Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction
By Daniel Skye
Jacob Torrance would sit in Berman’s Café every night for a few hours, sipping black coffee and typing pages of his first novel, “Downfall.”
Jake secretly hated coffee. He couldn’t stand the taste. But he also couldn’t just sit around with his laptop and not order anything. He’d already tried getting away with that at Starbucks, and he was banned for life as a result.
Writing was not his fulltime job. Jake worked in an office, filing insurance claims for eight tedious hours a day. Writing was his only escape from the mundane existence he had created for himself. He’d written more than two dozen short stories, and now he was feeling confident enough to try fleshing out a full-length novel.
He was 300 pages in so far, and still going strong. Some nights, he’d sit there typing like a maniac, his fingers barely able to keep up with the words and details his mind was conjuring up.
“Downfall” was set in a bleak, dystopian future in which humanity was enslaved by monsters. Years of government-funded time travel experiments had torn a hole in our planet, and opened a gateway to another dimension. The creatures from this dimension crossed the threshold of the gateway and entered our world.
Their vicious rampage left millions of people dead. The remaining survivors fell in line, carrying out the orders of this deformed, grotesque horde of monsters. Led by Amicus, a winged creature that was as tall as a skyscraper, there seemed to be no hope for humanity. Ironically, Amicus meant friend in another language, which is precisely why Jake chose the name.
Of course, not all of the characters in Jake’s book learned to conform. The plot also focused on a group of rebels who were perpetually fighting a war against these unholy creatures. It wasn’t the most inventive or original plot in literature, but writing a story of this nature came easy to Jake. Almost too easy. It was as if he was reliving events he had previously experienced. Though he couldn’t recall any events in his life that involved a monster as tall as the Empire State Building.
Every night, he watched the same young couple wander in, order the same drinks, and sit down together. The girl would order a tall caramel latte, or a pumpkin spice latte in the fall. The boy would order a small French roast coffee with two scoops of sugar and a splash of creamer.
Jake would occasionally watch them from a distance. He could tell just from the smiles and glances they exchanged, that they were madly in love with each other.
As a writer, Jake enjoyed creating fictional backstories for this couple. He enjoyed speculating, using conjecture to fill in the blanks of their life. He knew nothing about this couple, but at the same time, he knew everything about them. He’d even given them names.
Craig was a banker, though he secretly hated his job as much as Jake hated coffee. Jake also assumed from his various tattoos and his tough guy façade that he was probably into extreme sports. Probably rides around the woods on a moped, and goes rock climbing or skydiving, Jake thought. He probably knows karate, too. Probably a third or fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo.
As for Jenny, she probably works in an office like I do, Jake thought. She probably does yoga or Pilates in her spare time. And I bet she refers to frozen yogurt as froyo. She probably loves Pintrest too. And she can’t eat a meal without posting a picture of it on Instagram.
But none of this mattered, so long as they loved each other. And all it took was one look for Jake to realize how in love they truly were.
Their seemingly flawless relationship echoed his once picturesque relationship with Heather. But Heather was long gone. She’d moved on with her life. And now all Jake Torrance had left was his work-in-progress novel, his roommate, and the imaginary lives of Jenny and Craig.
It was raining buckets outside, but that didn’t seem to faze him. He found the rain to be quite peaceful and soothing. He pried his fingers away from the keyboard for a moment and glanced out the long, rectangular windows of the café.
The streetlamps were dim and the rain made it hard to see in the dark, but Jake could see a man in an overcoat standing outside, peering through one of the windows. Jake looked directly at him, and for the briefest moment, he could’ve sworn the man was staring right back at him.
In seconds, the man was gone. Jake watched him hobble away from the café, moving as fast as his bad leg would allow him. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the man, but there was something oddly familiar about him.
Jake shrugged it off, finished the rest of his coffee, typed a few more pages of his novel, and drove back to the apartment. He didn’t trust Devon alone for extended periods of time. He was afraid of him burning the place down.
Devon Graham was a perpetual fountain of random factoids and useless information. His brain could soak up knowledge and trivia like a sponge. He could tell you off the top of his head who invented the Rubik’s Cube, or what team won the World Series in 1984. But he was also the kind of person who would put something in the microwave with the plastic wrap still on.
* * *
Jake had a long list of regrets. But his biggest regret was the tattoo of Heather’s name he’d gotten on his forearm. Surprisingly, he had no regrets about the Cowabunga tattoo he got when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity.
Devon had suggested adding an S to Heather, and turning it into Heathers. “If anyone asks, just say you’re a big Winona Ryder fan,” Devon had told him.
Jake limped into the apartment, and was cross to find all the lights on. He barged into Devon’s room without even knocking. “Why is every light in the apartment on?” Jake asked, clearly exasperated.
“I just watched a scary movie,” Devon quipped. Scary movies were the only movies Devon watched.
He had every DVD, every Blu-ray, every VHS cassette. There were signed action figures and autographed movie posters proudly displayed on his shelves and walls. He had a replica of the Lament Configuration signed by Doug Bradley, a fake machete that was signed by Kane Hodder, and a dirty-looking red and green striped sweater that was signed by Robert Englund. But his prized possession was the Phantasm poster that was signed by every cast and crew member. He had to go to five different conventions just to collect all the signatures.
Horror movies were his passion. And Devon sincerely thought his posters and collectables made the room look cool. But Jake thought it looked more like a shrine to Devon’s virginity.
“Our electric bill is sky high,” Jake groaned. “Look, I know you contribute around here. But until you can afford to pay an equal share of the bills, do you think you can show just a shred of consideration?”
“Yes, dad,” Devon said, talking like a small child.
Jake sighed and stormed, well, actually, he limped out of Devon’s room. Jake's limp stemmed from a bad car accident in his teenage years. Not many would know it just by looking at Jake, but he was quite the gearhead back in high school.
He drove a black ’71 Barracuda, back when all the kids used to race up and down Deer Park Avenue for money. He’d raced his car plenty of times without incident. But it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out.
The trucks had plowed and salted the roads that night, but the pavement was stilly icy and slick. Jake was changing lanes when he lost control of his car and swerved off the road, crashed head-on into a telephone poll. The surgery was a success, and saved his leg from amputation. But the limp would stay with him for the rest of his days.
Jake lied down on the couch, turned on the news. Devon came out of his room just to check on him, or maybe just to irritate him further.
“What’s grinding your gears, bud? It’s not just Heather. I can tell something else is bothering you.”
“At the café tonight…it was the strangest thing. I saw a man standing outside in the rain.”
“Nothing unusual about that,” Devon said.
“Well, he didn’t have an umbrella for one thing.”
“Maybe he didn’t hear the weather. Maybe he wasn’t expecting rain.”
“That’s not all. He was just standing there, looking into the café. And for a second, I could’ve sworn he was staring right at me. I couldn’t get a real good look at him, but he seemed familiar. And I left out the weirdest part.”
“What’s the weirdest part?”
“I saw him limping away.”
“Eerie. Maybe he’s your doppelganger,” Devon said, imitating the Twilight Zone music.
“Knock it off,” Jake shouted.
“Jeez, touchy. Relax, man. It’s no big deal. Just a coincidence. Don’t let it freak you out. Just do what Taylor Swift does and shake it off.”
“Don’t ever quote Taylor Swift in my presence again.”
“How do you expect me to go a whole night without mentioning my goddess, Taylor Swift?”
“First of all, Taylor Swift would probably have you Tasered and arrested if you got within ten feet of her. And can you just leave me be for a while? I need time to think.”
“Suit yourself,” Devon shrugged. “I’ll be in my room if you need me. I’m going to watch Hatchet tonight if you’re interested. The director is actually from Long Island. There’s even a Hofstra reference in the movie.”
“As an alumnus of Hofstra, I can only assume the reference isn’t flattering.”
Devon wandered back to his room and Jake sat up and muted the television. He opened up his laptop and picked up where he left off at the café, writing another chapter before he turned in for the night.
* * *
The next night, Jake sat alone in Berman’s café with his coffee at his side and his laptop open in front of him. Jenny and Craig were there, but Jake had no interest in them that evening. He wasn’t even looking at his computer screen.
His eyes were fixed on the windows of the café. Hours passed while Jake waited for the man in the overcoat to return. Berman’s was open ’til midnight, and Jake was going to stay until closing time if he had to.
Jake watched Jenny and Craig leave for the night, their arms wrapped around each other. He checked his phone and saw that it was almost eleven o’clock. He was getting tired and hungry, and of course he was concerned about Devon destroying the place in his absence. But he wouldn’t let up.
He pocketed his phone and looked up. Outside, he saw a dark figure lumbering past Jenny and Craig. A figure that made them stop dead in their tracks. They glared in disbelief at Jake through the windows, then turned back to the man who was limping down the sidewalk.
Jake left his laptop behind as he rushed outside and asked them which way he went. Jenny pointed up the street.
He saw the man hobbling under the dimly lit streetlamps and chased him up the block. The man turned down an alley and Jake followed without even considering the dangers.
The alley was a dead end and Jake had the man corned now, his back against a brick wall. “Who the hell are you?” Jake shouted. “Why are you following me around?”
The man in the overcoat moved closer, giving Jake a better look at his face. “I don’t know,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me who the hell I am?”
It was like staring into a living, breathing mirror. His wavy brown, dark green eyes, the limp. Jake even recognized the overcoat as his own. It was dirty and tattered and had seen better days, but Jake definitely had the same coat hanging up in his closet.
His mouth hung open, tongue flailing, stammering as he tried to squeeze out the words.
“How is this possible?” he finally managed to ask.
“I was sent back to find you and warn you.”
“Jake, I know this is hard to even fathom, but I’m you…approximately two years from now. It took the rebels a while to get the transportation devices up and running again.”
“So you’re me from the not-so-distant future, huh? And I’m supposed to buy all this? Devon is a notorious prankster. How do I know he didn’t pay some actor to mess with my head? I’m a pretty average guy. How hard could it be to find a lookalike?”
“I know all about Devon. Obsessed with horror movies, always leaving the lights on, never pays an equal share of the rent. But I also know he’s your friend and one of the few people that care about you. I also know about Heather, about the reason you broke up, about the tattoo of her name that you got because you were convinced she was the love of your life.”
“Again, not very convincing,” Jake shrugged, his mind unable to comprehend the grim reality of the situation. “Devon could have told you all of this.”
“Jake, I know about the book. About the time travel experiments, about Amicus, about the rebels plotting against the monsters who enslaved them. I know you’ll be finished writing it in two months. I know you are going to get the book published and make a lot of money.”
“Alright, now we’re talking,” Jake said to…well, Jake.
“But what good is money if you can’t spend it? Jake, you have to listen to me, no matter how crazy it sounds. You need to know what’s waiting for you in the future.”
Panicked screams echoed down the block. More than a dozen people, wearing nothing but their pajamas, sprinted past the alley.
Jake ran to the end of the alley and peeked out. He saw half a dozen more running down the street, clutching what little personal possessions their hands could carry. An intense screech filled the sky and drowned out their screams.
“Oh, no,” the other Jake said. “One of them must have followed me back.”
Jake Torrance–the present-day Jake Torrance–looked up to the sky and gasped. “Amicus!” he cried.
The creature was looming over a tall apartment building. As tall as the building appeared to be, it looked like a dollhouse in the presence of Amicus. It raised its gigantic fists and brought them down upon the building. The brick façade crumbled as the building shook from the rooftop to its foundation. One more devastating blow was all it took to level the structure, reducing it to a pile of rubble and debris.
Jake turned to his only beacon of hope. Confused, disoriented, and terrified, Jake turned to himself for answers.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Jake’s double told him. “The future is just as you imagined.”
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
By Daniel Skye
Sally Elswick was missing.
Kit had seen the missing posters all over town, stapled to every telephone pole, hanging in the windows of every storefront. He couldn’t escape her innocent smile. They had used a recent picture from Sally’s high school yearbook.
In the picture, Kit saw a seventeen year old girl with mocha brown hair, light blue eyes, and a guiltless smile that told him that Sally wasn’t even capable of harming a fly. She was last seen on Wednesday, October 15, at about 5:30 PM, walking home from a friend’s house, wearing a pink blouse and beige pants with white tennis shoes.
For the sake of her family, Kit didn’t want to assume the worst. But with black roses turning up all over town, it was hard not to assume the worst.
Greensville was in the grip of fear. And that fear had been given a plethora of names by both the residents of Greenville and the local newspapers. The Butcher. The Greensville Reaper. The Slasher. But the name that seemed to stick was the Black Rose Killer.
For every victim he claimed, the killer would leave a single black rose behind. Just like the rose that was found where Sally was last spotted before her sudden disappearance.
The rose was a symbol of death, but it also served as the killer’s sadistic calling card.
Everyone in Greensville was on high alert. The cops were urging everyone to stay indoors. But Kit wasn’t going to let it spoil the evening. He promised Darlene a surprise, and he’d be damned if he didn’t deliver.
* * *
“What’s that smell?” Darlene asked, walking blind through the vestibule. A Saint Christopher medallion dangled around neck, clanking against the buttons of her shirt. She took it off only to sleep and to shower, and during those intimate moments when she and Kit were completely alone.
She had explained it to Kit on their first date. She considered herself a wandering soul. Saint Christopher was the patron saint of travelers. And he protected her wherever her soul chose to roam.
“Never mind that,” Kit murmured.
“It smells like mold.”
“You’ll understand why in a second.”
“You mean I can take this stupid thing off now?”
“Go right ahead.” She removed her blindfold and took a look around.
In the lobby of Greensville Cinema, a poster for the movie As Good as it Gets was still sitting in same display case from when the theater flooded back in 1997. It was one of the few relics that remained. The flood had tarnished the decor, warped the floors and demolished the theater seats.
“I remember this movie,” Kit told Darlene. “Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his role.”
“Don’t sell Helen Hunt short. She won an Oscar, too.” Kit was an aficionado of movies, but Darlene was quite the film buff herself. It was one of the reasons Kit was so fond of her. That and the fact that Darlene liked Kit for who he was. Not for his money.
Kit’s father was a big Knight Rider fan, and the name was his idea. He hated it at first, until he learned his mother had wanted to name him Dickie. From that point on, he learned to tolerate the name Kit.
Kit’s dad was also a wise investor who had started his first business by the time he was his son’s age. And he left Kit a substantial inheritance when he passed on. And Kit wasn’t going to squander it away. He was going to invest it in something he was passionate about.
“So why are we here?
“Free dinner,” Kit teased her as he pointed to the concession stand. “The popcorn is eleven years old, so it might be a little stale.”
Darlene didn’t even feign a laugh. Just rolled her eyes and waited for a real answer.
“I bought the place,” he told her, adding, “Surprise.”
“We’re in a recession and you bought a theater that’s been closed for eleven years?”
“I have big plans for this place. It’s going to be the movie theater I always dreamed of as a kid. Old school arcade games and pinball machines in the corner over there. A fully stocked concession stand with reasonable prices. A make-your-own-sundae bar.”
“You’re really going to have a make-your-own-sundae bar?”
“And if I can pull off a liquor license, beer for the adults.”
“It sounds like a gamble to me,” she said doubtfully.
“Trust me, I can spare it. Besides, wait until you see the real surprise. I know your favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. I scored a 35mm print of the film. Unfortunately, the concession stand is empty, but I stopped off and picked up some candy and snacks before I picked you up.”
Her eyes practically lit up like Christmas lights. She wrapped her arms around him and planted a soft kiss on his cheek. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
“I don’t mind telling you I went to a lot of trouble to find that print.”
“I wasn’t talking about the movie. I was talking about the candy.” She smiled just to let Kit know she was busting his chops. When she smiled, it showed her dimples, which Kit found absolutely adorable. When she smiled, it also reminded him a lot of Sally Elswick.
He put his arm around her and led the way. “What are the theaters like after the flood?” she wondered. “Do they smell as moldy as the lobby?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, holding the door open to Theater One. “I just had this one remodeled.”
Darlene marveled at its pristine condition. That lingering fresh paint and carpet smell was a bit nauseating, but it was a small price to pay. There were rows of reclining leather theater seats. They all had special cup holders designed to keep drinks extra cold. And attached to the back of every seat, a folding tray that could be used to hold snacks.
“No more standing up and spilling your popcorn all over the floor,” Kit said.
“I hate when that happens,” Darlene said. “I’m afraid to ask, but do the bathrooms even work? I want to visit the ladies room before we watch the movie.”
“I had the plumbers here the other day. The sinks, toilets, everything works. And while you’re gone, I’ll get the movie started. I have to go up to the projection room and set the reel.”
Darlene followed him out of the theater and went down the hall. Kit went upstairs to the projection room and set up the first reel. He flipped the projector on and the silver screen lit up.
“This is going to be the perfect evening,” Kit said, peering out into the theater from the little window in the booth.
He turned to walk out, and there it was. Pinned to the back of the door. Staring back at him. Mocking him. Taunting him. It was a lonesome black rose, wilted and decaying.
Kit rushed downstairs. He checked every theater. He checked the bathrooms and the lobby. But Darlene was gone.
“Darlene” Kit wailed at the top of his lungs. “If this is a joke, it’s time to end it. Come on out.”
Kit decided to peek behind the concession stand to see if she was hiding. And that’s when he noticed the backdoor was ajar. He hopped over the concession stand and ran into the back alley.
He looked down and his eyes barely made out the thin trail of blood. He followed it to the end of the alley, where Kit made a gut-wrenching discovery. Darlene’s Saint Christopher medallion. The chain had been snapped. And the medallion glistened in the moonlight as it sat abandoned on the cold, hard pavement.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
THE UPPER CLASS
By Daniel Skye
The self-proclaimed “Prince of Westlake” was being pulled over for the third time in one week.
First, it was a traffic violation. Then, the cops pulled him over for a tiny crack in his windshield. The crack was on the passenger side and did not obscure his vision of the road, but the cops didn’t care. They were looking for any excuse to give him a ticket.
And now he was being stopped for driving in the rain without his headlights on. It was daylight and the rain wasn’t heavy; more of a light drizzle. But again, the cops would take any excuse they could get.
This sort of thing happens when you brag to the papers that you’re, “Above the law.”
Chaz Larkin’s navy blue Maserati was parked on the shoulder of Route 27. He sat with his window rolled down and his hands wrapped around the steering wheel, waiting for the officer to approach.
The officer was taking his time, making Chaz wait, making him sweat. He was starting to lose his patience, but he wasn’t going to let it break his calm, cool façade. He wouldn’t give the cops that satisfaction.
Chaz glared at the flashing lights in his rearview mirror and watched as not one, but two officers, exited the patrol car and approached his vehicle.
The first officer–a short but stocky man in his late-thirties with a crewcut–requested his license and registration. Though it sounded more like a demand than a request. Chaz nodded and complied, slowly producing his license and registration. The officer took it and handed it off to his partner–tall, lanky fella–who walked back to the patrol car to run Chaz’s license.
Everyone in town knew who Chaz was, including the police. But this process was merely a formality. They had to make it look like they were doing their jobs, as opposed to the truth. They were clearly targeting Chaz over a petty grudge. Chaz had made them look bad in his interview, and they were out to prove every citizen of Westlake wrong.
The first officer stood by Chaz’s window, waiting for his partner to return. Chaz could see his reflection in the officer’s sunglasses and he could see he was starting to sweat a bit.
Chaz had tossed the joint as soon as the cops started tailing him. They hadn’t seen him do it, but Chaz was worried the officer would smell it on him if he got close enough.
Chaz’s weakness was his vanity, hence the Maserati. He only wore designer clothes like Gucci and Armani and Calvin Klein. And when it came to cologne, his motto was, “There’s no such thing as too much.” His house, his clothes, even his car, reeked like a Drakkar Noir factory.
But as strong as his choice of cologne was, it wasn’t powerful enough to mask the lingering scent of marijuana. As soon as the second officer returned with his license, registration, and a citation for driving without his headlights on, he picked up on the smell and whispered something to his partner.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to exit the vehicle,” the first officer said with a firm, sharp tone.
“What for?” Chaz asked, trying to remain polite. He had to choose every word carefully. He was fighting the urge to blurt out, I make more money in a month than you do in a year! How does it feel to know my hard work pays your annual salary?
“We have reason to believe you’re driving under the influence. Please step out of the vehicle. And don’t make me ask again.”
Chaz opened the door, stepped out slowly. The tall, lanky officer grabbed him by the wrist and led him away from his car like he was leading a child across the street.
Chaz stood embarrassed on the side of the road with his hands in his pockets as the first officer tossed his car. He looked disappointed when he found nothing, not even an empty baggie. But the obvious smell, combined with Chaz’s glassy red eyes, was enough to take him in on suspicion alone.
The tall, lanky officer caught a whiff of Chaz's cologne while he was standing beside him. “You smell like a French whorehouse with that perfume.”
“Actually, it’s cologne,” he muttered. “Drakkar Noir.”
“I think you should double-check the bottle,” the officer said, cracking himself up. The first officer didn’t find the situation nearly as amusing as his partner.
“I could haul your ass in right now and charge you with driving under the influence,” the first officer told him. “You’re lucky your father is who he is. If it wasn’t for him, you’d be in handcuffs right now. I want you to drive straight home. You shouldn’t even be on the road right now.”
“Yes, sir,” Chaz nodded, ashamed.
* * *
But Chaz didn’t go straight home. He was already thirty minutes late for work. He may have strutted around like he owned the place, but he didn’t call the shots around the office. Even though his name was on the building, Andrew Larkin, Chaz’s father, ran Larkin Real Estate.
And he was waiting to speak with Chaz as soon as he arrived. Chaz stepped quietly into his father’s office. He was sitting behind his polished oak desk that seemed to glow under the fluorescent ceiling lights. He was on the phone, as he usually was at this time of day.
Chaz stood in the threshold of the door with his arms folded over his chest. His father ended the call after a minute and waved for his son to come in.
Chaz walked over to his desk and Andrew stood up, sniffed the air.
“It smells like a French whorehouse in here,” was the first thing he said.
“It’s my cologne.”
“You sure you’re wearing cologne?” he asked. Chaz sighed, rolled his eyes. His arms were still folded over his chest.
“You’re late, by the way,” Andrew pointed out.
“The cops pulled me over again,” Chaz moaned.
“Again? Three times in one week? That must be a record. Well, give me the ticket and I’ll take care of it.”
“That’s not the point. The point is the cops are intentionally targeting me. It’s blatant harassment.”
“Let’s face it, your car has a bullseye painted on it. And that bullseye is named Chaz Larkin. I got to know, what were you thinking during that interview? Were you thinking at all? Was that the problem? You made me look bad and you made this office look bad. But you’re going to start making it up to me today.”
“That’s why I’m here, dad. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to redeem myself. You know me. I’m your man. I’m the goose that laid the golden egg. I can sell any house in Westlake.”
“So prove it. Bill Hawkins is looking to sell his estate. All you have to do is convince him that you’re the man for the job.” The interview had done tremendous damage to Chaz’s reputation. Convincing Bill Hawkins was going to take every ounce of charisma Chaz possessed.
“The Bill Hawkins?” He asked.
“Do you know of any other Bill Hawkins residing in Westlake?” Andrew replied. “Look, his estate is twenty-seven acres. I don’t think I need to tell you how valuable that property can be. So don’t screw it up. I’m counting on you.”
“I won’t let you down,” Chaz assured him.
“And do me one favor…”
“Try not to get pulled over on the way.”
* * *
Chaz hadn’t made too many friends in Westlake since the interview had been published.
“I’m the Prince of Westlake,” Chaz had boasted during an interview with the Daily Buzz. “I’m the king of the real estate business. I’m the goose that laid the golden egg. I make more money in a month than most people do in a year.”
He went on to brazenly state that he was, “Above the law.”
“The cops don’t hassle me. I’m untouchable. I do what I want, when I want.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, he went on to say, “Everyone in town knows me because I’ve either sold them a house or slept with their daughter.” And that one careless remark pretty much cemented his douchebag status among the community.
By now, everyone in Westlake had read the interview. Chaz knew it would all blow over when they found something better to gossip about. But Westlake was a relatively small town. People didn’t just forget about things overnight.
And now, with his reputation hanging on by a frayed thread, he had pull off the act of a lifetime. Bill Hawkins had an excellent reputation. He was the author of more than twenty novels, mostly horror and science fiction. Not exactly Chaz’s cup of tea. But more than half his books had reached the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. And this intimidating fact only added to Chaz’s mounting anxiety.
His Maserati pulled up to the wrought iron gates of Hawkins’ estate. There were cameras outside the gate, and Hawkins must have seen him pull up because Chaz heard a buzzing noise and the electronic gates opened up.
Chaz drove up the long, narrow driveway to the front of the house. He glanced back briefly and saw the gates snap shut behind him.
Bill Hawkins was there to greet him at the door with a firm handshake and a benevolent smile. “Mr. Hawkins, first let me say what a huge fan I am of your work. I mean, Give up the Ghost was the scariest book I’ve ever read. Couldn’t sleep a wink that night.”
Chaz had actually never read the book. He just Googled it on his phone so he’d have some way to break the ice.
Hawkins chuckled. “Call me Bill, please. And do come in.”
Chaz followed Bill inside. The front door led into a vestibule-like structure with stained glass on both sides. The vestibule took them through a second door, into the massive foyer, adorned with various antiques.
“The antiques don’t come with the house, I’m afraid,” Bill told him.
“That’s quite alright. I’m sure any potential buyers would understand. If there’s one thing people understand, it’s sentimental value.”
Bill led him down the hall, which opened up into two separate living rooms on the left and right. Though Bill had turned the room on the left into more of a studio for his writing.
“So you’re thinking about leaving Westlake?” Chaz inquired.
“I was thinking about a change of scenery. But to be honest, I’m having second thoughts.”
Oh no, Chaz thought. Don’t let him slip through your fingers. You can’t let the old man down. He’s counting on you.
“I mean, it is a wonderful place,” Chaz said in that sycophantic tone he was famous for. “It’s quiet and peaceful and the area is very safe. But now is the perfect time to sell. The market has never been better. And with twenty-seven acres of land, I bet I could find a buyer in a couple of weeks.”
“Is that you talking, or the sales commission?” Bill chuckled and Chaz nervously chuckled along with him.
“What can I say?” Chaz shrugged. “I’m a businessman. It’s what I do. I’m sure a man of your stature can appreciate that.”
“Oh, but I do. That’s precisely why you’ve been summoned here, my boy.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand.”
“Of course you don’t. And I know what you’re thinking. If you don’t sell this place, your father will be let down. Trust me, he’ll understand. What I’m about to show you is more important than money.”
“What is it you want to show me?” he asked, clearly puzzled. He felt like this was all a big joke he clearly wasn’t in on. He was just waiting for the punchline.
* * *
The truth waited for Chaz on the second floor, in Hawkins’ parlor. The room had a high ceiling, and tall windows covered up with red velvet curtains. The floor had been stripped of its carpeting and replaced with a long plastic tarp.
There was a circle of chairs with two empty seats reserved for Bill and Chaz. The other seats had already been claimed by Doris and Martin Duvall, Brent James, Terry and Nicholas Vaughn, and Andrew Larkin.
“Dad?” Chaz said, bemused. “I just saw you at the office half an hour ago.”
“I know. I had to race around town to beat you here. Sit down, son. We need to talk to you.”
Chaz took his seat beside Bill and looked around the room, raising one eyebrow in a quizzical fashion.
“What do you see, son?”
“People,” he mumbled, not quite sure how else to answer the question.
“Not just any people. We are the elite. The upper class. We’re the ones that run this town. We’ve got more money than those peasants out there could ever dream of having. We weren’t sure if you were truly ready to become one of us, until we read the interview. You’re brash and arrogant. You walk around like you've got the world in the palm of your hand. Like you're superior. You have no respect for the lower class, no respect for the common man. And that makes you ready to see the truth.”
“Bring her in!” Hawkins shouted, so loud and so sudden he almost jolted Chaz out of his seat.
A short and stocky man entered the room. It took Chaz a moment to recognize him without his uniform and sunglasses. But the crewcut give him away.
The officer was not alone. The young woman kicked and screamed as the officer dragged her along by the back of her hair and pulled her into the circle.
“Thank you, officer,” Bill said. “That will be all. Your envelope is waiting for you downstairs.”
Chaz turned his attention to the young woman, mid-twenties with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue eyes that darted around the room with fright and bewilderment.
He took one look at her thrift store clothing and cheap rubber armbands, and he could tell she was not who his father considered to be part of the elite.
“I’m sorry you had to find out this way, son,” Andrew said. “But better soon than later. This is how the elite survive. The rich feed on the poor.”
They all rose from their seats and formed a tight circle around the girl. Quiet whimpers turned to high-pitched screams as the girl saw the transformation in their eyes. When they blinked, they did not blink horizontally, up and down. They blinked sideways, back and forth.
Their heads tilted back, pointed up at the high ceiling. Their mouths stretched wide open, wider than humanly possible. And inside their mouths, a long, narrow appendage, similar to the proboscis of an insect. Chaz clasped one hand over his own mouth to stifle a scream.
The proboscis slid from their mouths, revealing a mouth of its own, lined with sharp, razor-like teeth. These new, strange, elongated appendages whipped through the air. With no eyes, they seemed to move on instinct. Unless his father and others had complete control of these appendages. He didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.
The girl’s screams echoed through the parlor. He looked down and saw that these snake-like appendages had descended on her, and the mouths had begun to feast.
This can’t be happening, Chaz thought. Brent James is a freaking movie star. The guy has been on the cover of every magazine, worked alongside some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Doris and Martin Duvall are filthy rich. They own half the stores in town. And Terry and Nicholas Vaughn run the biggest law firm on Long Island.
“It’s okay, son,” Andrew broke away from the circle to speak directly to him. “The girl is a drifter. She has no money. No family. No one to grieve her loss. I told you, this is how we survive. The rich feed off the poor. Now please, join us.”
“What are you?” He asked, his voice cracking, hands trembling. “Are you aliens? Mutants?”
“We are a new phase in evolution. A scientific anomaly. But we are not human. We are far superior. That’s what makes us the upper class. It’s not just about money. This is what separates us from the rest. This is what makes us the elite.”
“I won’t be like you!” Chaz said vehemently. “I can’t be like you!”
“I’m afraid you already are. You’re my son, Chaz. You were born just like me. Just like the rest of us. Now join us.”
Their mouths–or rather, the mouths within their mouths–had turned the girl into a buffet. The girl was barely alive, gurgling as she choked on a mouthful of her own blood, taking sharp, jagged breaths as she struggled to take in the air.
“Finish her off,” the others encouraged him.
“Yes, finish her off,” Andrew Larkin repeated. “Join us, or join the lower class. And if you choose the latter…well, I don’t have to tell you what that means.”
When he blinked, he felt it for the first time; his eyelids moving side to side. It made his entire body shudder. But it didn’t feel like a shudder. It felt like a rush, a surge of adrenaline and endorphins.
A sharp pang formed in his gut; wrenching, stabbing, twisting like a knife. Something was moving, shifting around inside his stomach.
The proboscis rose up like a snake, shooting up from his throat and tasting the air around it. It descended upon the girl, ripping into her throat, finishing the job.
The proboscis retracted and traveled down his throat, back into the pit of his stomach. He turned to his father, who gave him a nod of approval.
Chaz had redeemed himself in the eyes of his father. But at what price? This was not a financial matter. This was not a price you could put a number on. The price he paid was his humanity. He was now part of the elite. He was part of the upper class, forever.
“Welcome to the club,” Bill Hawkins said, putting one arm around Chaz’s shoulder. “This is the way the world works. The rich get richer, and the poor get deader.”