by Brian Kirk

 

 

 

 

 

From Issue 12 (August 2011)

 

The single-storey houses on Darrell’s street were utterly interchangeable. Vinyl sided, ranch-style facades, with cookie-cutter floor plans. Simple structures, these, as though constructed out of erector sets intended for children aged six through fourteen, the unfortunate by-products of the small town’s only uninspired architect.

Not that Darrell noticed.

Nor did he pay much attention to the rows of matching yards with their precision lines and crosshatch patterns, or the mailboxes modeled after fishing boats or fire trucks or camping tents, futile attempts at originality. Instead, all the townsfolk had achieved was a quaint predictability.

For Darrell, life after April had become a mindless exercise of repetition in this land of bland similarity. Exiled from a world filled with purpose and potential, driven away by friends and family who had convicted him in their hearts and would always consider him guilty, even after the evidence had exonerated him. Even after he had been set free.

Jail would have been a preferable sentence to this.

Death, even.

At least in death he wouldn’t have to relive each mundane moment like some eternal Groundhog Day in hell.

At least in death he could be with April, with their, what? Son? Daughter? He’d never know.

The sun set as he turned into his driveway and parked beneath the sagging carport, closing the curtains on an expansive copper sky rippled with sorbet colored clouds. Another inspired evening’s end ignored.

Darrell climbed from the car and was rounding the house when he noticed an irregularity in his backyard: a bright, white splotch covering a section of lawn that should have been cloaked in the shadows of early dusk. At first he thought it was a moon ray casting a spotlight on this singular patch of grass, but an upward glance quickly dispelled this suspicion. The moon was just a grey sliver slung low in the sky, dull as a dead man’s grin.

As he approached the spot, he confirmed that the discoloration was not from a source of light, but, rather, appeared to be stained into the earth itself, stark white against the shadowed ground, like a bleach mark on a dark shirt.

Paint?

No. Well, not your standard hardware store ivory paint product, at least. Even white paint would be dulled by darkness.  This patch of ground was aglow, radiant as a fully lit moon.

He came to the perimeter of the mark and stopped, again inspected the sky, then slowly circled the stain, which was approximately thirty feet in diameter, its shape somewhat lopsided, like a bloated state of Texas.

From a distance came the woeful howling of a neighbor’s neglected dog, disrupting the unusually soundless night. The evenings were normally so alive with the incessant buzzing and chirping of restless insects. He stopped, and simply listened, to nothing. Not a rustle of wind. Not a scuttle of bug. Just the dog in the distance, desperately pleading for attention.

Darrell’s skin prickled. He suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable in the expansive backyard. He scanned his surroundings, looking towards the neighboring homes, separated not by fences but by flat, barren ground speckled with patches of brittle grass. Even in the ever-darkening evening, he could see that he was unobserved from either end. He turned towards the wooded barrier fifty feet behind his property – a sheer wall of forest brush so densely packed it seemed it had been created by God’s understudy, whose overzealous attitude towards creation had produced this nearly impenetrable cross-section of bramble and vine. If anything lurked within these woods, it was now concealed by shadow.

The silence became oppressive. It took on a physical quality – a weight bearing down on him, hunching his shoulders.

Darrell turned his attention back to the phosphorescent stain before him, from which a scant mist was now rising, as if from a large slab of dry ice. He squatted and lowered his cupped hands to the thickening mist, then wafted the vapors towards his face.

The stench nearly put him on his back. A dank and rancid musk pickled with cloying sweetness. His head jerked reflexively and he staggered back, his nose buried in the crook of his arm. Cautiously, he crept back towards the stain, relieved to find the smell contained closer to the ground, only the faintest hint detectable from above.

Darrell reached out one foot to test the solidity of the stain. The surface was slick, and his foot slid when it landed, nearly causing him to spill forward. He waved his arms for balance, his foot skidding across the stain, a gelatinous sludge pouring over his shoe as the putrid stench bloomed, engulfing him like a fog. He yelped and scrambled for solid ground, his feet slipping on the slick surface as though on ice.

Back on dry grass, he retched into his sleeve, then inspected his sludge-caked shoes. He stomped his feet and moonwalked back towards the house, leaving incandescent trails on the coarse grass. Behind him, the night remained silent, save for the despairing dog.

Darrell left his shoes to air outside and entered through the back door. He grabbed the county phone book, then paused. Who could he call to treat a rotten blob in the backyard? He tossed the book onto the kitchen table and rubbed his eyes. He’d deal with it in the morning, should it still be there, when the daylight would better assist his inspection.

He fell into his nightly routine and the numbing relief of familiar repetition. The strange, wet stain was a small, dissolving thought by the time Darrell turned out the light for sleep.

The braying alarm jolted Darrell from a pleasant, sexually explicit dream, dragging him back to the reality of his dingy bedroom. A sharp ray of morning sunlight shone through the window above the bed, casting a spotlight on the sheets tee-peed over his groin. He groaned, shoved the sheets aside and shuffled to the bathroom.

Darrell awoke every morning in this state of sexual frustration, his body suffering from nostalgia. This had been his and April’s favorite playtime, frolicking beneath the sheets in the grey haze of early dawn, gliding between the real world and the ethereal, bodies warm and ready, senses awakening to sensual touches. Whenever anyone complained about their morning malaise, Darrell and April would share a secret smile.

But now Darrell was one of the others – morning’s mortal enemy.

He released his sexual frustration in the shower, letting the warm water wash away his wasted seed, and settled into his daily routine, wiping steam from the mirror and inspecting his grizzled face.

Would she even recognize me anymore? he thought.

Would she still love the man I’ve become?

He didn’t think so. And he couldn’t blame her. It was his self-determination and independence that had attracted April in the first place, but it had all been a façade. A Faberge shell that had crumbled after she died, exposing his vapid hollows. He was April’s husband. That had become his identity. And without her, he was nothing.

Worse, he was this.

The faint laugh lines framing his mouth were the only remnants from his previous, happy life, and even those were fading into a network of tired wrinkles and fleshy folds. The result of a life lulled into tedium. A life ruined by loss.

Darrell was applying shaving cream to his face when a loud and urgent gurgling startled him. It was coming from the shower, a grumbling, like hunger. Then water began spurting from the shower nozzle in bursts.

He reached in to turn the water off, but the handle was already in the off position. He angled the nozzle away from himself and searched for a shut-off valve as water began to flood the tub, a faint vibration causing it to ripple. Bubbles began to percolate up through the drain. Just a few at first, then more, rising in rapid succession – large, roiling bubbles that burst with force, releasing a noxious stench.

Darrell had just shed his towel and stepped in to clear the drain when a hammering began on the underside of the tub, a violent assault that caused him to hunker down for better balance. The rattling tub rocked him against the walls as the cacophony – splashing, boiling water and banging, jangling pipes – reached an apex. A geyser erupted from the drain, spraying dark, red, gelatinous fluid over his outstretched arms, where it hung in heavy, mucous-thick ropes. Silence pursued.

Stunned, Darrell gaped down at the mess covering his arms and legs. As the liquid dropped back into the tub in clumps, he noticed a fleshy-looking mass of… something, floating on the surface of the shallow water. It too was red, but of a lighter shade, coursed with violet lines, almost like veins. He was still processing the sight before him when the drain opened up with a vacuum-like sound, sucking down the clumps of debris along with the tainted water.

Darrell collapsed against the back of the tub, chest heaving, and watched the murky liquid retreat until all that remained were slimy tendrils of residue reaching out from the drain.

The water choked off, the pipes sputtering. He stepped out and surveyed himself, shaking in disgust. Not trusting the taps, he decided to try and towel the gunk off.

Another noise then came from the drain. A hitching, wavering sound; soft, yet abrasive to the senses, pitched at a tone that seemed more intuited than heard – a warbling, like gargled song. Darrell leaned in closer, and held his breath.

Must be echoes from a broken pipe, he figured. The noise was faint, as though wafting up from a barren well. Funny, Darrel thought, it sounds like feral cats fighting, or the urgent wails of an unhappy infant.

Making his way back to the sink, Darrell checked the faucet, which was dry. The pipes were clearly busted. He listened for the sound here, but it seemed restricted to the shower drain. He toweled off the rest of the gelatinous liquid as he made his way to the kitchen phone to call up a plumber. He retrieved the phone book and glanced out the window. There was a large indention in the back yard, in the same spot as the stain from the previous evening.

As he approached the depressed area, he saw that there was a hole near the center of the concavity – an uneven, ragged hole revealing a hollow recess below. He caught a whiff of the stench as he approached, and quickly retreated to the house, deciding to leave the inspection to the professionals.

The county plumber was large and lumbering. A tan uniform shirt, starched stiff with stains, strained to sheathe his bulging belly. He inspected the concave area, prodding with instruments and probing with a high-power flashlight.

“Hey man, what the hell’ve you been eating?” he said finally, pushing the brim of his ball cap up out of his eyes.  He seemed unaffected by the debilitating smell that caused Darrell to retch every time the wind shifted his way.

“It must take some hell kind of toxic shit to bust up a septic tank this bad. Seemed to be in good condition, too.  Sometimes if they get corroded you may see ‘em bust apart, but this one looks like it just exploded.” The plumber stood and backed off, as though out of reverence for the sight before him.

All Darrell saw was the depressed ground and a dark hole.  Peering closer, though, he noticed some disturbances around the hole’s rim – small, parallel streaks running perpendicular to the hole. Upon closer inspection they almost looked like scratches, as though something had been grasping for purchase, attempting to claw its way out of the ground.

“What do you make of those marks?” Darrell spoke through his shirt collar, pointing to the scratches surrounding the septic hole.

“Probably just some varmint or hound come to investigate the smell. They can be attracted by some vile stuff. I’d say possum, if I had to guess.” He offered an indifferent shrug.

“Anyway, it’ll take us a couple of days to line up a replacement tank and get out here to install it. Shower’s off-limits and don’t flush the shitter till then, ‘less you want what’s down there to flow out into the yard. I’ll call to schedule a time to come back out.”

Darrell was hardly listening. He offered a distracted wave, sending the man back to his truck, as he continued to inspect the claw marks, noticing now that they extended out even further on the far side of the hole. He walked around to that side and observed a subtle path of glistening, trampled grass leading away from the hole towards the woods at the back of his yard.

Could some dog have hauled something out of the septic ditch? Darrell wondered. That would explain the claw marks. Some dog scratching around the hole’s rim as it tried to paw out whatever it had found, then carrying it into the woods to eat or bury.

The anguished howls of the neighbor’s neglected pet resounded in the distance, lending credence to this theory. Seen through the lens of this rationalization, the markings appeared innocuous, the obvious investigations of a wandering dog or vile varmint, of which there were plenty around. Darrell blew out a gust of pent up air and returned to the house.

He called work to explain that he needed the day off. A couple, maybe. Unless they wanted to catch a whiff of his new cologne: the alluring scent of sewage residue.

Now, with the whole day to indulge his every whim, Darrell couldn’t think of a single thing to do. Were it the weekend, he would drive out to his favorite fishing hole, but his only weekday routine was work. He drummed his fingers on the arms of the chair as he considered his lack of options, his forced introversion, his reclusive life.

They had won, it seemed. Locked him away after all. In an isolated cell of self-loathing, ever since the accident. Nobody had suffered April’s loss more than him. And guilt, in this case, lay only with God.

He pushed back, sulking into the tattered padding of his La-Z-boy recliner, chin sinking into the folds of his jowls. His quarrelsome mind chiseled away at his fractured psyche, until it finally shut off.

Darrell awoke to a world engulfed in noise. The same wet, warbling he had heard drifting from the drain, only now it was amplified to the pitch of an ambulance siren. Darrell sat up and looked wildly about the room. Electric pulses of panic streaked through his extremities.

The sound – the screaming? – was coming from the back of the house. He stood and shuffled towards the noise, his chest clenching as it intensified. So much like the cries of an injured animal, he thought, though aquatic and alien. A phlegmy, underwater gurgle of breath with a buzzing, insectile scream. The closer he went, the louder it grew, piercing his ears, resonating in his head.

Darrell tried to shake off the fug of fear and regain control of his imagination, which insisted on exotic sources for the sound. He realized the cries were coming from just on the other side of the back door – a flimsy piece of rattling wood separating him from the reverberating wails.

He exhaled a shuddering breath and placed a hand on the doorknob, preparing to fling open the door, but he couldn’t force himself to turn the knob. Instead, he sidled towards the adjacent window, pulling aside the curtain with palsied hands and peeking out, attempting to see what it was from the side. There was a recessed landing before the back entryway, however, which blocked his line of sight. He could only see the concrete path leading up to the door, which was covered in a shiny film of slime. Clumps of hardened jelly textured the greasy sheen.

Darrell let the curtain fall back in place, eyes glazed, heart thudding in his ears, blackness closing in on the edges of sight.

He stumbled back to the living room, trying to process the situation and decide what to do. He turned on the TV, maxing the volume, just to drown out the incessant wailing for a minute. He plugged his fingers deep into his ears, curled himself into a ball, and began to hum like an immature child defying a stern lecture. He prayed for reprieve as the TV shouted slogans for tampons and online college degrees.

Finally, drained and delirious, Darrell unplugged his ears and carefully opened his eyes. He turned off the blaring TV set and sat in the sudden silence, a cacophony of noise echoing in his mind. He stood, walked to the back door, reached for the handle and threw it open.

Nothing.

Well, almost nothing. The slimy film had evaporated, leaving a chalky residue, as after the recession of salt water. Darrell was reaching out to touch it when the rabid barking of the distant dog startled him, causing him to recoil and close the door.

His heart was fluttering, nerves thrumming. He struggled to control his racing breath and wrangle his irrational mind, which kept wandering into alien territory. The cumulative stress of this strange, disrupted day descended, carrying with it a suffocating weight. He decided to cut the day short, wading through his evening routine, skipping supper, skipping prime time TV. Depleted, he carried himself to the bedroom and undressed, falling face first into bed.

It was late morning when the sound of rattling glass aroused him from his sleep.

It came from the rectangular window above his bed – the sound of something challenging the windowpane. This side of the house was recessed underground so that the window was level with the garden, the room subterranean. He flipped over onto his back and squinted through the brightness of the room, the morning sun shining in overhead.

Cast against the far wall was the jiggling shadow of a figure, something standing just a couple of feet above him, a vantage point from where it could peer down on his supine body.

The rattling had stopped when he flipped onto his back. Now the shadow was still. It was a humanoid shape – starfish body, bulbous head. It shuffled slightly, a wet, squeegee sound coming from the windowpane, followed by a melancholy mewling.

Darrell directed his eyes upward, but the window was directly overhead and he could only see its edges. The shadow continued to ripple as the figure above shuffled for better position, the mewling becoming more urgent. Then the assault on the window returned, this time with increased intensity. The window cracked, and Darrell scrambled to the floor, covering himself.

The banging stopped. The shadow remained still against the wall, then slowly slid sideways until it vanished. Darrell remained folded over with his hands hugging his head, staring at the blank wall, listening to his own ragged breathing.

After a minute, he relaxed his arms just a bit. Another, and he uncoiled slightly from his fetal curl. He held his breath, listening for any signs from outside the window.

Hearing nothing, he slowly got to his feet, staring intently at the window. He crawled onto the bed, then stood and approached the window. It was smeared with the same murky film he had seen before, first on the grass, then on the back porch. A thin line of this gelatinous liquid had oozed through the fractured glass and was sliding down the inside of the pane. Darrell sensed movement on his periphery – a blurry flash, a glint of shimmering light. Then, before he could react, the figure stepped into view.

Darrell’s mouth sprang open, emitting a strangled croak. He stood, planted in place, paralyzed by shock, gaping at the creature before him. The creature was short – maybe four feet tall – its flesh wet and translucent, throbbing as it shifted and molded its form. It appeared to be shedding an opaque cocoon-like shell, which clung to its lower torso and upper legs, dripping in gooey clumps from its dangling, arm-like appendages. Its face and upper chest were completely clear, however, covered only in a residual slime.

Darrell struggled to turn and run, but felt captivated by the creature’s eyes, the only aspect of its face that wasn’t shifting, and a strange calm enveloped him; a warmth that spread out from his core. An ecstasy. A certain and primal understanding. An intuition that kept him rooted in place.

The creature’s creamy, unblemished skin continued to warp and pulsate. A nose emerged, then washed back into the roiling mass. Hair sprouted, then retreated. Lips blossomed then blanched. Only its eyes remained steady, holding Darrell’s infatuated stare.

Finally, as Darrell was drawn deeper into the creature’s gaze, its features emerged fully and took form, the resemblance unmistakable, almost a mirror image. Darrell placed both hands against the windowpane, stifling a sudden urge to cry.

The creature moved closer. They each stared into the other’s face. His mind went to April, then to his morning ritual; the shower, and later, the wailing…

Then calm overcame contemplation, and he simply smiled. The offspring attempted to mimic the expression, but its newly formed features were mostly immobile. Instead, it hopped up and down, emitting a series of birdlike squawks. More of the ectoplasmic shell fell away with each jump. Then it quieted, and through its adoring eyes expressed a look of unconditional love.

Darrell tried the window, but it was jammed. He considered shattering the glass, but didn’t want to risk injuring the creature. He took off towards the back door. Racing around the side of the house, he almost collided with the loping figure coming around the corner from the opposite direction.

It almost came up to his abdomen. When it raised its ropy arms, they reached his neck. Darrell bent and let it grasp around so that he could lift it up. He adjusted it on his hip, where he could better leverage its deceptive weight, and waddled back to the house, staring reverently into his offspring’s eyes.

He didn’t notice the rattle of tree limbs from the forest’s edge as he lumbered back to the house. He didn’t see the hulking shape peeking out through the dense foliage. His attention was fully consumed by the inexplicably familiar face before him, and paid no mind to anything else. He hefted the child higher on his hip as he entered the house.

The creature watched the door close. Its body vibrated, producing a hum as from a tuning fork – its compassionate core content. Then a shocking pain coursed through its center, accompanied by an acute sense of anguish. Not for the loss of its spawn – it cared only for the void it had filled – but for the source of the distant weeping. It released the tree limbs and turned back into the woods, heading towards the sounds of suffering, towards the lonesome howls of the attention-starved hound.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Brian Kirk

Brian Kirk

Brian Kirk is a freelance copywriter and fiction author whose stories have sullied the pages of several otherwise respectable print and online publications.

He lives in Atlanta with his supportive wife and two beautiful baby boys. Follow his journey at briankirkblog.com

DeliciousFacebookLiveJournalDiggRedditStumbleUponTumblrTwitterShare This

One Response to “No Longer Alone”