The Beauty Within

I can make you beautiful.

It was an enticing phrase. Ellen saw it in the Chronicle in a small, unassuming advertisement. There were no images, no flourishes, no embellishments. Just that phrase, and beneath it, more words:

For those who dedicate their lives to beauty. Serious inquiries only. Please write with preferred appointment time and place to The Beauty Within at the address below.

 Ellen considered the advertisement for a while. Even after she had put the newspaper aside, those words still followed her throughout her day.

For those who dedicate their lives to beauty.

Surely that was her. She was known throughout London as the most desirable young lady. It was a point of highest pride with her father, who went to great lengths to have her seen in only the finest fabrics, the best jewels. There was no one who would deny her beauty.

Serious inquiries only.

That line seemed almost to beckon her, to challenge her. Did she take her beauty seriously? Oh, yes indeed. Then why had she not already written? What was holding her back? What was there to explain this cold, twisted fear in her stomach?

Silliness, she thought.

She sat at her writing desk and pulled out her quill and paper.

***

“Who are you?”

I am the one you invited—the one to make you beautiful.

Ellen considered him doubtfully. He had no hair to style, no lips to redden, not even skin to powder. He was bones and nothing more.

“What can you know of beauty?”

More than you can even see.

She did not understand.

Look at yourself. What do you see?

She turned to the mirror, paused. “Dark hair, fair skin, powder, jewels.”

Illusions.

“Illusions?”

Illusions—all of them. Not one is true beauty.

She frowned, not certain of his meaning. He had no facial features to decipher. She could not know if he meant to offend.

“Who are you?”

I am Beauty.

She almost laughed. “You are bones.”

I am.

“Then what am I?”

You are flesh. But you could be so much more.

“More?”

Yes. You are flesh, yet you are bones. The beauty within.

“My bones?”

Yes, your beautiful bones. You hide them beneath fat, skin, hair. You must be less to be more.

“How?”

You must rid yourself of your wretched flesh. Be slender. Be thin. Let the sharp, beautiful angles of your bones be seen.

“But I do. I try. I eat like a lady; I lace my stays.”

But less. Tighter.

“I try, I try.”

I can help you.

“You can?”

Yes. Let me lace you. You will be smaller. You will be beautiful.

“But they are so tight already.”

But they can be tighter still, if you only know how.

“You would do that?”

I would. For you. For your beautiful bones.

“Yes. Please.”

You must hold still.

“Oh! Oh, that hurts!”

Hush.

“How are you so strong? Oh!”

I am that which is strongest.

“Ah!”

I am Death.

“Oh! Oh!”

Death is Beauty.

“Ah!”

And soon. . .

“Oh!”

. . .you will be beautiful.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Price of Revenge

“Mr. Roger DeMontfort-Jones?”

The voice startled DeMontfort-Jones out of his reverie. He had been engrossed in the latest share index prices. He looked up to see two men standing at the entrance to his office. One was tall, the other small, bent and twisted.

“How can I help you, gentlemen?”

“It is we who have come to help you. We are here to offer you an unusual and highly unique service.”

Salesmen. DeMontfort-Jones waved his hand dismissively.

“Just leave your brochure with my assistant down the corridor.”

“Our service is not one that has any accompanying literature. It can only be offered to those who have been specially selected. It requires an ability to provide adequate recompense.”

“You mean, whatever you’re selling is expensive.”

“Quite. You see, very few people are ever allowed to join our club. The service we offer has certain expenses. Therefore, the membership fee must reflect that.”

“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s hear what you’ve got to offer.”

“Reflect on the words I am about to say. Reflect carefully. These words describe our unique service. The words are ‘unpunished crimes’.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it. Think about all those times when a driver has hogged the road, refusing to pull over. Remember when somebody’s dog defecated on your lawn and they refused to pick it up. Think of all those rude shop assistants and bank-tellers, the sloppy waiters who can’t be bothered to be polite. These are all unpunished crimes. Not recognized in law, but enough to drive any normal man to desperation. Remember the annoyance you felt, the unrequited fury. But there was nothing you could do about it.”

“Until now,” said the other man, then continued.

“You have been selected to join our club. For a very reasonable fee you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing these crimes punished. We will eliminate five of these unpunished criminals for you. You choose which ones. All you do is make one phone call and then leave the rest to us. Imagine the satisfaction, knowing that the moron behind the counter will never bother a decent citizen like yourself again. Or the driver who lifts his middle finger to you will never sit behind the wheel again. Imagine the pleasure you will get from knowing that.”

DeMontfort-Jones understood exactly what they were saying. He had spent years getting to the top, crushing careers and swinging massive deals. He was the most respected and feared financial broker in the city, but he was still affected by such annoyances. He felt the pleasure of revenge already. It was a wonderful feeling.

“I’ll buy it, gentlemen. I’ll buy your service.”

“Excellent, welcome to our club. Now, all you have to do is provide us with one million pounds. A banker’s draft, if you please. And please consider, the quicker we get the money the quicker you can start choosing.”

DeMontfort-Jones practically ran out the office. It only took him thirty minutes to get the money. His private bank asked no questions. The two men were waiting patiently in his office when he got back. Both were still standing. After the money had been exchanged, the small man handed him a piece of paper.

“That is the number you call. You only have five. Use them wisely. You will never see us again. Good hunting.”

The two men left. DeMontfort-Jones slumped into his seat. He began to convince himself that he had been ripped-off, that it was a con. Had he just pissed away a million pounds? He was tempted to call the number to see what happened, but a voice in the back of his mind reminded him ‘only five calls’. He didn’t call. Instead he smiled. Imagine if it wasn’t a con. That doorman would be first. The one at his apartment building. The stuck-up little sod. Then it would be the guy next door. That prick insisted on playing movies at three a.m. with the volume turned up. He could easily think of at least a dozen people who deserved to be ‘punished’. His paranoia vanished and he decided he might have to renew his subscription to this club.

He sat for half an hour, debating who, out of his list of candidates, to choose. There was a knock at his door.

“Come in.”

The tall man and the small man walked in again.

“Mr. DeMontfort-Jones?”

“What the hell? I thought you said I would never see you again.”

The two men looked at each other. The small one spoke.

“Ah. I see you are one of our members. It’s always a pity to have to make a visit to one of our own, but business is business.”

DeMontfort-Jones stared at the pair, noticing slight variations between them and his first visitors. These two weren’t the same pair. Close, but not the same. They were probably chosen that way. The tall man spoke.

“I’m afraid you have been selected by one of your fellow members for punishment.”

“What did I do?” he squeaked, realizing the implications of the tall man’s words.

“I’m afraid to say you carried out an unspeakable crime. Not more than one hour ago you cut in front of our member and stole his parking space. Our member was most annoyed, but luckily not so distracted that he omitted to note your car registration.”

“But I was in a rush. I was rushing to get my membership fee. I was rushing to get your damn money!”

“I’m sorry. No excuse is accepted. We do have our rules you know.”

DeMontfort-Jones saw the gun in the same instant the small man fired. He died with the small consolation it definitely hadn’t been a con.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Two Villages, Two Scholars

Two scholars finally get a chance for some field work to study the stone age cultures they’ve been reading about for years in the abstract. A helicopter takes them into a remote region and drops them off. It’ll return for them in late evening.

The scholars quickly identify two local villages of interest. One sits high on the edge of a great cliff; the other lies in a deep gorge at the foot of the same cliff. The scientists are glad to be observing from a distance when they see that the village in the gorge is surrounded by bone fields of butchered creatures. They identify both animal and human skeletons. The cliff-side village, on the other hand, is remarkably tidy and clear of any kind of debris.

Towards evening, a radio message comes in from the city. A tremendous storm has arisen over the airfield and the retrieval helicopter can’t take off. The two men will have to camp for the night. The chopper will come for them in the morning.

The men had not planned to camp in the wild but they’d prepared anyway. They have a tent, some supplies, and a cook stove. Their main problem is to decide just where to lay their heads. Finally, they pitch their tent high on the cliff, near the tidy village and well away from the settlement in the gorge where they witnessed the bones. Exhausted from their exciting day, both men fall asleep easily. Neither of them awakes.

Soon, more bones are tossed over the cliff to join the debris pile below.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Butcher’s Choice

My lips whistle a tune as I lay strips over the rack. It’s fresh, clean; my product is made with loving care, always has been. The meat must dry, absorb the homemade smoke flavor. I’d claim its delectable wonders as my own, but the recipe has passed many generations. Only one ingredient comes at a price. My customers are picky, have been for ages. Beef, chicken, pork; none of what my storefront holds is proper to their taste. I must hunt the most taboo prey. Though I do this not in pleasure. The hungry things which come each month would surely satisfy their bellies elsewhere—upon the innocent, I fear. So I take what flesh is needed to keep them at bay.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

By Proxy

“Remember how we act when we see a cross?” She was glancing at him, or at the reflection of him in her mirror as she applied her makeup. 

He nodded nervously. He looked so tiny and frail and she hoped he never got big. If he appeared strong, it would defeat her purpose.

“And if they sprinkle the water on you?”

He nodded again and mimicked convulsions.

“Good. Now come over here so I can look you over.”

She was lucky that he was so clumsy and bruised easily. He definitely appeared to be on the receiving end of something bad.  She had lavished in the attention from doctors and medical staff, but she was now after bigger game. 

She shooed the boy away and returned to her makeup. “I am having a hard time seeing…eyes all blurry.” She had been feeling strangely lately but was not going to let anything come between her and her big opportunity.

Even though the boy would be the star of the episode, she had to get her look just right. She felt that single-mother faced with a parent’s worse-case-scenario would endear her to Brent Carson. She had stalked his social media for nearly two years; he was very supportive of women’s causes and children’s charities. He was crazy about his dog, too, and she wished she had thought to adopt one to appear sympatico. Applying to be on the show had taken most of her energy and fabricating the back story with the garage sale music box had drained her of any creative impulses.

She wore a dress that was casual enough for an “everyday mom” but that showed off her assets. The boy was in his bed, thermostat turned down in his room, water strategically applied to his hairline and clothing to create the appearance of sweat. She was fighting her jitters when the doorbell rang.

Brent Carson blew past her, instructing the camera operators of how they should set up once they were in the boy’s room. She began to interrupt when Carson told her to wait where she was and that he would be back to debrief her.

She waited, as told, and listened to the sound of equipment being set up in her son’s room. She wondered if she appeared less attentive waiting downstairs while her son, her “whole world” as she had told producers, was upstairs with strange television people in his room. Then again, Carson had told her to wait in place and she wanted to convey to him that she was ready to do anything he asked.

Her uncertainty was put to rest by the sight of Carson descending the stairs. He was tall and broad shouldered with spiky hair that gave the appearance of tousled bed-head, but that she knew took time and consideration to craft. 

“You have traveled such a long way…can I offer you something?” She gestured to the table she had set up with fruit, crackers, tartare, and sushi.

Carson appeared baffled. “Do you normally eat…a lot of raw foods?”

She giggled in a way that she felt was charming. “Animal urges, you know.” She shrugged and batted her eyes, not to clear their blurriness, but in a flirtatious manner. “I was once told I was too pretty to cook.”

“Maybe later,” he mumbled and made his way back to the stairs. “You can stay here, or you can come to the bedroom, but you will have to promise not to intervene, no matter how bad it gets.”

“I will do anything you say,” she replied in what she thought was a seductive, throaty voice.

He stopped mid-climb. “Say that again…” 

“What?”

He paused. “Nothing. Might just be my imagination but you sounded…” He climbed the rest of the steps in silence without finishing his thought. She followed into the bedroom where her son was lying perfectly still on top of the sheets. A priest, or an actor dressed like a priest, was talking to the boy. She felt herself becoming irrationally angry at the sight of this exchange. A low growl escaped her throat.

Carson approached her. “You will have to be silent when we are filming.”

She mimed zipping her lips and slid back into the shadows of the room. The priest read some scripture and the boy laughed demonically, or maybe theatrically. She wished they had practiced that a bit more. The priest then took a small bottle from his vest and began sprinkling the boy. On cue, the boy cringed and convulsed; he writhed and hissed. Carson rolled his eyes at the camera man. 

“Good boy,” she whispered and gave her child the thumbs up. He was so good at following directions, it was his most endearing quality. That, and his willingness to please her. When he had been a baby, he had been quiet and compliant—the perfect wingman for a single-mom on the prowl for some male sympathy. When he had first begun school, he had followed her scripts to a “T.” He perfectly mimicked the excuses she had given him for the bumps and bruises that sometimes appeared on him. She couldn’t always control her temper, or that of the men she brought home, but her son was continuously willing to do whatever it took to defend her. 

Carson took the bottle from the priest and showed it to her. “It is fake…tap water…has he been to a therapist or received any other type of help?”

She tilted her head coyly. “I have moved heaven and earth to help him. I have left absolutely no stone unturned. There is not a moment that goes by that I am not researching how to help him, or making calls, or taking him to appointments.” She stepped closer to Carson, invading his personal space. “Please, you are our last hope.”

Carson recoiled and pointed at her. “You…your nose is bleeding and there is…it looks like blood coming from your eyes.”

The priest, or actor/priest, heard what Carson said and he turned toward her with a crucifix in his hand. The boy was watching intently, forgetting that he should react to the relic. His mother had a large enough reaction for them both. 

Words came from her mouth that she could not recognize. Then clearly, in English, she said, “I know how and when you will die, but you are better off not knowing.”

Carson looked to the camera man and said excitedly, “I think we have a real one…after all this time, we finally have a real possession.”

They pushed the boy aside and strapped his mom to the bed.  As the “holy water” was useless, they used prayers and other relics on her. The actor/priest had been able to obtain communion wafers, and those paper-thin discs provided photogenic evidence as they seared on her skin. 

Brent Carson was salivating at the thought of the ratings for this episode.

The boy knew he should try to help his mother but watching her struggle beneath the ties that lashed her to the bed was pleasing to him. Welts and bruises appeared on her flesh, and he knew how that felt. He also knew that his mother wanted the attention of Brent Carson. He had been ordered to not interrupt the two if they were interacting, and he had been trained to follow orders.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Bauble

Alice looked at the exhibit in front of her. She tried activating it. She ran her hand over the smooth panels that were presented to her, but none seemed to work. She guessed that the power banks on them had expired, but could not reach the other panels as they were set too high. She was angry that this unit was obviously set for taller people. At just eight years old she was frustrated that the exhibits at the World Fair were always aimed at adults, especially as this one was held over the Christmas holidays.

She wandered off, leaving her mum to check out the other attractions; but those queues were so long, and Alice didn’t like waiting in line. This one was set way back, right on the edge of the perimeter, and no queue at all. It was such a tall tent, she just had to investigate.

“Hey, careful with that,” came a gruff voice from behind her.

She jumped sideways in a startled fright, not knowing he was there, and removed her grip from the latest panel that she had tried to get some sort of response from.

“I’m sorry mister,” she muttered. “But I think it’s broken already.”

“It’s not broken. It’s working just fine,” he snapped back.

“But what does it do?”

“Do? Do? It does everything, and at the same time, nothing. It’s a perpetual machine. It’s far more superior than the other exhibits here. It’s self powering. Ever heard of a self powering machine?” he asked.

“Alice, Alice?” a panicked voice came from somewhere outside.

Alice turned to leave; but not forgetting her manners, stopped and thanked the man for his time, adding, “It’s different, but kind of dumb.”

The man just smiled and gave her a wink.

She exited and ran towards her mother, smiling as she was lifted off her feet and given a huge hug.

“How many times have I told you not to leave my side?” her mum scolded her.

The old man gave them both a wave and, reluctantly, Alice’s mother smiled and waved back. He was not the sort of person that she wanted her daughter talking to. He looked strange. His clothes appeared tattered and he had an unnerving look about him.

Alice and her mother walked away over the metal platelets that covered the ground, each one lighting against the darkening night as they trod on them.

“Have you had your packed lunch?” her mother asked.

Alice took out a rehydration pill and then her favourite ‘rhubarb and custard’ one. To Alice, and anyone her age that had taken them, rhubarb and custard was just a taste and nothing more.

Bill decided to close down for the day. It didn’t seem worth staying open when no one apart from that one little girl had bothered to visit his ‘Last tree on earth’ exhibit. ‘Last tree?’ that was an understatement. He hadn’t seen another piece of organic flora in twenty years; not since his best friend, Gerry, had thrown his ailing rosebush into the incinerator.

He looked back solemnly. The elm’s leaves, although large, we’re starting to turn a greyish brown. He hadn’t managed to find any fresh soil for longer than he could remember. And as for liquid H2O, or water as it used to be called, that was getting scarcer by the day.

He ran his hands up against the bark and smiled to himself. “Well, my old friend, looks like you’re as about as outdated and unwanted as me.”

He poured an acid compound around the roots. After climbing its trunk and walking the length of its longest and highest branch, he smiled, and at the same time wept. He remembered the historic practice of hanging decorations from real trees this time of year. As he let himself drop with a noose around his neck, there was a quick snapping sound that reverberated around his head for a split second. Within that brief moment he couldn’t help but see the irony of his actions. For, although it wasn’t a fir or pine, he truly would be the last Christmas Bauble that hung from a real tree.

~ Ian Sputnik

© Copyright 2021 Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Serving the Blind Girl

The pigeons moan when the blind girl calls, for she is hungry and will be wanting pigeon pie. Eugene settles into his big chair to polish his spike. I watch as he brushes the chamois over the walnut pole until his fingers are stained darker than his skin.

We try to please her with small things, whatever we can manage. I am embroidering a pillow for her with lilies that she can touch on the surface of the rough cloth, perhaps even feel their color.

The blind girl is the last of her kind but she is not a witch, not those poor creatures that must be cleansed of sin by fire.  She speaks to us in visions, from the eldest to the very young. And when our services are needed to purify our flock, we comply. We are hers to bid, as a mother would bid her children. None of us dares question her except for fools such as Rafe, misshapen and foul-mouthed, often drunk. So it was natural that his blaspheming head wound up on the sharp end of Eugene’s pole, supper for the crows.

There is always a great feasting and celebration whenever a head finds its way to to that spike, when the blind girl calls.

~ Marge Simon

© Copyright 2021 Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Only

It took seven men to exhume the body of the second Mrs. Chapman, while from a distance, he watched. From his high study window, Mr. Chapman saw as they arrived at the cemetery, raised a wall of fabric against the eyes of the town. From above, he could see their busy digging and knew that it would not be long before the coffin was raised from its slumber, his beloved with it.

His heart broke, but it was a beautiful breaking. He thought of how she had looked, laid out at the funeral. She had wished to be buried in her wedding dress, with her golden hair fastened back as it had been on that precious day. They had even arranged for a bouquet: carnations, in a range of blushing colours. She held them to her silent bosom when he saw her last, her face calmly waiting. He had wanted nothing more than to give his I do, lean forward, kiss her. But he knew he must be patient.

That had been only two days ago, but already it had been too long. The house was much too empty, his bed much too cold. He had turned to the police—a perfect facsimile of the grieving widower turned paranoid. He had said that he could not rest, could not believe that the body beneath the earth belonged to his young wife. Thankfully, he was also a wealthy widower. In time, he had been able to arrange that the body be exhumed, and then identified by him alone. It would not be long now before he would drive to the cemetery, bring his smallest buggy into the curtained space, and look upon his beloved.

Alone, he would arrange for her return.

He counted on the morbid stench to dampen the curiosity of the others. He was certain that once he left, there would be no need for them to reopen the coffin or for them to think the deathly weight was in fact the carefully prepared sandbags, ready to be returned to their earthly mother. And he would be free to return to his home, no longer alone.

Oh, he was eager to hold her, to bring her body back over their threshold. Already he missed the touch of her hand, the caress of her body. There would need to be changes, of course. Just enough to escape the gossip of the townspeople. Perhaps a wider face, a rounded nose, a sprinkling of freckles. Brown hair: he was sure she would like that. He could already imagine her prancing before a mirror, enjoying the newness of her body, the newness of her life. But her eyes, those would stay—as they always had, as they always would. Those were the eyes that had first drawn him in, captured his attention, his heart. Those were the eyes that inspired his work.

In time, there would be yet another opulent wedding. To the world, she would be a newcomer: the third Mrs. Chapman. But to her—to him—she was his only.

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Door

I know I’m lying in a hospital bed. I know I have been here for a long time and I am unlikely to recover. I have heard the nurses whisper about me. I lie on the uncomfortable mattress, my flesh penetrated by needles and tubes. I am surrounded by machines that click and beep. I am unconscious and yet, somehow aware. I dream, or at least I think it’s a dream. I find myself walking in a dark corridor. I come to a door. It is painted yellow, decorated with rainbow stickers and smiley faces. I enter and find myself in a green park, the sun shining and the sky blue. Small children are running around, playing. Adults stand close by, monitoring. I recognize my mother first, then myself, deep in a scrum of children. I look to be about five or six. My mother looks so young. Her clothes are incredibly dated; her youth, my age and the fashion dates this time to the early 70s. I have somehow travelled back in time. I try to speak to my mother, reach out to her, but it’s clear that this is a vision, a memory. I cannot interact with the people around me. My heart aches to see her so young, so healthy. If my calculation of the date is correct, she has another thirty years to live before the cancer takes her. I see the cigarette in her hand and hate it. If only I could tell her to stop, to save her own life. My heart breaks when I realize I cannot change the future.

A force compels me to move, I walk through this idyllic scene, headed to an unknown destination.

The next door is black, skull & crossbones stickers plastered across it. Yellow police line tape crisscrosses the wooden panels. I recognize this door, I decorated it this way when I was fifteen. A snotty little goth, trying to be cool. I open the door and smile with embarrassment at the scene in front of me. The teenage me, dyed black hair, black skull t-shirt and a poor attempt at mascara sitting on the bed with my friends, all dressed exactly the same. Some dreary music plays in the background. There’s a girl on the bed too, the girlfriend of my best friend. It takes me a mere second to realize she’s looking at the younger version of me, not him. My teenage version is too interested in showing off his new leather trousers to notice. Her eyes tell the story, she likes me, she wants me to like her. To notice her. I fail to do so, I’m too focused on showing off. I curse my younger self. What a fool I was, she could have been the love of my life.

A push from behind impels me to move again. I come to another door.

This door is pastel blue, a soothing color. Inside the room is a nursery, decorated in gentle colors, with toys scattered around. The room is clean, bright and sunny. A tiny baby lies in a crib. I’m standing over it with a woman I don’t recognize. I look to be about thirty. This is an interesting scene. Not only is the woman a stranger, but I also never had any children. I had a wife, but she isn’t here. I never lived in this house. I wonder why I’m being shown this scene. I never regretted not having children, never really thought about it. Is this an untravelled road, a path my life could have taken, or is it just a dream? Wish fulfillment, from some unspoken subconscious desire? I wish I had the answer.

I’m pushed again, there is no time to ponder.

The third door is a rich burgundy, a solid color that speaks to me of success, money and complacency. I recognize this one, it is achingly familiar. I know what to expect. Inside I see myself. I am sitting in a wood-lined study, surrounded by leather bound books. This is my home, the place I worked my whole life to afford. The books are the ones I spent a lifetime collecting. I am old, with a wrinkle-lined face and grey hair. I’m reading a book, an anthology of Victorian ghost stories. My dog sits at my feet, warming herself in front of the log fire. I pause, this is last month, the day before I tripped and fell down the stairs, ending up in this hospital bed. This was the last day I spent in my beloved house, the last time I saw my dog.

The force insists I continue on. I have no choice but to obey. I reach another door.

This door is grey, almost hazy. I have the sense that this is it, the end of the line. It wasn’t a dream after all. I have really seen my life, my lives, the real and the possible. The branches I could have taken; the ones I chose to take. My life in high definition. I reach out to touch the handle, to pass through this door. I know it’s the last one, that whatever follows will be infinite. Was my life good? I ask myself. Did it fulfil me? Did I leave a good legacy? Did I ever act foolishly, selfishly? Do I have regrets? I answer yes to all those questions, but that is life. It must be painted in blacks, as well as whites. I feel a huge sense of sorrow, but I’m grateful I had the chance to reflect on my life, to see some reminder of my bygone days. I don’t want to leave yet, but I know I cannot stay. The sorrow diminishes to be replaced with hope. Perhaps there really is something on the other side of this door. I draw a breath, realizing that, in the real world of my hospital bed, this may well be my last. I exhale, then turn the doorknob and pull the grey door open. I enter.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Drop Ceiling

“Someone took my ceiling.”

He said this sincerely despite how ludicrous it sounded.

“Someone…took…your…ceiling?” My cautious approach was attributed to his prior periods of paranoia and psychosis. My brother is schizophrenic and, at times, has a tenuous relationship with reality.

“Yes.”

“There is a hole in the top of your house?” I suggested.

He rolled his eyes. “They didn’t steal my roof, only my ceiling. In my living room.”

I had been hinting around for a visit lately, but our Facetime calls always ended before I could get him to agree. Seeing the state of his house helped to clue me into the state of his mind and I always felt better after I had stocked his freezer with casseroles and stews. “Could I see it?”

He nodded. “It’s not bad, actually. I think I like it. Opens the room up a bit.”

***

He had been describing the truth; his ceiling appeared to be gone.

Standing in his living room, I had a view into the attic above, but it was a distorted one, as if I were looking through a window streaked with rain drops.

“How long has it been like this, Leon?”

He scratched his head, a nervous tick he had developed in childhood. “Since yesterday. I saw it right before I told you about it. I saw it, and then I told you.”

“I am glad you did,” I said. My heart was pounding, but I put on a brave face for him. I went to retrieve a step ladder from his garage. Back in the living room, I climbed it and reached up. My hand sunk into a gelatinous plasma. It was warm, like the inside of a mouth or other orifice. When I withdrew my hand, my fingers appeared webbed with a translucent substance. It pulsed and I was repulsed. I ran to the bathroom to disinfect my hands.

“You need to leave.” I insisted when my fingers finally felt like my own again.

He shook his head. “But they are watching me.”

“Who?”

“The ones who caused the accident.”

Two decades prior, we had been involved in a car accident with our family. A light, maybe oncoming headlights, had temporarily blinded our dad. Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. My parents were fine, but my brother’s head had been shaved and he had a long scar above his left ear that ran from the end of his eyebrow to the back of his head.

The accident had gifted me with a matching scar on my pelvic region. We called ourselves “the twins of the lesions of power” and we made up fantastical stories about the origin of the scars and their supernatural gifts. Leon mostly told the same story, about a spaceship that had been in the area where we were driving. At times, he claimed having seen it right before the crash, and of seeing beings who took his brain to better understand earth. He used to tell me that the beings had left him with the brain of someone else.

Because of this story, he had shown no surprise when he had been diagnosed with mental health issues years later.

He insisted that because he had witnessed the exchange of his brain, he was able to remember it. He complained that the new brain was problematic. He would also tell me that my scar was related to a reproductive study. He would tease me and tell me that when the beings returned, they might insert a tenant into my vacant womb.

I was having a difficult time gathering my thoughts and I was concerned that I had just touched some contaminant. “You need to come home with me.”

“I am fine,” he assured me.

“Leon, there is something…very wrong here. I am scared and I want you with me.” I rolled down the top of my sweatpants to where my scar had faded to a faint pale line. “I need the twin powers to help me deal with this.”

This had no effect on him. He tapped his skull and said, “I have been dealing with this alone for a long time.”

***

The next day, I called my lawyer friend to see if I could legally force my brother to live with me. I could not leave him in that house with whatever was throbbing on the ceiling.

“It may be possible with a mental health power of attorney. Has he been incapacitated?”

I was not sure how to answer that. I would sound as if my mental health were in jeopardy if I reported what I had seen or felt.

After gathering some sage advice and doing a little research, I went to Leon’s. I was thinking I could maybe convince him to come for a night and then we would move forward from there.

He seemed unsure about letting me in.

“Can I see your ceiling again?” I asked, trying to keep my tone natural.

“I don’t think you need to.” He looked over his shoulder, as if there were someone else in the house.

I also peered over his shoulder and saw that the ceiling was now covered with short, red, swaying stalks that looked like seaweed being swept about by waves.

“Leon—”

“Let’s go to the park.” He shut the door behind him and took my elbow, directing me away from his door.

In the park, I tried to reason with him. “There is something really wrong with your house, Leon.”

“There is always something wrong.” He scratched his head, his fingers lingering in the mass of hair covering his scar.

“Not with you, Leon, there is nothing wrong with you, but I am worried about what I am seeing.” I took his chin in my hand and forced him to make eye contact. “I see it too, Leon. It is very real, and I am very scared. If you come to my house, maybe we can have someone come look at it. Maybe it is some kind of mold or something—”

He leaned away from me. “You know exactly what it is, and it isn’t mold. If you just tried, you would remember, too. You would remember what they did to us…they’re back.”

I went along with this reasoning, hoping to get him to see that I was on his side. “Why would they be back?”

“To collect more data. I was only a child then, so my brain told them childish things. I have an adult brain now…and you…you have adult…”

I rubbed my temples. My fear was turning into frustration. I felt a loss over how to help him and I was the only one left who could help him. “Can you just come to my house for one night? Tonight?”

He considered this. “I will come tomorrow night. There is a show on Encounter Plus I want to watch but I forgot your login information. I will watch it at your place.”

I was relieved. I would go home and see what paperwork I could draw up. I told him I would pick him up the next morning.

***

After I had spent some minutes knocking, he answered the door and looked at me blankly. His head had been shaved. The scar from childhood boasted a fresh crimson line.

“Leon?”


He shook his head. “I think you have the wrong house.” He scratched his scar and winced.

“No. Leon. It’s me. I want to come in.”

He looked at me sadly. “I don’t know you, lady. I am sorry.”

I peeked over his shoulder to see that his living room now had a ceiling. It was as if it had never been gone.

“Leon. I am your sister. You had promised you would come home with me today.”

His face grew cold. “My sister died twenty years ago in a car accident.” He slammed the door shut.

I rubbed my lower abdomen absentmindedly. I was blinking back tears and forcing myself to remain calm. I wanted to beat down his door; I also wanted to run away and never look at this door again. I was sure that I was about to lose my mind. This was his most extreme episode yet. Even at the most extreme, he always recognized me.

I decided to take some space and determine a plan. I went home and flung myself on my bed. Before I could entertain any rational thought, I dissolved into tears, crying until I fell asleep from exhaustion.

***

When I woke, I felt something was different about my room. I expected to see my ceiling fan in motion when I opened my eyes. Instead, I was able to see directly into the crawlspace that used to inhabit the other side of my now absent bedroom ceiling.

While stifling a scream, I realized that it did open up the room a bit.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.