In honour of today being World Storytelling Day, I thought I would offer up something new. The idea behind Stories from the Dark has been on the list of things to do for almost a year now. I’m excited to put it out into the world, and to see how it changes and evolves with each instalment. I hope you like it spooky, because that’s what you’re gonna get…
I check my watch. She’s late. I was really hoping she wouldn’t be late.
Gaetan strides up beside me and flicks the butt of his cigarette into the dark. He blows smoke and watches me from the corner of his eye. “Relax. This will all be over soon.”
I chew on my lip and watch the crest of the hill. The cast iron park bench. The Victorian lamp post beside. A silhouette emerges from the shadows and Angelica stops under the bland electric light. Her coat is buttoned to her chin. Dark bangs cover her eyes. Her fiery red lips stand out like the ‘x’ on a treasure map.
My heartbeat hammers in my temples. “Okay. She’s here.”
“I see that.”
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
Gaetan frowns. “Of course. You need to trust me.”
“Right. Trust you.” My hand tightens around the handle of the cloth bag resting against my thigh. “Okay. Be right back.”
Gaetan steps away. “Remember to breathe.”
The click of my heels echo around me as I climb the path. Angelica is still as I approach, showing no recognition, until I stop next to her.
“Hello, Angelica. Thank you for meeting me.”
“It is confusing. Being told that we should not see each other. Then you ask me to meet you here, of all places.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just… I have something for you.” Her eyes follow as I hold the bag out. I swallow against the lump in my throat. “A gift. To say thank you.”
Her shoulders relax and she faces the darkness. One hand rises and pulls the top two buttons of her coat open. The lace fringe of her bra matches her lips. “You know how I prefer to be thanked, and how I show my gratitude in return.”
My intention to maintain eye contact fails. “I can’t. We can’t. You know that.” I stretch my arm. “Please.”
Angelica sighs and takes the bag. With the handles spread wide, she peers in, then for the first time to me. “What is this?”
“It’s, well, it’s a doll.”
She reaches in for the doll and lets the bag fall. When she squeezes the body, it crinkles. “It is made from?”
“Dried grass. I think.”
Angelica scowls. “Thomas, what have you—”
Her breath catches. What little colour her skin held evaporates. The whites of her eyes show, and she folds to the ground.
“Angelica?” I rush forward and take her free hand. The doll is clutched tight in the other. “Angelica, are you okay?” Her skin is cold, lips twisted in a permanent sneer.
I scramble away and run down the hill. Gaetan steps onto the path to join me. “So?”
“Gaetan, I think she’s dead. What did you do?”
“You asked me to take care of your situation. So, I did.”
I lace my hands over my head. “That… that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Perhaps next time you should clarify your expectations.” He leans out and looks along the path. “Besides, she is not dead. Only, incapacitated.”
“Next time? Wait… she’s okay?”
Gaetan puts his hands in his pockets. “We can discuss details another time, since you now find them of interest.” He walks the path toward the hill. “In the meantime, it would be best if we collect your girlfriend and leave.”
“Close your eyes. Pretend I’m not here.”
The woman shifted her position and lifted her head to flip the pillow to the cool side. Her focus on the white ceiling panels faded as her eyes shut. She folded her hands over her torso and settled. “I can hear you breathing.”
The man cleared his throat. His moist lips smacked when he opened his mouth.
“That’s not helping.” The woman cracked one eye. She wondered why it was so popular, this place, and its promises of miracle cures.
“Let’s begin with a count down from ten. Ten, nine, eight. Breath in from your diaphragm. Five, four, three. Good…” His voice flowed like cold oil. “Now, imagine a calm ocean. The sun is warm and inviting. No wind, no sound but the gentle undulation of the waves.” The man slunk forward in his seat. “Can you see it?”
Under closed lids, the woman rolled her eyes. “I see it.”
The man smiled. “Good.” He laid a metal pen along the spine of his notebook and set it on the arm of his chair. “Now, the sun begins to dim. It’s place in the sky is taken by a great blue orb. It radiates calm. It invites you to peace.”
The woman held her tongue.
“You are alone, but content. Feel your body relax. No sensation. No fear. Only the loving glow of the orb.” The man paused, watching the woman’s breath ease, as his own heartbeat increased. “It reflects off of the water. It is the only object in a great void.” He leaned forward on one knee. “The world is fading, but it’s okay. You are safe. You have no responsibilities, no cares.”
The man shifted forward and perched on the edge of his chair. As he scanned the woman, head to toe, the movement of a clock across the room was the only thing to interrupt the silence. The tone of his voice deepened, his paced slowed. “Embrace this new world. Leave the old behind. Can you do that?”
The woman did not respond.
The man swallowed with a click. “Good.” One hand reached out. A tremor emerged as the tips of his fingers grazed the soft fabric of the woman’s blouse, starting near her belt, and moving up.
The woman’s eyes sprang open and locked onto the man. They changed from soft and green to muddied and swirling like a storm cloud. The man froze.
She spoke in a whisper. “Change of plans, you don’t get your jollies today. Hand back.”
The man sat up straight and rested his hand on his knee.
The woman rose up without averting her attention. She ran a hand over her head and pulled her amber hair to one side. “I’m surprised you were brave enough on day one. Maybe brave isn’t the right word. If you’re this careless, I figured someone would have spoken up before they did. Lucky me…” The woman crossed her legs and smoothed one hand over her knee. “I’m going to give you a little control back. Pick up your book. I want you to write something out for me.”
The man sat, unmoving, his eyes wide.
The woman motioned to the arm of the chair. “Go on.”
The man’s hand shook as he lifted the pen and set the tip down on a blank page. His lower lip pushed away from his bottom teeth. Small dark eyes, below the slicked back widows peak and unkempt eyebrows, watched everywhere but the woman’s face.
“I want dates and names. As much detail as you can remember.” She tilted her head. “I’d say you could check the little leather diary you keep in the hidden compartment at the back of your bottom desk drawer, but I’m sure you’ve read back over it enough to remember what I need.”
After a moment of hesitation, the pen scratched in fits and starts. One page filled, then two. As he started the third, the pace faltered. His eye twitched.
The woman smiled. “You just figured out who told me, didn’t you? She probably made a slight movement, or blinked, but you’re so sure of yourself, even as you’ve become so careless. It’s good. Remember her face. Remember who set this in motion.”
The man’s jaw clenched. His body seized as he fought for control.
The woman drew in a deep breath and refocused her attention.
A small noise escaped the man’s pursed lips. The scratching of the pen started once again, slow at first, but soon became frantic. With four pages filled, the man licked at his lips with the tip of his tongue and set the notepad down beside him.
“Good.” The woman snuck a glance to the large horizontal window along the far wall, and the empty air past it. “You know, it’s such a nice day.” She turned her turbulent eyes back to the man. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get some fresh air?”
The man turned his head. He stood and took slow, uneven steps toward the clear pane of glass. A few paces away, he stopped and stared, before looking back to the woman.
She stretched her arms out along the back of the couch and leaned into it. “You’re smart. Figure it out.”
The man’s eyes homed in on the oversized executive desk in the middle of the room, and the marble carving of an ancient fertility god perched on one corner. He shuffled next to the statue, hefted it in one hand, then spun and threw it at the window. As the glass cascaded down, the man was already running. With his arms raised over his head, he dove through the bare frame. He made no sound, until the dull thud of his body impacted on the concrete walk below. In the distance, someone screamed.
The woman stood and her eyes cleared. She mussed her hair and undid the top two buttons of her blouse. With a deep breath in, she wrenched her lips and cried out. “Oh my God, someone please help!”
Through the wisps of smoke from the fire, the first sliver of the full moon rises above the hills. She illuminates the clouds breaking overhead until they disappear altogether and stands alone in the autumn sky. I wish her tidings for All Hallows Eve, speak of the time since I’ve seen her last, and how a handful of weeks can feel like a lifetime.
With one hand tracing the intricate lace pattern of my dress, I remind her of my once pending wedding ceremony. How Aldus and I would have set out for the south the next day to start our new life. I tell her how those days were filled with tears of sorrow instead of joy. My voice is low as I speak of Aldus, his final trip through the valley with a bounty from the markets strapped to his small boat, the storm, and how the black water chose to embrace him.
I compose myself and focus off into the night, a night where the veil between worlds may be as thin as the one that should have covered my face. I search for more to say, but the words do not come. I turn back to the fire. My fingers graze the folded paper on my lap. I clear my throat, make a silent request, then lean forward.
The letter drifts away from my hand and settles on the glowing coals. The corners of the paper curl and blacken. Soon it flares and shrivels, casting light into the eerie calm. As the light fades, my eyes adjust once again to the darkness. A slumped shadow stands across the fire. Long hair stuck to their face. A tattered overcoat, once crisp and new, now dark and heavy with the scent of stale water and earth.
I do not look away as a piece of ashen paper floats away on the breeze. A smile fights for space as sadness flows from my eyes. “Hello, my love.”
Danger. That’s what the sign says. Door must not be opened except at stations. It’s like seeing, Caution: Contents Hot, on a coffee cup. If you don’t know, you deserve what you get. If you do, maybe it’s a way of getting what you deserve.
The train car is half empty. Between travel restrictions and mandatory shifts below surface, Sunday mornings are slow. Fewer passengers. Less security. I stand and hold the metal bar on the back wall as the tracks begin to rise. The creak of the near two-hundred-year-old wood floor is insignificant to the groans of the car as it strains around a bend.
The need for transportation saved these relics from being recycled. One of the many instances of our new reality after the solar storms. Steam returned to favour when our ability to harness electricity in a reliable fashion failed. Demolition is no longer a brute endeavour. Because trees no longer grow, the integrity of every precious reclaimed piece has to be maintained.
Two cars up, the siren sounds. Then the car ahead. The person closest in our car stands, and illuminated by the dim oil lamps, turns the crank. The wail continues on down the line. I shield my eyes, and we blast through to the surface. Even through the treated glass, the sunlight carries power. I feel it through the toes of my shoes.
I look along the rows of seats. Some of the other passengers have donned their goggles. All face away. Alone, but together. I prefer the former, especially now. The train lumbers on. I don’t have much time, so I step toward the door. Nobody turns to watch. I take another, grip the silver knob, then slowly unlatch the draw bolt.
The door snaps open and my skin is on fire. If not in a literal sense, then close enough to. I stare into the light until my vision is taken. My lungs fill with scalding air as I step through the door. My feet leave the wood floor and I am delivered to my fate.
I lowered and folded my newspaper onto my lap. I wasn’t looking to be interrupted, and I’m sure it showed, right up until I looked into those eyes.
I don’t read a lot of books, but it felt like I had been dropped smack dab in the middle of a dime store paperback. The sky was bluer than I remembered it being before, the birds sang beautiful melodies, and all that. When I say she could have been a model, it’s the truest words to ever leave my mouth. The only reason I could think of to look away would be to figure out where the photographer was hiding.
“Would you happen to know when the next train is due to arrive?”
It took a moment to shift my brain into gear. I stole a glance at my watch and stuttered before I was able to work my lips enough to speak the Queen’s English. “About half-past. I mean, ‘bout five or so minutes from now.”
She smiled and I knew I could die a happy man. “Thank you, that’s perfect.” She motioned a gloved hand to the empty seat beside me. “May I?”
I almost told her I’d give her my last twenty bucks if she would but smartened up at the last second. “Of course.”
I tucked the paper between my leg and the arm of the bench. She sat with her back straight and her purse on her lap. After looking both ways along the tracks, she looked at me from the corner of her eye. “Nice watch, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks.” I shook it on my wrist. “A friend gave it to me.”
“Must be some friend.”
I shrugged. “It was a unique situation.”
“Forgive me, I should have introduced myself.” She held out a hand, like a lady used to. “Rochelle.”
I was as awkward as ever, grabbed the tips of her fingers and bobbed them once or twice. I don’t know about her, but I did my best to pretend it never happened. “Gerald.”
Gerald? Jesus H Christ. Not sure why I slipped up and used my real name. Besides, nobody called me that but my mother.
“Where are you off to today, Gerald?”
“Oh, you know, the city.”
She leaned forward on one knee, raised an eyebrow and gave a mischievous smile. “Business, or pleasure?”
“And what is it you do? For business.”
I had to give my collar a tug so as to breathe right. “A little of this, a little of that. I find things, mostly.”
She rested her chin on her closed fist and bit at her bottom lip. “Intriguing.”
The sensation started in my feet and travelled up to my chest. At first, I thought it might be a heart attack. Turns out it was the south-bound train.
I turned to solid marble when she leaned in and put a hand on my knee. “I do wish we had more time to chat. Perhaps fortune will smile upon us and we will meet again one day.
I nodded but couldn’t manage much else. Lucky I didn’t drool, I guess. She stood and glided along the platform, disappeared around the ticket booth. The train ground to a halt in front of me. The smoke and racket hardly registered. I let out a breath and picked up the paper. When I lifted my wrist to check my watch, it wasn’t there. Pressure rose up in my temples, like a volcano about to blow. I set a hand on the pocket where I kept my wallet. It was flat. I had to shake my head. Taken by a pretty face. Again.
I reached inside my jacket. The ticket was still there, at least. It meant I could get to the job and get paid. After that I’d be in a good spot to take a few days off and go find Rochelle, if that was even her name, and see about getting my watch back.