Screamscapes: Tales of Terror (2 page)

BOOK: Screamscapes: Tales of Terror
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

What was that old joke?
I’ll feed the kids, you feed the fishes?

His career was sleeping with the fishes, anyway. This thought amused him, and he chuckled aloud.

His new job had been a high-profile, high-paying position, one he had assumed he wouldn’t have a shot at for at least another fifteen years; but fortune had smiled upon him and handed him his dream job on a silver platter when he least expected it. They had told him this was the gravy train to ride into retirement with style; the fantastic salary, stocks and bonuses were a certainty for at least the next decade, no sweat.

It had seemed too good to be true, but he still took the bait, hook, line and sinker, and for a while life was grand. He and Kelly and Emily were happy together, maybe the happiest they had ever been as a family. The fat checks started rolling in as promised. His wife had been able to quit her job to raise their daughter full-time, and the future, as they say, was wide open. If only it had lasted a little longer.

Tom snapped out of his daydream, back to the reality of the present, to the dozens of bags of lime that waited patiently for him at the end of the driveway. Not that long ago, there wouldn’t have been a pile of cash big enough to convince him to climb inside a filthy crawlspace, even for a brief visit.

He realized now that his dream was long gone. Now he was simply one of a million other unemployed, middle-aged men, struggling to keep up with a deteriorating house that he could no longer afford. He had been forced to exchange his fine tailored suits and unending possibilities for manual labor that he would rather not touch with a twenty-nine foot pole.

As he squinted against the bright winter sun, delaying the inevitable labor as long as possible, his mind continued to wander back to that fateful day a few months after he had taken the promotion - the day when his phone had chirped with the tinny voice of a stranger telling him that his big shot job had come to a sudden and untimely demise.

Financial mismanagement had been revealed by an internal audit, he was told. It had all occurred under his area of responsibility, and the board of directors had decided to let him go.

In that instant it had dawned on him for the first time that he wasn’t the golden child; he was the fall guy.

He would not be prosecuted, he had been informed - but he wouldn’t be receiving severance, no golden parachute or retirement package - only game over, the end.

Those had been the worst of times, the bad days, the big depression. Kelly had begged to get her job back, and did – but at only half the former pay. During that dark period, Tom only got out of bed for the briefest moments, just long enough to get his daughter off to school and help Kelly out of the door to work; then he would retreat back into the safe womb of his bedcovers, lured by the promise of dreamless sleep. There he would lie, motionless in the darkness, for hours upon hours, day after day.

He had gained weight, avoided his wife and daughter, and generally behaved as though his life was over.

His inconsolable sulking ultimately led to two serious incidents.

Twice his daughter had gotten off the school bus to find the front door to the house locked, and twice was stranded on the porch, frightened and alone, for several hours. Kelly had arrived home from work on both occasions to find her young daughter outside, panicked and in tears. She had been distressed and enraged, as both times Tom was fast asleep inside the house - fat, unshaven, unshowered – and deaf to the cries of his little girl banging on the front door, pleading for him to let her in.

That was what had led to Kelly giving him a final ultimatum: either he could get his life together, or he could get out.

She had suggested that perhaps he should go back to school and learn a new profession. It would be good for him, she had argued; it would open his eyes to new opportunities, get his mind off the past and help him focus on the future – or some such blather. He had thought that even she, herself, hadn’t believed what she was telling him.

She had lectured him for what seemed like hours, rivaling a brainwash session in a gulag. Eventually, her relentless barrage of rhetoric had broken his will and Tom had agreed to go back to school, to community college in a nearby town.

After his high-flying business experience, it felt like the ultimate humiliation. He was only in his early forties, but the disintegration of his career had dealt such a blow to his ego and self-image that he felt like a man twice his age. He had showed up to his first college class feeling like an elderly man being forced from his room at a retirement home to attend an arts-and-crafts social.

He had hated the classes at first, had only agreed to go because it had required less effort than packing his stuff and moving out of the house.

It was the lowest point in his entire life, he was sure. He had been about ready to pull the plug once and for all on his cryogenically frozen dreams, but then one day he had met the most amazing creature.

“Miranda.” she had stated simply. She had offered him her hand and flashed a smile, confident and beautiful. Her coal-black hair was trimmed neatly at the shoulders, framing blue eyes that shimmered with intensity.

The instant her hand touched his, it set his cold, sorrowful heart on fire.

It had been his first day in a new art class, an elective he had chosen to take, and the instructor had given them an assignment to complete together.

“We’re going to be perfect partners for this project,” she had said, “you work on
, and I’ll work on
. I want to find the artist in you for everyone to admire.”

Tom remembered that he had stared blankly at her for a moment, speechless, stunned by the power of her passion, her sheer presence – her eyes.

He was amazed to have found himself interested in something, or more accurately –
- for the first time in longer than he could remember, and a whispered “okay,” had been the best response he could muster.

She had hugged him, probably out of pity for his devastated sense of self-esteem. But that one simple hug had left him a changed man. The moment he felt her arms around him and took in her scent in one deep breath, he knew he was in love, had a reason to live again.

Not too long after that, they had made love for the first time in the back of her Chevy Malibu, parked behind the campus canteen. He remembered calling Kelly afterwards that day to tell her she didn’t have to pick him up from school - he already had a ride.

Kelly had never asked him about his new friend at school, but seemed pleased to find his attitude on the mend. He had started speaking up more frequently at dinner than was usual, and helping around the house more, too.

But mostly, he eagerly anticipated going to class each morning.

He and Miranda had made love every chance they could since then, sometimes in her car, sometimes in an empty classroom, or a private study room at the college library. Whenever they had a moment alone they were all over each other - inseparable, insatiable.

Tom finished off his coffee in a final gulp, set the cup down on the porch rail and began collecting the things he would need for the task that lay ahead.

He would tell Kelly about Miranda; he would. He knew it was the right thing to do, and he would do it. Not yet, but soon; it would be better for him to reveal the truth about Miranda himself, rather than allow Kelly to find out accidentally. He would need to stay in control of the situation, if he were to have any chance of keeping things from getting ugly.

He grabbed his thick woolen hat from the rocking chair and zipped his coat up to his chin. He slipped his cell phone and keys into his coat pocket and tucked a small mag-light into his jeans.

He locked the front door, descended the stairs and headed for the corner of the house. His boots crunched on the frozen ground as he approached the thousand pounds of powdered lime, stacked in fifty-pound bags, that waited for him there along with several large rolls of plastic sheeting.

Tom was no handyman, nor had he ever been. Hanging up a picture was the closest Kelly had ever gotten him to engaging in actual physical labor, and then only after incessant nagging.

But paying someone to do the job for him was no longer an option, and the moisture under his house had to be controlled soon, or else he would have a much more expensive problem on his hands - one he wouldn’t be able to afford, either.

He started to work, heaving the sacks of lime onto his shoulder, one at a time, and then dropping them off in a heap next to the small hole that led underneath the house.

The crawlspace entrance was little more than a gash in the stone foundation of the old house. The rusty door that kept the crawlspace sealed from the outside world swung open inwardly - a somewhat awkward arrangement - and was propped open with an old crowbar, wedged into the mud under the house.

He squatted beside the crawlspace entrance to catch his breath, the moisture of his lungs huffing little white puffs into the frigid air. He shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight as he tried to see what awaited him underneath the house.

Darker than the devil’s asshole under there
, he thought. The doorway gaped open before him – its maw black, cold and soulless. It reminded Tom of a cold-blooded carnivore, a dead-eyed crocodile, motionless on a river bank, waiting to clamp onto the flesh of an unsuspecting victim and drag its startled prey deep into the inky black below. He remembered reading somewhere that they would sometimes hold the unfortunate catch underneath the water until it lost hope, stopped struggling, and finally surrendered to the unyielding darkness of the croc’s bowels.

The thought made Tom cold, and he shivered. He had never experienced claustrophobia, but he thought he might soon understand that irrational fear.

“Fuck,” he said. “This sucks!”

Got to get it done,
he reminded himself. Even though he had insisted to Kelly this would be an all-week project, he felt sure he could knock it out in a single day, easy. Miranda would be here in the morning; there was no way he was going to waste precious time that could be spent with her back under the house tomorrow.

After a solid hour of work, Tom dropped the final bag of lime on top of the others. The exertion of carrying a thousand pounds of lime had made his clothes too warm, and he unzipped his coat to let it air out.

He realized he was no longer afraid to break a sweat, to get his hands dirty; Miranda had seen to that. He had started doing push-ups and sit-ups each morning, and the effort was paying off. He had lost twenty pounds during the two months that had passed since he met her.

He recalled the look of surprise that had flashed briefly in his wife’s eyes earlier that morning, when she had seen him naked in the bathroom. Even though she had tried to hide it, he knew his newly-fit physique had surprised her.

He wiped the sweat from under the edge of his hat as he knelt and peered into the dark muddy hole he was about to crawl into. His coat had to go, he decided. He didn’t want to be a sweaty mess before he even got started under the house.

He slipped off his outer layer and draped it neatly over a stack of bagged lime. Hot trails of steam rose from it into the frigid winter air like phantom snakes.

He took a deep breath for courage, pulled the flashlight from his pocket and slipped on his work gloves. He got down on his knees and stuck his head into the hole to have a look around.

A foul stench greeted him as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The smell was a dank mixture of several equally unpleasant scents – mold, rust, rotting wood, stale dust and an earthy shit smell that he figured was a fairly accurate recreation of what it must be like to stick your head up a cow’s ass and inhale deeply.

He could hardly see a few feet ahead of him in the limited area the sunlight was able to penetrate. He could see that the crawlspace floor was still very muddy from the faint sheen of reflection on its surface, but it was nowhere near the lake it had been a couple of weeks ago.

Leaving the crawlspace door open had helped dry things out a bit, but Tom was disappointed to see that he was still going to have to contend with a fair amount of moisture.

He flipped the flashlight on and panned the beam of light back and forth across the tight crawlspace. It shone on only the first few rows of rough-hewn crossbeams that supported the floor of the house, barely a foot or two above the muck.

He leaned further into the hole to try and find the permanent light fixture that would illuminate the space while he worked. Tom loved his mag-light; the flashlight’s beam chased the darkness from its path nicely, and in a few seconds he spotted the lonely and ancient light bulb, nailed to a beam in the dead center of the crawlspace. A thin pull string dangled from it.

Tom sighed. Why couldn’t the light have a power switch next to the door? How much more would that have cost? Whatever the amount, he was confident it would have been money well spent.

He pulled himself back out of the crawlspace and sat for a moment, plotting his plan of attack. The door was small, barely wide enough for a man of average size to fit through. He thought for a moment how fortunate it was that he had slimmed down recently. On the other hand, perhaps it was unlucky; if he were still overweight he wouldn’t have been able to do the job even if he wanted to.

He grabbed a roll of plastic sheeting and slid it through the narrow opening, careful to keep the end of the roll out of the soft mud.

Once the first roll of plastic was tucked safely underneath the house, Tom turned to soak up a few last rays of sunlight before he crawled into the waiting gloom. Fragile beams of the midmorning sun shot here and there through the sparse foliage of several enormous elms, making the trees look like giant glowing sea urchins hovering in the air.

A deep breath of the fresh winter air brought him a rush of pleasure with its mingled scents of pine, snow, and fallen leaves. Miranda had brought him back from the edge of extinction, had made him once again able to appreciate the little things, the simple wonders that life could bring.

The thought of her renewed his vigor, and he turned to face the crawlspace; it still lay in wait for him, mouth agape.

Without further hesitation, he dropped to his knees, took a deep breath and squirmed through the narrow opening.

BOOK: Screamscapes: Tales of Terror
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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