worked. He remembered the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky when they met, terminal and emphysemic in his Catholic bed. The room with a rocking chair and the stink of worthless remedies. The man fixing his eyes upon Death, and speaking his last words. Nothing clever or poetic. But instead, “Where’s your damn scythe?”

There was no scythe, of course. There never had been.  It was metaphor and fantasy. As was the hooded robe. But even without these things, he was recognised by those whose moment had come. Some looked stunned, some stoic. But they had all known him.

Death stepped into the crosswalk. Rebecca Wick stared ahead at nothing in particular. They met at the centreline. He turned and walked beside her, matching her step. “Hello, Rebecca,” he said brightly in a vaguely English accent. “May I walk with you a while?”

Rebecca Wick turned to look. She saw a gaunt, sallow face. Poorly fitting clothes that needed a wash. A studded leather motorcycle jacket. Her expression remained the same. No surprise or stoicism. “I don’t walk with strangers, fella,” she said. “Hit the bricks.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bugger off. I’ve got no time for beatniks.”

“I’m no beatnik.”

“I’ll call for a cop.”

“That’s really unnecessary. But I think we have business, you and I.”

Rebecca Wick stopped, and Death with her. They were now in the curb lane on Georgia Street where it intersected with Granville, facing each other. The lights were changing again. She looked Death in the eye and squinted. As they stood there, a delivery van turned the corner too fast and screeched to a halt inches from them both. “That was close,” said Death with a surprised look. This encounter wasn’t taking the usual course.

“Get off the road,” the delivery driver yelled.

Death preceded Rebecca Wick to the curb, bowed and held out a helping hand. Rebecca Wick ignored it, and walked past him. She carried on down Georgia. He watched her go. Could he be wrong, he wondered. But he was never wrong. The select were the select. The dead were the dead. There’d never been a mix up. “Wait,” he called out.

“You’re getting on my nerves,” said Rebecca Wick when he’d caught up with her. He noticed now that she was grasping her umbrella firmly and aggressively, that it was twitching up and down in her hand. This was becoming too much. Surely she didn’t intend to hit Death with an umbrella.

“Look here,” he said, deciding on a different approach. “It may be that you don’t know who I am. It’s unheard of, of course, and very difficult. But allow me to introduce myself…. ” He felt the blunt impact of the umbrella across his ear. Not physically painful. Death felt no pain. But it was a jolt. And unprecedented. He’d always been able to avoid this sort of thing. “I say,” he said.

“I don’t give a damn what you have to say,” said Rebecca Wick. “This town’s fillin’ up with creeps like you, that won’t leave a girl alone.” She adjusted a limp, gauzy thrift store hat on her head with the heel of her hand. “Look at you dressed like some kind of rubby-dub. It’s the middle of the day. Why aren’t you at work? Don’t have a job? And I ain’t got no spare change, neither. So don’t ask. Now blast off.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Death, puffing himself up in a way he’d never done before in all of history. “This is Death you’re addressing, and you will revere and fear me.” The time had come for the touch of his hand. The very touch of Death. He began to reach out.

“Wait a minute,” Rebecca Wick said. “Whoa and hold on there. There’s been a heap o’ crazies in this berg since the end of the war, but this is a new one. You’re Death, you say. The grim reaper. Then where’s your scythe?”

“Look, there is no scythe. There never was a bloody scythe. And before you start going on about the hood, let me assure you that there never was a bloody hood, either. That’s just some Ingmar Bergman wet dream. Only the dead can see me, and by definition they never stick around long enough to share the details of my appearance. It’s quite exasperating hearing the same questions over and over, I must tell you.”

“What, no leathery wings? No skull face?”

“None of that.”

“Well you are bloody ugly. Can’t you find clothes that fit? Death can’t visit a proper haberdashers?”

“Look, take my hand, and let’s get this over with.”

“Your hand? Why would I do that? It looks unclean.”

“Because it’s your time,” said Death. “Taking my hand is what’s done. You should recognise me, and be resign to your fate. That’s how it’s always been. I’ll have to find out what’s gone wrong. But in the meantime, let’s get this done and over with, shall we?”

“No. Why would a healthy person like me willingly touch the hand of Death?”

“Healthy people die all of the time.”

“They do not.”

“They do too.”

“Of what?”

“Misadventure, accident.”

“What have you got planned for me then, huh?”

“I don’t know.” Death felt a little embarrassed. “I’d hoped to decide once I met you, gotten to know you better.”

“Well?”

“How about something exceedingly painful,” Death sneered.

Rebecca Wick sniffed at this, and said, “You mean you’re here to oversee my demise, and you know nothing about me.”

“Lamentable failings are often visited upon supernatural beings.”

“And if I understand you correctly,” said Rebecca Wick, “you’re inferring that if I were, say, an Olympic swimmer, you’d have me die drowning in the bathtub. An ironically watery death. There’s a bit of fun in what you do, isn’t there.”

“Or a famous writer,” said Death, “falling on his quill.”

“Something fitting with a person’s station in life.”

“That’s it exactly,” said Death, surprised at her insight. And was that a hint of empathy in her voice? Empathy for him, Death? What a rare and welcome thing.

“Well, I sling hash at the White Lunch,” said Rebecca Wick. “Waddaya gonna do with that?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Death said. “Let me think.” He hummed discordantly for a moment, tapping his chin with his index finger. “It’s not much to work with, is it?”

“Maybe I should fall into the deep fryer or the coleslaw shredder.”

“Oooo,” Death said, “those are both rather good.”

“Or here’s another option,” Rebecca Wick said. “You bugger off and let me get on with my day, as a way of making up for your disappointing appearance. Come back when I’m old and don’t give a damn anymore. When I haven’t any teeth, and my food is served damp and strained. When I need a nurse to wipe the drool from my chin, and tell me what a good girl I am for making it to the toilet before I soil myself.”

“Can’t do it.”

“Then how about this? You arrange for me to foil the kidnapping of some darling but precocious five year old from a wealthy family. She’ll have pigtails and apple cheeks and a slight lisp when she says S words due to her two missing front teeth. The kidnappers will be planning on demanding an enormous ransom and then escaping to Cuba to satisfy their deviant love of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and to help finance the ongoing Cuban Revolution. I’ll snatch the child out of their evil commy clutches, enabling her escape, but be fatally shot in the process, as she runs into the open arms of her adoring upper class mother who will later laud me for my proletariat pluck and gusto, and selflessly demonstrating how the poor underclasses can aid a comparatively small population of rich and indifferent individuals in their exploitation and domination of the planet and its starving masses.”

“Can’t,” said Death.

“You’re joking.”

“I did it last week.”

“Then what for God’s sake?” said Rebecca Wick. “How am I gonna die? The suspense is killing me, as it were.”

“This is getting less and less gratifying by the moment,” Death said, looking, with frustration, up into the sky. And when he did, there it was. He hadn’t seen it being done this way since the 1930s. It just wasn’t necessary anymore. The buildings they were standing under, though, were from the last century. He guessed there really was no other way. But dare he? It would be almost satirical. Not serious. Not profound. Hardly dignified.”

“Alright, Mr Death,” said Rebecca Wick. “Let’s get on with this, or I’m going to the Knights of Columbus Hall for BINGO. Big jackpot today. And you’re holding me up. I mean maybe this Death thing ain’t right for you. Maybe you should consider janitorial work. I can get you on at the Spitz Building. Their last janitor got drunk, fell down the stairs and broke his neck. But I guess you know that, right? Ciao Mr Death. Catch you later, I guess. Ha!”

Rebecca Wick began to walk away, laughing scornfully to herself at the fool posing as Death.

Death looked up as she did and nodded.

The piano that fell from the defective block and tackle, onto Rebecca Wick, had done so from just outside of a 10th floor window, at the moment the movers were reaching out to grasp it and pull it in. It was an 1832 vintage Bösendorfer grand, worth a small fortune. The newspaper headlines that night read, Local Woman Dies Cartoon Death.

Satisfied with his work, Death took the next day off.

Tibbit Crow Girl and the Queen of Halloween

dedicated to the crows of Vancouver

Anyone will tell you, Halloween past is a far darker neighbourhood than Christmas past. The property values are lower and the sun never shines very brightly through the smoke of burning leaves and spent firecrackers. And it was once in the dimness of Halloween past that the Queen of Halloween cast her spell on the crows. Ever since then, the crows have never flown over a Halloween to serve themselves. Since the casting of that ruinous spell, the crows, on All Hallows’ Eve, have done only as the Queen of Halloween decrees and maraud on her behalf alone.

What is less well known is that the Queen of Halloween lives in a discarded refrigerator in an abandoned warehouse, off Terminal and Main Streets.  She often presents in the guise of an old woman, wondering back alleys by the light of the moon in search of bottles and cans and the occasional human soul. Other times, she’s a black coyote that feeds on children’s pets. Mostly, however, after dark, she will open the door of her discarded refrigerator home and emerge as a pale young woman of unrivalled beauty, dressed in a splendid flowing gown of ravenous cockroaches. And it is this ghastly writhing gown that is the source of her shadowed magic.

* * * * *

The Crow King walked the branches of the castle tree like a sea captain made mad by an unachievable horizon. His eyes, bottomless black, swallowing the dregs of chemical light at dawn. His coveted crown of shiny, found items askew. His fragile mansion on the edge of creation, tilting on the lip of a chasm. The Crow Court watched and pondered disaster.

“Bring me news,” he cawed, “bring me news. Fly out and bring back news. Find the Queen of Halloween and ask of Her demands. It is impossible to do bidding unknown.”

The flock surrounding him cawed loudly, a cacophony of assent. There was much flapping, bobbing of heads and shifting from side to side.

The Crow King’s Wizard sidled near to him with his scaled and talon feet, his taxidermy eyes too deep to be real, his told-you-so voice hissing like a maleficent snake. “Your Grace,” he rattled and cooed, “perhaps there is no bidding to be done this year. Perhaps this year we maraud freely over Halloween and take what we will to line our own nests. We have been Her slaves long enough.”

“Yes we have,” clicked the Crow King thoughtfully. “We have been her slaves too long, surrendering our plunder. But a spell was cast long ago and we still suffer beneath it. What is the remedy?”

“A child, I foretell,” the Wizard cooed. “One to challenge Her on our behalf. One to end the spell that holds us in thrall.”

“Who is this child?” the Crow King crackled.

“She sits in this castles tree, among us now,” clucked the Wizard with a conspiratory voice. “But none can point to her. She must fly as the flock flies and be divided by fortune. Only then can she face the Queen of Halloween.”

“Then let it be so. Morning breaks,” cawed the Crow King looking east. “It is time for us all to fly.”

And with that the inhabitants of the castle tree took to the sky, flying en masse toward the city.

It was a massive flock of thousands that flew into the city, blackening the sky and obscuring the setting moon before scattering to feed. The flock made a terrible noise as it flew, knowing it would wake the city below from its safe and contented sleep.

Tibbit Crow Girl flew among them, still young enough to fly at her mother’s side. And Tibbit’s mother preferred the grounds round the abandoned warehouses off Main and Terminal to feed.

“It be a good day to fly,” Tibbit’s mother cackled. “And I smell nuts and tender bits of carrion on the wind.”

Tibbit Crow Girl liked nuts and carrion just fine but also enjoyed the bread and seeds handed out by elderly humans all over the city. Devouring this free meal involved little effort and the elderly people seemed so pleased by her and the other crows. Of course the pigeons ruined everything with their gluttonous inhalation of the handouts. But occasionally, a pigeon would eat too much to fly away, and made delicious eating.

“Let’s land and see what’s to eat,” Tibbit’s mother cawed, and they banked away from the main flock and whirled and spiralled down toward the ground. They flew low over the busy intersection of Terminal and Main, over the speeding trucks and cars. And Tibbit’s mother cawed, “Be careful. Not too low. Watch the trucks.”

Tibbit had heard this before, however, and thought her mother worried too much. She’d seen other crows fly much lower than she ever did. It was a thrill and a good way to observe what tasty bits of food might be lying round on the ground. Tibbit flew lower that morning than she ever had before. She flew in and out of the traffic, laughing in the faces of the wide-eyed drivers.  Laughing, that is, until she was struck by a passing delivery truck.

The truck knocked Tibbit high in the air and she fell onto the sidewalk. When she hopped to her feet, she felt a sharp pain in her wing. Suddenly she couldn’t fly, and had a paralysing thought of the pigeons that ate too much to fly and what happened to them.

“Fool of a girl,” Tibbit’s mother cawed from overhead. “What will you do now? You be food for the rats.”

These were not the comforting and encouraging words she’d hoped to hear from her mother.  Tibbit saw the road that lead into the old industrial park of abandoned warehouses and began to hop toward it, looking everywhere for rats and humans with their big feet and unpredictable tempers.

After a long while of exhausting hopping, Tibbit was safe among the empty warehouses. There was no traffic there, only the occasional transient with a shopping cart. Tibbit’s mother landed next to her. “I can smell rats here,” she said. “They be watching us now. They be up on their haunches sniffing the air filled with the scent of wounded crow.”

“I will not be eaten by rats,” Tibbit cackled and cooed, hopping up a decaying wooden staircase. The staircase lead to a warehouse door that was opened just a crack. They both entered. It was dark and vacant except for a refrigerator. “I will take a corner here and fight all comers with my claws and beak. I will heal and fly again.”

Tibbit’s mother knew better of the plight of downed crows, how ill at ease a crow is when not in flight, how a crow should choose flight rather than fight. But she said nothing. She sidled about looking for something dead for the both of them to eat, but there was nothing.

The old refrigerator was an unfortunate 1960s shade of sky blue, and had a single door with a large handle of chrome and rust. Frigidaire said a rusting chrome name plate, hanging askew by a single remaining rivet. The refrigerator shook. Then it sat quietly for a moment, and shook once more. Then the chrome and rust handle was pulled out by an invisible force, and the door opened.

Inside, the refrigerator was completely black. It looked like a passageway into a dark incalculable recess. There was a cold wind blowing out of it as though it was still a functioning appliance. But it hadn’t been plugged into an electrical socket for decades. Screams, shrieking and human pleas for help could be heard on the cold wind emanating from within. And the smell was that of an animal so dead and far gone that even a crow wouldn’t eat it.

Tibbit’s mother hopped back from it and Tibbit sidled round for a better view. “What is it, mother?” she cooed.

“It be a human thing,” Tibbit’s mother cawed. “We should go. There be better places than this.”

Then there came a commanding voice from deep inside the blackness of the refrigerator’s interior, an evil, echoing voice. It said, “Who stands before the door to my bottomless pit without my permission? Speak now before I chew your souls in my mouldy mouth and swallow you into the abyss of my belly.”

Tibbit’s mother jumped back but Tibbit only cocked her head. “I’m hurt and in danger of being eaten by rats,” she cawed. “What difference would it make being eaten by a mob of rats or by you? I’ll fight you all and you’ll suffer for your meagre meal.”

Tibbit’s mother looked concerned when no reply came from the refrigerator’s dark interior. Then smoke began to spill from the derelict appliance, onto the floor. The smoke piled up and up into a column, and the column took on the smoky appearance of a woman. Finally the Queen of Halloween in Her grand and magical gown of cockroaches emerged and stood before them.

“Oh,” She said, wrinkling Her nose. “Crows. I’d hoped for something more interesting.”

“It be Her,” Tibbit’s mother reverently cooed. “The Queen.”

The Queen of Halloween walked around Tibbit and her mother, taking in the situation. As she did, her magical cockroach gown made crawling and clicking sounds.

“You’re the one,” Tibbit said. “The one who has placed a spell on the crows.”

“Really?” the Queen of Halloween said. “Am I? You must forgive me for not remembering. I’ve spun so many spells, it’s hard to keep track.”

“We are doomed to fly at your behest every Halloween night and place at your feet all that we find. It is a night of great treasure and we deserve to keep what we steal for ourselves.”

“Rubbish,” snapped the Queen of Halloween. “The rats, the bedbugs and all of the vermin of the world pay tribute to me on Halloween night. Why should crows be any different?”

“We are not vermin,” Tibbit cawed proudly. “We do not scramble about on the ground; we fly above the world and look down upon you.”

Tibbit’s mother felt fear but couldn’t help, at the same time, feeling pride in her daughter.

“I fly, too,” the Queen of Halloween said, and in a flash an ancient corn broom appeared in her hand. “It would appear, however,” She said to Tibbit, “that your flying days are over.”

“But you cannot fly faster than our flock,” Tibbit rattled.

Tibbit’s mother looked at her with a glint of worry in her dark eyes.

“You can try to out fly us,” Tibbit cawed. “You can try to fly faster and out manoeuvre us. You can even attempt to surpass us as marauders. But you will fail.”

“Ha!” the Queen of Halloween yelped. “Even if that were true, how would it help you with your broken wing, surrounded by a warehouse filled with hungry rats?”

“I challenge you,” Tibbit cawed. “Ride your broom tonight and try to beat my flock. And when you fail, you will use your magic to mend my wing and you will remove the spell that enslaves us.”

“And what if your flock does not out fly me,” said the Queen of Halloween. “What will I have?”

“You will have me,” Tibbit said. “To chew in your mouldy mouth and swallow into the abyss of your belly.”

Tibbit’s mother was stunned by this. “No!” she cawed.

“Yes,” cooed Tibbit.

“But I have you already,” said the Queen of Halloween. “I could chew you up and swallow you now, and be done with it.”

Tibbit thought about this and realised the Queen of Halloween was correct. “If the flock cannot out fly you, and you fly past them at dawn,” she cooed, “the crows will be your marauders every night, not just Halloween night, but forever.”

“That is an intriguing offer,” said the Queen of Halloween.

“It’s not an offer,” said Tibbit. “It’s a bet.”

The Queen of Halloween rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue as she pondered the possibilities. The crows did deliver some impressive swag every Halloween. If She out flew them, She could have it every night of the year. Forever. And She could have this impudent little crow girl for dinner. She raised Her broom and brought it down on the ground, with a loud explosion of light.

“It’s a bet,” said the Queen of Halloween. “You are protected from the rats. For now, that is. Until after we fly tonight. Assemble your flock nearby this evening and we will see who will out fly who.”

Tibbit’s mother hopped and sidled out of the crack in the warehouse door and flew away to gather the flock.

And as darkness fell over the city, the magnificent flock of crows gathered and landed round the warehouse, creating a deafening and discordant cacophony of caws. Above them, out of the darkening east, flew the Queen of Halloween on Her ancient and twisted broom, cackling a crazed and demented laugh.

Seeing Her above them, the thousands of crows took off over the city blotting out the stars and the moon as they did, swirling in circles like a vast black tornado, then rocketing forward in an infinite swarm, leaving the Queen of Halloween behind. Then the Queen of Halloween, determined in Her evil cause, raced past the flock, leaving it in Her rancid dust.

The Crow King seeing this cawed and commanded his flock forward, progressing in the night. It traded the lead with the Queen of Halloween again and again. And when She realised that She might not fly faster than the Crow King’s flock, the Queen of Halloween decided to use magic to cheat Her way forward. She created a sudden pulse of blinding light and like a supersonic bullet shot past the crows.

Meanwhile, in the warehouse, Tibbit hopped into a corner and prepared to defend herself. She saw the bright red light in the eyes of the rats around her. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. And she began to fear for the first time that the rats might disobey the Queen of Halloween.

Above the city, the race continued and the Queen of Halloween was winning. She cast spell after spell, placing obstacles before the crows. She pelted them with stones and had Her ghosts fly against them. The Crow King wondered what to do. As the flock flew and manoeuvred as best it could, he consulted with his Wizard.

“How can we beat this evil witch’s magic,” cawed the Crow King.

“She is powerful and has many evil allies,” the Wizard cawed. “But I think I have a plan.”

“What is it?” cawed the Crow King. “Tell me fast or all may be lost.”

“My magic is no match for hers, but I might enchant two or three of our strongest youngsters with the speed to catch up with Her.”

“Will they be able to fly past Her by dawn?” the Crow King cawed.

“No,” rattled the Wizard. “But by now they will be hungry and the cockroaches that make up Her splendid gown, the source of her evil magic, will be tender and tasty.”

“That might be a very good plan, Wizard Crow,” cawed the Crow King. “Do it!”

And so, the Wizard Crow endowed certain of the younger crows with the power to fly as fast as the Queen of Halloween, and sent them in pursuit of Her with instructions to eat heartily. They flew fast and soon saw the Queen of Halloween ahead. Then one of them cawed, “It’s dinner time!”

There were three of them. All that the Wizard Crow could manage with his limited magic, but they were ravenous and fell on the splendid magical gown of cockroaches with gusto. The roaches squirmed and wiggled and scrambled to escape.

“What is this,” the Queen of Halloween shouted. “The impertinence! Get away.”

But the hungry young crows continued to feed. As Her gown and its magic began to disappear, the Queen of Halloween began to slow and the flock caught up. She had cheated with Her magic, so the flock of crows saw no shame in attacking Her gown.

“Stay away,” the Queen of Halloween shouted as she slowed and the flock caught up, falling upon Her in midair. As Her magic waned, spells were being broken all over the world. “Get away, get away,” She yelled as Her unrivalled beauty began to fade, and the pitiful thing that She was under the splendid gown was revealed. Soon Her gown was completely consumed and only a skeleton rode the ancient broom. It fell to earth like a meteor.

The flock cawed and cheered. They were free of the evil spell. But the Crow Wizard was still very concerned.

“All of that evil witch’s spells are broken,” he cawed. “Including the one keeping the warehouse rats away from Tibbit. Fly faster than you ever have before. We must get to Tibbit before that mob of rodents.”

The Crow Wizard was right. In the warehouse, Tibbit was fighting a brave fight but her time was running out. The rats attacked in waves. She used her beak and claws to flight them back, but they lunged and bit. The first crow through the crack in the door was Tibbit’s mother. She attacked with abandon and she and Tibbit fought gallantly together until the flock took down the door and flew in to peck and eat the rats that didn’t escape.

Then the flock lifted Tibbit high into the air and she was taken back to the castle tree to heal and fly again, just as she had predicted. But not before the flock pillaged what it could from Halloween night. And with it, the shiny objects, choice sticks and tender morsels of food, they lined their own nests.

Happy Halloween

all saints day

Last week of October. The light changes now, lends a translucence to things that never quite achieve transparency. The curtain hung between worlds never really comes down, not even now. But it’s now that the light from beyond shines through the strongest. Silhouettes and snippets of things can been seen if one stands still long enough and waits, watching. Mostly at dusk. Dusk is a room we briefly occupy as the house of the day ends and the abode of night begins. Some see better in the night. And there are others who can see through the curtain, to the other side. They see the invisible surge and manifest as October fragments in the undertow of November.

psych ward #1

At night they turn out almost all of the hall lights. But they leave some on, the ones that no one can ever turn off. The forever lights. They go on shining, no matter what. I close the door to my room when I go to bed. But when the nurses check on me, with their flashlights, they never close the door all the way again. Then the forever light across the hall shines into my room. I close my eyes tight or roll over. But sometimes I can’t close my eyes or roll over because I see something standing there, black because of the glare from behind. Mostly, the thing will disappear if I blink. But occasionally, it will stand there looking into my room until the next nurse comes round on suicide watch. Then it’ll creep away.  A hospital’s like that, I guess. There’re people that don’t make it out alive. They become ghosts like a caterpillar becomes a moth.

I have a ghost in me. The doctors, nurses and police call it suicide, the thing I keep trying. The thing I feel so compelled to do. But I call it letting the ghost out. It’s all I want to do. Not because I’m crazy. But because if I were a ghost trapped inside somewhere, I’d want out too.

The halls never end at night. It’s like they get longer in the dark, with just the forever lights shining. I notice it when I go to the toilet on the other side of the ward. Then the halls start to slope up like hills. It’s exhausting trying to get to the top where the washroom is. It takes hours to walk to the toilet, sometimes. And then it’s hours getting back. The halls are just as long and slope up the same in the opposite direction.

All along the way there’s dead people standing around in their hospital gowns and pajamas. Some with tubes still hanging out and real bad wounds that’ll never close. What’s it matter if a wound closes when you’re dead? They don’t care. They just stare with the bulging bug eyes the dead have. They all look like they’re caught in the headlights. And they’re real still. Like they’re stuck in a moment, maybe their last. But the eyes move. The eyes see. They follow me to and from the toilet at night. And they whisper. Even when they scream, it’s just a whisper. I’m always surprised at how loud a whisper can be. Even though they don’t move when you see them, some of them always find a way of following me from the toilet back to my room. Then they just stand in the door for the rest of the night. Their lips don’t move, but they whisper.

Sometimes I dream the dreams they dreamed when they were alive. They’re in the dreams, that’s how I know. They say, “This is the dream I had once. This dream gave me cancer. This dream caused my emphysema. This was the dream that made my boyfriend stab me five times and then take too much heroin.” They’re not the kind of dreams you forget in the morning. You never forget them. You never forget the screaming, the desperate scratching at the firm yet fleeting elements of life speeding past as the moments disappear into a nearly invisible mist against the empty dark. The dead in the dreams look so calm, like it’s all a matter of going through a simple series of steps toward their individual ends. But underneath it all, behind the fake calm, the acquiescence and beatific smiles, they’re screaming. Like hell.

It’s 5.30 a.m. I awake to a lab tech prepping my arm to draw blood. I hate waking up this way, and I hate it when they try to draw blood in my darkened room. They rarely hit the vein right, first time. They make a show of wrapping the latex strip around my arm and slapping my forearm at the elbow joint to bring up the vein. They leave the lights off because, they say, they don’t want to wake me.

The light coming through the curtained window is dim. Dead people move in to watch. Their eyes really bulge when they see the needle go in.

“No,” I say, still weak and groggy. “Turn on the lights.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“You can’t see what you’re doing. It hurts.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

It’s because of the insulin. They give me four injections a day. Then they test and test and test. My life is punctuated by needles.

This morning I see someone standing at the foot of bed. Just her head and shoulders showing over the mattress. A little girl, maybe five. She’s dressed in a tiny stained hospital gown. “Hello,” I say as I look at her between my feet. She doesn’t respond, except to stare. “What’s you’re name?”

“Amanda,” the lab tech says.

“Not you,” I say pointing. “Her.”

Amanda looks over her shoulder and then back at me. “Ain’t nobody there, honey,” she says. She’s smiling the satisfied smile of a person whose most contented moments in life come from knowing that, despite her innate and considerable deficiencies, she is not numbered among the truly deranged. “I’ll let your nurse know you’re seeing little friends,” she says as the vacuum vial fills too slowly with my blood.

“No,” I say, a little too loud.

Amanda feigns mild shock, like she didn’t expect me to protest at her plan to inform on me. “For your own good, buddy boy,” she says. Then she wiggles the needle unnecessarily as she removes it, causing a blunt pain. She tapes a cotton ball onto my arm but intentionally misses the wound. Then she pushes my hand up to my shoulder, using too much force.

The little girl stands impassively, watching. “She’s mean,” she says. “I can push her down the stairs.”

I shake my head, imperceptibly I believe. But no. Amanda sees it. Inhales triumphantly, packs her kit and leaves the room.

“What’s your name,” I ask again.

“Ruby,” the little girl says. Her lips barely move, not enough to really form words.

“That’s a sweet name,” I say. “Don’t hurt Amanda, though. Okay?”

“She hurt you.”

“Not that much,” I say. “Not so bad that she needs to be hurt in return.”

“She’s mean to everyone,” Ruby says. “She was mean to me. She went through my things. She took a dollar and ninety-three cents out of my Hello Kitty purse.”

“That was a mean thing to do,” I concede. “Was that all of your money?”

“Every penny.”

“Were you saving up?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“Just saving.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Now I’m like this,” Ruby says.

“Like what?”

“Like a ghost, I guess. I guess I died.”

“Does that make you sad,” I ask. It’s hard to know what else to say.

“It’s scary. I don’t know when to go to bed anymore, and the other dead people just stand there and never say anything I can hear. They just watch me wherever I go. I guess I don’t really need my dollar and ninety-three cents now. They put all my things in a bag.”

“Will someone come for them,” I ask.

“Maybe,” Ruby says. Then, “I have to go.”

“Where?”

“Back. There’s still some of me left. They’re keeping me in the cold. I’ve never been so cold.”

“No,” I say getting up. “Don’t go back there.” But she’s gone.

The early sun is rising. Shining, for a moment, between the two curtains. The light is a narrow, vertical beam revealing particles moving on currents through the air. A lifeless galaxy of abandoned planets swirling.

psych ward #2

This part of the hospital is over a century old. It suffers the dull, monotonous ache of dissolving stone and warping timbers. There are rooms that have been sealed shut and are lost to the world. Inside of these rooms, the oldest ghosts fret and remember. I know these rooms are there when I walk past. The dark inside of them is absolute. But there’s the occasional sound of water dripping, steam pipes banging and, sometimes, there is weeping. A deep melancholic weeping for which there is no comfort. These are the ghosts with the biggest eyes, who see the most. They know Ruby’s death is a recent one, and they cannot condone her innocence. They hate her, but observe her greedily. They’ll feed on her if they can, even though she is little more than mist.

I know this like I know my own name. And I know the name of the oldest ghost, the most ravenous one. Danfort. I can’t make out when he died. Only that it was a long time ago. A century, perhaps more. When the hospital was a single granite building, some of which is still visible against the more modern, sprawling construction. Danfort was an amputee. His leg was smashed as he fell a tree. His stump went septic, then gangrenous. When they finished slicing away to the hip, and there was nothing left to cut, they injected him with ever increasing amounts of morphine. But the infection and pain grew in him like a monster. The monster thrived, and left him raving until the end. The end, when the nurses thanked Jesus that the horror was over and they were no longer required to endure in His name.

When he died, as Danfort’s ghost rose out of his body, it continued to rave and seethe. It was decades before the memories of the physical pain faded. He became a jealous ghost, envious of physical human existence. Unable to impact it, he directed his jealousy onto the newly dead and their fresh memories of tangible life. He became a predator, hunting them down and consuming them. Grinding them down with his blunt, grudging spectral molars, then swallowing them into his interior hell. There they shared his ever-growing anguish, hopelessly and without end.

I have seen Danfort in the halls at night. He chooses the darkest corners of the longest and most remote passages, avoiding the forever lights. He sees me and whispers my name, confident that human frailty will deliver me to him eventually.

I’ve watched him stalk the newly dead. They drag themselves, and the insubstantial remnants of what they left behind, an IV tower, a respirator or catheter, through the depths of the darkest corridors. I know what they’re looking for and know it’s nowhere to be found. They seek welcome and induction into their new world. Their expectations and inclinations remain, for now, the same as those they had while living. But here, there is no spiritual conduit. No hand for them to clasp that will lift them above. Perhaps that’s what Ruby hopes for. But there’s only darkness and isolation. Only immeasurable things.

“So,” Danfort says to me one night. He’s cornered me as I walk the darkness. “You speak with this Ruby.”

“No,” I say. “No Ruby. No talk.”

“Yesss,” Danfort says. “Yes, I think you do. You and Ruby, talking. She’s charming. You want to protect her. How darling. How hopeless.”

“No.”

“Oh, yes….”

psych ward #3

During the day Danfort hunkers down in shadow, gnawing on his discontent like a bone. I, on the other hand, must face those who staff the ward…

“How is your mood today,” a nurse asks. “On a scale of one to ten?”

“One,” I say.

“That’s very low,” she says looking down at my chart as though it’s some newly discovered artifact. “No better than yesterday. Any suicidal thoughts?”

“I’m swimming in them.”

“Thoughts of hurting anyone else?”

Our eyes meet, and I say, “Absolutely.”

“Hmm. That’s not good, is it?”

“Let me out of here,” I say. “My mood will improve vastly.”

“If we let you go, you’ll try to hurt yourself.”

“I didn’t say I’d hurt myself if you let me go.”

“But you just told me that your mood is one out of ten, and you’ve admitted to having suicidal and homicidal ideation.”

“But that’s because I’m here, you see. In these crappy pajamas, answering these ridiculous questions, eating the god-awful food, enduring your loathsome company.”

“The lab tech who took your blood sample this morning reported witnessing you responding to auditory hallucinations. Looks like we’ll have to increase your seroquel.”

“It wasn’t a hallucination,” I say a bit too loud. “This place has ghosts up the wazoo.”

The nurse begins to scribble. “Have you thought about ECT? Dr Myer asked you to consider it.”

“Forget it,” I say and slouch in my chair. Down the hall, Danfort steps out into the middle of the corridor. He’s smiling, displaying his considerable incisors. I sit up. “Look,” I yell, pointing.

The nurse calmly looks over her shoulder, but Danfort is gone. He’d never let her see him. She returns to her scribbling, and sighs the words, “Haloperidol injections….”

“Fuck,” I say. 

Pavilion: Ruby Night #3

It’s night again. They’ve increased my medication. I feel sedated and go to bed believing I’ll sleep straight through. The forever lights are burning when Ruby wakes me up.

“Don’t like it here,” she says.

“Me neither,” I say propping myself up on my elbows. She stands perfectly still at the end of my bed.

“My birthday’s tomorrow,” she says.

“Really? That’s November first. All Saints Day.  In honor of all saints known and unknown. That’s you, sweetheart. Saint Ruby, the unknown.”

“Huh?”

“Forget it. How old?”

“Seven.”

“A noble age.”

“You sick?”

“No,” I say.

“Why you here, then?” she says.

“I contradict conventional philosophy,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

“Crazy,” I say. “Because I want to let my ghost out.”

“Why?”

“It says it wants out.”

“That’s stupid,” she says. “It’s better inside of you.”

“Oh.”

“You know that thing with the big eyes?”

“They all have big eyes, sweetheart.”

“The biggest eyes – and the teeth.”

“You stay away from him,” I say sitting up.

“I can’t. He finds me where ever I hide.”

“Then stay here.”

She’s quiet for a moment. Then she says, “I want to go back.”

“Where?”

“Inside of me, my body. I don’t think he can get me there.”

“Your body gave you up,” I say. “You can’t go back.”

“I’m still in that cold place. I can hide there, inside of me.”

“No, baby. You can’t. That thing in the fridge, down in the morgue, it ain’t you no more. You’re all that’s left.”

“It’s too scary here. I hate it. When do I get to go home?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I say. There’s something like a tear in the corner of my eye.

She’s fading now. Perfectly still and expressionless, slowly disappearing. When she’s gone, her weeping begins. The sound of it penetrates all that’s substantial within the room, tearing it apart. I’m overwhelmed, powerless. I throw off the blankets and stand on the cold floor, weakened by the meds and staggering. I swing at the empty air like a boxer going down, and I move toward the glare of the forever lights.

* * * *

There’s an obscure logic that dictates the morgue must be in the lowest basement of a hospital’s oldest section, buried completely in the element of our ultimate end. There are tunnels here, nothing as civil as halls or corridors. Above me are dripping pipes and dim yellow bulbs strung on brittle wire. They expose the rough, unfinished century old concrete. The floor is smooth from a hundred years of gurneys conveying the dead. Somebody has written the word farewell on the wall in small cramped letters using a red felt pen. It’s the only graffiti.

I push through the double set of swinging doors at the end. Here there are white florescent tubes emitting an incomplete white light. There’s dripping in a sink, and a chemical smell that fails to mask decades of solemn human decay. Water from some unchecked source has pooled on the floor. On a counter, next to an array of electrical outlets, sits a soiled autoclave, opened with used scalpels and other sharp implements glinting in the light. Ruby stands beneath a square dingy door to a cooler. Her lips are moving rapidly now, as if she is speaking very fast. But I only hear a hiss. Danfort is here also, loitering maliciously in the bricks and concrete.

“You can’t be here, sweetheart,” I say.

“Then where,” she says, sounding strangely adult.

“I don’t know.”

“Mine,” Danfort whispers. “She’s for me.”

“No,” I shout, looking for him everywhere.

“Then intervene, weakling,” Danfort says. “Be her hero. Confront me.”

I look down at my cold bare feet on the wet yellow tiles. The blue veins conspiring to sustain a wasted life.

A bolt disengages and the cooler door swings open on its own. Somewhere a compressor begins to hum as the pallet cradling Ruby’s wasted corpse rolls out. Whatever took her life ravaged her body. It’s jaundice and skeletal; its eyes partially opened and lips parted, dried spittle on its cheek. The little gown it wears makes it seem obscene. The tiny hands are clenched into helpless fist.

“I want to go back,” she says.

Danfort laughs.

“No,” I say. “There nothing left to go back to.”

“Delicious,” Danfort whispers. Now he’s standing on the other side of the room. His huge eyes are moving wildly, back and forth and in exaggerated circles. He grins to reveals his teeth. “Come, my dear. Time for us, now.”

“No,” she says. “I won’t.”

I step in front of her, between her and Danfort. It’s a pointless gesture I know. I can only truly face him on his terms, on the other side. It’s an idea that came to me hours ago, or was it a lifetime ago? Not to end my life for my own selfish reasons, but to come to Ruby’s rescue. To find a way to guide her away from this place and out of the hands of Danfort. He appears before me and begins to walk towards us. Eyes wild but unseeing.

Scalpels in the autoclave shine through the gore. I reach over and take one. I hold it to my forearm and encounter a sudden, unfamiliar conflict. Something inside won’t allow me to apply the blade.

“Weakling,” Danfort whispers. “Yesss. Cut your wrists and take an hour to die. I will have devoured her whole by then. Go ahead.” Then he reaches out as if to take Ruby, and I see the 220 volt outlet next to the autoclave.

“I have a better idea,” I say, pushing the surgical steel knife into the outlet.