I’m very excited to share with you the winning story of the short fiction contest written by Kelvin Woelk! Enjoy.
Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.
Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.
It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.
The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.
She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.
If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.
Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.
Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.
It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.
On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.
There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.
The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.
Calliope reaches for the clasp.
One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.
“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.
Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.
Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.
She jerks it back.
The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.
The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.
It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.
The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.
Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.
The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.
Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.
The day slinks on.
Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.
Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.
I originally wrote this story for Jolene Haley‘s Halloween Showcase on her blog last year. I’m reposting it here to kick off October!
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The rhythmic sound infiltrates my dreams, blending with the hatchet chopping through the bathroom door, until I come to my senses enough to realize that the bloody tool I held in my dream isn’t making that noise.
With a sigh, I roll over and pull the covers over my head, trying to find my way back into my dream. The blood doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve gotten used to it.
The thin comforter does nothing to block out the noise, though, so I get up and turn on the light. My spacious room is dimly lit by faux-gaslight lamps, the only signs I’m staying here are the four-poster bed rumpled by sleep and my small suitcase sitting near the bathroom door.
I pad over to the window and peek out of the curtains of my first-floor room. The silvery moonlight illuminates a dark shape almost right outside my window.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The shadow’s shovel scrapes and bites into the damp earth. Over and over, digging a hole deeper and deeper.
I hold my breath, as if the figure might be able to hear me, but he keeps digging, oblivious to his audience. I let my breath out and continue watching, curious.
After another half an hour, he pauses and wipes his brow. The hole seems sufficiently deep for him now, an arbitrary decision from what I can see, and he rolls a sack into it before beginning the long task of refilling it.
The mid-morning sun shines through the gap in the curtains right into my eyes. I glare at the light before rolling onto my back and stretching out, feeling the silky sheets against my skin. The expansive bed envelopes me and holds me in its safety.
They’ll never find me here.
The thought swells within my chest and I laugh at the sheer exhilaration of freedom. I wrap my arms around my chest and roll back and forth on the bed.
I am safe now.
Still grinning, I dress in the only set of clothes I own. A sensible brown dress and sensible shoes. Everyone knows that “sensible” really means “ugly” but in this moment, I feel like a queen.
Gliding down the hallway toward the main lobby, I nod to the peasants who stomp past me. I forgive them for their ill manners. They don’t know what it’s like to be free.
“Miss Crawford,” the concierge says as I walk past. I glance around and then realize he’s using the fake name I gave last night. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, sir,” I say, magnanimous, my coy smile hiding my momentary lapse. “I was hoping to find some breakfast.”
With a smile of his own in return, he directs me into the dining room.
I like this man. He’s kind and pleasant. I look at the name placard placed on the countertop, proudly proclaiming him to be MR. HENRY WILKINS.
A good name for a good man.
I float into the dining room and the hostess seats me at a table on the glass-enclosed patio. The walls shimmer in the sunlight, making the dying gardens surrounding the room a hazy dream.
The hostess frowns at my clothing when she thinks I can’t see. I do not like her, but I didn’t look at her nametag before she left. I give her up as a lost cause. She’s not that bad and not everyone can appreciate true beauty.
Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes. A feast the likes of which I’ve seen but never had cause to eat before. This, truly, must be heaven.
The gardener pushes a wheelbarrow full of fallen leaves past the glass wall in front of me. He looks like he’s in pain, hunched over the handles and limping. His mouth is parted, his breathing labored, and sweat drips down his brow.
Last night, when I arrived in the darkness, the air was tinged with a faint promise of winter. The gardener must be working very hard to be sweating so much in the cool autumn air.
I finish my breakfast and the gardener scoots by again. The wheelbarrow is still filled with leaves, but pushing it doesn’t look as difficult anymore.
With a smile, I resolve to meet this gardener. He seems like an interesting man.
Leaves crunch under my sensible shoes as I walk just outside my room’s window. If I didn’t know the ground had been disturbed, it would be easy to miss, but I look for the edges of the hole and find them beneath the leaves.
“Miss,” a gruff voice says from behind, “You shouldn’t wander off the paths.”
I turn and face the gardener. His graying hair is cut short and mostly hidden beneath a cap. A grizzled beard hides his mouth, but I can tell he’s nervous from the way his dark eyes twitch.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” I say, pitching my voice into the girlish incompetence he’s expecting of me. “It’s just that I’m staying in this room,” I gesture to my window, “and I wanted to see these pretty views in the daytime.”
“In the daytime…” He narrows his eyes at me, like he’s trying to figure out what, if anything, I saw.
“I got in late last night and couldn’t see much in the darkness.”
He grunts and shuffles his feet.
“Well, as you can see there’s not much here, miss.”
But the way his eyes keep darting between my face and the hidden hole next to my feet tells me a different story. I smile at him.
“You’d um… best be finding your way back to the path.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
I march past him without a backwards glance, proud of myself for the restraint I’m learning to show.
There are no holes dug outside my window tonight. I know. I sat next to my window waiting for him to come back, but he didn’t. Not tonight.
Men’s voices rumble urgently outside my door, their footsteps thudding dully on the carpet. I creep over, as quiet as I can, and press my ear to the cold wood.
“–no one here by that name,” MR. HENRY WILKINS says.
“Harrumph,” another man says.
Ice freezes my veins. I know that voice.
He’s here. They’ve found me.
“Do you have a photo?” The concierge asks.
My breathing is shallow. I can’t seem to catch my breath.
My hunter grunts and I imagine him patting his pockets, looking for it. Their footsteps recede.
“…seem to have forgotten it…” His voice fades.
My breathing eases. I can’t stay here much longer, but I have a little time. He’ll come back with that horrid photo they took of me. The one where my hair’s all matted with blood they wouldn’t let me clean off.
“It’s evidence,” they said when I asked if I could wash the blood off.
But they didn’t understand that what I do is necessary. The man who came after me understood least of all.
One more day here. That’s all I need before they come back with the photo and the concierge won’t be such a nice man anymore.
Deep breaths calm my frantically beating heart. This will all end up okay. I know it.
I didn’t come all the way here to not remain a free woman.
I like living in the space between invisible and not-quite-noticed. My plain clothes and quiet ways lend themselves to not really being seen. People interact with me, answer my questions, be polite, but as soon as I step away, I’m forgotten.
Not so with the gardener.
I can feel his eyes tracking me when I walk the winding paths outside. The only place I’m free of him is inside the walls of the Thornewood Hotel, but I enjoy being outside. The chill air wakes me up, reminding me of who I am. What I am.
And I’m going to enjoy my final day here, no matter what.
The gardener stalks, waiting, watching.
I bide my time, pretending at being oblivious.
This is the part I love the most.
Damp earth squishes between my fingers sending the scent of dirt and darkness upward. I push my hand down, reaching deep into the soil until my fingers touch the gardener’s prize.
I wanted to be sure before…
Most people need to dig up the whole damn grave to be sure, but I don’t need to. I know the feel of dead skin.
The gardener is a very bad man.
Unfortunately for him, I’m worse.