by Eric DeLee
This is a short story about a woman trying to shed the demons of her past.
|This story is just a touch under 5,000 words. It is my love for Stephen King which inspired this... and I hope you enjoy it.
Janice enjoyed the warmth of her new apartment. It was small, but it was cozy and she had a roof over her head. She supposed that is what really counted after all. Well, that and the fact that she felt safe. Her mother had helped her search through the classifieds after she got divorced from Barry. A shiver climbed its way up the knobs of her backbone with just the mere thought of him. She was still in shock from the events that changed her life over the past six months. Barry was the one constant thing in her life for the past eight years, and now, after a miscarriage as the result of his temper, that one constant factor was flushed down the garbage disposal. She just thanked God that she had the smarts and the guts to realize it was time to actually turn on the disposal this time, rather then to let him climb back out and take control again. That alone may have saved her life.
Her mother had taken her in during the days following her hospital stay. Although she knew that everyone meant well at the hospital, she could not stand the way they had looked at her every time they came in to change her IV bag or to bring her food. Each of the nurses called her by her first name and each of them wore an ‘I’m so sorry’ expression. One nurse had even tried consoling her just moments after her body expelled the baby after only four months in the womb. Janice knew they all meant well, but also knew that she could not listen to another nurse whispering about how the patient in Room 128 was kicked in the stomach by her husband while she was four months pregnant. She welcomed the day when her mother signed the release papers and she climbed into the passenger seat of her car. The car smelled of vanilla, thanks to the little pine tree that bounced up and down from the rearview mirror. She was thankful of that too. The hospital scent of alcohol and rubber gloves had always made her uneasy. Furthermore, the vanilla covered a more sinister smell that lurked around her; reminding her of the miscarriage.
That infamous evening had started so innocently. Barry was with his best friend Jim Cartwright (a man she did not care for), shooting pool at their usual hangout. She was sitting in her corner of the couch, snuggled up to a very interesting yarn about the role women played during the Civil War. It was a fiction, but nonetheless a very interesting point of view. She could not remember the author’s name, or the title. After all, the book was thrown away because of the blood that soaked through it. When it happened, it happened in a flash. She supposed that she should be thankful for at least that much. When Barry crashed through the door, he bounced off the door jam and headed straight for the bathroom. Janice imagined that he looked a little like a cartoon character when they were about to get sick. He was sweating profusiously, and she thought that she actually saw his face turning green. The latter of the thoughts threw her into a giggling fit, a mistake she will always remember.
Barry stopped as soon as he heard her giggling. He marched over to her, the stench of alcohol and cigarette smoke overbearing, and had asked her what she thought was so damned funny. He had struggled with getting it out, and each of the words slurred badly making it nearly impossible to understand. This of course had a side-effect for Janice. She laughed even harder and tears glossed over her vision. She didn’t even see the first punch he threw. The only thing she remembered was being thrown to the floor and then watching as his foot seemed to come at her in slow motion, heading straight for the pooch where their child was going to soon depart. When he kicked her, she felt a rip from inside, a rip that was unnatural. When she was able to sit up, she felt sticky warmth between her legs. She didn’t want to look down, but knew she would. It was like when you drove by a car accident on the highway. No matter how many times you tell yourself not to look, you just had to. There wasn’t as much blood as she had expected, but it was enough. Enough to know she had just lost their child.
That was the past. She hated to think about those things in her new apartment. What’s been done has been done. The future was ahead of her and she had planned on making the best of it. Her bathroom may be small, and it only had a stand-up shower in it, but it was hers. For once she could call something her very own, even if it had been nothing more then a glorified carbon-copy of a Motel 8 room.
The furnishings were simple and mostly second hand. She had found an old futon with a stained cushion at a thrift shop down on Second Avenue. The stains remained unnoticeable beneath a warm afghan her mother had knitted a few years earlier. In the kitchen, she had an old table that she had to prop up with a newspaper in order to avoid it from wobbling. The table’s surface was scratched miserably and at sometime a previous owner had the awful idea to paint the legs burgundy. The two chairs that came with the table did not match, but she figured that you really could not ask for much when you only gave ten dollars for the set. She hated the color of it, the paint was always flaking, but she did not feel like painting it. After living with all of the nicks and flakes that her marriage had for the last odd number of years, she did not mind the table too much after all.
Her latest hobby had been adding color to the apartment. When she moved in, the walls were still practically soaking in the last coat of egg white. The apartment was bright due to everything being white, even though there were very few windows for natural light (One window in her bedroom, and one over the kitchen sink was all the apartment had to offer). Her mother brought up the idea that she needed to add a few pictures to the walls. With those words, the cogs were set into motion. Janice had bought a few paintings and prints from the weekend yard sales that she visited.
One painting, she absolutely fell in love with was hanging over the futon. When she bought it, her mother had protested its ugliness and had pointed at all of the cracks in the oil. Regardless, she decided to get the painting the second she had seen it and did not regret anything when the plump lady in charge of the sale had asked for thirty dollars. Something about the lady standing there on the hilltop, overlooking the ruins lying about in the tall weeds struck a strong cord for her. The lady’s face was not visible in the painting, her back was towards the viewer, but Janice could almost see that there was a sense of pride upon her brow. It was as though she had overcome the odds, and was looking at everything behind her… watching how they all had succumbed to the weeds and failed to exist.
Janice had spent long moments staring at that painting in the weeks following its discovery. She imagined time after time that she was the lady in the painting. She imagined that the ruins in the valley below were merely her past melting away from her. In the weeds, she could sense Barry, the abusive past that she survived, Jim Cartwright, and even the baby that was never given the chance to live. Even though it was hard to think of those things, she could imagine that she was standing on that hill ready to leave her past behind her once she turns back around. The thought that the ruins lying in the weeds ahead of her were her future rather than her past had never occurred to her.
The same day she bought the painting, she had acquired a unique looking photo album. It was a leather bound book, with metal clasps. She thought it had looked a little like a movie prop when she had first seen it. She fully expected it to have the words ‘Book of the Damned’ burned into the rawhide, but it did not. She had found it while mulling over a few books that she wanted to buy and rummaging through a stack of photo albums in a box that smelled like mildew. When her eyes happened upon it, she knew that she had to have it. Just like with the painting she had bought, it had pulled her attention to it. Although it was not something that could be considered beautiful, it had a unique quality to it. That was exactly what she was looking for to ‘liven’ up her apartment.
When Janice got home, she had taken her purchases into the living room. When she placed the photo album on her coffee table, as though it were a picture book, she realized how wonderful it went with the entire room. She did not own a single thing that was different shades of rawhide held together by dull, tarnished metal clamps, but it still added a perfect touch to the small living room. The only thing she did not like about it was the way the leather felt when she touched it. It had chilled her in a way that she had not felt since she last saw Barry smiling as he was being led away in handcuffs.
When she opened the photo album, standing right there in front of her couch, she had to sit down quickly. She could not believe what she was seeing. There were numerous pictures in the photo album. I guess that would be normal in most cases, but something was different about these. All of the pictures were blank, except the picture that looked like Barry.
She peeled back the cellophane-like sheet covering the pictures and took out the picture of the man that looked like Barry and examined it with a scornful eye. A lump presided in her throat. She tried to clear it but was unsuccessful. The air had a thick quality all of a sudden and it seemed as though it was getting harder to breath. The goose pimples that broke out on her lower arms quickly found their way up to her shoulders. Something like a feather or the soft tickle of someone’s breath ran a chill up her spine. The man in the picture was not just a man that looked like Barry it was Barry. True, this man had a goatee and looked frightened which were characteristics she had never known to exist in Barry. Nevertheless, beneath the scruff on his chin and the different appearance of his face, this man was the same monster that kicked her in the stomach while she was four months pregnant. This man was the same that had smiled at her when the cops snapped the handcuffs in place. Barry.
The Polaroid fell from her hands and landed on top of the blank pictures that were arranged in the photo album when the ringing of the phone startled her. After the second ring, she exhaled a long breath that she did not realize she was holding. Glancing down, she saw the fear that was in Barry’s eyes, and that scared her even more. She closed the photo album, leaving the picture exactly where it was, and went across the room to the telephone. Her mother was calling about a comedy special that she thought Janice would like to see. Janice turned on the TV while talking to her mother and changed the channel to Comedy Central. They talked on the phone while watching the show and Janice soon forgot about the picture of Barry while laughing with her mother.
Three months later, when the weather had just turned colder and yard sales were scarce until springtime, Janice fell asleep on the futon while watching reruns of M.A.S.H. In her dream, she was still watching Klinger prance around in front of Hawkeye. For some reason he was wearing a dress and acting sillier than normal. Janice was chuckling over this when she saw it.
Her laughter froze in her throat. The room seemed colder, but surly it was her nerves playing a trick on her. She looked around, trying to figure out what had made the noise, found nothing and then continued to watch M.A.S.H. B.J. had just walked in to talk to Hawkeye when she heard it again.
She hit the mute button on the remote, and now Klinger was carrying on about his crazy business without any sound. The last sound was not just a sound; it was actually someone whispering her name. The whispering came from all around her. She could make out her name, but the rest was gibberish. In front of her, the TV snapped off. It was not until then that she noticed the painting above her. It started as a small rumble… and then the picture started banging against the wall.
Janice looked at it and then was startled when she noticed something. The lady on the hill had moved. Her back used to face the viewer and now you could see a portion of her profile. She had turned. Janice was as sure of this as she had been of anything. Then the lady on the hill turned all of the way. Janice could not believe what she was seeing. The lady looked right at Janice and yelled the following word:
There was nothing but horror on the lady’s face. Pure horror and dread. She ran off of the picture—it sounds strange, and Janice would not have believed it herself it had not happened right in front of her—and left nothing behind her but the field and ruins that were tangled in weeds and vines. After a moment had passed, she could see why the lady had run away.
In the fields, the vines began to unwrap and let loose of the grip it had on the fallen columns and ruins. The weeds swayed back and forth, and then practically laid flat to the ground after a strong gust of wind. Janice could not be sure, but she could have sworn that she felt a strong gust of wind come directly from the picture. She heard the sound of a siren coming from the painting. It was a loud continuous noise, like the sound of the wind when it blows on the eaves during a storm. It had frightened her. She leaned forward, and touched the glass that covered the painting. That was when she saw the bull charge out of the ruins and up towards the hilltop. The shrieking wind got louder… piercing her ears. She could hear her heart over the shrieking, and it was galloping faster than the bull itself.
That was when she woke up, screaming.
Janice had fallen off the futon, and slammed her head into the edge of the coffee table. The pain was instant and white. She thought she was going to pass out from the pain, and for a second or two stars dancing in a field of black blurred her vision. She nearly lost the battle when the TV brought her back to her senses. There was a constant throbbing settling behind her ears, and a pop knot was beginning to swell. She looked at the TV, and noticed that she was still watching M.A.S.H. Although she could not tell how long she had been asleep, she knew this was not the same episode that she was watching earlier.
Janice used the coffee table to help get back onto her feet, and then braced herself a few moments when she struggled with another round of vertigo. She always had trouble remembering if heat or ice was supposed to be used to control swelling, and this time was no different from any other time in her life. She bumped her shin into the coffee table, and added more misery to her already aching body. The photo album that she had bought a few months ago spilled out onto the floor, scattering a few photos onto the thin carpet. She thought about picking up the mess, but decided it would not be of her best interest to bend over at the current condition she was in. Instead, she turned off the TV on her way to the kitchen, wincing as she felt the knot on her head.
After placing a few ice cubes in a baggie and taking a dosage of Advil, she went to the cabinet under the sink and pulled out a teakettle. It was tarnished with age, but as long as it held water, its purpose was served. Janice wanted a good cup of black tea before going to bed. She figured it would settle her headache a little, and possibly help her forget about the dream that was bothering her. Then she heard someone knocking on the front door.
Knock Knock Knock
Her heart sped up and began galloping to the same beat as her throbbing head. She looked at the clock on the microwave and was amazed to see it was already past midnight.
Knock Knock Knock
Three more raps on the door. The latter were a little more impatient and threatening than the first. Her immediate thought; It’s the bull! The bull from the picture. She walked into the living room, which ended up being a task in itself. Her legs no longer wanted to support her and each time she took a step they felt as though they had been dipped in a vat of concrete. She looked at the picture above the futon, but it remained there just as it always had. The lady on the hill still had her back towards the viewer and the ruins were still covered with vines and brush. The painting itself showed no signs of movement, nor did it bang against the wall.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
It was the same voice from her dream. She turned her attention to the door and watched as the doorknob jiggled slowly to left and then all of the way back to the right. It didn’t move very far, because it was locked, but she knew that she was in trouble then. There was no second-guessing this time. Barry has decided to come over for a visit.
Her headache no longer seemed to bother her, but she still had a problem trying to figure out what to do. The first thing she could think about was getting to the telephone and calling the police. Walking in that direction, she tripped over the photo album and fell with a crash. The wind was knocked out of her, and in an instant, her lungs were on fire, trying to pull in oxygen. The door shuddered in its frame, and Janice realized he was trying to bust his way inside of the apartment. The teakettle was screaming on the stove, its voice piercing the small apartment. She struggled to her feet, still doubling at the waist and fighting for air, and tried once again for the phone.
Barry knocked her down before she could get there, and this time, she did succumb to fainting.
When Janice came to, Barry was sitting on the coffee table and looking down at her. He leaned forward, to kissing distance, and she could smell the alcohol soaking through him. When her vision cleared a little more, she noticed that Barry had a goatee. She also noticed that he had the same look in his eyes the night she had giggled at him for looking like an ill-struck cartoon character. She had wondered why the cops let this man go on bail just as he slapped her across the face causing her to knock her head on the ground again. Her teeth ripped into the inside of her mouth, filling it with the coppery taste of blood that she did not care for. She spat to her side and looked at the clotted mess. He had slapped her hard enough to knock two of her teeth loose. The tears came with the pain. She had no control over stopping them. All she could think about was the painting over the futon. She supposed the bull had caught her after all. Then Barry began kicking her.
He had been yelling at her, asking her why she had called the police on him and kicking her each time she failed to answer or couldn’t because of the pain in her jaw. She had no doubt at all that he meant to keep on doing so until she was dead, that is, until he noticed the Polaroid snapshot of himself lying on the floor. She had expected him to start kicking her again, but none of that happened after he picked up the photo. Instead, something to the sorts of a miracle happened right before her eyes. Barry disappeared.
To say he flat out disappeared, well, that would be considered a white lie. She told the police that she passed out sometime after he started kicking her, and then was gone by the time the first patrol car came veering up to the apartment complex. The nice young man in uniform radioed in and gave Barry’s description to the dispatcher on duty, but Janice knew that it would be a worthless cause. Barry was gone. Dead she hoped and yes, she knew that it was wrong for her to wish death upon anyone, but in Barry’s case, she hoped he had suffered.
She has lost a portion of the details surrounding that night, but some of it remained. How many times she was kicked was not a fact that she could easily recall (not unless she counted the bruises), but what had actually happened to Barry remained etched within the folders stored in her mind.
Not long before the police ran into her apartment, Barry had noticed the Polaroid that was on the floor. He had stopped kicking her when he saw the picture (the Emergency Room doctor says she should be grateful of that since another kick could have sent a splintered rib into her heart). When he picked up the picture, he began screaming. At first, this had scared Janice even more, thinking that she was getting ready to die. She was wondering if it was going to be his foot stamping on her head until it looked like a smashed pumpkin, or possibly a kitchen knife slicing her throat. Whichever the case may be, she prayed that it would be quick and painless.
She remembered that she lost control of her bowels at that moment, while listening to him screaming, but then he stopped. It was as though someone had a mute button that worked on him. She thought to herself that it was over and closed her eyes waiting for an end until she heard him choking. It hurt to move but she reached out with one hand and dug her fingers into the carpet. Two fingernails snapped off, one leaving blood on the carpet as she continued to drag herself into a better position. Something was happening to Barry, and she wasn’t about to miss it.
The picture he had picked up had turned into some sort of window or door. A bright light shone from it. Barry was no longer holding onto the picture, but something was yanking on his arm. Just as she thought Barry was going to free himself from the grip of the scaly arm protruding from the window of light, another arm shot outward and grasped Barry’s shoulder. Barry lunged for the television, got his free hand on it, and then tipped it off its stand and onto the floor. The tube busted with a loud POP! The creature that was yanking on Barry dug talon-like claws into his shoulder. Barry tried to scream, but nothing came. The skin on his arm was changing to a grayish charcoal color and was slowly making its way to his neck and then his face.
Besides, from the skin color, Barry’s body was going through several changes. His skin started shriveling up, reminding Janice of an old person’s skin when you can see the veins and bone more prominently than anything else. The skin over his face was pulling taut as well; one eye ruptured spilling some white, liquidishy gunk onto his cheek. Barry was dying. Even though this was something Janice had wished for, tears streamed down her cheeks, cutting a slick crevice through the matted blood. The beast with the scaly arms and talons pulled Barry through the window of light, and then there was nothing more, nothing but a single Polaroid dropping to the carpet amongst the blank photos and broken glass from the TV.
She was able to drag herself to the pile of portraits before the cops ran into her apartment. The photo of Barry had flipped over to where the black side of the Polaroid was facing upwards. She flipped it over to see the same picture that was in the photo album earlier. It was just a picture of Barry with a goatee and a look of fright washed over his face. The picture was faded a little now, and looked like many of the Polaroids that were taken back in the early eighties. The picture was cast within a yellowish hue. And his eyes. There was no longer the promise of hate and pain in his eyes. Instead, it was fear. Seeing him scared like that made her feel a little better on the inside.
Her mother was helping her pack up a few things for the yard sale they were going to have for the weekend. It had been a few months since the incident with Barry, and to that very day, she never could understand how her daughter felt so at peace with everything even when the police were unable to find Barry. Just being in this apartment again chilled her to the core, especially since she was the one that cleaned up the mess while her little Janice was in the hospital recovering. She had tried to convince Janice to move back home, but her daughter insisted on staying her ground. She had always been a little stubborn; she supposed that was a trait she inherited from her father.
Janice was still healing from her wounds, mostly from the broken ribs, but she felt good enough to get out of bed to help her mother. She looked by the door, and noticed that her mother had already leaned the oil painting against the wall. She had decided that she no longer needed the painting; it just did not hold the same beauty as it had before. It’s strange how time can heal you, and sometimes how quickly you can forget about all of the pain in your life just by getting rid of a few items. It seemed to her that the lady on the hill ran from her fears, ran from the ruins of her past in that dream she had the night Barry had disappeared. She on the other hand, had stood tall and met the bull at full throttle. For her effort, her past is beginning to leave her present life. She truly is beginning to start over again. She has been able to forgive herself for numerous things that she blamed herself for during the past few months. The ‘what ifs’ of her marriage to Barry and the wondering if all of this was brought on by her own stupidity no longer matters to her. She is at peace with herself, and the memories of a haunting past are fading. The grass is finally covering the ruins of her memories.
She looks down at the Polaroid she carried from her bedroom, and smiles. The front of it is completely blank now, with a slight yellowing to show age. In the corner there is a crimson thumbprint, one she left while lying on the floor a few months back. A tear spills down her cheek and falls onto the surface of the Polaroid. She wipes it away and places it back in the photo album with all of the other blank photos. Her mother watches her with a look of concern, but Janice ignores her for the time being. She lets out a disheartening chuckle and wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her mother picks up the photo album and puts it in the box for the yard sale. Janice asks for a moment alone, and told her mother that she would follow her to the car shortly. Her mother simply smiles her usual smile filled with fret, gathers the box and the oil painting of the lady on the hill, and walks out of the apartment.
Janice looks around, tears still brimming from her eyes, and notices that her apartment is rather cozy. She feels safe now, and she supposed that is the most important part. Janice stood there for a moment, enjoying the warmth of her apartment before she grabbed her keys and headed towards the door.