*Horror/Dark Urban Fantasy 18+*
CLINK. IT SOUNDS LIKE someone just put a penny in a jar. Unfamiliar voices in the distance, fuzzy and hard to pinpoint. My ears are ringing. Damn, why is it so cold? There's something else too, a putrid stench, like shit and rotten pizza mixed together.
I was breathing water—it was cool and felt good in my lungs. I was drowning, dying, and strangely I didn't seem to mind. And there was a woman in the water—ice blue skin, blond hair floating like tendrils of seaweed. She wanted to tell me something, and I can see a solitary word bubbling from her frigid lips, my name—Dimitri. Then something else, something important, but I can't pull the memory to the surface and it is so cold, so very, very cold.
Gradually the ringing in my ears stops. My hearing starts to clear. There's a whoosh of something like a fan, and a refrigerator hum. I try to open my eyes, and they refuse.
Clink, clank, clunk. Someone is humming. Humming?
Then a low voice. "So my wife is like, you need to take a shower before you come home from work, you smell like cadavers, and I said, you don't seem to mind cashing the checks."
A lighter voice, feminine. "Um humm." Obviously not listening.
"She can't say anything then 'cause she's got a new Gucci purse she doesn't want to tell me about. Like I don't read the credit card statements—hey do you mind turning that thing off while we're working?"
A sigh, then a click. "It keeps me focused."
"Can't believe your iPod still works after it fell in that guy's stomach. You'd think the acid would have shorted the battery."
"Waterproof case. I did have to get new earbuds though."
Deep voice guy snorts with laughter. Then a sudden intake of breath. "Damn, have you ever seen a stab wound this deep before? The knife punctured her rib."
Thumpity, thump thump. My heart starts to beat. It's cautious, like it's not sure whether there's much point, but methodically plods along anyways; each throb pushes more of the fizzy darkness aside with a familiar, staccato rhythm that's reassuring. Suddenly every nerve in my body kicks in, tingling with a fiery determination—it's a rush. I'm naked. I'm lying on something cold, metallic, and decidedly uncomfortable. I try a breath and the air burns my lungs, but they seem functional.
"What kind of knife would do that?"
"A very sharp one."
"Ha, ha, very funny.
"Check out the spleen. It looks like something was eating it."
"Maybe she had cats. Cats are heartless."
"Cats are not heartless," replies the feminine voice.
"When's the last time you heard about a dog eating its dead owner? Never."
Snap, crack, clink.
My eyelids finally flutter—a fuzzy light glows behind something white and cottony. I gather my jangling neurons, point them at my right arm—move arm, move—and manage to jerk at the sheet that's covering me. A new chemical stink wafts by, formaldehyde, and above me a bright, round, fluorescent light nearly blinds me. I slowly turn my head, feeling my brain slosh inside my skull, and it takes a moment for the dizziness to clear. For me to see.
A man and a woman in surgical scrubs stand in front of a gray naked body; bright red blood spatters their sleeves and gloves. The man holds a large pair of shears, also covered in blood, and the woman has a white dangling earbud that trails from beneath her surgical cap to a bulge in her right front pocket. They both stare, perplexed, into the abdomen of what appears to be the corpse of a fifty-ish woman; her frizzy gray hair is badly permed and she stares at me with the glossy eyes of a dead fish. A flap of yellowed, thick, and fatty flesh hangs from her waist, and I can see blue veins crisscrossing the tissue, while some kind of white, viscous liquid oozes onto the linoleum floor. A bloody heap that looks like raw hamburger rests on a hanging metal scale. Ten pounds.
I'm in a morgue. My stomach heaves, but there's nothing to throw up. My body is completely drained. Empty.
"Hey did you do that?"
"What?" Something squishes.
"Drowning dude's sheet is off."
"Well why don't you go fix that, my hands are a little tied if you know what I mean."
The woman mutters, "I'm not some kind of first year resident..."
A scream builds in the back of my throat and dies there.
Footsteps softly pad across the linoleum floor. I can feel the rough sheet being pulled back up and over my feet, my legs, my chest. I need to move—I need to move now. Somehow I turn my head, look at the woman in scrubs directly in her eyes. Blink. I open my mouth, and a small rush of water pours out.
"HOLY SHIT!" She jumps back, knocking the scale; it swings like a pendulum, and the hand on the dial swerves wildly as the bloody heap slides to the floor with a wet plop.
My eyes roll towards the back of my head and I reach one hand out, grasping nothing. Suddenly I remember what the woman with the ice blue skin said in her strange, watery voice.
Dimitri. He's coming. He's coming for you.
Then the darkness wells up, envelops me, and I'm gone again.
Twenty-four hours earlier
CHAPTER ONE - GOSHEN
THERE'S NOT A LOT OF OPPORTUNITY to get creative with obituaries. Take Mrs. Porrier, aged 85, an elementary school teacher who committed suicide by locking herself in the garage of her four bedroom colonial house with the car running.
She had terminal pancreatic cancer, but that's not the point. The point is that the most interesting part of her life—the moments leading up to her death—I can't write about. I can't write that she got the car keys out of the zip pocket of her husband's brown leather bowling ball bag—Mr. Porrier, otherwise known as "Doc" to his league—and opened the familiar latch of the screen door. That she pressed the yellowed plastic button of the electric garage door opener, got into the car and pulled the heavy door of the ancient but still functional Cadillac behind her—the scent of cigarette smoke still in the carpeting although her husband had quit smoking ten years before. I can't write that she rolled up the windows by hand—nothing automatic in that car—and started the engine. And the moment before her eyes got heavy, when she still could have gotten out of the car, but didn't, the moment she decided enough, I can't include in her obituary.
Instead, I have to write the mundane, perfected life details. She taught school for forty years. She is remembered by her grandchild Harris in Colorado, her daughter Stella, also a teacher, in California, and her beloved husband who served two years in the Korean War. She enjoyed knitting, horticulture, and baking. She died of pancreatic cancer. I reduce her to a palatable bit of print, ready to be absorbed, digested, and quickly forgotten.
Christ, I wish I didn't take this shit so seriously.
I TRY TO AVOID the newspaper office in the Flatiron building on Goshen's Main Street as much as possible—probably because I'm supposed to work there. So, over the past year I've suffered periodic intestinal episodes from bad sushi. My car has a habit of being borrowed by my (non-existent) roommate, or the tires are flat, or the battery needs a jump. I'm susceptible to migraines, increasingly bad episodes of asthma, and my back needs regular appointments with a chiropractor who keeps changing my appointment times. As long as the deadlines are met, Mac, the editor (who really lets themselves be called Mac anyway?) doesn't threaten me too much with firing, which is bullshit anyway because there aren't many people in this town who could string one sentence, let alone two, together.
After my parents died and I flunked out of college it was either this or the crab ships in Alaska. Whenever I push open the brass office doors and gaze upon the dusty metal file cabinets resting on the equally dusty olive carpet, with Myrna in the corner pretending to type when she's really checking the clock for her smoke break, I imagine myself in one of those orange deckhand's suits on the Bering Sea, my eyebrows singed with frostbite, and realize I've made the biggest mistake of my young life.
But sometimes, like this morning, I have to face reality. For the third time this year I've been given two weeks notice.
"Morning Myrna," I say, wondering if her optometrist has ever heard of those new fangled thin plastic glasses, as opposed to the glacier thick glass ones she wears. Tinted a delightful gradient pink.
Myrna pulls a sheet of paper from her printer with a snap. "You're gracing us with your presence today? Fired again so soon?"
"Is that a new sweater?" I say. "It really brings out the color of your eyes."
Her sweater is red.
Myrna gives me a look. "Smart ass," she mutters.
I head towards my ostensible desk which doubles as a paper stand when I'm not in. I start to stack the reams on the floor, and look for my chair. Nowhere to be found. Myrna must know something but she's studiously applying whiteout to a sheet of paper, dabbing at it with a corner of tissue and pointedly ignoring me.
Which leaves Bob.
Bob has a gut that hangs over his leather belt and his standard attire is tight Oxford shirts with penny loafers. He also prides himself on dated practical jokes. I've found all my paper clips hooked together, an actual pink Whoopee cushion on my chair, and on my very first day I got an electric shock from the buzzer he had hidden in his palm. When Myrna's on her smoke break sometimes I'll find a miniature plastic television on my desk with two large breasts poking out from the screen, the words "Boob Tube" at the base, which I think is Bob's way of testing my heterosexuality since my hair is on the shaggy side and there are questions. The local barber has one standard style—military buzz—so I pay my "bachelor" neighbor Doug twenty bucks every now and then to cut it. Doug's an actual hairstylist and a refugee from a long term relationship in San Francisco that ended badly. He says that if it wasn't for the dark circles under my eyes I would have potential, what with my hooded Russian eyes and thick eyebrows. Which gender he's talking about when he says "potential" is unclear. All I know is that I'm the tall, thin, unnaturally pale and dark haired sensitive looking type instead of the rock body, square-jawed testosterone type; a tragic genetic disadvantage that usually results in stilted conversations with girls who smile politely while obviously clocking the muscular guys chugging beer through funnels.
My mind clicks through various places in the building where my chair could be—emergency stairwell, bathroom stall, the alley that smells of dead cat where the newspaper trucks pull up. Basically a pain in the ass way to start my day. I decide screw it, and loudly pull my desk over to the Victorian metal radiator that hasn't worked in, say, a century, balling up my jacket to serve as a kind of cushion. Problem solved.
I pull out my laptop, a device that always causes a certain furrow in Myrna's brow, she who believes that THE INTERNET IS CAUSING THE RAPID DEGENERATION OF SOCIETY'S YOUTH and WIRELESS FREQUENCIES CAUSE CANCER. Not smoking of course—her pack a day habit is perfectly healthy, Reagan said so.
Bob waltzes in. Cat that ate the canary metaphor applies rather well here.
"Nice chair," says Bob, barely able to repress a chuckle.
"Yeah," I say, "its so SAC."
I enjoy making up nonsense acronyms which I know that Bob will attempt to use with his ten year old niece in an attempt to be "down with the kids."
"You know," I add casually, "Sustainable and cool."
"Right," says Bob and I can tell he's now feeling off his game, having been reminded poignantly that he is pushing his late-fifties. I almost feel sorry for him, but then I'm the one who handles the obituary notices and I'm sitting on a radiator.
Bob, on the other hand, practically is the newspaper. He writes the local news, features, and sports; he even writes the occasional "investigative" piece that profiles our highest paying advertiser in glowing terms, neatly avoiding actual journalism while painting a portrait so rosy it would make Normal Rockwell vomit. A pale accountant fills in to cover the rare event of business news, usually a bankruptcy or store closing which we call internally YABBTD (Yet Another Business Bites the Dust). Film reviews are written by Sandeep Banerjee who charges five dollars an article and emails his copy from somewhere in the heart of Mumbai; Mac would probably love for Sandeep to write the obits too because his new favorite word is ROI which I think he must have gotten from The Apprentice, but he knows that in a small, some would say close-minded (I would say borderline racist) town, nobody would want their beloved relative's life-and-death story written by anyone other than a full-blooded American. Which is why my byline is D. Peters instead of Dimitri Petrov. Go figure.
And in Goshen, where seventy five percent of the local population is over sixty-five, there are so many obituaries they fill up two full pages of newspaper—sometimes three, if we really stretch the prime advertising space. Death here is the proverbial cash cow. It didn't always used to be that way—when industrialization hit Goshen in the early twentieth century it must have been a rocking place to be. Thousands of immigrants and children of rural farmers poured into the city to work in the mills, fourteen was a great age to start, and if you lost a finger or two in the process, consider yourself lucky that you still had part of a hand. Of course, now all that manufacturing is done in China, which has an even greater and cheaper supply of fourteen year olds, so the mills here are boarded up shells with broken windows. Anyone under thirty has wisely gotten out while the getting was good, and the aging population has caused a boom in hospice care, funeral and "death industries," including my own meager position.
"Well," says Bob, trying to salvage his dominant spot as chief jokester, "I'll give you a hint." He leans in close and his breath smells of fried egg sandwich. "Next time you want to take a dump (he whispers the word dump so he won't offend the delicate sensibilities of Myrna), you might want to use the stall by the window."
He cheerfully gives my shoulder a punch, like he's the coach and I'm the high school rookie, and then thuds over to his desk, where he has a grinding first generation laser printer that makes more noise than an artillery range.
I look out the window, and wonder if jumping out the second story could possibly entitle me to disability payments if I survived.