Melancholy Rain

cove-man

By: J.J. Cheesman

 

May 16th, 2016 will be a tragic memory forever etched into my brain. It’s a stain on my life that I will never be able to wash out. There are many things about the night Alice died that I won’t forget. The sound of the busting glass, the screams she’d made, the crimson that poured from her beautiful light-brown hair as she sat lifeless in the seat next to me. The sound of rain drops hitting pavement used to be a calming sound to me, but now it only brings the memory of her screams back to my ears. Tomorrow will be nearly twelve months to the day that my wife was taken away from me, and the horror that has followed me since is not limited to the guilt of being in the driver’s seat when I lost her. God I wish it was.

Alice and I were married in the spring, her favorite time of year. The spring was the season for rain in Illinois, and Alice loved the rain, an irony that isn’t lost on me now. Whenever there was a downpour, she would sit out on the porch reading and listening to the sound the water made as it assaulted the roof.

“There is nothing more calming than the sound of rain”, she’d say.

Fate has a cruel sense of humor.

We were driving home after having a couple of drinks with her brother Barry, and his wife Patricia. They had a little gathering of friends at their house, nothing special, just a little get-together they were hosting. We weren’t out late, by the time we left their house it was 8:30 P.M., and it was pouring rain.

I know what you’re probably thinking, I wasn’t drunk driving. It was Alice’s car that we had taken, and when she realized I’d only been sipping on one beer the whole night because I simply wasn’t in the drinking mood, she handed me the keys. The rainfall was hard and heavy, I remember distinctly the sound of both of our phones going off as we got in the car, warning us of the Flash-Flood Advisory.

“Thank god they told us now, I’d hate to get caught in nasty weather!” Alice exclaimed after looking at the screen of her cell. I laughed as I turned the key in the ignition. She always made me laugh.

Flooding on the roads hadn’t happened yet, but I knew it would soon, so I was eager to get home. I backed out of Barry and Patricia’s driveway and drove as quickly as the speed limit would allow to our house. It was only a five-minute drive, that’s all. We should have been home safely, regardless of the rain. I was going too fast, that’s all there is to it. I have no excuse or good reason for my wife’s death, Alice died all because I wanted to be home as quick as possible. Three minutes into the drive, we made it to the bridge that connected our neighborhood to the rest of town. Alice took off her seatbelt and leaned over. She rested her head on my shoulder and I looked down at her. She had her eyes closed, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail to keep it off her neck, she always did that when she drank. She hated being over-heated. With her hair out of the way, I could see every feature on her face. The way her nose crooked just slightly at its tip, her wonderfully-round cheeks, and her absolutely perfect dimples.

I admired her for a moment, just a moment. A habit I exercised often, and one that Alice always hated.

“What are you looking at?” She would ask if she caught me staring.

“Just you.” I’d say.

“Well stop, it’s weird.” She’d reply.

Even with her eyes closed and being a bit tipsy, Alice knew I was looking.

“You should be looking at the road.” She said without opening her eyes.

I smiled, and looked back up at the bridge. Just up ahead, a truck was stalled with its hazard lights on. If I had simply pressed down on the brake calmly instead of slamming my foot down, if I had just remained calm and turned the steering wheel to pass it, Alice would still be alive, but this isn’t a story about ‘what if’s’. The sudden appearance of the truck startled me, and my foot came down hard on the brake. The car hydroplaned, and I lost control of the vehicle as the tires squealed the entire way, slamming the front of the car into the metal guard rail of the bridge. Alice’s screaming came before the crash, and my ears were pierced by her cry of fear and surprise before her body was thrown away from me, and her head slammed into the passenger-side window. When the car made impact, my own head hit the steering wheel hard as the windshield busted out from the sheer force of the crash, and glass showered over me. The air bags released late, and I was thrown back in my seat.

Everything after the moment I hit my head is a blur. Two days after that night, I woke up in the hospital, the doctor told me I had what was known as a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, but given the state of the vehicle, I should consider myself lucky, I disagreed. The last moments in that car that I could recall were brief. I sat with my head laid against my head-rest, trying to keep my eyes open. I was blinking slowly, I was unable to move my arms, and blood was pooling around my eyes making it difficult to see, but I did see. Alice laid unmoving with her head on the dash. She had blood on her as well, but god there was so much of it. I could see it running from her head and down her back, staining her pearl-white blouse. The blood ran down her cheeks, dripping off of her perfect dimples. By some odd chance, blood had not run into her eyes.

Her beautiful, stunning green eyes. They were wide open, and staring into mine, full of pain and anguish. They seemed to be accusatory, demanding an answer for why I let this happen, and I could only sob in answer. The last thing I remember is the sound of the rain hitting pavement before I blacked out.

There is nothing more calming than the sound of rain.

 

My life was never the same after the accident, not in anyway. Along with waking up with the worst headache I’d ever had, the doctor said I might experience the loss of memory or motor function. At first it seemed like I suffered none of those symptoms, as I could move my hands and arms fine and there wasn’t anything I felt I couldn’t recall clearly, aside from the obvious exception of the moments after the crash. It wasn’t until they pulled out the catheter and I got out of bed to walk for the first time that I realized what the incident had done to me. Walking was difficult at first, the few days I had spent lying in that bed had caused me to be unable to do it unassisted, and I had to use the walker they provided, it wasn’t until I tried walking without it that I realized what was wrong, and what would be wrong for the rest of my life.

My right leg had become bum, and I walked with a terrible limp. The hospital provided me with a cane, and they offered to schedule my first physical therapy appointment, but I refused to go. Of course, the doctor insisted. He said that it was very likely that with treatment I could achieve full control over my right leg, but I stood steadfast in my refusal. I didn’t want any god damned therapy. The most wonderful thing in my life had been ripped away from me, and it was my fault. It might make you think ill of me, but sometimes people can’t help but let tragedy color them bitter, and I was as bitter as they come. To me, the bum leg was punishment for what happened to Alice, a sort of atonement for the hand I had in taking her life. As I wrote that out it actually made me laugh. My punishment hadn’t even begun.

The first rain came about a month after the crash. I’d lived in a little town called Browning, and in all my time there I’d never seen us go without rain for that long. For anyone who’s lived in the Midwest, they know that weather can act up in every way imaginable. It can be calm on Monday, have tornadoes and snow on Tuesday, and then be clear skies again on Wednesday, and that’s no exaggeration. Still, I had never known Browning to go without rain for longer than a week, especially in the Spring season. It wasn’t until that first rain that I realized something about my bum leg. It could feel the rain coming in.

I was taking a nap on Monday afternoon, sleeping off some heavy day-drinking I’d done earlier, which was something I was prone to after Alice’s death. The crash had caused injury to my head most certainly, and the pain I’d felt in my skull days afterward was almost unbearable, but that was the first time since the crash that I’d experienced pain in my right leg. I woke up from my nap with a terrible pain that felt like daggers in my thigh. I sat up in bed and massaged my leg for a moment, but the pain only seemed to increase. I thought maybe walking on it would help, so I grabbed the cane that was leaning near my bedside, and using it for support I stood up. I walked to the other end of the house, near the front door, and the pain seemed to subside a little. Then I turned around and walked down the hall and into the kitchen, and then back to the front door once more. Repeating this several times, the pain was almost completely gone, and only a faint twinge of discomfort remained in my right thigh.

I sighed and leaned against the hall by my front door. My heart was thudding in my chest, and I was out of breath. Maybe get a little more exercise, I thought. The heavily depressed state I was in since the accident had left me all but a shut-in. I still went to work, but a desk job at the court house didn’t offer much physical exercise, and I never had to talk to anyone. After work I’d come straight home and either drink or sleep. Leaning there on that wall and thinking about how out of shape I had gotten, I had an image of me running on a treadmill with my messed-up leg, bouncing and swaying with the limp as the treadmill belt moved at high speeds, and I actually laughed. It was the first time I’d laughed in a month.  A brief and silly moment of pleasure I’d allowed myself. Then, in an instant, my smile faded from my face with the arrival of the sound. Rainfall.

I hadn’t realized it until then, for some reason it hadn’t even crossed my mind, but that was the first time I’d heard rain since the night I was in that car, staring into Alice’s lifeless, accusatory eyes. The near-constant drunken stupor I’d put myself in hadn’t given me much time for such thought. But there in that hall the revelation came like an orchestra of stones on my head that kept in time with the raindrops on my roof. My cane fell from my hand, and clattered to the floor as I used the wall for support, and cried in my hands. Whatever little comfort or healing the alcohol had brought to me had been undone with the simple sound of water falling, and it was like I’d never left that car. I don’t know how long I cried in that hallway, but eventually I stooped down to pick up my cane, and resolved to go back to bed.

Before I took a step however, I was stopped by a sudden and sharp knocking at the front door. Four knocks to be precise, one right after the other. I stopped in my tracks, and turned slowly toward the jarring sound. For some reason, a terrible dread had washed over me. No one ever knocked at that door. In the five years that I’ve lived in my home, anyone who visited only ever used the doorbell. I was a little surprised, so it took me a moment to find my voice.

“Jus… Just a minute!” I croaked, as I shambled over to see who was knocking. I opened the front door, and for a moment, as I looked out into the open space of my large covered front porch, I saw nothing but the dark rainy street beyond. It was when I looked down on the floor, that I saw her. Laying there on the porch she at one time sat on rainy days such as that, was Alice.

I cried out in surprise and fell back, hitting the floor of my home hard as I stared out at the body of my dead wife. Her body shouldn’t have been there, I was at the front of the crowd of mourners when they lowered Alice’s casket into the ground, and I watched as they piled dirt on the lid of her coffin. It was impossible for her to be there now, but there she was, just as I remembered. Not like she looked after the mortician had worked his magic and made her body presentable for the open-casket visitation, but like she looked in the car the night of the accident. Blood stained the back of her pearl-white blouse, and ran from her head down her cheeks. She was facing the door way, the blood somehow staying out of her eyes, those accusatory eyes. Wide eyes that stared straight into mine, demanding that I give some sort of explanation for her death.

“No… No… You aren’t real.” I spoke in a shaky whisper,

“There’s no way you’re real, you’re dead.”

I began to sob and I closed my eyes, praying that this was some sort of dream, convincing myself that when I opened them, Alice would be gone. I kept my eyes shut for a long while, listening to the awful sound of rain hitting the pavement, when I heard something else. It was a kind of low gurgling sound that was just loud enough to hear above the rain, and it made my blood run cold. Slowly, I opened my eyes and saw that Alice was still there, eyes still wide and anguished, but there was something else. Movement.

Along with the horrific gurgling sound, came a new and terrifying sight as well. Alice’s blood stained pearl-white blouse was moving steadily. There was definite visible rise and fall of the fabric, as if she was breathing. Then, all of a sudden, the blouse jerked violently, and I screamed. I turned and crawled on all fours into the hall, and kicked the door shut with my foot. Falling back against the door, I reached up with my hand and turned the deadbolt, locking out the apparition of my memory. For a long time, I simply sat in front of my door and listened to the rain while I waited. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I thought if I left the door unguarded, Alice’s ghost would burst through it and come for me.

It was only after the rain stopped that I found the courage to stand with the aid of my cane. I cursed my luck for having a front door with no window or peep hole as I slowly cracked it open. I peered out and scanned the front porch, expecting to see Alice still there, watching me. She was nowhere to be seen, only the first rays of sunlight peeking out from behind the clouds. Shutting and locking the door, I turned and made my way back to my bedroom, and opened the drawer on the nightstand beside my bed. After Alice died, her mother and father, along with her brother, asked if they could take some things of hers. Some pictures, a couple pieces of jewelry, and an old sweater her mother had knitted for her. I obliged, in fact, I asked them if they would remove everything from the house that belonged to her. They did so, with some hesitation, knowing that I would regret the decision, which I did. At the time, though, I thought it might help with the grieving process. What a fool I was.

Within the nightstand, I found Alice’s wedding ring, the only possession I had left of her. I scooped it in my hand and felt the weight of it as I squeezed it into my palm. Then, I fell into my bed, and cried myself to sleep, still holding onto that ring.

Two weeks went by before our next rain in Browning, and like before I felt it coming like fire in my right leg. I was at home sitting on the sofa after work, one of the few times I’d opted not to drink after coming home. The T.V. was on an old episode of “Roseanne” that was nearly finished, when that pain flared up in my leg again.  This time I didn’t move to try to walk it off, I knew what was coming. A minute later, the pain in my leg dulled, and heralded by the distant sounds of thunder, the rain came. I closed my eyes, hoping to god that what I thought would be coming next didn’t come. But of course, it did. Four sharp knocks echoed out through my home, and that terrible dread fell over me like a veil. I shook my head and spoke to myself.

“No. Don’t you dare go to that door. You didn’t hear anything.”

I turned my attention to the T.V., now on some show I’d never seen before. Surely, if I just didn’t go to check, if I just pretended that I didn’t hear anything, everything would be okay. Then my heart sank at the next sound that rang out through the house. It was the gurgle. That damned gurgling sound I’d heard before, only this time it was loud enough that I could hear it while I sat in my living room. In an effort to drown out the noise, I grabbed the remote beside me and turned up the volume on the television set. With the volume as loud as I could make it, I sat as quiet as I could be, waiting.

The gurgling was still there. Only this time it was louder as the sound rose above the noise of the television and the ever-increasing intensity of the rain. Shaking, I grabbed my cane and hobbled into the kitchen, where I poured myself a tumbler of cheap whiskey and sucked it down like my life depended on it. The amber liquid warmed my insides, but it did nothing to still my shaking hands as I could hear that gurgle increase in volume. With tears in my eyes I made my way to the bedroom and found Alice’s ring in the nightstand, and I laid in bed, sobbing and clutching the ring like a totem to ward of her haunting spirit. I don’t know how long I laid there listening to that awful gurgle and the pounding rain, but eventually, the rain ceased. As I suspected it would, the gurgling sound followed the rain.

That’s when I knew for sure. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, but for some reason, the rain brought my wife to my front door. There was a lot about what was happening to me that didn’t make sense, but I knew one thing for certain. I wasn’t going to go through that nightmare again.

I watched weather reports, and googled when the next predicted rains would come. As good as a meteorologist my bum leg was, I needed to know a little sooner than right before a rain would come. When rain was scheduled for a day, I would make sure I was at a bar, or if it was coming at night I spent my time at the twenty-four-hour diner in town. I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

The next rain came three days after the second time I was visited by my wife. As soon as I was off work I made my way to a little hole-in-the-wall bar I knew to wait for the coming rain. It wasn’t like I didn’t spend most of my time drinking anyway. I sat down at the counter of the mostly-empty bar, and I ordered a Manhattan, (I was always partial to whiskey) and I waited for the pain in my leg to come. After an hour of sitting in the bar, the fire in my leg began, and ended, as it had before. Just like before, the rain followed almost immediately after the pain ended, and I smiled in triumph after I heard no knocking.

I raised my glass to toast with myself to my genius, the few occupants in the bar didn’t pay me any mind though. Bringing the glass to my lips, I began to drink, but I was stopped abruptly by that damn sound. Four knocks came, the same four sharp knocks that always seemed to begin the arrival of Alice. I shivered.

“No.” I whispered aloud to myself.

“What’s that? did you need another order son?” The older gentleman behind the bar asked. I looked up at him, my mouth slightly agape, and I lowered my drink.

“Didn’t you hear that? Someone knocked at the door.” I told him.

“I didn’t hear anything.” The old man replied. The color drained from my face, and I could feel a cold sweat form on my forehead. The man’s brow furrowed, and he asked,

“You alright bud?”

After he spoke those words, that terrible gurgling sound began to fill my ears. I watched the man’s face, waiting for him to hear what I was hearing and react, but he didn’t. His expression remained stern and concerned.

“Uh… Yeah.” I said finally, the gurgling now growing in volume.

“Just uh… just a headache is all.”

The old man nodded, and turned away as two patrons opened the door to the entrance of the bar. I looked up, but not at the two young men with their elbows locked with one another, but behind them. In the space between their legs, through the open door, I saw her eyes. Alice’s ghost followed me, even there to that bar, waiting for me. Before the door shut, I saw her body rock slightly, and I shuddered. While the new customers placed their drink orders, I held my head in my hands. The gurgling grew in volume in my ears, and of course, no one seemed to hear it. Why was that? How come no one could hear what was happening? Why didn’t the men see Alice when they walked in? Was I going crazy?

That day I stayed at the bar until the rain stopped, walking home hours later, drunk and crying. For months, I went on like that, I went anywhere public when I was sure it would rain. It didn’t stop the visions of Alice, but being around people made the ordeal easier. It was five months after the first haunting, that a new sound joined the gurgling. Crying.

It was low, and small, but it was there, just behind the gurgling. It was supposed to rain early one Tuesday morning, so I made my way to the diner. I sat drinking coffee, waiting for the whole process to start again. First the pain, then the rain, then the gurgle. It was always the same. Not that time though.

When the rain did come, I made sure I was staring down into my coffee. If I looked up through the glass of the diner, I would surely see Alice. The gurgling came next, loud as ever, god it was a sound that was enough to drive a man mad. Then, all at once, I heard it. It was a soft and low, crying. It was definitely not something I’d expected. The sound was so startling I looked around the diner to see where it was coming from. When the few people in the diner hadn’t looked up with me, when no one seemed to even acknowledge the sound, I knew where it was coming from. The sound broke my heart. Alice was crying now, and it was all my fault. Jesus fucking Christ, it was all my fault. All her pain and suffering, it was because of me.

That was when I broke. I waited out the rain like always before I made my way home. I no longer cared if my wife was at my door anymore. I no longer cared about the haunting’s I would endure, what more would come after the crying. This was my hell, and I deserved every single second of it. Hell, I hoped that one day, Alice would come and pull me out of my bed, and pull me into the dirt with her.

Three more months passed, whenever the rain and the knocks came, I laid in bed, holding onto my wife’s ring, and cried along with her. The crying only got louder and louder, and that was the worst part. It seemed to get closer, as if Alice was just finding her voice. Those days became a blur. My work had long been suffering, and I was sure I’d be fire any day. I wasn’t getting much sleep for obvious reasons, not to mention I’d come in still half-drunk more often than not. My daily routine was always the same. Work, drink, sleep, repeat.

Then came the dream.

I dreamt of the night we went to Barry and Patricia’s to have those drinks on that fateful night. I didn’t dream of the accident though. I dreamt of the hour before we left our home. In our bed, locked in embrace, we had made passionate love. My hands lost in her beautiful light-brown hair, and hers in mine, as we kissed. She opened her beautiful green eyes, and stared into mine. She was just so god damned beautiful, and she didn’t even realize it.

“I have a good feeling about this time.” She’d told me.

“Oh, really?” I laughed.

“Yeah, this is the one.” She smiled, but her look was serious.

Suddenly, and the sound of four knocks rang out from the front of the house. It was Barry, who had dropped by to let us know about the get together he was having that night. I looked back at our bedroom door, wondering who was at the front door, and turned to look at Alice. Her eyes went vacant. Then her smile faded along with the light in her eyes, and blood began to pool on the pillow she laid on, and I heard crying.

With a jolt, I woke up. It was night, and I could hear that crying, as clearly as I could hear the rain pattering on my roof. Tears rolled down my face, and I opened up my palm to reveal my wife’s ring in my hand. The revelation the dream brought was horrifying, but now everything made sense. I stood, grabbing my cane and hobbling toward the front door, almost not in control of my own body. All the pieces had come together. The way Alice’s blouse moved when the hauntings first began, the gurgling sound that was almost like someone struggling to breath (which I had assumed was Alice’s breathing), and then the crying. Crying that with a sober mind I had realized couldn’t possibly be Alice. Somehow, she was right though. Somehow, Alice knew just hours before she’d died, that we had conceived a child.

I wasn’t being haunted by Alice, of course I wasn’t. Alice knew I loved her, she knew I never meant for the crash to happen. But how could an existence, that hadn’t even gotten the chance to breathe yet, understand that I loved it? How could it know why I never held it in my arms?

Before I knew it, I stood in front of the front door of my home. The crying grew louder and louder as the rain outside pounded heavier and heavier. I hesitated a moment before doing anything. I didn’t know what I’d find at the other end of the door, but I decided that nothing would ever change if I didn’t find out. I would face what lay out there, and I would make amends. It was time I’d forgiven myself for what happened. It was time I apologized to my unborn child. Filled with new hope and vigor, I took a deep breath and put my hand on the doorknob, and slowly opened the door.

Blood turned to ice in my veins as I stared down at the horrific sight. Alice was nowhere to be found. Instead, swaddled in her blood-stained pearl-white blouse, was a baby. At least, what would have been a baby had it been allowed a natural birth. Instead, what I stared at was a gruesome and malformed entity that had never been given the chance to breath. Its flesh was gray and covered in varicose veins, its eyes were sunken and all-white. The child’s head was misshapen and missing bits of flesh. It cried, and wailed as it flung it’s claws up at me. Its scream was loud and angry, and hateful.

I was such a fool. I thought that I could make amends, I thought that I could put things right, but that was impossible. The thing that laid out there, crying on my doorstep, that wasn’t a baby. It was a shell. It’s what’s left when something innocent is just beginning to take life, and has it stripped away in an instant. Defeated and more heart-broken than I’d ever been, I shut the door and once again, I found myself falling against it. I sat with a stone face and listened. I listened to the wailing angry cries of my unborn child. Cries full of nothing but disdain for the father that took its life.

When finally, the rain stopped and the crying subsided, I made plans to move to somewhere where it hardly ever rained. I’ve been living in Nevada for about three months now on what little savings I had. I’ve been lucky so far, I’ve not had to deal with any rain yet, but I don’t intend on ever dealing with it. It took this long to work up the courage to do what needs done, I have my dad’s .45 that I’ve only ever shot once when I was very young, but I don’t really need to be a good shot to do what I’m about to do. This is the last thing I will ever write, my account to explain why exactly I’m doing this. I can’t bear to hear that crying again. Even if I could, what happens then? The second casualty of my reckless driving has been growing little-by-little, what happens when it grows up?

No… I don’t intend to find out. I still have Alice’s ring, and believe it or not, it does still provide some comfort. At least in some way, I won’t feel completely alone when I go.

I’m so sorry Alice, things should have ended much better for you, for me, for our child. I wish I could face what I’ve done, but I’m a coward. A scared child in the face of something I don’t understand. You told me once that there’s nothing more calming than the sound of rain, but I know now there’s nothing more terrifying.

Melancholy Rain

Grandmother’s Keyboard

 

cove-man

-By: J.J. Cheesman 

 

I was twelve years old when my grandmother began teaching me to play piano. She was in a band when she younger, and she was extremely good. Although, I only got to hear her play once. I never even knew that she played piano for the longest time. I think it reminded her too much of when she was younger, or maybe she just didn’t like it like she used to. In truth, I don’t know. But I do wish I heard her play more often, or had a recording of her music. Whenever she played I was completely entranced. The beautiful music that woman’s fingers could produce was unlike anything I had ever heard before.  I remember the feeling of hearing her music, closing my eyes, and wanting to fall back into the soothing melody that came from those old keys.

 

I wasn’t the happiest kid when I was younger. I wasn’t what some may call a ‘problem child’, but I had my fair share of issues. My doctor diagnosed me with ADHD, and I always felt down, sad even. Maybe I should have talked to someone about that, the depression that is. But I was already taking medication for something, and I didn’t want to add something to that list. I still don’t in fact. I, for the most part, ignore my depression and anxiety. That sounds insane, right? Can you even have anxiety if you can claim that it’s something that is able to be ignored? Well, I wouldn’t have thought so, not before that piano.

 

It was the summer, and my grandmother was watching over me one night while my mother was at work. I wasn’t the type to go outside and play, I was always inside, watching T.V. or reading. Nothing bothered me more than social interaction. To this day, I hate it. People expect too much out of you, you’re expected to give into social norms and act according to other people’s standards. So, I always opted to stay in, and that day was no different. I was watching some silly show, when my grandmother came in from the kitchen.

 

“Ronnie, you’re watching T.V. again huh?” She said. I didn’t speak or even turn to look at her, I just nodded. Through the corner of my eye, I could see her place her hands on her hips.

 

“Well, do you want to come help me in the garden?”  Again, no eye contact, I just simply shook my head. She waited for a moment, and I could feel her eyes on me, searching me. Then she simply walked into her bedroom, and didn’t return. After about twenty minutes, I heard it. Piano keys, played in an arranged tune that was hauntingly beautiful. It was sad and somber, but it was also hopeful and innocent. It stirred emotions in me that I wasn’t aware I’d had, it was entrancing. My feet picked me up and carried me to my grandmother’s bedroom almost on their own accord. My grandmother sat there on a stool in the corner of the room. She was playing on a keyboard she must have pulled out of storage in the open closet, because I had never seen it before then. Her fingers danced and played among the keys with such speed and grace that it was just as hypnotizing to watch her play as it was to listen.

 

It is hard to tell how much time passed while I sat on the bed listening to my grandmother play. If I had to guess, it was only a couple of minutes, but as the music filled my eardrums and wrapped me in its embrace I became lost in it. Time didn’t have meaning then, nor did I or the room I was sitting in. The only thing that existed, was Grandma and her piano. Something was calling out to me from the arrangement of notes, a meaning, a message. A message that I almost very nearly understood. Then, all at once, it stopped. The magic spell that the music had cast over me was over, and I opened my eyes. I didn’t even realize they were closed.

 

My grandmother sat turned in her seat smiling at me.

 

“Did you like it?” She asked.

 

“It was beautiful!”

 

She nodded to the chair she kept at her writing desk and said,

 

“Good, I’m going to teach you how to play. You need an outlet. I think you’re a lot like me Ronnie. When I was a girl, I didn’t like to talk to friends or play outside. Your great grandmother found that frustrating. She hated that I didn’t like to talk, but you know what I figured out?” I stood up and moved the chair by the writing desk and place it beside my grandmother’s stool, and took a seat.

 

“What’s that?” I asked.  She leaned in real close and said,

 

“There are many different ways of speaking.”, then began to play.

 

So, that’s how it started. For hours and hours my grandmother sat at that keyboard. That first day she taught me the keys, and the second day, and then the next. Two weeks went by, and I visited my grandmother every single day, eager to learn more. It took the entirety of that two weeks to know every key by heart though. The house was filled with the intermittent tones of notes as I struggled to get down the basics. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was the first tune I ever played, then I moved on to “We Three Kings”, which at the time I was quite fond of. I learned to play progressively more difficult music, my grandmother always the willing and masterful teacher. I started slow, but under her tutelage I became increasingly more adept at the keys.

 

“Your skill will grow with your soul.” My grandmother would say.

 

“Music is written into the very essence of our being. It is every bit alive as you and I are.”

 

 After six months, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was child’s play to me. My skills at the keyboard were rapidly improving, and soon I felt as if there was nothing I couldn’t play. I don’t mean to sound full of myself, on the contrary. I would be nothing without the lessons I received. All of my talent, great or miniscule, is owed to that wonderful woman. However, as much time as I spent with my grandmother in those days, I never again heard her play that haunting melody. Sure, she played all the famous pieces for the sake of teaching me, but never again did she play her own music. Then one day, I realized I would never hear that song again.

 

My grandmother passed away in her sleep at seventy-two years old. She had a brain tumor, something she knew about but never mentioned anything to any of her family members. My mother said that she was surprised it hadn’t affected her memory or brain function near the end of her life. It all of a sudden made sense to me why my grandmother never playing that song again. The tumor had affected her memory. I was heart-broken and devastated. My teacher, my best friend, and my grandmother were all taken from me in the night. What was I going to do? The only person who understood me, and really knew how I felt, was gone.

 

“There is more than one way of speaking”, my grandmother told me, and the service held for her spoke volumes. All sorts of people I had never seen before, or haven’t since, for that matter, showed up for her funeral. Distant family members from out of state, old friends that grandma had when she was younger, and believe it or not, even her mailman was there. It still amazes me that my grandmother touched so many people’s lives. Everyone I over-heard speaking talked about how wonderful of a woman she was and that she seemed to give life to any room she was in. I couldn’t agree more.

 

In my grandmother’s will, she left me her piano. I was both not surprised, and a little offended when the will was read. Of course, the piano was going to me, I was the one who spent hours and hours speaking through it with melodies. In my mind, it belonged rightfully to me. When I arrived at home the night of the funeral, the first thing I did was set it up in my room and begin to play. I started with some Beethoven, and I moved on to Bach, and then I freestyled a bit. Music poured out from my finger tips and out from the keys. There was an ache in my heart, and a burning in my soul. A melody had escaped me, grandma’s melody, but I was determined to catch it. I thought by learning how to play the song, I would understand it’s meaning, the message within the melody that I nearly had a grasp on.

 

 The first bit of music I ever wrote myself came out that night. I got a piece of paper and a pen and began jotting down the music as I played. It was the early hours of the morning before my mother came into my room and asked me to stop playing. I did, but as soon as I awoke I was right back to that keyboard. Something pushed me forward, egged me on. I was writing and playing like a man possessed. There wouldn’t be rest for me until I found that tune that my grandmother played all that time ago. Musical score after musical score was written, but what I was searching for still eluded me. Every time I tried to recall exactly how it went, I drew a blank. There came a time when my pursuit of that tune had to be put on hold.  We all have to grow up sometime, and I couldn’t expect my mother to keep me housed forever.

 

I didn’t go to college, we couldn’t afford it. When I was seventeen I got a job as a bank teller, and soon after I moved into the second floor of an apartment complex outside of town. The money at the bank wasn’t spectacular, but it paid the bills and kept food on the table. But I never stopped working on my music. Being in an apartment meant that I had to do it in the middle of the day if I wanted to play my music loudly, so as not to wake anyone or make them angry, which made it difficult, because my job was a 9-5. The weekends were unfortunately the only time I ever got to play at full volume. It was a hindrance, but I made do by keeping the music low.

 

 The apartment life suited me well. My place was small, but cozy. The best part that it was extraordinarily cheap, even for the state of the neighborhood it was in. The only annoyance was my neighbor across the hall. He was a middle-aged balding man with a green sweater that always had grease stains on it, and a ratty brown beanie that he always wore on top of his head. He always seemed to catch me while I was coming home from work too.

 

“I noticed you play piano.” The voice came from just behind me as I was putting my key into my door late one evening. I turned, a bit startled to see my neighbor, standing outside his door and wringing his hands together slowly. He was hunched over, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. With his ratty clothing and pathetic demeanor, I couldn’t help but think he looked like some sort of crony for a comic book villain.

 

“Err… Yeah. Does it disturb you when I play?” I asked. He stood, staring at me with large brown eyes.

 

“I like piano.” He said, smiling. His voice sounded as greasy as his sweater.

 

“Uh, great. Listen if it ever bothers you, just let me know, okay?” I said, turning around to finish unlocking my door. The guy didn’t say another word, and as I slipped into my apartment and closed the door, I looked through the peep hole. For a long while, the man simply stood watching my door. After several moments, he opened his own door and went inside. I’ve made sure that I deadbolt my door every time I come home since then.

 

That was also around the time I started having a vivid and recurring dream. I was back in my grandmother’s house, sitting on her bed while she played that melody that I’ve been craving so badly to hear again. In the dream, I was an outside observer, watching myself and my grandmother. The other-me sat on the bed, swaying slightly with his eyes close. My grandmother’s fingers danced on the keys as effortlessly and with as much expert precision as that day when I first witnessed her work at the keyboard. My heart ached as I watched the memory play before my eyes. It was torture seeing it all unfold in front of me, not being able to talk to her, or feel her touch once more. I was stuck in the dream state of unmoving. My lips tried to move and call out, but I had no lips in the first place. Only eyes to watch it all. But the damning hell of it, the absolute worst part of that terrible dream, is I could not hear what she was playing. Night after night I endured this awful torment, and night after night, I awoke with tears in my eyes.

 

The days would come and go, I would play and play. I built up quite the collection of personal written works, but none of them sounded like the song my grandmother wrote. Call me a quitter, but I had finally given up on hearing that melody ever again. That dream could haunt me until the day I died, but I had come to terms with never finding out what that beautiful arrangement of notes was. I had decided that I had to stop chasing that childish dream, and focus on my own work. I didn’t plan on being a bank teller forever after all. For all the things making music has brought me, the thing I’m most grateful for is what it has done to my peace of mind. My depression, my anxiety, none of that seemed to matter as long as I could still play.

 

One Friday evening, while I was arriving home from work late, I came through my front door, deadbolted it to keep out the strange man across the hall, and went straight to work on my music. Around nine o’ clock there was a knock on my door. I got up from my seat and looked through the peephole. There was no one there. I unlatched the deadbolt and opened the door, and looked right out into the hall. There was no one there either, but when I turned to go back inside I noticed a small, white piece of paper on the ground just in front of the doorway. I bent down, and turned it over.

 

Got you, it read. I heard the door across the hallway creak and I looked up just long enough to see the baseball bat come down on my head.

 

“Wake up, it’s no fun if you aren’t awake you piece of shit.”  I stirred, and the words echoed around in my head, causing pain. My eyes flicked open to the bright kitchen light. I was in my own apartment, lying on my back on my kitchen floor.  I couldn’t move my hands, they were bound behind me with some rope, and my legs were tied together as well. Duct tape wrapped tightly around my mouth prevented me from calling for help. Struggling as hard as I could against my binds, I found it was no use, they were so tight that they were cutting into my skin.

 

“That ain’t gonna help kid. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know how to tie a fuckin’ knot.”

 

My assailant walked into view. It was certainly my neighbor from across the hall, but his voice was no longer greasy, it was cold, and cruel. Gone was his slouched posture and pathetic demeanor. He stood before me now a completely different person than when I first saw him. He stood straight, caressing a large hunting knife with a gutting hook at the end. His eyes, once large and brown, were now small and black, and as cold as ice. His breath was steady, and calm. He smiled a cruel smile at me, and I tried to move and shake, to somehow break free. In my movement, I heard the sound of plastic, and my hands rubbed against a thin layer of the material underneath me, and I gave up fighting. I turned my head and glanced around only to confirm what I already knew.

 

I didn’t know who this man was, or how long he had been staying at this apartment complex, but the plastic that covered my floor and walls told me he wasn’t lying when he said he’d been doing this a long time. I knew my time was up.

 

“Oh, come on now. Don’t be like that.” The cruel voice spoke.

 

“I know I said it’s no use but your breaking my god damn heart with that look of yours. A little fight is always appreciated, I just can’t go and leave any mess behind, ya know? That’s how you get caught. I’ve spent a long time learning how not to get caught. This neighborhood is perfect see, because seedy characters are just the norm, right? So, when someone like me comes along and says hi to someone like you, you don’t even think twice do you? You’ll just keep your door locked, watch your peephole, do whatever it takes to avoid the creepy guy. But you know what people never expect from seedy characters? Smarts.”

 

I didn’t look at him while he spoke, I stared straight up at the ceiling, trying to come to terms with my own death. It’s strange, isn’t it? Not bothering to try and fight for your life. I knew it was strange even then. I just knew I didn’t want to die crying. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

 

“They just assume it’s some weirdo. Serial killers are everyday people, they say. Your friend from work, or the delivery guy, or the repair man. They never say ‘look out for the creepy guy’, because that should be common goddamned sense. But you were just grateful you never saw me after that first night. Thankful that I never pestered you again.”

 

He was right. When I saw him I never would have suspected. He was just the creepy guy across the hall. I was grateful he didn’t bother me again.

 

“So, you let your guard down for a moment, but a moment is all it takes.”

 

He knelt down beside me, and put a hand on my stomach. I winced, trying as hard as I could to keep calm.

 

“But victims are few and far between in this neck of the woods. Killing the unfortunate gets rid of the blood lust for a minute, sure. But that’s easy, and hardly entertaining. No, I wait for your kind. The poor young souls who need a cheap place to stay, and have so much left to live for.”

 

He lifted up my shirt, placing the tip of the cold steel on my bare skin. I shivered, and not because of the cold. I was scared, and he knew it. He laughed.

 

“The great thing about it, is when I take all of your crap out of this dump, they’re just gonna think you skipped town, and I…”

 

There was a sizzle and a crack, as the bulb above us shone brightly, and then went out. The pressure of the blade on my stomach released, and I heard the man stand up.

 

“God dammit, my luck eh? Why don’t you hold tight for a second kid.”

 

I heard his weight shift on the floor as he turned and walked into the living room, and then he stopped.

 

“Who’s there!?” He called out. There was no answer. In the silent dark I laid there listening intently, wondering what the hell he was talking about. I stilled my breathing, and waited. Then I thought I heard something. I could hear the breathing of my attacker, somewhere in the dark, but I could also hear something else. Someone else’s breath could be heard, low and raspy. Another sound came from the dark, one that I recognized as music. It was quiet, but it was there. A song that I hadn’t heard in a very long time. The moment I realized what it was, there was sudden movement. Heavy footsteps ran through the darkness, toward my assailant. There was a loud *crack* and the man screamed. His cry was followed by the sound of glass shattering, and I could hear him yell as he fell all the way to the pavement outside.  I heard someone hollering out beyond the window, and it wasn’t long before I could hear police sirens. In the dark of my apartment I lay on the floor laughing with tears streaming down my face. Not because I finally heard grandmother’s melody after all this time, but because I finally knew the message within the notes. It was simple, but it was as powerful as the force that protected me that night.

 

I will protect you.’

 

The night I was attacked was about three years ago now. When the police arrived, they found me lying on the floor in the kitchen, of course. In the living room, however, they found my keyboard, broke in two pieces in front of the window the killer was thrown out of. After examining the body, it was concluded that blunt force trauma to the back of his head caused him to go careening out of the building and onto the ground below where he broke his neck. I was asked over and over again about who was in my apartment that night, because someone had to have attacked him with the keyboard. I simply told them the truth about what I heard that night, because I really had nothing else to say.

 

 I’m doing well composing sound design for various podcasts and audio dramas. It’s actually really neat. I’m glad I finally get to make a living doing what I love. I had to buy a new keyboard of course, but I kept Grandma’s. Both of its pieces are in a shadowbox above my bed now. I’ve never played her melody though, I don’t want to. It was my grandmother’s song, it’s her message, and hers alone. Besides, I still have that dream. Except now, I can hear that melody, plain as day in my dreams. Sometimes even as I’m waking up I swear I can hear the low notes of it off in the distance.

 

No, I’ve been working on a new piece of music. It isn’t perfected yet but I hope to finish it one day. It’s a score that I have simply titled,

 

“Thank you.”

 

Grandmother’s Keyboard

Beast in the Billows

 cove-man

-By: J.J. Cheesman

When Laura Morgan was young, she would often sit in at the dining room table, placed in front of the sliding-glass door that led into the backyard. She did this after school working on homework, or while coloring or doodling pictures, as she so often liked to do. Usually around this time, Laura’s mother; Betty, would be cooking dinner, and so she had the sliding glass door open, as to make sure it did not get too warm in the kitchen. Often, Laura would watch the curtains billowing in the breeze, and she could not help but imagine some immense beast beyond the door, standing just behind the curtains that hid its form. She imagined, that the beast was so big and powerful, that its lungs were such that it merely breathing caused them to billow about, rather than the changes in weather causing them to move.

Yes, Laura was quite the imaginative little girl. Often, she would dream up a reason for the beast to be waiting beyond the curtain.

Perhaps it stalked from the woods beyond her house, and it was waiting to turn one of the members of her household into a delicious meal? Or maybe it was just lonely, and wanted to make friends with Laura? Whatever the case, it was a fantasy that Laura soon grew out of once she reached her teens, but never forgot. Even when she moved out on her own, she would often recall how she dreamt up what she dubbed, ‘The Beast in the Billows’.

But that was years ago, now. Laura hadn’t the time for such childish imagination. Her mother first received her diagnosis of the cancer ravaging her lungs when Laura was eighteen. From that moment forward, she was her mother’s caregiver. Making sure she was receiving her chemo, making sure she was eating, and most of all, make sure she was staying away from those god damn cigarettes. Betty was a smoker since the day she turned sixteen, a habit which she had regrettably passed on to her daughter. Ten long years Betty fought the damned disease, and Laura watched every bit of horrible pain that it put her through. All the vomiting, all the crying, all of the soiled sheets, it was a living nightmare.

Laura was now twenty-eight. She sat down in her dining room, in the house that she had inherited from her mother. Tears streamed down her face as she lit her eleventh cigarette of the day, a habit which she not only felt guilty for having, but also took solace in. It was the last thing she had.

For ten long years, she watched over her sweet mother, and for ten long years she knew that the day would come when she would pass, but she still was not prepared. How could anyone be prepared for the heavy toll that comes with the loss of someone you love so dearly?

The cherry on her cigarette burned bright as Laura took a long drag, watching the light billowing of the curtain in the breeze beyond the open glass door. She recalled her beast, the one she imagined came from the woods. At the same time, she wondered at her own fate. Was she doomed to suffer like her mother? Damned to die in her own piss and shit, crying for the pain to end? She wished that her beast would come, tear her from her wretched life without her mother. Tears fell like streams down her face, and she put her head in her hands. She was going to die alone. She had spent all her time supporting her mother. She hadn’t built any savings, the only education she had was her diploma, and her dead-end job was going nowhere. It was too late.

But they say, in the darkness, way down deep where no light can ever be seen, that’s where rock-bottom is. They say that, from there, there is nowhere to go but up. A voice within Laura’s mind called to her in this moment. One that she had not paid any attention to since childhood. The voice was loud and defiant, and with indignation whispered,

No.”

Laura wiped away her tears, and stared at the cigarette smoldering in her hand. The voice came again.

It’s never too late.”

With defiance, she stamped out the cigarette in the ashtray. Then she crumpled up the pack beside it, picked them both up, and walked over to the trash can, chucking them both inside. She then walked over to the drawer where she kept the rest of her smokes. She pulled out the carton and threw that away as well.

Today is a new day, she thought. From this moment on, I live for myself.

Just then, there was a knock on the door, which startled Laura and shook her from her thoughts. She walked over quickly, bustling passed the billowing curtains and over to the front door, newfound strength and energy coursing within her, and she tore the door open.

No one was there, just an empty front yard. Puzzled, Laura slowly began closing the door, but then realized something peculiar.

There was no breeze. Not even the slightest hint that there was even a little bit of wind. In fact, the air was humid, and still.

Before she had time to process what this meant, a gnarled, putrid hand covered Laura’s mouth, and tore her bottom jaw from her head.

 

 

Beast in the Billows

The Day I Quit my Job

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By: J.J. Cheesman

 

Last year, I began working as a shipping and receiving clerk for a local produce delivery service. The work was pretty easy. All I essentially did was file order receipts and verify that everything going out had the correct order I.D. Number. Very often, I was one of the last two people to leave. I had to stay late to make sure everything was filed and documented correctly, and my boss, Joseph, stuck around going about his own duties.
The first two of weeks there, I trained with the previous clerk while he finished out his days at the job. After that, I was on my own. It was the Monday of the third week that the first of some odd occurrences began.

It was nearing time to leave, and Joseph popped his head in through the door of the Clerk’s office.

“Hey Mike, wrap it up, I’m gonna start locking up. Whatever you don’t get finished I can come in early and do if you aren’t close.” He said.

“Oh, no! I’m nearly done, just give me five.” It was true, I expected that Joseph assumed I hadn’t got used to things yet, but I actually found that job pretty simple.

“Alright, I’ll be waiting at the door when you’re done.” With that, he walked away, and I could hear the clicking of switches as lights went off one by one out on the shipping floor.

I was filing the last receipt away and had shut down my computer, when the phone on my desk rang. Looking up at the clock, I saw that it was just after 6:00 P.M., I considered letting the machine get it, but I picked it up anyway.

“Lyset produce, I’m sorry our office hours are closed.”

No one spoke on the other end of the line, but I could hear a low static sound. There was something else in the background. Something like scratching.

“Hello?” I said.

No answer came so I simply hung up, grabbed my jacket off of my chair, and left.

Tuesday and Wednesday passed without any such occurrence, but Thursday was a different story. I was a little behind on my work, it was a day when a lot of our clients had returned bad produce, and I was stuck typing up refund reports. It was nearing 6 o’ clock, and I was feverishly working to get things done so that I wouldn’t keep Joseph waiting.

Right at six, the phone on my desk rang. I picked it up without a second thought and let it rest on my shoulder, and holding it there with my face as I continued typing, engrossed in my work.

“Lyset Produce.”

I wasn’t immediately greeted with a reply, only that scratching from before. Just when I was about to say something else, someone on the other end spoke.

“How-much-longer-will-you-be?” The words came as broken fragments, like a child trying to piece together a sentence. The voice that used them was hoarse and croaky. I was a bit taken aback and I hesitated for a moment.

“How-much-longer?” The broken voice repeated.

“I… I don’t… who is this?” I asked.

Immediately after I asked my question there was a loud screech that resounded from the earpiece, nearly blowing out my eardrum and causing me to drop the phone to the desk. I held my ears in my hands for a moment, and when the ringing in my ears stopped, a dial tone was all that rang out from the handset.

“Hey, who was on the phone?”

I looked up, startled. Joseph had poked his head in and was looking a little disheveled.

“I… I don’t know, some pranksters.” I fumbled.

“Oh, well wrap it up, it’s time to go.” He left to go shut out the lights and I was left a little shaken. That day I left without finishing my work completely. I was a little too unsettled to focus.

From then on, I made sure I was done with all of my work before six. I didn’t want to get caught up dealing with whoever was messing with the phone line again. I’d decided that it was likely some punk kid trying to be funny with a fake voice, but I still didn’t want to deal with it.

Two weeks after the first incident, was the worst occurrence of all. It was Friday, and once again I found myself struggling to get everything complete on a timely manner, as we had been exceptionally busy. I had just got done with a stack of receipts when Joseph ran into my office.

“Hey, Mike!” He shouted a little out of breath,

“Listen, I need a big favor. Can you lock up for me? I need to get to get down to the pharmacy. I forgot to pick up my prescription before I came to work, and they close here soon.”

“Uh… Yeah Joe, no problem.” I said.

“Great, thanks Mike! You’re a life saver.” He threw me a key ring full of keys.

“It’s the big gold one for the back door, that’s the only one you need. It’s against policy for someone to be in here by themselves, but you can keep a secret just this once I hope.”

I nodded.

“Awesome, just drop those in the mail box outside when you leave, I’ll grab em in the morning.”

He then waved, said a final ‘Thank you’ and headed out the door.

I looked at the clock, it was 5:30 P.M., that meant I had thirty minutes to get done and get the hell out of there.

I turned to my computer monitor and began typing up an email. Moments later, the phone rang. I froze. The loud ring came again, echoing out through the building.

‘Just let the machine get it.’ I thought. I waited, watching the ringing phone with dread. After the third ring, the phone clicked over to the automated machine message, and then beeped. Everything was quiet for a moment, then a scratching sound came from the speaker. Followed by that croaky voice.

“You-are-alone.”

My heart seemed to drop like a brick into my stomach. How did they know I was alone? Were they watching the store?

“You-are-alone.” The voice said again. The fear I felt was paralyzing. I was shaking, and I had to clench my fists to stop.

But then something else came over me. I didn’t feel right. This wasn’t fair. No punk kid was going to scare me at my own damn job. I picked up the phone and shouted.

“Listen kid, this isn’t funny! You had better run like hell if I catch you!”

I waited to see what the voice would say to that, but it was quiet.

“Nothing to say?!” I yelled. There was a silence, but only a brief one. This time that scratching sound returned, and so did the voice.

“We-are-coming.” A dial tone buzzed in my ear, and I slammed the phone down on the receiver. At this point I was fuming. How dare they threaten me?  I was about to sit back in my seat, but a sound rang out on the shipping floor that made my blood run cold. Loud clicks came with the lights out on the floor being shut out, one by one.

‘They got inside’ I thought.

I stood up, and walked to the doorway of the office to look out onto the completely empty shipping floor outside. One by one the lights shut out, sending the entire building aside from my office into darkness. I backed away, planning to grab the pocket knife that I’d kept in my jacket, not taking my eyes off the doorway. That’s when, in a broken and croaky voice, someone whispered behind me.

“Run-like-hell.”

There was a loud click that shut out the light in my office. I bolted. Running blind out of my office out into the shipping floor in the direction of the EXIT sign’s red light, which had by some mercy been left on. I could hear scratching from all around me in the darkness, coupled with intermittent croaks. The fear that the sounds caused spurred me on through the dark toward my destination at break-neck speed. I slammed into the push-bar of the door, out into the cold air and the falling snow.

In that moment when the door was still open behind me, something scratched at the back of my head. I screamed out and ran even faster toward my car. Thankfully I still had my keys with me, and I drove home as fast as I could.

To this day, I have never once driven by that building, and I never will again.

 

The Day I Quit my Job

Reverse Candy Cane

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J.J. Cheesman

Christmas time is upon us my friends. Oh, yes indeed, and it is my favorite time of year. I work as a mall Santa, and it is the best job a fella could ask for. Yes indeed.

For every child that comes to see me and sit on my lap, I hand out a candy cane. Every sweet and good child who takes a picture with me gets one. But every now and then, you get one of those nasty kids. You know the kind I’m talking about, you don’t have to mince words with me. Hell, maybe you have one of those children of your own. These kids squawk and whine about every little thing, and no gift they get is good enough. ‘Spoiled’, some might say.

These children are easy to spot, I can tell them apart a mile away. Don’t worry, they get the same treatment from me, I’m a professional at my job after all, yes indeed. They even get a candy cane too, with one exception however. The candy can these children receive, have the stripes completely reversed.

800,000 children go missing  in the United States every year. This is a baffling statistic. I would say that I have no idea where about… I don’t know, 650,000 of those children go. Awful and evil-intentioned folks are responsible, no doubt. As for the rest of them… well… let’s say I have a clue.

You see, I happen to know that those children are very naughty, yes indeed. The reverse candy cane makes them easy to spot. Who is my employer? Why, the big man himself, of course!

What? You don’t believe in Santa Clause? Well, he exists, of that you can be sure, yes indeed.

It seems impossible, what he does. For any one man, it would be. But he has a little help.

Elves? Oh ho, no. People like me, naughty children who got the reverse candy cane, yes indeed.
We were taken away, and we were ‘convinced’ after several days of ‘jolly reform’ that our ways were wrong, and we had to help spread joy, yes indeed. We were taught our skills for getting into homes and leaving gifts in houses, and taking something else in others.

Taking some new recruits from the reverse candy cane homes, that’s part of my job, yes indeed.

Reverse Candy Cane

Voices In The Water

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By: Manen Lyset & J.J. Cheesman

My Brook, the sweetest little girl any mother could ask for, was born on the eleventh of February. I was eighteen when she was conceived, her father was a man I’d met at a party while I was attending college. He was someone I’d never seen before, and haven’t seen since. I couldn’t even tell you his name. It was a drunken night of un-protected euphoria that gave me my first and only child, and for that very reason, after she was born, I suffered severe post-partum depression. Every one of my friends told me to get an abortion in the beginning, but the more I thought about the life inside me, the more convinced I was that I just couldn’t do it.

My mother was a big help though. She let me move back home and offered no complaint what-so-ever about my pitiful state while she did most of the work with Brook. I think the truth was that she was just glad to have a full home again. Dad passed away from a heart attack two years before I moved out, and I think she’d been very lonely. I slept on the couch in the living room for the most part, while Brook slept in a crib in my old room. College was put on hold because I didn’t think there was much point in going to school if I was going to be too exhausted from taking care of a baby. For two months that couch was pretty much my nest, and I hardly ever moved, even when I heard Brook through the baby monitor on the night stand next to me. I would just wait for mom to go check on her.

It wasn’t until one day in April that I finally broke out of my crippling and lethargic state of mind. I was lying on my side in the living room, while the TV played its scheduled commercial advertising. There was a sudden rustling sound that came through the baby monitor, heralding Brook’s awakening from her nap. For a moment, I lay unmoving, expecting to hear commotion from mom’s room when she heard Brook through her own monitor. That’s not something I’m proud of either, but it is the truth.

I’m not sure how to properly explain my state of mind during that time in my life. It was a sickness of the head, and I was too deep into my own pool of self-pity to seek help for it. There was an ever-present sinking feeling of regret for not having an abortion, and then subsequent guilt for allowing myself to have that thought. Mom never even once suggested that I should go to therapy or express that I was a burden to her in any way. I think she always believed that I would just one day snap out of it. As it turned out, she was right.

That day, I laid there, listening to Brook coo in her crib and waiting to hear Mom leave her room, something changed in me. I remember thinking, what in the hell are you doing, your daughter needs you. From that simple thought, I drew strength. As I stood from the couch and made my way down the hall into Brook’s room, I knew everything was going to be fine. I wasn’t a bad person just because I’d needed Mom’s help with my baby. School didn’t have to be an unattainable dream just because I got pregnant, single mothers do it all the time.

I entered Brook’s room, walked over to her crib, and looked down at her. The table top fountain on the dresser next to the crib burbled as I smiled down at my daughter. She had her feet up, grabbing at the loose ends of her footie pajamas, but she stopped when she saw me. There was a long moment of silence as we stared at each other. Brook stared up at me with unblinking eyes and an open mouth, as if she was sizing me up. It’s absurd, but it was as if she was wondering herself if I had finally broken free from my depressing spell. Finally, she smiled up at me and giggled. I laughed too, and picked her up, swaying her back and forth as if we were dancing. That’s when I knew, everything would be fine.

From then on things changed for the better, and I felt like my normal self again. I got back to school and completed my bachelors in Chemistry. Mom let us live with her until I found a job and was able to build up enough savings to move out on my own. Brook grew up so fast, and before I knew it, eight years came and went. She was the sweetest little girl a mother could ever ask for, I never once had to discipline her for any reason. Though I did have to be careful to keep an eye on her. Exploration was her favorite hobby, she was always so curious, her blue eyes always so full of wonder. So, I had to make sure I was always watchful, and I was. I was always so careful, but then, there was that day on the lake.

***

It was a sweltering hot summer day, and I thought it’d be a great idea to go to the lake. I asked Brook if she wanted to go, and she was ecstatic. So I loaded up the car, and we were on our way. I put floaties on her arms, made sure her tiny life jacket was secure and tight before I sat down on a towel on the shore and sent her on her way.

“Don’t go far from me, you stay where I can see you. Don’t wade far out into the water either,” I told her sternly.

“I won’t momma,” She said impatiently.

I waved my hand to let her know she could go. She promptly raced to the water. I dug my nose into a book and started reading while she ran up and down the shore, splashing water with each exaggerated step.

At first, I looked up after every couple of sentences to make sure she was still in the shallows, but after a while, I let myself get more engrossed in the mystery novel I was reading. As long as I could hear Brook giggling and splashing, I knew she was fine. The problem is, to the distracted ear, the sound of fearful wailing is surprisingly similar to gleeful shrieks of delight. Likewise, energetic paddling and desperate thrashing also sound dangerously similar. I only realized something was wrong when everything went quiet. In that instant, my heart stopped. I looked up, but I didn’t see my little girl: I just saw a mostly still lake with a distant ripple racing towards the opposite shore.

The book fell from my hands.

I ran to the water, my body already trembling from a wave of panic. My voice cracked as I screamed my daughter’s name. I hoped she’d just wandered out of the water – maybe back to the car –, but as I played back the last few minutes in my head, I could swear I heard her yell, “Momma, help!” while I was stupidly distracted.

I’d kicked up so much mud plunging into the lake that the water was now murky. Waist deep in it, I desperately pawed around trying to find Brook. With each failed swipe, I became more and more distraught. It’s like I couldn’t shut the voices in my head up. The voices that kept whispering about her fate. That was a branch, not her foot. Too late, you’ll never find her now. You should have started looking by the dock. Too late now. What I needed to do was take a breath and calm down: I was no good to Brook like this, but when your child goes missing, it’s impossible to think rationally.

And then, just as I was about to fully give in to the grief and guilt, I heard her soft little voice.

“Momma?”

I turned around, choking back tears. She was standing on the shore, the waves I’d made licking her toes gently. Her hair was dripping wet, her smile was gone, and her eyes were unfocussed, as though she was looking right through me, but it was her. It was my Brook. She was alive and well. I joined her on the shore and gave her a big hug, asking her more questions than she had time to answer. I don’t think she answered a single one, but it didn’t matter. She was alive. That’s all I could hope for.

It’s strange, I never even questioned where the lifejacket and floaties had gone, nor how she got out of them.

***

It was raining for a third day in a row. I was thankful for the downpour, because it meant we could stay inside where it was safe. I hadn’t left Brook’s side since the incident at the lake. Hell, I hadn’t even let mom babysit her while I did the groceries. I was so afraid she’d run off and get hurt. But it was raining now, and there was nowhere for her to run off *to*. She sat in front of the television while I cooked breakfast, one eye on her and the other on the pancakes.

“What do you want to drink, honey?”

“Water.”

“Water, what?”

“Water, please.”

I smiled and reached into the cupboard for her favorite princess glass, only filling it halfway to prevent her from spilling any. We ate at the table, her eyes constantly shifting to the TV in the other room. Once we were done, I let her go back to her cartoons while I cleaned up.

“Momma’s going to go take a shower now, okay? You stay right where you are,” I said sternly, once the dishes were put away.

She didn’t answer, too enthralled in the show.

I wanted to believe she’d be fine, but leaving her even for a quick shower made my stomach lurch. I made sure to keep the door open so I could listen in on her. I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to my baby. Not again. Never again.

I stepped into the steaming hot shower and closed my eyes, straining my ears to hear what was going on in the other room. At first, I only heard the normal sounds of my daughter shuffling a little, but then…

“Momma, help!”

I nearly slipped and broke my neck rushing out of the shower so quickly. I barely took the time to grab a towel before I barrelled into the living room, my face flushed with anxiety.

“What’s the matter, honey?” I screamed in a panic.

Brook was sitting on her bean bag, watching another show. She glanced at me with confusion, shrugged, and turned her attention back to the TV.

I wasn’t amused.

I scolded her for calling for help when she didn’t need it, but she seemed completely unaffected by my frustration. She kept saying she hadn’t called me, but I knew what I heard. I hoped grounding her was enough for her to get the message: you do *not* call for help when you don’t need it…and just to hammer that point in, I read her the story of the boy who cried wolf that night before going to bed.

***

The next day, I awoke early and made my way down the hallway. I stole a glance into Brook’s room to see if she’d awoken. She was indeed awake, and she stood at her window looking out at the cars passing up and down our street.

“What are you doing at the window, baby?” I asked.

Brook said nothing, she only continued to stare out into the street and seemed unaware that I’d spoken at all. I walked up behind her, and peered out at the busy street. When I did so, Brook finally acknowledged my presence and turned around. She stared up at me solemnly and the only sound in the room was the filter humming within the fish tank on its stand across the room.

“Mommy, can I please watch TV?” she asked, her voice was low and monotonous.

I returned her gaze and looked into her sad blue eyes. Where they were once a bright sapphire, they had become a dim cobalt. Her complexion had always been fair, but as I examined her, I could have sworn she had become whiter. I felt her head to see if she had a fever, but it was cold to the touch, and I felt myself shiver. Mentally, I made a note to make sure the heat was on.

“Yes honey, you can go in and turn it on, and I’ll make you some nice hot soup.”

Lethargically, and with hardly any acknowledgement at all, Brook walked across the bedroom to leave, but stopped at the door, turned to me, and said, “With some water, right?”

I was taken a little aback, but I gave a smile. “Yes baby, with water.”

Brook nodded, and turned to leave the room. Now that she had gone, I gave one last look outside. The traffic had died down almost completely, and the street outside was now empty and devoid of life. Now that there was nothing in the way and no other distractions, I found myself gazing at the other side of the road. Where a single boat skipped over the vast and sprawling lake.

***

Hours later, Brook and I were sitting side by side on the couch in the living room. On the TV in front of us, a nature documentary about ocean life was playing. Brook sat staring at the screen in rapt attention, but my eyes were on her. Since that morning, she’d asked for six glasses of water and drank them all greedily. Yet the soup I had made earlier; tomato, her favorite, sat untouched. Color had returned to her cheeks and her eyes had brightened, but something was still off. Something changed in Brook that day at the lake. Something I hadn’t noticed through the euphoric relief of finding her safe. Now the relief had passed, and a cold sinking weight of unease had dropped into the pit of my stomach.

“Mommy can you get me more water?” Brook asked, interrupting my train of thought.

“Of course, dear.”

I went to the kitchen, filled a glass from the tap and brought it to Brook. She downed it in seconds and handed the empty glass back to me, not saying another word. I took it from her.

“Mommy is going to go take a bath, will you be okay without me for a few minutes?” Brook hardly gave me an answer with a half-hearted nod. A half-baked idea was forming in my mind as I made my way into the bathroom and shut the door. An insane yet persistent nagging somewhere in the back of my head. It kept calling to my memory a single thought that I’d had just days prior. Too late, you’ll never find her now.

I forced the thought away and I plugged the drain in the tub, turning the hot water valve as I did. I’d hoped that a nice warm bath would calm my nerves and relieve my irrational fears. I got undressed, dropping my clothes in front of the door, and examined myself in front of the mirror. My eyes had bags under them, and I looked flushed. It then occurred to me how tired I was. Work had been hectic, and the odd occurrences of the past week had taken their toll on me.

With the tub now full, I turned off the tap and lowered myself into the bath. The water was very warm and inviting, and already I felt a million times better. There was nothing to worry about, I was being silly. After a few minutes passed I drew in a deep breath, held my nose, and laid my head down in the water. Fully submerged in the bath, all sound was muted save my own rhythmic breathing. To me, that was the most peaceful thing that you could do. Alone in the water, there’s nothing to bother you.

“Please help me Momma.” Brook whispered in my right ear.

I flailed in the water, frantically pulling myself out of the tub. My neck snapped back and forth, searching all around the bathroom for any sign of Brook. Turning to the bathroom door, I found it to be closed and my clothes in front of it remained undisturbed. I leaned back on the kitchen sink and waited for my breathing to slow. What was happening to me?

There was a knock at the door, and I jumped.

“Mommy, I need a glass of water.” Brook’s voice muttered.

I clutched a hand to my chest and sighed in relief.

“I’ll be there in a minute honey.”

“No, I need it. *Now*.” She said.

I was about to call out to her, scold her for talking to me that way, but I stopped myself. Something instinctual in me demanded that I comply. I can’t explain what it was, but it was connected to that nagging thought.

“Okay honey, I’m coming.”

 

***

The next morning, she was awake and in front of the TV long before I got up. I just barely registered the glow all the way down the hall when I got up to use the restroom. My daughter *never* woke up before 7. It was 4:30. In a half-conscious stupor, I ignored it and returned to bed, only to find out what had happened when I finally woke up for good.

I didn’t even think to scold her. I felt like I was going through the motions again as I made breakfast. Was I slipping back into my old habits? Would I start to neglect my child? Was she really *my* Brook? No, that was a silly thought. Of course she was my baby. She had to be.

Brook guzzled down two glasses of water, barely touching the waffles I’d made her. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a full meal. I rubbed my temples tiredly. She was fine. I was just overreacting. She must have eaten. Even if I racked my brain and couldn’t recall her eating a single meal since we came back from the lake, she must have. She wouldn’t be standing otherwise.

I let her watch TV again as I started tidying up the house. I’d let it fall into a bit of a state of neglect over the past couple of days. My cleaning session eventually led me to Brook’s room, where I was shocked to find her aquarium half-empty.

“Shit,” I whispered to myself, careful for my daughter not to hear me cussing. “Must have sprung a leak.”

I grabbed a fresh wash cloth and approached the tank, expecting to find a puddle of water. The desk was dry. Maybe I turned the heat too high and it evaporated as it slowly seeped out. I furrowed my brows and examined the tank closely for any crack. Nothing on the front. Nothing on the sides. All that was left was the back. The tank was heavy, and I had to wrap both my arms around it tightly to pull it from the wall so I could check. As I did so, my ear pressed up against the glass, and I heard a voice.

“Momma, help!”

I nearly dropped the tank, but managed to catch it, my fingers streaking against the glass as it slowly lowered back down to the desk.

I stepped away, heart pounding as I stared at the aquarium in shocked disbelief. I *knew* the voice hadn’t come from the living room. There was no doubt about it. It had sounded distorted, as though spoken through a glass pane. It had come *from* the aquarium.

Nervously, I chewed my nails and paced around the room, never letting my eyes stray from the tank. The fish inside seemed to mimic me, as they swirled around in panic from all the commotion. I approached. What I was doing was insane, I thought, as I considered the facts. Still, I slowly turned my head, pressed my ear against the glass, closed my eyes, and listened intently.

“Please help me Momma.”

The voice was distant, like an echo rippling through an empty auditorium, yet clear enough for me to hear every word.

“Momma, help!”

I felt myself shaking. *This* was my baby girl. Not the monotone creature pretending to be her. This was her voice, her inflection, her emotions.

“Please help me Momma.”

I knew what I had to do. I needed to get my daughter back. I needed to get rid of this *fake* Brook.

“Momma, help!”

She was a monster.

“Please help me Momma.”

The real Brook was still lost in that lake, waiting for her momma.

“Momma, help!”

“Momma’s coming,” I whispered against the glass.

***

I tried to hide the venom in my voice as I stood between the couch and the TV. Brook didn’t even seem to notice me, even though I’d interrupted her show. She sat still, as lifeless as a doll.

“We’re going to the lake,” I said dryly.

This caught her attention. She looked up at me and smiled. Her smile made me nauseous. The false grin of a disgusting toad. I didn’t even pretend to go along with her sick little game.

“Get in the car.”

She got up, walked over to the entrance, and reached for her rain boots.

“You won’t need those,” I uttered coldly.

She feigned confusion, and I huffed in response. She didn’t really think I was buying her act, did she? I grabbed her hand like a parent walking her child through a crosswalk, and led her to my car. The touch of her cold skin disgusted me. I didn’t bother taking the time to buckle her in. I needed to get *my* Brook back. Nothing else mattered.

***

The drive took no more than three minutes. Brook’s imposter sat quietly in the back seat as we went, and I took care never to look in the rear-view mirror at her. But before I made the turn down the road that lead to the lake, doubt crept into my head.

What are you doing? This is crazy. As soon as those thoughts came to me, Brook spoke up.

“Mommy, what do you think you’re doing?” She said. Her voice was cold, but it had something else behind it. An imposing tone that was indescribably chilling, so much so that I remained quiet as she spoke her next words.

“It doesn’t matter, it won’t change a thing.”

I looked into the mirror at her. She was still smiling that cold smile. I turned my eyes back to the road, and put a little more pressure on the gas pedal as we sped towards the lake.

I drove into the east entrance of the lake which held a dock that was hardly ever used, and I hoped the rain meant there would be no one around to witness what I had to do. One glance around after I parked the car confirmed no one would be.

I took a deep breath and got out of the vehicle. I moved quickly so that I didn’t have time to think about what I was about to do. My body seemed to move on its own as I yanked the rear-passenger door open and grabbed Brook firmly by the arm to pull her out. She kicked and screamed as I drug her to the dock, her voice growing in ferocity as she spoke.

“YOU’RE CRAZY!” She screamed, “THIS WON’T HELP ANYTHING!”

I pulled and struggled as I moved us both toward the water, the rain now soaking my hair. Water fell in and around my ears, and I could hear my baby’s voice shrieking for help.

“Momma! Momma!” They cried, mixing in the shouting protests of the Brook imposter. All of the screaming urged me on, solidifying in my mind that I was making the right choice.

I made to the end of the dock, and with all my strength I shoved the shouting monster off into the water. She grasped out, and tried to latch onto me as she fell. Instead she missed, and her head cracked against the wood of the dock. Moments later, she sunk into the water.

I fell to my knees and sobbed. The rain stopped, and in that moment, all was quiet. I stared with blurry vision into the water, watching, waiting. There was no disturbance on the surface of the lake, no ripple in the water. Tears streamed down my face as the gravity of what I had done weighed down on me, and my heart wrenched as a renewed doubt surged into my brain.

You made a mistake. You killed your daughter. You’ll never find her now.

“BROOK!” I screamed out into the lake. My heart began to race, and my breaths became shorter. “BROOK!” I called out again, and this time, I got an answer.

“Mommy?”

I turned quickly around. Standing behind me, soaking wet, wearing a life jacket and floaties on each arm, was my Brook. I couldn’t believe it. It was her, it was really her. My tears had halted from surprise, but now out of pure joy they came again. In disbelief, I laughed and outstretched my arms, and Brook ran to me, embracing me tightly.

For a long time, I just knelt there, holding my daughter close to me. Then she finally spoke.

“Mommy, can we go home please?”

I released her from our embrace and looked her up and down before squeezing her tightly in a hug again.

“Yes baby.” I said. “Yes, we can.”

When we got home, I didn’t question Brook at all. I figured she’d been through enough. So, I ran her a bath and left her to bathe while I made her tomato soup and grilled cheese. I was ecstatic that she ate greedily, and when she was done, she asked for seconds, which I happily made.

When she was finished, I asked her if she was tired. She said she wasn’t, so I took out some cookie dough out of the freezer and prepared them on a pan. While we waited for the cookies to bake, we sat in the living room. The TV was on, but neither of us were paying attention to it. Brook was drawing with her crayons on the coffee table, and I sat watching her intently. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t believe I had her back.

I had so many questions. There was so much that I wanted to ask her, and, in time, I would. But for now, I didn’t want to jinx the fact that everything was just fine.

After a minute or two, I had to use the bathroom, and I told Brook I’d be right back. Halfway to the bathroom, I was stopped by Brook’s voice.

“I love you Mommy.”

I turned around and saw Brook smiling up at me from her drawing, and I smiled back.

“I love you too sweetie.”

***

About a week later, I heard sirens blaring outside. Police cars came racing down my street and towards the lake. I felt a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach, but one that went away as soon as my eyes settled on Brook sitting at her desk in the corner, smiling as she doodled.

I heard they found a body. A young girl about Brook’s age with the same ashy blond hair and deep blue eyes just like hers. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. I had Brook back. Nothing else mattered. Still, I felt myself shaking a bit.

“Mommy will be right back,” I whispered, as I stepped towards the bathroom.

Once inside, I went straight to the sink and splashed water on my face. Somewhere outside, I heard the rumble of thunder. I purposely avoided letting the water come near my ears, but I chided myself for it. After all, that was the reason I had actually come into the bathroom. I just … needed to know. I just wanted to make sure the inkling of something *off* was all in my head.

Cupping my hands under the running faucet, I took a deep breath and mentally counted to three. At three, I splashed the water directly into my right ear. To my relief, I heard nothing.

I exhaled heavily.

“Momma help!” I heard Brook scream from the living room, followed by a loud crash.

I ran out of the bathroom, screaming Brooks name. I found the living room empty, and the huge bay-window behind the couch was broken. I ran over to the window and screamed out into the night.

“BROOK!”

Beyond the window, I could only see darkness. I grabbed my phone, and dialed the police. As it rang, my eyes caught something sitting on the couch.

It was Brook’s drawing. She had drawn a large body of blue water, and within it were several stick figures floating on the surface. Above the drawing, were four letters not written in Brook’s handwriting.

‘Ours.’

Voices In The Water

Thank God for Dressers

cove-man

 

By: J.J. Cheesman

 

I’ve been here for six months now. When I first moved in, I thought I would bother the other tenants with my sleeping habits. I have never had roommates before, and I didn’t know how they would react. But for the most part, I don’t think they know I sleep most of the day, I stay in my room all the time anyways. That is of course unless I’m hungry. When I need to eat, I’m forced out of this space.

I suppose in retrospect it was silly of me to think it would matter. College kids are up all night studying and partying, and my room mates are no different. It’s easy for me to go unnoticed.

Especially when it comes to this one girl, Erica. She is constantly studying. Day in and day out, she’s one freakin’ dedicated girl, let me tell you. When she’s in her room, she only sleeps, or studies. I should know.

All I can say is, thank God she’s one to keep her clothes in a dresser. She’s never once been in this closet since I’ve moved in.

 

 

 

 

 

Thank God for Dressers