A lonely old man receives a late night guest
|The Uninvited Hat|
Something thumped against the moss-ridden door of the caretaker's cabin.
The fevered old man looked up from his book and the warmth of the dying fire. He then rubbed at his truly enormous nose that hung out of his face like a rotting pear then wiped his snot-sticky hand across the hem of his tattered green robe. He cursed under his breath. Who in the hell can that be?
The thump came again like the fleshy part of a balled fist—insistent and demanding. This time, through the window by the door, he saw something jerk and move out in the stormy dark, followed by the sound of wailing wind in the chimney.
The old man rubbed at his raw and festered nose again, then tried to breathe through it; it made a slurping sound. Stiffly he stood, sighing like someone who has set down a heavy burden and knows he must now pick it up again. He dropped his book into the chair and shambled toward the door.
He cleared his throat--a hollow, bronchial sound that turned into a phlegm-filled smoker’s gurgle, and yelled, “I’m coming, I’m coming . . . keep your shirt on.”
He drew back the latch and opened the door. “Yeah . . . whaddya want?”
But there was no one there.
He stepped out of the door and scanned the old abandoned cemetery, the warm air from the summer storm catching at the loose flaps of his robe.
“Hello?” he ventured, his eyes like pieces of flint staring out into the dark.
It felt humid, thick, and heavy, even with the approaching storm. So humid you could almost reach out and wring warm dribbles of water from the air itself. “Tornado weather,” he said, then wiping at his nose again, he stepped back inside. As if in answer, the hot wind whipped in behind him and blew something past his feet and in through the door. It skirted across the yellowed linoleum, flipped, wiggled, squirmed like an animal with a broken back, and then came to rest against the leg of the old man’s chair.
It was a hat.
“Hey, who invited you in here?” He slammed the door and went after the intruder.
As he reached for it, the hat slid away from him. “What the hell . . . ?” the old man said, ruminating over the hat. The longer he looked, the more the thing fascinated him.
It was a coffee-colored fedora made of felt, crumpled and caked with mud as if it had been buried for a time—buried and forgotten. The old man imagined it escaping from a freshly covered grave like some grotesque moth climbing from a diseased cocoon. Although wary, he reached for it again, and the hat twitched like a tired muscle. The old man quickly pulled his hand back, his face white as cottage cheese.
My God! It’s alive!
Fear pumped through his hardened arteries like iced water; his skin prickled and his arm hairs stood erect. His weak heart fluttered, then ran like a fan with a playing card caught in it.
Quickly, he grabbed the poker from the fireplace, felt reassured by the weight of it in his hand, and carefully prodded at the hat.
It didn’t move—just a normal hat after all. He smiled his large phony smile and thought how easily his mind had played a trick on him. It was just the wind—just wild imagination.
He set the poker down and grabbed the hat.
It felt damp and heavy and smelled of mold and earth.
Then it wiggled.
Startled, he almost dropped it, but curiosity compelled him to see what was inside. He flipped it over.
The band was thick with mud, and in the dirt-clogged interior, he saw worms and beetles squirm and crawl among clumps of gray hair growing into the fibers of the hat. His stomach lurched at the sight; so repulsed was he, that he threw it against the wall where it splattered and stuck fast in the glue of its own guts. In horror, he watched as it crept down the wall leaving a greasy brown smear.
Picking up the poker again, he snagged the hat and carried it out in front of him like a dead skunk, and then chucked it into the fireplace.
It sizzled and smoldered for a moment--smelled of burning flesh.
Then he heard a deep, low moaning that rapidly grew in strength like a distant throng of condemned souls. The hat collapsed within itself and reluctantly caught fire as a draught of icy cold wind blew down the chimney like swirling currents of wretched claws lashing out at the old man’s face.
Then there was a thump at the door.
The old man knew right away who it was—knew that if the hat could move of its own volition, then so too could its owner.
He felt a nameless panic clutch at his throat as he threw back the door and faced a blizzard of brittle leaves that swirled and crackled like broken old bones as they danced around him.
He began to laugh madly.
He laughed until he took a good long look at the foul, grim face that stood before him, smelled the decay and rot, the worm-riddled brains, and then he lost all desire to laugh and began to scream.