Even More Stories by Everybody
JANIE by Emma Parker
The early morning sun shone starkly through the bedroom window onto Janie Pope's face. Janie was in the habit of leaving the Venetian blinds pulled halfway up so her pampered cat, Clementine, could easily navigate the windowsill. Few situations were as unnerving and potentially destructive as a frightened cat stuck between the slats of metal window shades.
The bright sunlight was in direct contrast to the frosty bite of October in the air. Janie buried her face in the pillow and pulled the bed quilts tightly around her shoulders. Clementine opened a skeptical eye and quickly surmised it was not yet time to get up. She stretched out a paw and, similar to Janie, buried her face.
As Janie slowly joined the awakening world, she was smacked abruptly with an all too familiar feeling of sickness and guilt. Her body stiffened underneath the covers as panic consumed her. Her grip on the quilts hardened into clenched fists and for a moment, Janie braced herself to vomit. Her head was dizzied with a single, vivid thought. Had she killed someone last night?
This was not Janie's first experience waking up to this horrific question. There were countless mornings before this one when Janie could be found hiding beneath her bedding, desperately clutching Clementine against her body for comfort while she painstakingly sorted through details of the previous night.
Point one: She had gone out socially.
Point two: She had been in a bar with friends.
Point three: She drove home alone.
Could she have killed someone with her car and not known it? Perhaps bumped over a person who had fallen in the road? It had been awfully dark. Maybe while turning a corner she clipped a pedestrian - just a quick clip - but still with enough force to leave someone dying alone in the cold while Janie comfortably slept?
After a few minutes of exercising a breathing technique she learned from a self-help video, Janie began the rationalizations.
Point one: She did not drink any alcohol. Janie never drank alcohol. A lifetime of internal physical defects prohibited alcohol consumption. Janie did not even know what it felt like to be drunk.
Point two: Drunk driving being completely ruled out, there was no logical reason to believe that she could have struck someone without knowing.
Still, she traced the route home in her mind trying to remember traveling the full length of each street. She attempted to recall every traffic light, every curve, every sound. Stopping just short of madness, Janie shook off these thoughts. Despite Clementine's protests, Janie rolled out of bed to go make a pot of coffee. She stared out the window with folded, worried arms while the coffee brewed. She studied her car. The side she could see, anyway. No visible damage. She prepared her first cup of coffee, all the time promising herself she would not do what she already knew she was about to do.
While sipping from her mug she slowly circled her parked car. Wearing a coat over her pajamas, she carefully inspected the exterior of her silver Toyota for blood, dents, scrapes, cracks - anything to indicate a collision. It checked out okay. It always did. She assumed the neighbors thought her crazy and she did not necessarily disagree. Once back inside, she skimmed the morning paper for articles about a ruthless hit-and-run driver. There were none. While she dressed, she listened to the local news on the television to make sure she was not the target of a manhunt in progress. She was not.
Janie knew that within a couple days this feeling would subside. She would vow not to go out socially anymore. She would honor this self-imposed oath for several weeks, perhaps several months if she kept occupied. Eventually, boredom would always win and Janie would succumb to a co-worker's invitation for a night out.
This nightmarish process had been repeating itself for years. Janie had never been professionally diagnosed with a mental disorder. She would not dare confess these fears to a psychiatrist who might add things up and connect her to an unsolved crime. Instead, she had done her own research. Her first discovery was a phobia called Perccatophobia, described as a fear of sinning or committing imaginary crimes. This self-diagnosis fit. Janie's upbringing had been strictly religious which could account for part of her delusions. Maybe on a subconscious level she thought the mere act of going to a bar, even just for dancing or karaoke, was sinful and cause for punishment. She read and learned more about obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders. Obtaining prescription drugs which may provide some relief required a doctor and, therefore, was not an option. So Janie's life continued on in this grueling cycle.
The early morning sun shone starkly through the bedroom window onto Janie Pope's face. She had been out the night before so it was not long until she was in the driveway surveying the silver Toyota, coffee mug in hand. It was the beginning of a warm June day so there was no explanation for the bitter cold that solidified her as she stared catatonically at the dent in the passenger side fender. A tangle of blond hair wafted gently in the Summer breeze. It was anchored to the silver paint by a dark red, almost brown smudge.
Janie told herself this was a cruel hoax being played by hateful neighborhood kids. No. No one knew how she quietly suffered. Janie stumbled to the front porch where she sat somberly on the concrete steps. The cup of coffee she held firmly in her hands had gone tepid. Could there be a dead dog sprawled across a nearby street killed by Janie's carelessness? Maybe. Could the wispy strands of hair blowing out from the wheel well be human? No. Definitely, no – but maybe. She should take a closer look. She should get in the car to... Oh, God. She should at least go inside and...
Janie, still clad in her pajamas, leaned her head against the wooden railing and closed her eyes. She would certainly hear the police sirens soon. She would wait. She would just sit and wait.
TAKING A TRIP by Textual Ribbons
I drove for a long while, humming cheerfully to drown out the sound of her screaming. When that didn’t work, I turned on the stereo, allowing static-filled country to fill the cramped interior of the Geo. I nodded in approval as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” came on; the woman in my trunk might not have been a “he”, but the underlying tone of bitterness seemed to echo my own sentiments just fine.
“Please, Tom, I can explain!”
I cranked up the volume louder, continuing to hum, and downshifted as I crested over a hill to greet the panorama of colors smeared across the sky—a New Mexico sunset in all its glory, providing a backdrop along with the mountains and rabbit-brush spattered hills for me. There were no other cars driving along the road for as far as I could see—that was the true beauty of the Land of Enchantment. Even living in a country along with over three-hundred million people, you could still find ways to be utterly alone.
“It wasn’t my idea! You know how my mother is, Tom!”
My jaw twitched a little, but I smoothed a smile back on my face as I caught sight of my exit. I turned onto a dirt road, and I heard little thuds in the back of my trunk as I eased the car over a cattle guard.
I reached over to steady the bloody little bundle, wrapped lovingly in a fuzzy blue blanket and resting next to me in the passenger’s seat. I briefly recalled the many times that Judie had sat here alongside me during road trips, flashing pearly whites as she laughed at one of our privately shared jokes, the wind whipping her blond hair so that it streamed out behind her, her green eyes sparkling in the sunshine. I put that thought carefully away, and braked as one of the many cows that grazed in the pastures alongside the road decided to cross.
“Please, try to understand! She would have taken all my money away! I would have never done it otherwise!”
I waved at a rancher and one of his hands who were riding herd on their cattle, looking as at home in the saddle as I felt holding the chainsaw that rested across the back seat. It had been a long time since I’d last ridden a horse—as a woodworker I’d never really had much of a need for them. But I felt a sudden yearning to be in the saddle again—perhaps I would ask the rancher if he needed an extra helper when I was done here.
I continued on, until the pastures were well out of sight and tall pines started flying past the windows, and then eased my car off to the side of the road. I shifted into neutral, pulled the parking brake into place, and reluctantly killed the engine. The music stopped instantly, and Judie’s loud, hiccupping sobs filled the air instead, drowning out the subtle symphony of the forest. I generally liked listening to the chirping of birds, the rustle of squirrels in the trees, watching the occasional rabbit scamper by, so this annoyed me. Oh well, there would be time for that soon enough. Plenty of time.
I reached down to pop the lever for the trunk, then grabbed the chainsaw and opened the door. I left the bloody bundle inside as I walked around and lifted the trunk door to see her looking up at me, sooty streaks of mascara running down her porcelain cheeks, her hair rumpled. She was dressed in a pair of sweats and a t-shirt, both stained with blood, her wrists and ankles bound with twine.
“Tom, please, you have to believe that this wasn't my fault! I love you!!!”
I briefly wondered why I hadn’t gagged her—it would have made the trip much more pleasant. I sighed and rested the chainsaw on the ground as I lifted her into my arms and cradled her against my chest, for the last time.
“I did too—until I found our child in the dumpster this morning.”
LAND OF THE LIVING by Patrick Whittaker
Are you sitting uncomfortably? Very well, children. I shall begin.
You have asked me about the Land of the Living and whether it really exists. Is it just a myth like the glub-glub man? A story designed to frighten young shades like yourselves?
No, it isn’t. The Land of the Living is as real as you or I. And it is every bit as terrible as you might think.
How do I know?
Simple. I’ve been there.
Yes! It’s true!
It happened way back when I was on the cusp of adulthood. As is common with shades of that age, I was brash and rebellious. Whatever my parents told me to do, I did the opposite. To me they were the squarest, most embarrassing entities the Netherworld has ever known.
I felt everyone was against me. That nobody understood me or accepted me for what I was. Little wonder I fell in with what my parents called the “wrong crowd”.
The Heaven’s Devils prided themselves on being the meanest, roughest, couldn’t-give-a-salvation gang of shades ever to haunt the Halls of Hades. We made it our mission to break every rule, taboo and social convention going. In our own minds at least, we were rebels - outsiders with the guts to take on the establishment.
When we weren’t starting fights with ghouls or terrorising trolls, we hung out in our headquarters, a cave in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There, free from the scrutiny of our peers, we gorged on forbidden fruits, drank sour nectar and indulged in every blasphemy conceivable.
It will shock you, my children, to learn that I desecrated images of the Dukes of Hell and heaped blessings upon Beelzebub. I trampled over inverted pentagrams and even dabbled in Christianity!
Yes! Well may you gasp and tremble and make the sign of the Horned One!
You see how far I had risen? How close to grace I was?
I am not proud of what I’d become. I merely lay the facts before you as a warning.
If you cannot stand any more horror, I shall end my story now, pack you off to bed and never again mention my sojourn to the Land of the Living. But if you’re made of sterner stuff, I shall continue.
I didn’t believe in magic and angels and white witches. As far as I was concerned, what we Heaven’s Devils got up to was just for kicks. I only went along with it to be accepted. So when some of the gang decided to hold a séance, I had no qualms about joining in.
To create the necessary ambience, extra lamps were brought to the cave. The light was so bright, I could clearly see my hand in front of my face.
We sat at a round table and joined hands. Jodreth – our leader – uttered a spell supposed to open a doorway to the Land of the Living. Nothing much happened and some of us started cracking jokes. But Jodreth told us to shut up and he wasn’t the sort of shade you’d argue with. So we shut up and Jodreth began the séance proper. ‘Is anybody there?’ he said. ‘We call upon the living to make their presence known. Show yourselves to us!’
He said this several times and then – just as I was getting bored – the lamps grew brighter, filling the cave with light.
I was certain someone was playing a joke, and yet I felt sorely afraid. Nor was it a comfort that the hands I held trembled as much as my own.
The air grew noticeably warmer. I thought I heard whispers. And there, in the midst of the purest, most hideous light I had ever encountered, were shapes. It was hard to make out their features, but there was no mistaking what they were: mortals! I counted six in all. They stood at a table, each with one hand on an upturned glass around which were arrayed a set of arcane symbols.
One of them spoke. ‘Is anybody there?’ it asked.
The glass began to move from one symbol to another.
Jodreth said, ‘Hear me, corporeal ones! Speak unto us!’
Then a mortal looked directly at me. Backing away in terror, it pointed a finger in my direction. ‘Look!’ it cried. ‘A ghost!’
The mortals began to scream. Someone at our table screamed back. And then there was pandemonium on both sides of the veil.
We shades ran from our cave like bats into hell. And we kept on running until we were at the end of the deepest, darkest catacomb we could find.
Now you might think that would have finished me with the Light Arts, but your old dad was a slow learner and as stubborn as Cerberus with a bone.
Although my fellow Heaven’s Devils vowed never to dabble in magic again, I became obsessed with the Land of the Living. Curiosity played a part in my fixation, but it was chiefly shame that spurred me on. I used to pride myself on my courage but now the séance had exposed me as a craven coward.
And so I had something to prove.
Deep within the caverns of the Netherworld sits an ancient well. I will not name it nor say where it lies. I do, after all, have a duty to protect my progeny from any stupidity they may have inherited from me.
Now there is a legend attached to this well. According to shadowlore, he who walks thrice clockwise around it repeating ‘Land of the Living, take me to thy bosom,’ will open a gateway between the worlds.
Without telling a soul of my intent, I snuck down as soon as an opportunity presented itself. And then I circled the well, intoning: ‘Land of the Living, take me to thy bosom.’
I walked around it once…
Feeling foolish, I turned to go. But I had taken no more than a single step when I heard a voice whisper, ‘Come to the light, young shade. Come to the light.’
And the cave was filled with brilliance and a terrifying warmth that was not of this world.
It was all I could do to stop myself from repeating my gutless performance at the séance. But I knew if I did I would never be able to face my reflection again. So I looked to the light and saw it was pouring from the well. And the voice once more said, ‘Come to the light, young shade. Come to the light.’
As much as the luminescence and the warmth frightened me, they enticed me like the Sirens of old, and I was drawn to the well. Looking down, I could see nothing but light and it seemed to go on forever.
‘Jump!’ said the voice, and I did.
I plunged into the radiance and it felt like I was drowning in light.
After a while, I sensed I was rising rather than falling. And then darkness returned. Blackness enveloped me like a blanket. It was my comfort and protection, and I wanted to stay wrapped in it for all eternity, but it was not to be.
In the distance, a new light formed and I realised I was seeing the end of a long, dark tunnel. Unseen, unstoppable currents drew me to that otherworldly glow. And suddenly the darkness went out and I was plunged into light.
Something slapped my back, causing me pain. Aggrieved, I cried and screamed and struggled.
Then I realised I had taken on solid form. That I was no longer a shade.
I know not, my children, if you can comprehend this, but I was a new born babe in the Land of the Living. Trapped inside a mortal body.
Oh the horror, the horror! What had I done?
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw I was in a small, white room. Mortals in green clothing stood looking down at me. They all wore masks.
After they cut my umbilical cord, I was handed to my mother. ‘Oh my baby,’ she sobbed, over and over. ‘My beautiful baby.’
One of the people in green said, ‘We have to get him to an incubator. It’s his only chance.’
They took me from my mother and placed me in a glass box. I suppose that must have been the incubator they’d mentioned.
The men in green pricked me with needles, shone lights in my eyes and stuck tubes in my arm. They did things I didn’t understand and which caused me pain and distress. I sensed they were acting in kindness, but it seemed a strange sort of kindness. There is much about the Land of the Living that is beyond the comprehension of even the most learned of shades. It is certainly beyond mine.
Eventually, the mortals went away. I was alone in the light. Frightened, confused and bewildered.
There was only one way back to the Netherworld: I had to die. But how could I when I was weak and helpless? When so many mortals were intent on keeping me alive?
I prayed for death. I beseeched the Black Lords to come and reclaim my imperishable soul.
Mortals need to inspire to stay alive, so I tried holding my breath. But I found I had no control over that particular function. Nor could I stop my heart.
I strived to comfort myself with the thought that I would not be helpless forever. In time, I would have control of my body and gain physical strength. Then I would be able to despatch myself back to the lower dimensions.
But it could be years before that came to pass.
For long hours, I lay in my glass box . Night came and the lights on the ceiling extinguished themselves. There were other lights in the room, but they were dim and didn’t so much disperse the darkness as emphasise it.
I drew what comfort I could from the gloom as I contemplated my fate and wondered if I would ever see my loved ones again. I promised that, should I find a way home, I would turn my back on the Heaven’s Devils. And I would obey my parents and listen to their advice, for I knew now they were far wiser than I.
Then a miracle happened. The Infernal Ones must have heard my prayers and taken pity on me, for I suddenly found myself growing weak. My lungs stopped and my heart soon followed.
The the mortal world receded as utter darkness descended.
Death took me by the hand. He paid Charon to ferry me across the Styx to the Netherworld where I belong.
And that, children, is how I journeyed to the Land of the Living and died to tell the tale.
Now off to bed with you. Sleep tight and try not to have daymares.
CLEARING THE FOG by Lalya Harding
"So, how is school going?" The question was innocuous enough, typical mom question to a typical 15 year-old daughter. But with my mom, it never stopped there. That question was the temperature gauge, the testing ground before she started launching the really big ones at me. I knew it was best to conserve my energy and just reply with a grunt to these softballs.
"How did practice go tonight?" Mom looked from the road to me as she asked. No matter how many times Dad had told her not to - no matter how many times I had told her not to - she still insisted on looking at the person she was talking to instead of the road. Under the best of circumstances her driving was suspect. With the dense fog encasing our car, she was an accident waiting to happen.
"Think you're ready to take on the Panthers next week?" Mom didn't really know what she was asking. Any information she got about my sports came straight from my dad. She didn't know a free throw from a field goal, and the Panthers weren't even a team in our division. I guess it was sweet that she tried.
"Sure." Here she was staring at me again. I guess it was lucky that we were alone on the road, other than the fog. The center line was becoming more of a suggestion than a rule to her as the inquisition continued.
"So I guess there's a school dance coming up?" Aha, here we go. This was the point of the whole thing. The dance. Why did she always wait until I was captive in the passenger's seat to do this? Precisely because I was captive.
"Are you going?" I couldn't tell what was more oppressive - the fog outside or the questioning inside.
I had always suffered from a mild case of claustrophobia. The fog made me feel like there was no actual world outside the windows of Mom's little hybrid. And the questions inside made me feel like there was no room to breathe.
Poor Mom. She had heard all of my friend's talking about the dance, who was going with whom, who had already gotten their dress, what hair stylists were taking care of the up-dos. All she wanted was to be able to talk about the same things with me. She just wanted to have a girl. A real girl.
"Lilly told me that Bryce thinks you're pretty cute. Has he asked you yet?" Damn that Lilly. The freedom of cussing, even if it was just in my own head, loosened up the atmosphere in the car a little. It did nothing to disperse the fog outside though. Why did my friends like my mom so much? Why did they feel the need to gossip with her like she was our age - especially about me?
"No." The truth was Bryce had asked me. I told him no. I shouldn't have lied to Mom. She would find out the truth anyway. Probably from Lilly.
"Are you going to ask him? Maybe he's too shy to ask you?"
"No, he's not too shy or no you won't ask him?"
"Yes." I stared straight ahead. Somebody had to watch the road. Mom was too intent on looking at me.
"Should we go shopping for a dress?" I could hear the hope in her voice. It was a little heartbreaking.
"I don't know."
"There are some great sales at the mall. Maybe we could go tomorrow after school?"
"I guess." It could have been my imagination, but it seemed with every question, the fog was getting thicker and thicker, cutting us off even more from the rest of humanity.
"Do you like Bryce?"
"Sure." Everybody liked Bryce. He was the kind of guy who could let out a tremendous belch at lunch and still be cool. He was already the starting running back for the varsity football team. All my friends thought he was hot.
"So why don't you ask him?"
"I don't like him like that, Mom." When was she going to understand? When was she finally going to stop with all of this?
"So is there another boy you like like that?"
The fog was so thick now, I could barely see two feet past the nose of the car. How could I tell her that there wasn't a boy I liked like that? The only person I wanted to take to the dance would never go with me. Ever. Because she was already going with someone else.
"Sure, Mom. I'll ask him."
"Mom, I think you need to get back in your lane."
"Oh!" She jerked the wheel a little too hard, and I felt the wheels catch on the shoulder. She jerked it again in the opposite direction. There was a slight fishtail, and we were back in a straight line, more or less on our side of the road. Hopefully, the fog would clear soon.