Suspense

 

Roofline detail of a Victorian restoration in Atchison, KS.The lights were low and the smoke swirled round the room in a lazy arc, drawn toward the window. Being unseasonably warm, Jack had cracked the window slightly, which helped dissipate the cloying fumes of the sandalwood incense. Three sticks burned in the dragon shaped holder on Ray’s desk. Personally, I think three was a bit of overkill.

Four loud bangs shook the door. “RA, open up!” Mike Harmon, our Resident Assistant was on the prowl.

“It’s open,” Jack called back.

Mike rushed in, eyes flicking around the room at the three of us in search of any sudden moves to hide contraband, nose twitching, searching for the tell tale odor of pot. He waved a hand in front of his face and coughed. “God, almighty, what are you guys burning?”

“Incense,” Ray answered.

“It reeks. Open the window for crying out loud.”

“It is open,” Jack pointed out.

“You can’t burn incense in the dorm,” Mike informed us. “It’s a fire hazard, and…” he sniffed around again, “You guys weren’t smoking dope, were you?”

We all denied it almost in unison.

“Well snuff the incense, and open the frigging windows.”

As Ray begrudgingly dumped the three joss sticks into a nearly empty soda can I moved to open both the windows wide and stuck my head outside to suck in some fresh air. I have never been happier to get busted by the RA.

“So, why the mood lights?” Mike asked.

“Oh, we’re telling ghost stories. You know, that time of year,” Jack said.

“Oh yeah?” Mike’s face lit up. He kicked a chair around to sit down. “Cool. Have you heard about the zombies of Creighton Hall?”

We just returned him blank looks. I shook my head, no.

He leaned back and grinned.

Mike rocked back on the hind legs of the chair until it settled against the wall. There was a mischievous look on his face. “I thought everyone knew about them. That’s why no one,” he strongly emphasized no one, “goes into Creighton Hall after dark.”

“Oh really?” I asked in a snide voice. “I thought it was because it is the Admin building and they close at 5:30.”

Mike shot me a sharp glance. “There are two full-sized lecture halls in Creighton,” he countered. “Ever heard of them being used at night? Even for finals? No. Why do you think we have Saturday finals? Not enough lecture hall space for all of ‘em. But those two just go empty. Think about it, Kenny. No, the reason no one goes into Creighton Hall at night is because zombies come up from the cellars at night. About ten years ago one of the administrative assistants worked late, and they found her dead the next day. Something, or someone, ate her brain.”

Two days later Ray came back to our room with some interesting news. He had poked around and found out that ten years ago a woman named Janice Murray had indeed died in Creighton Hall at night.

“So?” I asked.

“So, ya think Mike might be telling the truth?” Ray asked me earnestly.

“Zombies? Ray, get serious. There are no such things as Zombies, and they sure as Hell don’t hang out in Creighton Hall.”

“Then why don’t they use the lecture halls for finals?” Ray asked.

“You have got to be kidding me. OK listen, we’ll prove Mike wrong. We’ll prove there are no Zombies in Creighton Hall.”

“How we going to do that?” he asked.

“We’ll stake it out,” I said. “We’ll be Kenny and Ray – Myth Busters. Bring your HD camcorder so we can prove it.”

So it was on a Friday night, just three days before Halloween, Ray and I found ourselves scaring the shit out of each other nearly every fifteen minutes.

“What was that!” Ray struggled to keep his voice low.

We hid in Room 105, one of the two underutilized lecture halls. We had staked it out earlier, pretending to study. Then as 5:30 approached we simply slid down to the floor. At some point someone, perhaps a guard, stuck their head into the room and called out, “Everybody out, locking up soon.” There was a brief moment of silence before he flicked the lights off and the door closed with a very final sounding thud.

It wasn’t long after that when the strange noises started.

They were easy enough to explain at first, slight clicking and popping sounds one would expect from an old building as it settled in for the night. Heating systems ticking as they cooled down. The sound of the clock at the front of the room exaggerated in the now silent building. Then there was an odd rattling sound. Ray, eyes big as saucers, grabbed me by the wrist. “What was that?”

“I don’t know. Be quiet, or the guard will hear.” I pried his hand from my arm.

“There is no guard,” Ray said. “Mike told me that they don’t even let the guards in here at night.”

“Get real.”

Then there was an odd sound, like a round piece of metal spiraling down to the ground.

“What was that?”

I moved my arm before he could grab it.

“I don’t know. Somebody knocked over a… It’s nothing. Come on.” I stood up.

“Where are you going?” Ray asked.

“We need to explore, film the empty building, prove there is nothing out there. Got your Sony?”

Ray gulped and produced his camcorder. Just as he was about to rise we heard steps outside the door – clump, ca-lump, clump, ca-lump, like someone with a limp. I dropped back down next to Ray, my own eyes probably as big as his.

Clump, ca-lump. Clump, ca-lump. The steps got closer. Then the door creaked open. We looked at each other in sheer panic.

There was a low moan. Then a bright light hit me square in the face. We both screamed.

“What are you two doing in here?” The old guard held the beam of his Maglight on us. He took a few steps toward us: clump, ca-lump.

We both rose, hands in the air. “Ah, we were studying and sort of fell asleep…”

“Right there on the floor, huh?” He shook his head in obvious disbelief. “Two more Frosh that fell for the Zombies of Creighton Hall story, more like it. Come on down, I don’t feel like climbing all them steps to you. I ought to write you up. Come on, I’ll escort you out.”

Sheep-faced, we came on down, stepping in the pool of his flashlight. He checked our IDs and told us never to pull a stunt like that again. He directed us from behind as he walked us out. As we neared the door the clump, ca-lump, clump, ca-lump of his tread became more and more pronounced. We turned to see the now slack-faced guard stiffly raise his arms toward us as he moaned, “Brains.”

We both let out a yelp and bolted for the door. When we looked back the guard was nearly doubled over in a fit of laughter. He tossed us a friendly wave as he turned back into the darkened hall to continue his rounds.

~

© 2012 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo: Atchison, Kansas Restoration by Patricia D. Duncan, via the National Archives, no known restrictions.

 

An umbrella stand with many umbrellasMy dad keeps an ax in the umbrella stand in the front hallway, just under the mail caddy. When the umbrellas are there you don’t even notice it. I think that’s the idea – unobtrusive yet present. He used to joke with us that when we got older he’d threaten all our dates with it, like Uncle Buck in the movie with his hatchet. But, like Uncle Buck, we all knew not to take him at his word.

The real reason for the ax is self-protection. Dad doesn’t like having guns in the house. He’s not a rabid gun control nut, he just says guns and kids don’t mix. I’ve heard the childhood story more than once about how his friend, Sam Tate, was shot in the gut while showing him Officer Tate’s service revolver. Sam didn’t die, but apparently it was a close thing. So dad keeps the ax by the door and a baseball bat by his bed. Mom humors him and simply ignores them.

Dad was still up last night when I got home. He about panicked when he saw how beat up I was. Mom, though shaken, kept her cool and rushed us all to the hospital as Dad frantically tried to stab out three little numbers over and over again. We were almost there before he finally got through to 9-1-1. It wasn’t until he actually said the words, date rape, that I really lost it. I don’t even remember getting out of the car.

The Emergency Room was a blur, but I do recall all the people talking to me in very calm voices. The nurses all seemed to be walking on egg shells, careful in how they approached me, what they said. Mom and Dad stayed with me the whole time. When the Police woman arrived to take my statement the medical staff all departed. Officer Buckler asked if I’d be more comfortable if my parents left the room as well but I just clung to Mom harder. I could not bear the thought of facing it, reliving it, alone. I needed them like I’ve never needed them before.

Dad left the hospital shortly after I made my statement. I worried when he never came back – the car still out in the lot.

Now I’m scared to death. We’re home, Mom and I. He’s not. And the ax is missing from the umbrella stand.
~

© 2012 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Paul Barker Hemings, pollobarca2, via Flickr Creative Commons – attribution, and share alike licensing.

 

Tomas slipped into the bakery, eyes darting all about, assessing, ready to bolt if need be. Gregor was sliding a heavy wooden spatula into an oven. His son, Lor, stood on a stool at the kneading table, working a ball of dough almost half his size. Janna, Gregor’s wife, was at the counter waiting on the sole customer, an old woman carefully placing her allotment of bread into a canvas sack. Janna glanced up ever so briefly. As the old woman began to turn Janna touched her hand, drawing back her attention.

“Now don’t tell anyone I gave you this, Dorri dear.” Her hand moved under the counter and came up with a kifli. The old woman cooed with joy as Janna jerked her head to the right, not daring to actually look at Tomas.

The woman quickly stashed the pastry in her bag, then held her finger to her lips in an exaggerated shushing motion. Tomas used this distraction to slide sideways, behind a rack of cooling breads. The heady aroma of yeast, warm bread, and rye nearly made him swoon.

As soon as old Dorri shuffled out of sight Tomas dashed forward. Janna flipped up the hinged counter, allowing Tomas through.

“Lor, go back to the storeroom and count how many bags of flour we have left,” Gregor ordered. Without hesitation the boy wiped his hands on his midsection and disappeared.

“I am sorry,” Tomas said, knowing the danger he placed his old friend in. “I did not know where else to turn. They took Merb and Ilona yesterday.”

“I heard,” Gregor said, face grim. They had taken all the professors at the university first, but until yesterday the municipal library had been left untouched, as if of no interest. The library staff had been foolish to assume they were safe.

Without further words Gregor stepped over to the leftmost of his three big ovens. It stood cold, unused. He pulled open the door and climbed in, signaling Tomas to follow. Tomas took a deep breath and stepped forward. At this point he had no choice but to trust his friend.

At the back of the oven Gregor removed two bricks. Using the voids as handholds he heaved a section of the wall up and forward, arms straining under the weight. A hole, barely big enough to crawl through, stood before them.

“Once you are inside I will light the oven and keep it very low, just hot enough to keep anyone from poking about. Tonight we’ll let you out, and you can make your way to the river. I have a name I can give you.”

Tomas looked dubious.

“Or we can let you out the back door now and you can try for the river in daylight.”

With a grimace Tomas crawled into the tiny chamber. When everything went black he wished he had gone for the back door. As time passed he noticed heat building on one side of his sanctuary and he scooted as far from the source as he could.

~

Janna looked up to the sound of the door thrown open, her breath catching when she saw Captain Giamarty stride through, followed by two Corporals, both bearing automatic weapons. Gregor stopped kneading bread, and wiped his hands.

“Good afternoon, Captain.” He tried to keep the smile on his face natural, relaxed. “How can I help you?”

Captain Giamarty ignored him as he prowled around the bakery, breaking ends off an occasional loaf of bread, sniffing it, then discarding it on the floor.

Gregor and Janna slowly moved together, silently watching, sweat forming on their brows.

“I am just browsing,” Giamarty finally answered as he approached the counter. He did not pause as he lifted the drop gate. Janna stiffened when he peered under the counter.

“Kifli?” He straightened and looked at the bakers. “This is not kifli day.”

“We had a few left over from yesterday,” Gregor said, wiping his sweating hands on his hips. “Please, help yourself.”

“How is it you have extras? Is your flour allotment too high?”

“I think the rain kept some of the customers away yesterday,” Gregor said.

“Interesting.” Giamarty turned away from the counter and stepped to the bank of ovens at the back of the shop. He opened the doors, one by one, to see what was baking. “This one is empty.”

“Yes.” Gregor blinked sweat from his eyes. “We are preheating it…”

“My father was a baker.” Giamarty closed the oven door. “I think 90 is too low, don’t you?”

They said nothing.

Captain Giamarty turned the oven up to 180 Celsius and continued walking about the shop. “Where is you son, Lor?” he asked amicably.

“He is helping Madame Muller in her garden today,” Janna said, a little too sharply. Then, more evenly, “She gives us some cabbages at times in exchange for weeding.”

Giamarty nodded, then pulled out a stool and took a seat. “Please, carry on. There is bread to be made.”

Gregor moved stiffly to the kneading table.

~

At first Tomas thought it but his imagination, but now there was no mistake – the heat in his hidy-hole was definitely rising. Rivulets of sweat began running down his face, stinging his eyes; down his back, soaking his clothes. He wedged himself as far back as he could, to no avail. Worse than the building heat, he thought the air was getting thin. He was having trouble breathing. Panic began to build. He had to get out. Perhaps he could use his feet to force the bricks out into the oven.

There was a scraping sound behind him, then he felt a rush of cool air run up his back. Light flooded in. He turned to see small hands working at some bricks. He swung around and worked at the same bricks. One by one they moved until there was a small hole – a bolt hole – that might be just big enough to squeeze through. Lor’s head appeared, twisted round to face up. The lad smiled.

“Hurry. Follow me.”
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Jack Hurley lifted a single slat of his blinds and surveyed the street below. It seemed pretty well deserted. Every once in a while a car would pass by, but they were all nondescript. No sign of Internal Control. He gave the backpack at his feet a slight kick, cursing his fate. Here he was one week before his twenty-fifth birthday and still no prospects for marriage. If he was going to make the break he should have left weeks ago. He knew that, but he had kept hoping Mary Beth would come around. But her goddamned father would have none of him.

Yesterday he paid the rent for three months in advance, to make it seem like he planned on being around for quite a while. Sometimes Internal Control was content to simply observe, and stability was one of the markers they used in making that decision. But Jack knew he had too many markers going the other way: broken home, abusive father, above average IQ. He had taken the Potentiality Test on the Internet with Tony and Jerry. Of course they were drunk at the time, but he still remembered their reactions when he scored an 87.

“Bummer, dude,” Jerry had said. Tony just shook his head, downed his beer, refused to meet his eye. “You better get married soon,” Jerry laughed, still thinking it all a joke, then popped another beer.

But they had been drunk. So Jack took the test again two days later, anonymously at the library. He scored even worse – an 88. Then he begged Mary Beth Anderson to marry him. Her father threatened to call IC himself if he ever came around again.

Since then Jack had been hitting the singles bars almost nightly. He was able to score often enough – plenty of one-night stands. But no one willing to commit. No one willing to help out a guy in a jam. Now he was just about out of options.

Another car passed down Sheridan Drive, going slow – too slow. Jack swallowed hard. This was it. The car stopped just beneath his window. Jack broke out in a cold sweat. Then a guy got out and dashed across the street to No. 1122 to deliver a pizza. Jack’s knees almost buckled underneath him in sheer relief.

He was not a serial killer. No way. That just wasn’t him. Damn the Potentiality Test. Damn Internal Control. The hell with this. He was making a break for it. If he could make it away from his apartment building unobserved he might be able to make it out of town. Then he could disappear, make his way north to Canada. Or maybe try for Mexico. He just didn’t think he could take twenty-five years in Preventative Detainment – all because of some theoretical ‘potential.’

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and slid out the door. He paused in the hallway, listening, then made his way to the basement, to the back door for the alley where they discarded the rest of the trash. It was dark outside – he had unscrewed the light bulb yesterday, and knew the super would be weeks in getting around to replacing it. He glanced up and down the alley, then took a deep breath. Instead of turning towards the railroad tracks on impulse he turned toward Dinsmore Park. Maybe he’d pay Mary Beth’s dad a visit before he left town.

© 2012 Mad Utopia Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha