Dirty Paper Machines

July 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM

This is the final entry in Stephan D. Harris’ Harlequin series.

“Sometimes I wonder; what exactly is a monster? Is it really something to be feared, or is it something to be respected? Is that frightening, hideous thing that stalks your nightmares trying to tell you something, something important? Maybe the monster isn’t there to scare you at all. Have you ever wondered about this? Have you ever wondered if the monsters that hide under your bed are actually just there to protect you? To protect you from something so much worse?”


–          The Wilcox Journal, 1989



At this moment, at this serene and terrible moment in the outer edge of the Union Street Cemetery, I’m wondering whether or not my thoughts are truly my own, or if they have been constructed by artificial means. By artificial I mean to say externally, unwillingly, or unconsciously; the kind of definition one should consider at the tail end of a mushroom trip just as things start to seem normal again, but not quite. The drug analogy is not what I had in mind, but who knows what I have in mind. Maybe it wants me rattle away like this, maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know.


What I do know is that with each thrust of the shovel, a little part of the Earth has been displaced. I do this while my right hand throbs in pain under the bandages. I don’t even care. After enough soil has been removed, the hole will be ready for the lye. I brought a few bags with me for just this reason. The idea is that even an isolated place like Union Street won’t be able to guarantee safety, so the hole needs to be filled with something that will burn hot enough to get the job done the next time it rains. I can already see the storm blotting out the horizon. Attention is a dangerous thing, this fact I know well. Nobody knows I’m here. The distant thunderclaps remind me. There’s another fresh grave next to the one I’ve already started. I made that one too, only a few days ago. By now the body of Reverend Proust has disintegrated into a carrion wad of filth, a sickening blob of putrefied mucus that not even maggots would find tasteful.


“And you don’t even know why he deserved it, do you?”


I stop digging for a smoke. The thing about habits, they always become the strongest when you know you’re going to quit. The time’s as good as any for a moment of self-reflection though, may as well use it.


Billie left yesterday on her motorcycle, to where I don’t know or don’t want to. She left with a duffle bag full of cloths and food, her bass strapped to her back and a gun or two strapped somewhere else. There were no goodbyes; two people who know each other well enough don’t need words or petty sentiments. Just a silent exchange of nods acknowledging that things will never be okay. I’m not worried for her though, she knows how to survive the chaos. Terry’s ending is a little different. After the wedding was called off, after the smoke settled, he finally gave up holding on to this miserable town.  He sold his half of the Broken Window last week, and as soon as he gets a bank or an agency or anyone to handle the house he’ll be leaving for New Orleans. I thought it was kind of funny actually, knowing how the poor bastard doesn’t stand a chance yet still possessing enough human compassion to lie to his face. It’s hard not feel bad about it, but sometimes honesty is the cruelest option. Besides, I could be wrong. The knowledge could be fabricated.


But I digress. The outcome means nothing if the means to the ends are ignored.


By now, the story should be obvious: the Harlequin, the mortuary, the stranger and the willow. I thought I knew what I was doing, we both did. Billie and me, fighting side by side against something we barely understood. We thought we knew how it worked, and we thought it was something we could stop. It sickens me how wrong we were.


“You are always wrong.”


As far as final chapters go, the ending began were the beginning had ended. By this I mean, I may as well recall the appropriate backstories the each of us, me the dark eyed mortician and the pierce studded Billie-Joe Kimble. Oh who to pick first? Let’s go with Billie, she is and always has been the real hero of this fucked up little nightmare of a fairy tale.


Billie was born just outside of Richmond, which is known to be less of a city than it is more of the world’s largest Civil War museum. She never told me much about her childhood, mostly because it seemed irrelevant to her and also because Billie isn’t much for dwelling on the past, but what I do know is that she was named after her father, who was apparently a heavier drinker than she is, but not for a lack of effort on her part. They didn’t get along so well, which makes me suspect that he’s the reason for how Billie learned to keep fighting long after her knuckles split.


“He wanted a boy, but got me instead.” She used to say. Billie, the dainty flower, the girl next door. Short and sweet like a pulled tooth.


Billie never finished high school. When she was seventeen she dropped out in her senior year to start a band in D.C. leaving Richmond in the very same manner she left Charlottesville, no goodbyes. For three years she drifted around the streets of our capitol looking for the perfect sound to compose the soundtrack for the endless anarchy that she felt summed up her existence. A new tattoo there, another piercing here, a week goes by without eating but the next doesn’t sleep. From the way she told it, it seemed like it should have been her very own slice of paradise, but of course even chaos can become boring. What she really wanted was adventure. Obviously the dozens of post punk bands she founded or joined weren’t able to provide this for her, otherwise she might have stayed there instead of making her way back south. She skipped Richmond two years ago, parking her uninsured motorcycle outside of a dinky bar in North Carolina, and there it stayed parked for eight and a half seasons worth of restlessness. Terry gave her a job and a place to live. She met four guys who called themselves musicians, fell in love with the blues, fell in love with Terry not long after. That’s the way it was for just over a year. That’s the way it was until I showed up.


I smoke the cigarette down to the filter and toss it into the growing hole just as the wind starts to pick up. It blows my tie around to the back of my neck and I can’t help but think of it as a noose. I’m wearing the red one today. It’s my favorite.


My story is somewhat dull compared to Billie’s. I grew up in a town called Baily Meadow, a place about an hour’s drive east of Charlottesville. The house I lived in was nice, my parents, a pediatrician and a financial accountant, were also nice. The neighborhood was nice, the school system was nice. The people were nice. I graduated at the top of my class, got a full academic scholarship to the university of my choice and promptly enrolled myself into a mortuary science course at a college in Raleigh, obtaining a bachelor’s degree along with a minor study in decomposition anatomy while simultaneously working through my funeral service apprenticeship. This resulted in my current position as professional embalmer of the Burnswick Funeral Home in the lovely town of Charlottesville, NC; population 943, unincorporated. This was about a year ago by now, and really that’s what my entire life has been working towards, at least the interesting parts. I doubt that anyone would be interested in the dead raccoon that I tried to keep in my parent’s freezer when I was eight, or the dumpster fire that I started when I was fourteen. No one wants to hear about the summer I spent in the juvenile detention center for stabbing a classmate with a broken pencil or the six months I stopped speaking. Those stories are irrelevant to who I am as a person. It’s not like I was a particularly disturbed child just because of a few antisocial interests, I was just different. It’s why I’m so good at what I do. I can ignore the sort of things that would make other choke or gag. Just because I’m callous doesn’t make me some kind of monster either.


“Real monsters don’t hide under the bed.”


By now, Billie must be at least halfway to California, but I try not to think about it.


The final chapter of this little anthology began the day after the butchering of a young hitchhiker in Terry’s bathtub. The following daylight hours included several instances of what would latter amount to something over and above what Billie and I had assumed to be a known truth. From my point of view, the morning went as according to plan with the incineration of the severed limbs of the unfortunate traveler in the Burnswick crematorium furnace as a much needed disposal method of his body, because neither Billie, Terry or I were in any position to explain to the authorities as to why we felt the need to murder a vagrant with a hammer in the middle of the night. “He was possessed by alien brain monsters,” probably would raise more questions than answer. Not to mention that Billie and I were also responsible for burning a farmhouse to the ground earlier in the evening. Cutting the body into pieces at the joints and draining it of blood for easier transportation to a crematorium was by far the best option for the three of us. It helped that my employer had one of those En-V 127 Heat Crushers that does a full incineration in under ninety minutes with a built in pulverizer to take care of the hardened calcium deposits. I had the whole thing done and gone by the time anyone else showed up for work, no one even asked why I was already there in the first place. A funeral home requires constant cleaning; the simple excuse of sanitation was enough to avoid suspicion.


Aside from the sleep deprivation headache, the rest of my day went along as normal as ever, with two embalming’s and eight cups of coffee. Nobody bothered me or my work until after Burnswick and Madelyn left for the day.


They left me alone to lock up shop.


Not that this was an abnormal occurrence in itself. Often I would be the last one to leave, it was just the nature of my work to keep track of how much of what supplies had been used and when more would be required, because running out of formalin halfway through a procedure would be very very bad.


No, what was out of the ordinary was the visitor who walked through the front door just as I was on my way out. Not to my own surprise, I didn’t recognize this man. Because of my long held beliefs, (or more accurately, lack thereof) not once in my entire stay in Charlottesville had I ever joined the ceremonial burial of any of my clients, or more importantly, entered the Trinity Baptist Church.


“I apologize, but we’re closed for business until tomorrow morning.” I told the man. He was wearing a black collared shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with a head full of perfectly combed salt and pepper hair. Something about him immediately caused a feeling of pure and total contempt.


“But if you’d like, I could pencil you in to meet with Mr. Burnswick first thing when we reopen tomorrow.” I continued, jingling my keys in the most apparent way possible. He stared at me for a beat too long before speaking.


“I don’t believe we’ve met.” He said through a smile. “Reverend Joseph Proust pleased to meet you.” He extended his hand toward mine. I ignored it.


“I’m Stephan D. Harris, head embalmer. Like I said, Burnswick left already and I’m on my out as well.”


“That’s a shame; I guess I’ll have to find him later. But tell me, Stephan is it? How long have you been in Charlottesville?”


“Going on a year by now.” I tried to say without letting the growing frustration show through.


“A year! My word, how is it that I’ve yet to see you in the pews on Sundays? Don’t tell me you’ve been going to that Presbyterian goliath out on the interstate. They may be big, but they won’t give you the same sense of family that I try to cultivate.” The way he spoke his words made me want to grind my teeth down to stubs, but I managed to collect myself.


“I’m not much for taking anything on faith.” I responded in the most polite manner possible. The reverend’s face lost its smile almost instantly.


“Well, that’s disappointing.” His tone was that of a disapproving parent. The kind who think they know what’s best even when they don’t, or at least that’s the way I heard it. “I believe there’s quite a bit you could gain by joining our flock. The world is full of evil, and it gets worse every day, it may be wise to seek the protection we offer. If you change your mind though, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.” Nothing he said sounded like a welcome.


I wasn’t in the mood for this nonsense, not then, not ever. I shuffled through the last two days without sleep, the night before being an exceptional case of overwhelming violence. Drained and tired, the last thing in the world I wanted to deal with was the leader of what Billie has been calling a cult. The Trinity Baptists have been aware of the same sort of phenomena that the rest of us have. Everyone has seen the lights in the sky, everyone knew about aneurism epidemic. The difference being I knew the cause, but they thought it to be a divine message proclaiming the end of days. Most importantly, I’m a sunny day asshole who just doesn’t enjoy meeting new people.


“Listen, it was nice meeting you,” I lied, “but I’ve really got to be going now.” Proust nodded his head as I led him out of building, locking the door behind us. The sun had already begun its descent towards the western sky, stretching the shadows of houses and tress across the ground like they do. I turned right, Proust walked to the left. Just before I was out of the range of ear though, I heard him call out once more over his shoulder.


“Don’t burn any bridges Mr. Harris. You never know what you’ll need to cross.” The side of my face that had had the stubble burned away from the night before began to itch. Just a little, as a reminder.


The walk home was quite, and oddly enough the ten minutes of pedestrian travel wasn’t accompanied by the sense of being followed. Lately, the creeping linger of paranoia had been a problem for myself while walking the streets of Charlottesville alone, but not this evening. In fact, I’d say it was enjoyable for the portions where I could forget about the unexpected meeting with the reverend. Until I reached my front door.


I bought a house last year. Because of the shit economy and the constant fall of property value that started when the Charlottesville Paper Mill caught fire and killed a third of the town’s income, I was able to get a place of my own for a ridiculously low price. I filled it with thrift store furniture and an ever growing collection of books until it eventually resembled the inner dwellings of a reclusive psychopath. I never cleaned the place; medical books lay open and scattered across the floors, empty mason jars and animal bones sat indefinitely on every table, blankets and cigarette butts a permanent fixture of the sofa. In other words, my home was the living embodiment of static entropy. One thing I would always be sure of though was that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, leave my front door unlocked.


When my key refused to make an audible click of a moving tumbler, I knew something was out of place. Stepping cautiously into the living room, I stood still a moment to listen to a faint noise of… something echoing from the bathroom. Mildly alarmed, more annoyed than anything, remembering that I kept a .357 snub nose in a drawer next to the television and so moved to retrieve it. At this point I wasn’t even surprised that something had broken into that house, it was only a matter of time before “they” caught on enough to try something. I call them the Abominations only because I don’t know what the correct terminology would be for a mutated-as-all-hell host body that smiles and giggles as it crawls across the ceiling reaching its absurdly long fingers towards your face to rip out your eyeballs or whatever. It’s what I think happens when a Harlequin worm decides that it wants take direct control of the body that it’s been hiding in, as opposed to quietly causing the victim to slowly loose its sanity. Maybe I’m right about this, maybe I’m wrong. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that I don’t know what I’m talking about.


“More than you know.”


So there I was, with a loaded single action revolver ready to blow as many holes in something’s face as fast as the trigger could be pulled. I tiptoed my way to the bathroom door, placing one hand on the door knob while the other held Stubs the Gun. Noticing the crack of light coming from beneath the door frame and another shuffling noise, I took a brief inhale, and kicked in the door to my bathroom. It screamed at me the way an animal does, it screamed and scratched and foamed at the mouth as I fired five shots into the legs and once more through the far side of its jaw, the mirror and the sink and the walls dusted with specks of red as I finished the job with a straight razor, my fingers slipping over the blood of its pathetic whimpering throat as a sharp edge ran across the eyes. So glorious, so violent, so beautiful and so vicious, the sound of skin as it peels from bone filling my ears like a thousand symphonies playing all at once over dissonant laughter. My laughter. The kind of laughter that follows the abandonment of all hope, where you laugh….


“The way you would at a sick joke.”

Except that’s not the way it happened, I’m remembering things wrong again. There were no shots fired, there was no blood or symphonies either. But there was screaming, the screaming of a startled girl.


“Check your damn voice mail for once!” Billie yelled as she spat a wad of toothpaste from her lips. “I called you like, two freaking hours ago to tell you that I’d be here.”


This turned out to be true, in fact the message Billie had left me was oddly specific about how I should avoid shooting her when I got home. “Hey Stephan,” it said, “Terry and I had a fight about that crap that happened last night and now he’s all butt hurt about it. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to crash at your place until he stops bitching about how we’re going to get ourselves killed or whatever. I’m heading over there now, don’t worry I still have a key, but call me back so I’ll know that you won’t freak out and try to shoot me or something with that snub nose I gave you, because that would suck. Kay, bye!”


“So, is it cool that I hang around here for a while?” She asked me after I had finished listening to her message. Billie had just finished taking a shower by the time I noticed the front door unlocked. She still had a wet towel wrapped around her boney little torso. Catching a glance of the hand grenade tattooed just above where her cleavage should have been, I promptly made my decision.


“Yeah you can stay.” I passed out on the sofa without taking off my suit twenty seconds later.


Waking up I became worried that I had slept through an entire workday, almost falling off the couch as the panic set in. It was dark outside; the feeling was understandable until a look at my wristwatch convinced me that it was four in the morning. An unpleasant way to awaken for sure, but at least the headaches were gone, so I decided to crack the kinks out of my neck and smoke a cigarette before the weight of the world inevitably came crashing down. This is what it feels like to be rested enough to sit quietly in the dark and listen to your own thoughts in peace; temporary.


The first drifts of the cognitive sea lead to Proust so I tried to sail the other way. Some efforts are futile however, and so acceptance must be so. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the good reverend had gotten the drop on me somehow. I mean, I had lived in Charlottesville for going on about a year, and not once had he ever so much as noticed me, or I him. Part of me thought his was strange. No, the word is improbable. It was improbable that for a year I had been working in an industry that is almost codependent with that of the church, and so one would assume that Proust and I would have met at an earlier time. Funerals are primarily of a religious concern are they not?  Yes it is true that I am basically an atheist, an atheist that considers the very concept of faith to be a blasphemy against the human condition to search for meaning in an inherently meaningless universe, and so of course I would have done everything within my power to avoid the Trinity Baptists, but just by pure chance we should have been made aware of each other sometime before. Why yesterday of all days? Yesterday at a time when I was the only possible person he could have talked to at the funeral home, the very day after Billie and I had seen the lights of the Trinity Baptist Church at two in the morning, just before we killed those Abominations at the farmhouse?


I knew that he knew something but I didn’t know what he knew. Had I figured out what it was earlier, I would have murdered him right there in the Burnswick lobby.


Sitting in the dark alone with my thoughts started to become tiresome, so I stood up to crack my back before shuffling my disheveled ass to the bedroom. I wanted to take a look at a few things that I’d been sleeping on. Billie was lying face down on the floor of my room surrounded by empty bottles of what used to be my beer stash, I assumed that she must have found some way to make her own fun without my help. Tiptoeing around her, I began searching through a desk where I’d been keeping important tidbits of information, or at least the things that seemed even remotely relevant. Things like photocopies of old newspaper articles about the paper mill fire, notes about who had died around the Charlottesville area from unexplained brain aneurisms, the video of the first autopsy (which I had yet to mail out to anyone who might have found it useful, I hadn’t even considered doing so until just before I decided to end everything at the Union Street Cemetery.) Nothing seemed to connect. If I organized the notes into any sort of coherent narratives, it still looked like a game of connect the dots made by a low functioning mental patient. The paper mill was central to this madness, but the how was the real question. What did a twenty odd year old industrial accident have to do with parasitic brain worms? Where did Proust fit in, if at all?


“They heard the noises, they all knew what it meant. Every. Last. One.”


It didn’t really come from anywhere, or maybe it was everywhere. Maybe it was something I had forgotten about intentionally because the thought itself carried with it a sense of ominous dread so overwhelming that feigning ignorance seemed a better alternative.


Suddenly it seemed very important to put on a pot of coffee. And to take a shower. And to iron my suit, to dump out the ashtrays and cancel all my magazine subscriptions. Cleaning the toilet. All the little things that I did every day, the things I never wanted to do or had been putting off, it all seemed so important. Everything but the dishes but anything to keep me from thinking about what I’d have to do once Billie finished sleeping off her hangover. My memory gets a little hazy around this part, but the last thing I did before we left was phone in to Mr. Burnswick. I told him that I’d need to take a personal day.


“Fade to black.”


“I don’t like this.” Billie said. “I mean I truly, sincerely, genuinely do not like this at all.” Billie rarely displayed any emotion without even the faintest sense of bravado. It was a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, every bird was chirping, every woodland creature in the land frolicked without a care in the world and yet the mere sight of the crumbling ruins of the old paper mill was enough to set off her alarms. What was worse was that I agreed, and with good reason. The stigma that had been put on that place had been enough to keep the crazy homeless people and drunken teenagers away for two decades.


“Yeah, well, we both knew it was inevitable.” I lit a new cigarette with the cherry of the old one while I said this. I think I might have even chuckled a little to myself. It was funny because neither of us had batted an eyelash at the idea of trudging through Lucid Marsh two and a half months ago to look for a cannibal man who lost his mind after being sucked under the water by a man sized worm. That was a perfectly normal occurrence compared to this.


“Probably, but I still don’t see what this has to do with Reverend Proust.” Billie mentioned as she checked her backpack for the third time in ten minutes, as if not kept under a watchful eye the shit load of ammunition would vanish without warning. She had packed it with nearly a dozen or so fully loaded magazines of whatever caliber her illegal-ass machine gun needed in order to explode the air into a hell storm of bullets. Probably an HK417 or 416, I can never tell the difference. As usual she duct taped a flashlight to the barrel and threw in a bunch of painted bunny rabbits to pretty it up. I chose to be a bit more conservative, bringing only the snub nose, a speed loader and a couple of road flares.


We started walking through the tall grass that had sprouted out of what used to be a parking lot before I collected my words.


“Proust knows what we did the other night.” I answered. “He knows about the farm house burning to the ground, and he knows it was us.” Billie looked at me with that type of face confused people make. I pulled a business card from my pocket and waved in front of her eyes. “I used one of these to start the fire. I’m guessing enough was left legible to put two and two together.”


Billie shrugged. “I guess it’s plausible, and I guess you’re right about the mill. We’ve put it off long enough already. Best learn what we can before the lynch mob comes to rape you.” I stopped a beat to try and think of a way to respond to that, but I gave it up in favor of focusing my attention on the goliath whose shadow we stood beneath… the Charlottesville Paper Mill. Fully integrated, constructed in 1958, turned inferno in 1989, killing three hundred workers in under ten minutes, no indication as to what caused the initial fire. Some say arson, others say malfunction, but anyone who survived remembers the cackling laughter heard throughout the cutting line, just before it all went to shit. For what, nearly thirty years now, the remains have sat there, enduring the harsh North Carolina seasons, sitting there, waiting, like a sleeping colossus: massive, angry, and most of all, patient. As Billie and I approached the outer wall, just past a rusted barb wire fence, the tune to “Chop the Willow” started to go through my head. It seemed fitting.


“The clockwork points to midnight.”


“The sounds of metal grinding against metal, the echo of a close yet distant thing feeling its way through its own self-imposed prison, much as the absence of motion between the sway of a pendulum draws attention to the tension between opposites. Time is not relative; it is simply the most probable observable outcome, subjective and arbitrary, never any choice in the matter to begin with but open to all interpretations. The context becomes irrelevant, and we call them wrong things for a reason.”


–          The Wilcox Journal, 1989


The main doors were chained shut, probably had been since the fire. Yellow hazard tape tattered around in the wind like it stopped giving a shit years ago. The loader doors were too heavy to lift by hand, another problem. Billie had found a window a few feet above a concrete staircase, smashed in the glass with the butt of her gun while I threw a rubber washer mate over the remaining shards. A push and a pull later, we were in. The mill was surprisingly well lit, actually not surprising at all. A good chunk of the roof had caved in above the pressing line, little rays of sunlight peppering everything. “Where should we start?” Billie asked. I looked around for some sign of direction. “I dunno,” I said back, “Let’s just, look around.”


We did, finding ourselves following a hallway into what was probably the accounting office; a few burnt desks, filing cabinets lying on the ground spilling their innards about. The ash covering the melted carpet reminded me of a woman I had prepared for burial back in Raleigh. She had died in a car collision, but not on impact. Her gas tank exploded, spraying liquid fire into the drivers’ seat while the side door had been pinned closed by another car. It was a closed casket. I didn’t bring this up to Billie, who had found an intact staircase. “Down?” I asked her as she flicked her flashlight to life. “May as well.” She replied.


I apologize for what follows.


I’m not a scientist. I don’t know anything about astrophysics or quantum entanglement. I couldn’t describe how phase velocity works if my life depended on it, Planck’s constant might as well be written in Egyptian hieroglyphs for all the good that it would do me.

Particle decay is confusing, and the uncertainty principle strikes me as it sounds. One thing that I do know however, is that what constitutes reality is entirely dependent on the limitations of one’s own sensory organs, the organs in charge of compiling all external stimuli into a coherent perspective. Most people forget about this, myself included. It’s hard to convince your own brain that it sucks using nothing but your own brain. Sometimes though, a certain external force is so otherworldly, so strange and uncompromising that it forces your brain to admit some humility.


“Why don’t you try it?”


I’m having some trouble remembering the order of events that took place within the basement of that mill. Billie would later have the same problem, so part of me suspects that whatever happened in that mill, whatever it was that broke open the ether to where the harlequins came from was still in effect. I’ve already considered every possibility for this, everything from wormholes, to dark energy expansion, to psychotropic frequencies. Any option is valid, even if I can’t explain it. The only concrete memories are the ones where Billie and I climbed through that broken window, and the one where we leaped out in panic. What happened in between is variable. I know this, because even without a consistent rate of time, I remember three important scenes. Interestingly enough though, Billie told me later that some of what happened didn’t, and some of what didn’t did. I both believe and disbelieve her claims because of two important facts. First of all, she says that we never found Ryan Wilcox’s journal, despite it being held in my hands while she told me this. The second falsehood was when Billie told me that she saw me die. I thought that one was pretty funny.


Because I saw the same thing happen to her.


The Wilcox Journal: I found it in a janitor’s closet that was next to a pile of paper rolls that had rotted themselves back into wood. Billie stood at the precipice of the closet to keep watch while I searched the shelves that once held cleaning supplies. It was one of those leather bound journals made to look like a real book. The fact that it was in decent condition was what drew my attention. Everything else in that mill was either burnt beyond recognition or passively falling apart, so no doubt a healthy looking book would be an object of interest. The first page told me that it belonged to Ryan Wilcox, the previous embalmer of the Burnswick Funeral Home, whose wife had been the floor manager of the Charlottesville Paper Mill. She died in the fire, and Ryan being an embalmer was the one responsible for her remains. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that his private thoughts had returned to the place of his wife’s death, especially when it was Ryan who first discovered the Harlequins, noted their number, and left enough clues for me to track the source back to that place.


“What does it say?” Billie asked. “Let me read it and I’ll tell you.” I said back to her, flipping through the first couple of pages. Eventually I got to a place where all the words had been written in red ink. They read as such:


“They come from a place outside of time, beyond space, far separated from what reason may describe. There’s something wrong with this mill, it changes itself as it needs to, shifting between possibilities as they come and go. It holds onto everything indiscriminately, I can see this place as it was the day before the fire, and decades after. I can see myself wandering the dirty paper machines as they show their faces. I can see the men and women with their candles chanting in their prayer circle around my lifeless corpse. I can even see my successor reading these pages in a closet that I had never set foot in. To him and his companion, I say only this: Do not turn your back to the comedian.”


“What the fuck is happening here?” Billie asked rhetorically when I finished reading the passage. I didn’t have time to respond with anything other than an open jaw, cut off mid word because it was then that I saw it, the air shimmering around the tangled mass of flailing limbs. It had eyes, more eyes than I could count, each and every one of them filled with a hatred that went far beyond sanity, far beyond even the smallest amount of compassion for human life and decency. Something slithered around Billie’s waist, ensnaring her before she could turn to face the monster. I doubt bullets would be able to do a damn thing to help, I doubt anything could have done or even thought to have done would have made even the slightest difference for her sake. Billie couldn’t find the wiggle room needed to break free, not before it started to drag her to… somewhere. I couldn’t reach her in time, even as I chased after it for as long as I could, following after her one outstretched hand, following after the sounds of her screaming. It made no difference. The bloodstains trailed off to nothing.


The Escape: We didn’t know what we were running from. We heard the noise, and we ran from it instinctually, maybe the same way that birds flutter away from an earthquake despite being the best suited to handle the catastrophe in the first place. And why shouldn’t we be? I’ve spent my entire adult life doing a job that would make most faint into a pool of their own vomit. I am no stranger to indifference, but the soft grinding noise faintly heard over the rusting debris made our skin crawl. Billie ascended the stairwell two steps at a time, me following after regretting that I was going to die sober.


“This way, just past the office.” Billie called over her shoulder. Something stopped her once she passed the first set of crapsack cubicles. “Shh.” She turned to me, placing one finger across her lips. Billie crouched under a desk littered with scraps of paper, motioning for me to join her. Instead, I pulled the snub nose from my jacket and cautiously peeked over the edge of the composite board to scan the rest of the office. I didn’t like what I saw.


They had followed us. From the distance and lack of light they appeared to be elongated humanoid shadows, tall and lanky things that shuffled back and forth murmuring to themselves, arms bent like mantis in perpetual prayer. Everything about them seemed wrong, unnatural in both method and manner. Billie grabbed my tie to drag me back down to her level. “What the fuck are you doing?” She asked me in an agitated whisper.


“Looking for a way out,” I said back, pulling a road flare from my belt loop. “Considering the options, how would you feel about making our own?” The hollow grinding noise returned to the background, and Billie’s concerned expression shifted into the standard mania that I had come to know and love; a hatful grin with the eyes of a slap-happy axe murderer, despite the fear inducing infrasound’s echoing from an unknown source. “If I die here,” She said back, “I want you to give me a Viking funeral.”




Billie went left, sprinting as fast as she could into a roundhouse kick to the chest of one of the creeps. I went right, popping the flare, placing a shot from the revolver right into one of their heads, a red mist exploding out the back of its skull. The screams that followed were barely audible over the rapid fire of Billie’s murder machine, but their faces were made perfectly clear by the orange glow of the flare that I had thrown into the mix. One crashed through a flimsy wall with its arms outstretched screaming and biting towards my face, but Billie caught it in the leg with a spray of bullets giving me the perfect opportunity to stomp my heel against its jaw. The ordeal went along those lines for who knows how long. The vicious scratching and flailing of the abominations, the vicious cracking of bones when Billie ran out of ammunition and resorted to her fists and boots, and the absurd capacity for violence at my own hands when Billie tossed me a fire axe to help her dismember the endless ocean of chucklefucks. At one point I couldn’t even tell where the psychotic laughter was coming from, it could have been Billie or the things or even myself. It was definitely my laughter when I caught one scampering across the ceiling, wrestling it down to pry open its mouth with my bare hands, filling its throat with the fire of another flare. It was just around the point where Billie had just finished bashing the everlasting shit out of one with a typewriter when we finally decide to call it quits and run back to the exit, the entire time abominations phasing in and out of our peripherals. The grinding noise had grown to a deafening level by the time we climber through the window. Interesting enough to note that the light seemed blinding while in the mill, but quickly became tolerable once we stepped back into the real world, which probably had something to with the fact that it was the middle of the night.


“How long were we in there?” Billie asked me between heavy breaths as we ran back to my car. I looked down at my watch, bewildered at the fact that hands said it had only been about hour. Just as I was trying to piece together a theory I collapsed to the ground clutching the sides of my head. A brain splitting headache had taken precedence over thoughts, the feeling that someone had taken a power drill to the back of my brainstem turned on high. As my vision started to blur, the last thing I remembered was Billie mouthing words to me, shaking my shoulders in futility.


“In a world of infinite possibilities, the only reality you can conceive is a composite of probable outcomes. And some are more probable than others.”


Infinite Causality: Due to the powers that be, the memory of our escape was still fresh in my mind before it had even taken place, but for whatever reason it didn’t seem to bother me as Billie and I walked down the black charred concrete hallway, following the pipes that ran across the ceiling to the sub-basement where we would be able to find the central dehumidifier, which according to all my research was where the initial fire had started the chain reaction of chemical fires that had spread to the rolling line. Machines exploded, people died, and something wrong remained long after.


“Wait,” Billie said stopping to face me. “Stephan, how are you still alive?” Whatever temporal issue plagued me had apparently caught up with Billie. “I saw those cultists slit your throat in front of the portal, like, ten minutes ago.”  I thought back to the massive worm that had dragged Billie off into the darkness, and suddenly the thought of my own death barely fazed me at all. Still though, Billie seemed genuinely freaked out, so I searched through my rudimentary knowledge of theoretical physics for a satisfactory answer.


“Are you aware of the quantum immortality theory?” I asked her, knowing well enough that she did not, confirmed by the puzzled look on her face. I continued to speak regardless. “Well, to sum it up without having to go into detail about quark spins, it simply states that there are an infinite number of possible universes, but you can only be aware of the ones where you’re not dead.” I felt mildly embarrassed for not really knowing what I was talking about, but Billie accepted it anyway because well, what else could she do?


“That’s really fucking confusing Stephan, but whatever, I guess I’ll buy it, and I guess it sort of explains that portal thing that opened up earlier. It was like some weird green lightening hole with all this tentacle shit squiggling through.” Billie paused for a moment. “Um, Reverend Proust was there. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I think I owe you an apology. I guess he was involved in all this after all.”


“While the alternate version of myself was having his ass murdered, did Proust and his little groupies, you know, say anything important?”


“Something about coming into contact with angels,” Billie said to me. “They’re delusional, and they weren’t angels. Not even close.” I noticed that Billie was holding a shotgun, and thought about what a delusion really was but said nothing.


We moved down the turns of the hallway in a rush because the grinding noise had started to pick up from behind. Eventually we reached a door that maybe once been labeled but had been burnt to illiteracy long ago. The doorknob was partially melted, so Billie had to kick it open like she was mad at it. Her flashlight illuminated the remains of the humidifier. Except they weren’t the remains, it was as one would expect it to be if nothing wrong had ever occurred in the first place. A second later, Billie’s light became obsolete next to the fully functional florescent bulbs that glowed and flickered against the clean cinderblock walls decorated with O.S.H.A regulation posters and coat hooks holding onto yellow hard hats. The humidifier seemed to be doing its job of pulling moist air from the ventilation ducts to be dried and recirculated back into the rest of the mill. Everything seemed to be very right and oh so very, very wrong. My ears popped for no apparent reason.


“Hey Stephan,” Billie said, turning to face me with a nose leaking blood. Her voice seemed off, so did her eyes. They weren’t dead, but more or less what I would normally call numb, distant somehow.




“Your nose is bleeding Stephan.” I pressed a finger up against a nostril, seeing the red pulled away with my own eyes. I didn’t know what to say, but someone else’s words filled in the moment of silence.


“It’s nice to see you again Mr. Harris.” Said an unwelcomingly familiar voice, coming back from the entrance to the sub-basement hallway. Billie and I barely had to turn to see that the voice belonged to the good Reverend Joseph Proust, his face holding a smug look of contempt and satisfaction. His hands were holding something else. Billie raised her shotgun.


“Where in the fuck did you get that?” My voice made it perfectly clear how completely pissed I was. Proust rubbed one of his palms against the perspiring glass, right across the unmistakably printed letters that spelled out “Harlequin No.7.”


“Oh, This?” He said back through a chuckle. “I’ve had this thing for years. True, it would disappear every now and then to fulfill its duty, but it would always return to the one who knew the true plan.” A tendril whipped itself across the inside of the jar, the florescent lighting dimmed and flickered just as they had in the mortuary. Proust looked down at the jar with a slight smile crawling across his lips. “Some fools would like you to believe that our world began with a big bang, but we all know that something cannot come from nothing. Unless of course, this something were eternal.”


“The cosmos is not how it seems.”


The air around the Harlequin was beginning to shift and shimmer with a chartreuse glow spreading across the room. From a nearby intercom, a static voice called out from somewhere higher in the mill.


(Jenna Wilcox to loader four; Jenna Wilcox to loader four.)


Billie gave her shotgun a forceful pump. “I think you might want to put that thing down, like, right the fuck now.”


“It would be my pleasure.” He said, looking not to Billie but right into my eyes alone. “Ashes to ashes Mr. Harris, ashes to ashes.”


I leaped to the ground with both arms ahead trying to catch the falling jar just as Billie fired a round into the good Reverends sternum. He fell with a death rattle caught in his throat, a shotgun shell fell still smoking from the ballistic explosion, I fell with a kick of dust in my face, and the Harlequin No.7, for the second time in rational memory, shattered as it hit the cold concrete floor of the Charlottesville Paper Mill, in the sub-basement ventilation room where the dehumidifier had caught fire by alleged dust particles suspended in the air. Several bolts of chartreuse lightning splintered off into every possible direction, coupled with that all too familiar, unearthly laughter.


If it was a joke, it must have been on us the whole time.


“It’s a funny thing when you regret, the things that haven’t happened yet.”


“I don’t want to wake up from this nightmare, because whatever’s out there must be, no, has to be worse than anything I could scarcely imagine. I’m so sorry Jenna, I couldn’t stop it from burrowing its way into your mind, into your life, into everything you know as yourself. No one wants to die, to undergo putrefaction, to be devoured by carnivorous microbes and processed into methane and sulfur dioxide. Nobody wants that, but at least it’s a natural end, the same thing everyone has to go through eventually. The thing that happened to you, what I let happen, that could have been avoided.  I’m so sorry, so sorry. I don’t know where they come from, or what they want, but one thing these joyless harlequins have taught me is that sanity is a fragile thing, and that there was never anything to be done in the first place. Goodbye Jenna, I will always love you… unless they take that away too.”


–          The Wilcox Journal, 1989


I woke up in the passenger seat of my charger, my head half tilted out of the window in the way of a stiff North Carolinian breeze. The stars were bright, maybe they had always been bright and this was the first time I noticed. It didn’t matter, what mattered was that Billie and I had made it out alive, or at least alive enough to be aware of it. She was driving in a sensible way, a highly uncharacteristic example of her piloting skills, but still, I knew that she was the one who dragged my unconscious body across the weeded parking lot after I passed out like a frightened French  schoolgirl with skinned knee.


“Hey there buddy! You’re finally awake!” I was too focused on the sky to see her face, but I could tell by inflection that Billie was about to insult me. “I was worried that your ovaries were giving you lady trouble there for a moment. Glad you got over it.” There was that shitty attitude I had been expecting.


“Just take me back to my house. I don’t want to think about things anymore.” Billie didn’t say anything, but she slammed her foot down onto the gas pedal in agreement. My head was in a state of absolute agony, so I tried to relax and close my eyes for the rest of the drive.


We found ourselves back in Charlottesville proper no more than twenty minutes later, Billie easing the charger into my driveway at a time of night that didn’t synchronize with my wrist watch. Part of me was trying to forget about the conflicting memories of the paper mill, the other part was trying to drag its legs towards the front door without Billie’s help.


“Come on,” she said, “we can figure this shit out in the morning.” Billie went straight for the bathroom, leaving me standing alone in my living room trying to think of what problem needed to be dealt with first; checking on the Harlequins stored in my fridge or dealing with the throbbing headache with a bottle of Irish whiskey. Both things could be found in the kitchen, so that’s where my feet went, flicking the light switch on my to the liqueur cabinet as I walked across the linoleum floor. Popping the cap followed by a six second gulp, eyes watering as the burn in my throat erased the pain behind my skull, I turned towards the refrigerator. Just as before, he was standing there with a smug bastard smirk across his face, hands held behind his back. I lowered the bottle from my lips in the manner of a disgruntled postal worker, because through rain or shine, I just couldn’t seem to get rid of this asshole.


“Proust, what the fuck are you doing here, and why are you alive?” I thought it was a fair question. A chest full of birdshot usually keeps them down.


“Well, I was just going to take back the little cherubs that you stole, but it would seem that you’ve figured out how to kill the miracles.” Yeah, one man’s parasitic monstrosity is another man’s divine intervention.


“I dosed them in hydrogen peroxide before saturating them in a high potency formalin solution. It seemed to the job of preventing their necromorphic tendencies.”


“Clever boy.” He said back to me, grinning with that fake smile, more teeth than pleasantry. “Unfortunately for you, and luckily for me, there remains one more left to be freed. But you probably don’t remember receiving the gift, do you? No, you wouldn’t, because you have the heart and soul of demon, a filthy blind thing.” Proust removed his hands from behind, procuring a sawed off double barrel. “I can make this easy for you, or very, very difficult.” I took another swig of whiskey before making up my mind.


“Ashes to ashes reverend, ashes to ashes.” He managed to fire off a round just as the bottle smashed across his face, but it went into ceiling rather than my gut. He didn’t get a chance to try again, because I was already on him, twisting his wrist until I felt it pop under the pressure. He grunted in pain through that clenched smile as I threw his head into the sink, stabbing him in the back with a dirty fork while bubbles burst from beneath stagnant dishwater. I pulled him out just as Billie rushed to the scene. She started to say something but I couldn’t hear her, because by then I had Proust pushed up against a wall with my left forearm pressed across his windpipe.


“You’re the only demon here!” I screamed into his bloody face. “The difference between us is that I can actually fucking see it! I don’t know what your goddamn plan was and I don’t want to, and I don’t need to know anything to see how your pathetic miserable piece of shit life needs to end!” I punched him repeatedly, over and over regardless of the pain, breaking several fingers as the knuckles connected to teeth. I didn’t even care and I didn’t stop until his laughter ended with a cough of blood and vomit.


“This is how you found out. This is how it ends.”


I emptied my savings account and gave everything to Billie, all of my money, all of the tapes and notes and everything that remained of the harlequins. I told her to give it all to someone who would know what to do, told her to get as far away from Charlottesville as she could, to get as far away from me. That was two days ago. She left yesterday, the same day I buried Reverend Proust in the weeded over patch in the back of the Union Street Cemetery.


So here I am now, standing with back to the freshly dug hole that will serve as my home for rest of eternity, a home I will never know from behind the endless sea of cognitive oblivion. I don’t want to live with, knowing that it’s been there in the back of my head, controlling my mind in subtle ways since a time I can’t remember because it won’t let me.


As I start to raise the snub nose to my mouth, I hear it again.


“You know what he said right? How we choose who we want, regardless of time or place. The polyps are just a lesser form of growth, a left over breeding mechanism from eons of evolution, no longer needed but still indulged.”


I try to ignore it, but my hand goes numb, and the gun drops to the ground. I’m panicking now, trying to reach down for it but it won’t let me. I’m not in charge anymore.


“The joke is on you. It will end when I say it does.”


Fade to black, again.


Credit To: Stephan D. Harris

Chop the Willow

February 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Related: Harlequin No.7 & The Kindness of Strangers

“I ask him why above he crawls,
scratching apart my bedroom walls.
And he looks down through white eyes peeping,
And says…
I’m not crawling, I’m simply creeping.”

–       Music & lyrics by Billie-Joe Kimble.

The job of a mortician is to belittle the profound horror and loss of death, while simultaneously profiting off of the misery of others. No one in the industry aside from myself has the balls to say it, but the simple fact is that it’s true. We take the deceased and pretty them up; dress up their hair, throw them in some nice clothes and drop them under six feet of dirt. But the dead don’t really care do they? Well, we don’t do it for the dead. No, we do it for the grieving friends and family. We make it easier to say goodbye, like an emotional crutch if you will. We let them cry and come to terms with the fact that their friend or mother or son is gone for good, all while collecting a fat paycheck. The reason is of course because of fear. People fear death, and when someone close dies, it forces them to accept their own mortality. Animals don’t have this problem. A few moments of fear and pain will be a squirrel’s only awareness of the impending void. Humans though, we live our whole lives knowing that it could all end without reason or warning, so of course we make up these little rituals to get us through it. And of course, somebody has to facilitate this entire process. Squirrels don’t have this process. Squirrels don’t need booze money.

I only say any of this because as upsetting as it is, dying is at least a natural thing. You can see that it happens, that it is concrete and constant.  You can understand it. But there are some things, dark and squirming things that crawl into our world. Things that don’t make sense, things that are just plain wrong.

I was staring at a clock when she called. It was just after 3 a.m. I’d been having trouble sleeping for some time now, and when I can’t sleep I have a tendency to obsess over minor dilemmas. Take this instance for example. I was trying to cut out a newspaper article on this type of black mold that can apparently wiggle its way into a brain and release trace amounts of bio toxins to alter the behavior of mammals, when the ticking of the clock above my dresser distracted me. I stared at it without moving, and I started to think about how the rhythmic ticks were my only connection to a linear time line. In a room without motion, a static environment, time could be moving at whatever pace it wanted and I would have no way of knowing.  Without the clock, I could be sitting still for what could be years and I wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise. I was lost in a trance until the phone rang. I picked up. It was Billie.

“Hey, Stephan, you’re awake. That’s awesome. So guess what? We have a problem,” She said over the phone.
“It’s Harris, and can it wait? I’m conducting some rather important business here.” I lied.
“No, not really,” She said. “We need to deal with this now. That hitchhiker at the Broken Window apparently stumbled upon some polyps down on Christian Light Road. The chuckle fucks tried to get him to eat some.”
“So? Get Terry to go with you.”
“No good,” Billie argued. “Terry’s watching the hitcher. Gotta put him in quarantine right? We can’t have some teenage blonde boy runaway spreading this shit. You said so yourself.”
“Alright damn it, but you have to pick me up, I think I’m still legally drunk.” I sighed. She was right. This couldn’t spread past the town limits. Why I cared is beyond me.

Hold on; let me back up a bit. A few months ago I moved Charlottesville, N.C. when a new embalming position opened up. I took the job and things went well for a few weeks. That was until I discovered a mysterious jar with an even more mysterious thing inside. It was labeled, ‘Harlequin No.7.’ I learned not long after that there were more of these worm-like things, as I found out the day after a botched attempt to study the freaky little bugger while embalming a man who died that same night. From what I could gather, they apparently live inside of people’s heads, doing whatever it is that they do until they decide to kill the host and corkscrew out of their brainstem. After a bit of research on the town death records and old newspapers, I came to the conclusion that these Harlequin things have something to do with a paper mill fire twenty something years back. As it would turn out, Mr. Havenbrook (the man whose head burst open on my embalming table) was a survivor of said mill fire. So were some of the others. By “others,” I mean the first batch of crazies that came through my mortuary, all within the same week. It was the same story with each one of them; Someone starts acting weird and paranoid, seemingly due to dementia, before eventually having a seizure and dropping dead. They would end up undergoing an autopsy at the morgue, at which point the declared cause of death would be, “cerebral aneurysm.” Even with x-rays, toxicology screening, and in several cases invasive surgery, no one ever discovered the parasites. It wouldn’t be until I pumped their bodies full of formalin that the little bastards would make themselves known, in the most volatile way at that.

So far, I have seen six of these things. The first one, the one I found in the basement of Burnswick Funeral, got blown to bits by my friend, the lovely Miss Billie-Joe Kimble. Three through five I managed to capture. By the time I got to them I had grown accustomed to the tell-tale signs of Harlequin infection. The lights flicker, the air shimmers, and occasionally if you’re near a radio tuned to an FM station you’ll start picking up some disturbing sounding feedback. Following that, the cadaver partially reanimates and the Harlequin explodes out of the back of the head (or in one case, the eye socket). So, like I said, I captured Harlequins No.6, No.5, No.4, and No.3 in mayonnaise jars filled with formaldehyde (I’m under the assumption that CH2O kills them) before fixing up the deceased in such a way to hide the evidence. No.2, the one from Havenbrook, slithered down the mortuary floor drain. That probably explains where all of the other weird shit that’s been happening came from.

Okay, I just want to say that none of this is my fault. Well, actually, most of it is, considering that I opened the initial can of worms (no pun intended), but I had no idea what an escaped alien brain parasite would entail. They don’t teach you this sort of thing in college. Where was I? Oh right, Lucid Marsh.

Lucid Marsh is the boggy wet land just south of Charlottesville and east of Christian Light Road. The place has a reputation of being quite easy to get lost in, as well as a couple of old legends about a certain “moonlight fairy,” that supposedly leads the more disoriented folks into sinkholes. I doubt any of those rumors are true, but regardless the marsh is home to glowing swamp gas and a particular breed of giant moth that showed up seventy years back. It’s also where most of the town’s drainage ends up.
So here’s what happened; almost a month after I thought the whole Harlequin thing was over and done with, this outdoorsy guy came into the Broken Window bitching about how the Sheriff is a lazy prick and tried to round up a pose to help find his friend. Terry, being an outgoing and generally empathetic man went ahead and asked him what happened. As the guy apparently told Terry, he and his buddy “Bud” Huston were out “catfisting” in the marsh, when Bud, while reaching his arm down into a murky hole, suddenly started screaming before being dragged under the shallow water, only to reemerge fifty or so feet away. When Jake (the outdoorsy guy in the bar) finally got over to him to help him up, he saw that Buds ears and nose were both bleeding. Bud, mumbling to himself incoherently, tried to bite Jake before running franticly away into the deeper part of Lucid Marsh.
Billie and I later went out to the marsh with Jake to see what we could find. We came home empty handed. A waste of an afternoon and a good pair of shoes in my opinion.
It wasn’t long after that that other people started to disappear. Not a whole lot mind you, maybe two or three, but it was enough to get the town talking again about those weird lights in the sky and the unexplained aneurysms. Oh right, the lights… yeah, it sounds cool but the truth is that it will scare the absolute piss out of you. They didn’t show up all that much, or for all that long either, maybe once every couple of weeks for a second or two, but never more. However, I have personally seen them twice. The first time was… unexpected to say the least, but the second time was something else entirely. Walking home one starless night after work, I started to get this feeling that something was sneaking up behind me. When I turned around though, the feeling didn’t go away. It was like no matter which way I was facing there was always something just behind me, ducking out of sight the moment I changed direction. It was about when I started to get dizzy from spinning around so many times that I heard this low rumbling coming from above. It wasn’t a thunderclap so much as it was a foghorn, so deep and low that I didn’t hear it so much as felt it. I looked up, and the sky blazed in a yellow-green flash of a dozen or so orbs, pulsating and circling around each other, disappearing and reappearing into and out of the clouds.  Then they were gone. I remember standing there in the middle of the street, covered in sweat and shaking. It had to have been at least ninety degrees that night, but I can’t think of any other instance where I felt so cold.
There have been other things going on besides lights and missing persons. I’ve heard around town that cows and horses have been found in the early hours of the morning without heads. Just ripped right off at the base of the neck is what a couple of farmers have been saying. One farmer said that he stayed awake through an entire night waiting to shoot whatever had been decapitating his livestock. I heard later that he sold his land on the first bid and moved to Alaska or something. “Somewhere where they ain’t  got no damn snakes.” He said.
This is of course just some of the stuff that people have been talking about. Who knows what kind of Mulder and Scully tag team action would be fired up my ass if people knew about the five jars in my fridge. Speaking of which, I put some of what I could cut off of No.5 under a microscope to see if I could learn anything. I figured out two things: first, Harlequin cells bare a striking resemblance to cancer cells, and second, if you dump Harlequin parts into the trash along with uneaten food, that shit will grow into one hell of a science project. By that I mean, rancid chicken plus alien tissue sample equals alien mushroom babies. It didn’t work with banana peels or onions though. I guess they’re carnivores. Lucky me. The point is, these things reproduce by budding from decaying flesh. You see where I’m going with this right? How the Harlequin kills its host but goes apeshit when exposed to chemicals that actively prevent the process of decomposition? This was how Billie and I came to the conclusion that the buds or “polyps” would eventually hatch and grow into more Harlequin. We never tested this theory, for obvious reasons, but the assumption seems valid enough. Especially when some hitchhiker manages to come into contact with a group of psycho pod people trying to get him to eat a certain type of raw meatball that just so happens to match the description of our previously mentioned Harlequin babies. Which brings me back to present.
Before Billie arrived, I grabbed a flashlight and another pack of cigarettes. Also, just to be safe, I nabbed a gas can full of kerosene from my shed and a pair of leather gloves. I had just finished collecting my supplies when I heard the knock at the door. I answered.
“Hey there Ste- Harris, ready to go on an adventure?” Billie asked, still standing on my porch. I saw that she had brought along her bass guitar case. I doubted that there was any actual musical instrument in there. She may be a skinny little thing covered in silly tattoos, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she wrestles bears in her free time. She’s dangerous is what I’m saying.
“I’m ready I guess. Wait, did you walk here?”
“Um… Yeah about that, we’re taking your car. Hope you’re cool with that.” I wasn’t, but I was too tired to argue about it, even though Billie drives like a retarded cheetah on crack and a ’69 Dodge Charger isn’t a cheap restoration even in the best economy.

I tossed Billie my keys after we loaded up the trunk. She started up the engine, I lit another cigarette, and then we took off into the hazy February night, driving east through town. I’ve always hated Charlottesville, but sometimes, at the right time of night and season, I kind of like it. The way the orange streetlights illuminate the fog, the way the power lines crisscross above the narrow alleyways of the downtown and how the rusty old water tower hovers ominously in the sky, it just gives me a warm feeling of stoic reserve that somehow complements my natural interest in the macabre. Maybe it’s because on a night like this you start to forget about all meth labs and dirty looks, the racism and bible thumpers and trailer parks. One day I’ll get sick of Charlottesville and probably move to Asheville or something, somewhere kind of artsy and forward thinking, maybe persuade Terry and Billie to leave too. It can’t be easy for them to live in a place like this. Terry is one of a handful of black people and Billie is just, well, she’s Billie. But for now I guess we’ll call this shithole home. I lit another cigarette as we passed the Trinity Baptist Church. The lights were on.

“What the hell?” I asked Billie. What the hell indeed. It wasn’t even Sunday.
“Who knows,” She said back, “Maybe a late night prayer group or something? That place started going off the deep end ever since that first bout of lights. It’s been nothing but ‘End of the world this,’ and ‘Repent for your sins,’ that. I can’t even pretend to understand them or Rev. Proust anymore.” A few minutes later we weren’t even thinking about the church. We had just pulled onto Christian Light Road and were now looking for the farm house Billie had been telling me about. The problem was that there were quite a few farms that had gone bankrupt over the last two decades, each one indistinguishable from the last.
“I have an idea,” I told Billie. I turned on my car radio and tuned it to an FM radio station. Some oldies channel playing The Kinks “Village Green.” It wasn’t long after that that Ray Davies nostalgic harmony was suddenly replaced by the low hum of garbled static and high pitched clicking. This happened just as we approached a particularly destitute house with a single sagging willow tree in the front yard. “This is the one!” Billie screamed. She then in her own method of rational thinking decided that the best way to approach the house would be to shut of the headlights, drive past the house for about fifty or so feet, barrel turn into the opposite lane, drive back towards the house, jerk the car right off of the road, and park my goddamn ’69 pine green Dodge Charger behind a corn silo. As we got out of the car, I told Billie how she’s one of my closet mentally challenged friends.

“Suck my dick.” She giggled as she popped the trunk.
“You can’t afford it. Anyway what’s the plan?” I pulled the gas can from the trunk. “Are we going to knock on the door like asshole scouts trying to sell asshole flavored cookies, or are we just going to throw eggs until old man Jenkins chases us off with the hose?” Billie opened up her guitar case.
“Um, I was thinking more along the lines of murder by death.” From her case, Billie pulled out what I assume to be an intentional disregard for standard Geneva Convention protocols. “This,” Said Billie while loading a couple of shells, “is a Franchi SPAS-12, ten rounds, mounted flashlight, and an industrial grade suppressor. It’s probably the best tactile shotgun ever manufactured in Italy. They stopped making them a few years ago because the U.S. banned it from import. Don’t ask me how I got this one, but let’s just say I didn’t follow the two week waiting period.”
“Dandy,” I said.
We moved quickly towards the house, crouching low to the ground as we snaked through the tall weeds. It may have been dark, and the fog was still coming in thick, but we left nothing to chance. Between the two of us, we’ve seen enough horror movies to know better. When we finally reached the side of the house Billie pressed herself up against the cracked siding and motioned for me to look in through one of the windows. I gave her the universal gesture for anal fisting, which to us was code for, “something spooky is going to pop out and bite my face off.” Billie then gave her shotgun a pump, signaling that she did indeed have a shotgun. With that sound logic in mind, I carefully pressed my hands against the sweating glass, peering into darkness. I could just barely make out the vague shapes of furniture, but nothing much else. Scraps of paper and trash seemed to litter what I could see of the floor, and there appeared to be a sofa of some sort, and absolutely no movement what so ever. A static environment if I ever saw one. I lowered myself from the window, giving Billie the thumbs up before picking up the kerosene. Billie moved up to me, and in a low voice whispered that the hitchhiker apparently smashed through a window during his escape, and we should look for a welcome mat to bypass the broken glass. “Cool,” I whispered back. “But shouldn’t we try the front door first?”
We did, and as luck would have it, it was unlocked. I eased open the door doing my best to keep it from creaking, Billie standing behind looking down her iron sights into the shadows of the house. Nothing jumped out at us from that still darkness, yet we expected it to occur at any moment. Just jitters I told myself as we moved in. I shut the door, locking it from the inside just as Billie flicked on her flashlight, I did the same. Instantly the room was illuminated by the white cones of light, revealing the living room set up. There was indeed furniture in there, all of it covered in plastic blue tarps. Interestingly enough, besides the tarps and random bit and pieces of trash that scattered the floor, the place actually looked pretty well lived in, except for the terrible smell that is. Kind of like roadkill and patchouli oil it seemed like. We did our best to ignore it as I wandered the room while Billie searched every corner. I held onto the kerosene as I perused the bookshelves along the back wall. I was just tucking away a dusty copy of the complete works of Alistair Crowley when Billie tiptoed to my shoulder.
“Besides that damn stink wafting around, I think this room is fine,” I whispered. “So I guess that leaves everywhere else.”
“How about over there?” She asked, nodding her head towards her right. I followed her gaze to a door at the end of the center hallway, a door with several deadbolt locks and covered in smudged handprints of varying sizes. I had never been here before, but I could just sense that this door in question led to something awful. “Somewhere besides that.” I said back. Billie nodded in agreement.

We moved quietly down the hall and followed an archway into what I presumed to be a dining room. I say dining room because of the tasteful china cabinet, the large rectangular wooden table, the well placed chairs, and the two people sitting at either end of said table. Two people sitting perfectly still, absolutely motionless in the dark. Our flashlights landed on the one in the back first. It was a man wearing a brown sweater vest, and he was smiling. I stopped walking mid stride with one foot still hanging in the air. Instantly my mouth went dry, and I could feel my blood rush deep into my muscles. My stomach cramped up, sweat rolled down my forehead. It’s called a fear response, and it only happens when your limbic system knows that some serious shit is about to go down. Billie’s brain took a different approach, in the form of two shots fired off in rapid succession. One in the chest of the dark shape on the far side, another through the wooden backrest of the close one, each round muffled down to a demons whisper. She then walked around the table to get a better look at her handy work. I followed suit, feeling that it was safe, but nervous. Neither one had made so much as a peep.
“Oh shit, Stephan, come look at this.” She said, pointing her gun at the female stranger. I did look, and I gotta say that it was a weird sight to behold. The woman wearing a blue dress (also smiling despite having been shot through the sternum) had these, growths I guess, coming out of her exit wound. Upon closer inspection I realized that they were polyps, but not like the kind I’ve seen so far. These ones had tiny little tendrils that seemed to be wiggling around lazily, almost as if they were being pushed by a gentle breeze. Weirder still, her skin was a shade of pale blue normally reserved for the recently deceased. I walked over to the man at the end of the table. He had the same thing going on. Billie noticed my expression.

“What do you think this is?” She asked, never lowering her gun.
“First of all, these people were already dead before you shot them, I’d say for at least six hours, based on their stiffness. As for those things,” I pointed at the wriggling little maggot hairs, “are probably what happens when the polyps are left to their own devices, which I’m going to assume is a bad thing.”
Billie wasn’t saying anything. Actually, she was looking around the room some more, with a worried look on her face. “So my suggestion is that we torch this place now before anyone else comes snooping around.” I popped the cap of off the kerosene can and started pouring it around the table, making sure to splash a little on the smiling corpses. “Um, Billie, what’s wrong?”
“The hitchhiker mentioned two kids.” She said to me, her voice uncommonly serious.

It was probably just a coincidence that we heard the noises at just that moment, but fate still decided that the next sequence of events should not go in our benefit.

It started out as just a murmur coming from upstairs. Billie and I heard it at the same time, and we promptly shut off our flashlights as we moved into a corner. We didn’t want to draw any more attention to ourselves then we already had. We had to be very, very quiet. I shouldn’t have to explain why. The noises from upstairs seemed to be that of laughter, children’s laughter specifically, followed by the pitter patter of small bare feet scampering across a hardwood floor. Billie and I in that corner, crouched in near total darkness, we followed the sounds across the length of the ceiling. They seemed to be moving towards the staircase. I thought the time seemed right get the hell out of there; maybe dip out through the kitchen or something. I was just about to follow through with that plan when Billie pushed me back with her left arm.
“Stay here near the kitchen door.” She whispered with her hand cupped over my ear. “I’ll move to the other side. That way we can ambush them.” I was about to point out how stupid that sounded when I heard the clicking little giggles move into the living room. Yeah, clicking little chirps and giggles, a very unnatural vocalization that in even the best of circumstances, unsettling. It was about the same moment that I realized how truly unarmed I was that I saw them.

From what little moonlight fell into the room, I could tell that they appeared at first to be children, small children. But the rest was anything but a normal child. Spindly little things they were, pale gaunt things with long lanky arms outstretched from their tiny bodies, the joints bent at odd angles as they probed the dining room chairs and walls. The whole time making that terrible childish laughing noise intertwined with unearthly clicking. I held my breath. I felt like vomiting.

One of them jumped onto the table top, its long fingers prodding at one of the worm filled corpses. The other was sniffing at the air. I wondered what Billie waiting for…

What happened next was somewhat of a blur. Even now I have trouble remembering what the exact orders of events were exactly, but I do remember with distinct clarity that it all started with a cell phone. Mine, to be precise. It started ringing in my coat pocket, immediately drawing the attention of both of the freaky little bastards. I remember Billie flicking her flashlight to life, and how the one standing on the table spat blood into my glasses, followed by Billie pumping another round into her chamber. I remember the high pitched screeching they made, and how one tried to tackle me as I fell over fallen chair. I remember cracking the bulb of my flashlight across its wide open jaw, and pushing it into the glass case of the china cabinet. I remember Billie firing off two more rounds into the taller of the two, despite how it barely seemed to notice the gaping wounds it was sustaining. I seem to recall that I kicked the rest of the kerosene across the room into the short hallway before setting one of my Burnswick Funeral business cards on fire. I remember heat, and light, and the screaming, and the sound of something large and angry slamming itself against the basement door, the door with the locks and handprints. I vaguely remember Billie yelling to me over the madness as she dragged me into the kitchen and trying to slam the door shut onto something thin and pale, an arm. Although everything that happened in the span of those few seconds seemed to melt into one single moment of absolute carnage, one thing I will never forget were the long white tentacles snaking into the inferno of the dining room, following us all the way up until the door finally closed. I threw a dirty microwave through the kitchen window.

We ran from the blaze as fast as we could, the cool wet air a well appreciated relief from the heat and smoke. It wasn’t dark anymore. The tall grass reflected the orange fires from behind, everything tinted in the colors of violence. We got into my car just we heard the roaring. The drive back into town was quiet for the first few minutes. When Billie finally caught her breath, she spoke up.
“We didn’t learn a damn thing tonight did we?”
“I would say not.” I said, still choking. The beard stubble on the left side of my face had been burnt away. The skin felt hot.
“Thanks for setting everything on fire before we could look around for anything useful.” Billie mentioned a few moments later.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “After my phone went off I just sort of panicked.” My words reminded me to see who was trying to call me at five in the morning. I pulled it from my pocket, scrolling through the recent call list. It was Terry.

We got to Billie’s house a few minutes later. When we got inside, we saw that Terry was standing still, breathing heavily. He was holding a bloody hammer in his right hand, as he stared at the dead man lying still on the floor, the hitchhiker. Leading from the back of his neck was a trail of bloody mucus that ended at a small fleshy thing flatted into the hardwood.
“What the hell happened here?” Billie asked in exasperation.
“I don’t know. He just started freaking out and chased me around the house with a box cutter. I didn’t see much of a choice.” Terry mumbled out. “Then that thing popped out.”
I looked at the little crushed worm into the floorboards.
“I thought you said he didn’t eat any polyps.” I directed towards Billie.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I guessed he lied. So much for the kindness of strangers.”
I checked my wristwatch. It would be dawn soon. As I glanced from Billie to Terry and back to Billie, I thought back on everything that happened tonight, trying itemizing a list for the sake of context; Public intoxication, reckless driving, breaking and entering, possession of unregistered firearms, arson… would one more crime really make a difference?

I walked into Terry’s kitchen to put on a pot of coffee just as he asked me what I thought we should do next. I took my time coming up with the right words.
“Terry, I’m going to need you to move the blonde kid into your bathtub.” I dictated while measuring out the coffee grounds. “Billie, look around for some trash bags and maybe a jug of ammonia. Oh, and Terry, would you mind telling me where you keep your hacksaw?” Billie and Terry gave each other a nervous glance before getting to work. I followed them into the bathroom a few minutes later, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a sharp serrated saw blade in the other, the whole time trying to think up a good excuse for my boss as to why I will have come into work so early to run the cremator.

I just kept telling myself that death was a natural thing.

Credit To – Stephan D. Harris


The Kindness of Strangers

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 PM

“You can only hold a smile for so long,
after that it’s just teeth.”
¬- Chuck Palahniuk

By the time I had made my way into town I was just about ready to collapse. Sprinting for your life through cornfields and over long stretches of gravel roads at 1:00 a.m. will do that to a person. I’m not even sure that I really needed to be running at all, but I wasn’t willing to take any chances. Not after dealing with those… freaks. Getting back to civilization was all that mattered. Not that I was going to the police or anything, I’m not even sure they did anything illegal. Unless being “creepy as all hell,” qualifies as a punishable offense. Maybe kidnapping? Either way, I don’t think anyone will ever believe me.

Okay, stop thinking about it. The past is the past and there’s nothing I can do about it. Just focus on finding somewhere full of people. That might actually be somewhat difficult in a town like this. According to Google, the unincorporated town of Charlottesville NC has a population just a little under 1,000.I walked down Main St. looking for a gas station or a bar or anything still open for business. The streets were deader than dead, everything saturated in the sickly yellow-orange glow of the street lights made worse by unseasonable fog. I was starting to get nervous, the thought of accidentally wandering into the Twilight Zone began to cross my mind just as I saw the first signs of life. A young girl, I’m going to say about 22, had some hillbilly looking guy in an arm hold. She was pushing him out of a bar and swearing a lot. “The next time you try to touch my ass again I’ll break more than just your arm you miserable piece of shit!” I heard her say before shoving his face into the pavement. She turned around and quickly walked back into the bar while I stood there trying to re-hinge my jaw. Despite all the craziness that I’d been through tonight, one thing I had not been expecting to see was a skinny little twig of a girl with weird hair obviously beating the crap out of some trucker twice her size. Am I hesitant to follow her? Yes, yes I am. But the bar appears to be open and I’m sick of being outside in the rain and fog.

The sign on the door said that the name of the place was “The Broken Window.”

I walked in. The first thing I noticed was the overturned table surrounded by a couple of broken beer bottles. Looking around some more I saw that the place wasn’t exactly packed. There was a tired looking guy behind the counter talking to a few sad faced drunks at the far end of the bar. In the corner booth was group of bikers. The girl from earlier was sweeping up the glass as I walked towards a booth. As I passed her, a peculiar man in a pin striped suit reading the paper spoke up.

“I see those judo lessons are starting to pay off.” He said without looking away from the news print.
“And right they should,” Replied the girl, “this place needs a good bouncer.” I removed my duffle bag from my shoulder and sat down.
“Well, I think I’m going to turn in for the night.” Said the man. “See you later Billie. Good night Terry.”
“Sleep tight Stephan.” Yelled the Afro American man behind the bar counter. The man in the suit folded up his paper and walked out into the night.

I put my head down onto the table and inhaled deeply. I wanted to take a nap. When I looked back up, the girl was standing next to me. “You can’t sleep here. Not unless you buy a drink first.” She said. “What’s with the camping gear?”

I didn’t even care enough to feel embarrassed to say it. “I’m hitchhiking north to Albany. The bags and stuff are for when I take breaks at national parks and campgrounds.” The girl eyeballed me suspiciously. “Hitchhiking huh? How’s that working out for you? Not good I’m guessing, considering that your face and shoulder are bleeding. Be honest, you’re a lot lizard aren’t you? It’s okay to admit it, I won’t judge you. What a man does with his mouth is between him and the baloney pony.”

I didn’t know what to say to any of that, so I just starred at her until she burst out laughing. “I’m just kidding, you’re way too ugly to be a prostitute. But seriously, what happened? You look like absolute shit pie.”

I sighed. “I really don’t feel like talking about it. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The girl crossed her arms and starred down at me disapprovingly. “You can’t say something like that and expect me to lose interest. Tell you what, first rounds on me if you satisfy my need for story time.” I contemplated the last five hours of my life, considering the complete lack sanity that a summary would entail. I also considered the fact that this chick, Billie, was a total stranger. Her judgment meant nothing to me. “Alright,” I said, “Get me a beer and a shot and I’ll tell you everything.” When the girl returned, I drank both in one gulp before beginning my tale.

“Okay, so I’m guessing that you’re familiar with the area, you know Christian Light Road right?” Billie nodded her head. “Well that’s where it all started. I had been walking down Route 42 for the better half of the day with no luck whatsoever catching rides. Most of the art of traveling by thumb is actually just walking, so it’s not like I wasn’t used to it, but when an entire freaking day goes by without a single car pulling to the side of the road, you start to get desperate. Especially when dusk approaches. It’s not smart to try to hail a ride in the dark, for more reasons than one, so like I said, I was getting pretty antsy. Now, I have this rule where I never get into a car that has children passengers…” “Why’s that?” Billie suddenly interrupted. I lit a cigarette to make her wait. “Because it’s a sign of bad character. I’m a strange man on the side of the road, and when it comes to the mind of a driver to let me hop in with their children… I don’t know. It just seems like a red flag to me. But back to the point of this. It was getting dark, I was tired and had to take a dump, so when finally a station wagon pulls up behind me and offers to give me a lift, I decided to ignore the rule about kids. I mean, they didn’t seem white trash at all, not like they were a family of roaming meth dealers or anything, so I said ‘fuck it’ and climbed into the back.”

I paused for a moment to collect myself. “They were pretty nice and normal, at least at first. I thanked the dad guy for helping me out, and he seemed more than welcome to do so. His name was Frank, and he was wearing a brown sweater vest and a pair of khakis. His wife I guess was sitting in the passenger seat wearing this frilly blue sundress that looked like it was from the fifties or something. I think her name was Janet. The kids in the back sitting with me, a boy and a girl, I can’t remember their names. I didn’t notice it until later, but they were both wearing the exact same clothes as their parents, just smaller versions. They didn’t speak to me the entire time, didn’t even look at me even though I was sitting right next to them. Frank though, the driver, he talked a bit. Mostly questions, the normal sort that I had grown used to. Things like, ‘where are you headed?’ or, ‘who knows where you are right now?’ That last one isn’t as unsettling as you might think. Normally people just ask the general small talk topics, either because they can’t think of anything else to say or possibly out of genuine concern. Of course, I always end up asking the inevitable, ‘What made you decide to stop for me?’ ‘Well,’ said Frank, ‘you were just walking along the road all by yourself.”

“So you’re telling me that these folks were the ones who fucked up your face?” Billie belched through a sip of beer. “No, that happened later during my escape.” I rubbed my eyes in frustration. “I told you that you wouldn’t believe any of this bullshit.” “What? No, I never thought such a thing.” She responded. “Trust me, I’ve seen some pretty bizarre stuff go on around this town. I’ve heard about even more, things that make 4chan seem sane and rational. Every other week some yokel has a mental breakdown after running around sayin’ that he’s seen ‘flashing lights,’ in the sky, or a farmer comes in here babbling about how he saw ‘a giant snake,’ trying to strangle one of his horses. So no, I’m not telling you that I don’t believe you. I’m just asking a question alright? And I’m probably going to ask more. Example, what happened next?”

“Okay, so after they picked me up and following awkward chit chat, Janet and Frank asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. They both tip toed around that question for whatever reason. Anyway, I told them that I had planned to pass through Raleigh because I had some friends up there, but I also mentioned that if they didn’t feel like driving that far they could just drop me somewhere near a camping ground. Frank told me that the only camp site nearby was Raven Rock National Forest, which was about forty miles Southwest of where they lived. It was around this point that Janet leaned over to Frank to whisper something. He nodded back to her, and she turned around to face me. She asked if I wanted to have dinner with them. Of course I was hesitant to answer her; the whole atmosphere of the situation just seemed… I don’t know, unnatural somehow. The way Frank and Janet smiled at me just looked fake and forced, but also completely genuine in a strange way. Like they weren’t smiling at me, but smiling AT me. Kind of like they knew something that I didn’t.”

“Like they were in on some sick joke?” Billie asked, looking straight into my eyes.

“Yeah, kind of like that. But I wasn’t really thinking about it too much at the time. My decision was based mostly on the fact that I really needed to get to a toilet. So I said yes, that I’d be more than thankful to have a hot meal with them. The rest of the drive was quiet, which was fine by me considering how tired I was. I’m pretty sure I dozed off at some point, because I remember shutting my eyes for just a second, but when I opened them the sky had grown completely dark and Frank was pulling the station wagon up a dirt driveway to this cruddy looking farmhouse. I mean seriously, if it hadn’t been for the porch lights I would have sworn the place was abandoned. Frank parked the car and helped me with my bags while Janet and the kids went straight into the house. ‘Welcome to our home,’ said Frank as he walked me up the porch steps. ‘I’m very glad that you agreed to have a home cooked meal with us, we don’t have too many opportunities to share our kindness.’ Yeah, I know, an odd choice of words but I was trying to be polite. So then I walked into the place and asked where the bathroom was, Frank said it was just down the hall. Okay, so here’s the first thing I noticed about that house; all of their furniture was covered in plastic tarp sheets. Not the normal kind either, I’m talking about the blue kind that people put of their roofs after a hurricane. Also the floor was absolutely covered in stains and dirt. Like, the whole place just gave off the vibe of crazy, like imagine that a family of homeless people were squatting in a condemned building while trying to create the illusion that everything was normal. I mean, the walls had framed pictures and the shelves had books, all the lights seemed to be working, but it just didn’t seem quite up to code if you know what I mean. Either way I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay any longer than I had to.”

“Okay, so while Frank moved my bags into the house while I tried to find the bathroom, all while trying to ignore the strangeness. Before I could though, one of the kids, the boy, tugged on my arm. He told me that dinner was ready.”

“I gulped some air and tried to look casual while following the boy into the dining area. He moved ahead of me and sat down next to his sister I before even had a chance to ask any questions. It was here that I looked around the dining room and started to feel an eerie chill crawl along my back. They were all there, sitting at a large wooden table under a bare light bulb. All of them had their heads tilted forward in complete silence. Even though none of them were making even the slightest noise, they looked like they were muttering to themselves, what the fuck was that about anyway? That was I think the turning point when I fully realized that people weren’t right, like at all. Listen, Billie, believe it or not the feeling those weirdos were giving off wasn’t exactly new. I had this dream once, where my family was throwing me a birthday party. But in the dream, it wasn’t my birthday and they weren’t my family. When they brought out the cake, I noticed that their lips and eyes had been shown shut. All they could do was hum the tune to the birthday song. That dream really messed with me. So were these people with their silent mutters.
When they finally noticed that I had been standing there watching them, they all looked up and directly at me in total unison, and smiled. Janet told me that I should take a seat with them and join in prayer. I looked over what I assumed was the meal. It was hard to tell for sure but it looked like a pile of raw meatballs had been dumped onto plates and served without silverware. It was disgusting and creepy, everything about it. I asked if they would mind if I used their bathroom. I know that I should have just left right then and there, and I promised myself that I would. Right after I got to a toilet. Frank smiled, and pointed towards the hallway, so that’s where I went.

Finally I managed to drop a load after having spent a whole day clenching my cheeks. I memention this here because it became obvious in a quick way that my need to relive myself had been fucking with my judgment more than I had thought. Example, by the time I had pulled my pants back up I had already begun to notice that the house had a terrible odor. I guess the best description would have to be a combination of sour milk and ozone. Holy hell it was awful, and I was sure that it didn’t come from me. So I started to wash my hands and, um, hold on….”

I was starting to gag on my own words as I thought about the sink. “What’s up?” Billie asked in a concerned tone. “Um, just give a sec alright?” I replied. Billie stayed quiet as I caught my breath. By now the bar was pretty much empty except for the two bikers in the corner and the bartender, who had walked over to us at some point to listen to the story. He whispered something to Billie without taking his eyes off me.

“I don’t know yet Terry,” She said back to him, “Let’s let him finish his story before we bother Stephan about it. Hey, are you good yet?”

“No, not really,” I said, “But I’ll keep going. So the sink had a drainage problem right? I don’t know why I cared, but I decided to look into the drain for the blockage, which turned out to be that some hair that gotten stuck. I started to pull it out when I noticed that it wasn’t just a little bit of hair either, it wasn’t even all hair. The huge clump was leaking blood. Blood and teeth and hair all wadded together in a mess of something so profoundly fucked up that I almost fainted after realizing that I had just touched the thing. I backed away from the sink trying to think of what the hell was going on. I was getting scared; I had no idea who these people were but my general assumption was that they were going to murder the shit out me and feed my flesh to their children, or something like that. I needed to get out of there as fast as freaking possible, but I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself that would let them know what I had seen. I exited the bathroom cautiously, slinking around the corner towards the front door, I had almost made it to the living room and was just about to grab my grab my bags, when something stopped me. A voice, a small voice coming from behind. I turned around to see who it was. It was the girl, the little one. ‘You can’t leave.’ She said. ‘It needs you.’ The lights flickered when she spoke.

The others had moved into the room. They were standing in front of the front door, I guess to keep me from making a run for it. ‘Yeah, actually,’ I said back. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve overstayed my welcome. I’m going now.’ Janet was holding some of those meatball things from before, so was Frank. They were smiling, but none of them looked happy.
‘Why?’ they all asked simultaneously, anger boiling up beneath those smiles. ‘Don’t tell us that you’re going to leave now. Our family put a lot of work into this meal, it would be a shame to not even give us the fucking curtsey of trying some.’ That’s when they grabbed me.

Three of them, they rushed me, holding back my arms while dragging me. Janet was screaming gibberish as she tried forcing those meat things into my mouth, but I kept my jaw shut tight. They were smashing up into my face, each one smelling just like the rest of the house, but more concentrated. I think they realized that I wasn’t going to eat those things, because the next thing I knew they were dragging me through their house towards a door, all of them still smiling those crazed fucking smiles of theirs. The girl and the boy, they kept hissing the word ‘other.’ Other what exactly, I never found out, because when I started to hear the noises coming from behind that door, all that banging and screeching, enough adrenaline shot into my blood that I was able to thrash and wiggle myself free. They tried to catch me, but I threw myself out of one of the houses side windows, which is where these cuts came from, and after putting my face through that glass window I didn’t stop running until I got into town. Even though they obviously didn’t chase after me, I didn’t want to stop moving until I found somewhere safe. But holy shit, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead right now if hadn’t gotten away.”

The bar was now completely empty except for us. The juke box had stopped playing music a while back. It was silent until Terry spoke up.
“What kind of noises did you hear behind that door?” He asked me.
“I don’t know really, but it sounded like something large and in pain. You ever hear a jack rabbit getting ripped apart by a coyote? It was kinda like that, like something bigger eating something smaller alive.”

Billie and Terry were both staring at me without expression. I couldn’t figure out what they were thinking at this point.
“You don’t believe any of it, do you?” I asked them. Billie shook her head in disagreement.
“No, it’s not that. It’s not that all. I’m just trying to think what to do now.”
Terry cut in. “Well first of all, we can’t have you wandering around town in the middle of the night. That’s just asking for trouble. So how about you crash on our couch tonight? I promise we’re cool. We don’t even have a basement.” That seemed fine to me, so I agreed. It was nearly three in the morning, and I would have settled for a cardboard box at this point.

I started to walk out of the bar with Terry when I saw that Billie wasn’t following us.
“You’re not coming with?” I asked.
“No, not yet,” She replied. “I’m going to stay behind and close up shop. Maybe make a phone call. Don’t worry about it, I’ll meet up with you guys later.”

Credit To – Stephan D. Harris

Read the prequel here: Harlequin No. 7

Harlequin No.7

December 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM

“The world is indeed comic,
but the joke is on mankind.”
–       H.P. Lovecraft

My town has gained some notoriety in recent weeks. Maybe you’ve heard about the strange electrical storm that showed up in Charlottesville, N.C. overnight and then disappeared just as quick, or maybe you’ve read in the paper about the sudden outbreak of mental illness and cerebral aneurysms. Don’t worry though if you haven’t been keeping up with the crackpot news outlets, I’ll fill you in. How do I know so much about this? Well, let’s just say I was there.

For starters, the only reason I moved to this God awful backwater hell in the first place was because my career choice made employment somewhat difficult to find. You see, most funeral homes are family owned, so naturally the laws of nepotism apply. It didn’t matter that I had a degree in mortuary science, or that I had already completed my apprenticeship and directors certification by age 24, the fact that my daddy didn’t own a crematorium meant I would be facing an endless hallway of closed doors until who knows when. That was of course, until a visit to Bailey Meadows (my birth town.) prompted enough boredom to look up an old friend, Terry Liddell.

I met Terry around the summer of ’05, at this cruddy little bar called “The Broken Window,” where bands would sometimes play shows if they couldn’t find anywhere decent. He and I hit it off in a totally-not-homosexual way and we spent a huge chunk of time around each other because Bailey Meadows was the most boring fucking place in all of North Carolina. That, and the Window was the only place within a twenty miles drive of my house that would serve minors.

So, after wrapping up my apprenticeship in Raleigh, I moved back in with my parents due to the unemployment thing (Apprenticeships do pay, but the position was considered temporary at best.), e-mailed my résumé along the entire East Coast, started going stir crazy, and finally worked up enough motivation to drive my Charger west along Highway 42.

Having spent the last 4 years in Raleigh made me forget what a shit hole Charlottesville truly was. It’s the kind of place where people don’t mow their lawns because of all the scrap metal hiding under the weeds. The folks here were a strange breed of redneck, a cross between the Appalachian variety and the lower dwellers of the marshland. The town itself is just as terrible. There’s the strip mall where all the stoners hang out, a library that smells like piss, a trailer park, the Trinity Baptist church, a hospital, and the downtown area.(includes the Broken Window, a couple of family-run business, the post office, and the courthouse.) The rest of Charlottesville is nothing but a series of abandoned farm houses for about a five mile radius and the ruins of an old paper mill that blew up in ’88.

I found Terry at the Window, behind the counter wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt and wiping off the mugs. Turns out he and some dude named Franklin bought the place three years back and had pretty much kept things the same since. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Terry said.
After catching up on recent news and laughing about the time we spray painted Mrs. Patterson’s dog over a few shots of Wild Turkey, finally Terry mentioned that the Burnswick funeral parlor needed a new embalmer because the old one went crazy and hung himself or something. Just like Terry to get me good and drunk before telling me something of actual importance. I called him an asshole and we both laughed so hard that I fell of the barstool. That was when Terry made me hand over my car keys.

I woke up the next morning feeling the way I imagined a corpse would feel if it were to be dug up and smacked across the face with a shovel. Numb, but somehow still in pain. The next thing I noticed was that I was not in my parent’s house. I was on Terry’s sofa, or at least I hoped Terry’s. Dragging myself to the kitchen, I drank at least a gallon of water straight from the tap before puking it all back up. The sound of me retching out my innards must have been loud, because the next thing I knew there was an unfamiliar voice coming from behind, a girls voice.

“You must be Stephan. Terry said you were a lightweight.” I turned around to match the voice to a face. She was about a head shorter than me, pale skinned, skinny as a twig and with one of those asymmetrical haircuts that have grown quite popular. Also she was wearing a black t-shirt two sizes too small and no pants. Just a pair of pink panties with a zipper down the front.

“Call me Harris, and Terry’s a dick. He should know to keep me off the firewater, ever
since I hurled all over his drum kit.” I said, wiping barf off my lips while trying not to stare at her crotch. Naturally I assumed that this chick was either Terry’s girl, or at the very least someone not to be caught with while pitching a tent.

“Well Harris, I’m glad you made room for breakfast, ‘cause I’m making waffles.”
Fuck yeah, waffles. During breakfast I found out that her name was Billie-Joe Kimble, and yes, she was Terry’s girl. Fiancé in fact. They met each other at The Broken Window three years ago. Billie was the bassist for a band called “Chop the Willow”, which she joined after moving here from Jacksonville. Why she would willingly relocate to this cesspool was beyond me, but she seemed to like it here. “It’s got something you can’t find in the city,” She said. “This place has mystery.” Looking back on things, Billie was probably right.

Here’s a bit of a historical mystery to keep you from getting bored. As I mentioned earlier, there was a paper mill just outside of town that caught fire in 1988. Some sort of industrial accident or some such. Anyways, a lot of people died in the resulting explosion and it pretty much crippled the town economy. That’s not the strange part. The topic of interest here was that the police couldn’t figure out what caused the fire in the first place. No signs of arson or failed equipment, just a bunch of confused head scratches and rumors. What were these rumors you ask? Well, from the witness testimonials, several floor workers reported that they heard laughter just before the fire started. Maniacal laughter, like someone was in on some sick joke.

After breakfast I took a shower and got ready to head over to Burnswick. Lucky for me I was already wearing a suit, so I didn’t feel underdressed. I thanked Terry and Billie for letting me crash on their couch and they wished me luck. Actually, Terry wished me luck AND offered to give me a ride. I declined, on account of Charlottesville being so damn small that the only reason anyone living here should need a car would be so that they could drive the hell away. Seriously, it took me about fifteen minutes to get to the funeral parlor on foot. I would have gotten there sooner if I hadn’t stopped at the Fill-U station for a pack of Camel. (I cannot stress this enough, smoking is a terrible habit. It eats up all your money and limits your ability to run for extended periods of time.)

When I walked into Burnswick Funerals, the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of reception. Normally there should be someone to oversee the front room, usually from a desk or nearby office. True, it’s often better to call in advance to make funeral arrangements, but there really needs to be some sort of oversight for the possible walk in. The second thing I noticed were the dead nightshade flowers on the coffee table. Rather unprofessional in my opinion. White lilies or orchids would have been better, and preferably not old ones. In any case, I decided to wait for someone to show up, and in the meantime I walked around the viewing room, looking over the black and white photographs framed about the walls. Fairly standard display: Trees, sleeping animals, churches, old Victorian portraits, other vaguely mournful images. Appropriate décor if I ever saw it. Interesting thing about 19th century portraits and why they often seem somewhat creepy; most of the people you’ll see in them are actually dead. Old school photography was a time consuming process, meaning subjects would have to remain still for a few hours while the silver nitrate imprinted the light. Also it was very expensive and therefore only used on special occasions, funerals being one of them. And since the person/persons getting their picture taken were post-mortem, there would be no need to worry about fidgeting. I was pondering this knowledge while viewing a picture of a little girl with dead eyes propped up in a chair when I heard a door close somewhere in the lobby. Turning around, I saw a confused looking man staring at me.

“Can I help you sir?” He finally asked after a few awkward moments. He was an older gentleman, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. He wore a pair of wire framed glasses and showed signs of unwanted balding, but no signs to immediately raise the question of whether or not he liked to sodomize the dead. Trust me, necrophilia is not a desirable employer trait.

“Yes you can, actually, I heard that you’re in need of a new embalmer,” I extended my hand for approval “I think I might just be the man for the job. I’m Stephan D. Harris, a pleasure to meet you Mr…”

“Burnswick,” He replied, shaking my hand. “Alfred Burnswick. And yes actually, I lost my main undertaker a few weeks back, a real shame too what happened.” He sighed in frustration before going on. “It’s just been me and Lenard running this place since. Let’s talk. First of all, have you done any apprenticing?”

About an hour later the deal was sealed, I’d finally broken into my target occupation. So what if it was in Charlottesville? I could always relocate after a few years, but for now, it was my time to shine. It didn’t take long for me to get used to things under Mr. Burnswick, in fact, after the first embalming he pretty much left me to my own thing. After all, I’d been training my entire adult life for this line of work. Whenever I had a question as to where a particular wound filler or sanitizer was kept, I’d just ask Lenard. (Lenny ran the cremation end of Burnswick, but would also fill in as an embalmer from time to time) but for the most part it was the same basic procedure that I’d been doing in Raleigh. First I’d scrub down the cadaver, then I’d massage the limbs to relieve rigor mortis. Following that I’d plug up the orifices, seal up any open wounds, begin the arterial embalming, wire the mouth and eyelids shut, finish up the hypodermic embalming, dress the cadaver, apply makeup, and deliver the body to the viewing room. I didn’t even have to deal with any of the surviving family members or review any death certificates, Mr. Burnswick as the lead funeral director would take care of all that noise. The only other regular of the funeral home was the flower girl/receptionist/grief counselor, Madelyn Wade. Now, before I move on, I would like to say that business at Burnswick Funeral was moderately steady, but this was not because people in Charlottesville were dying all of the time. Most of our clients came from a wide group of people in Pitt County who chose us based mainly on our comparatively modest fees.

So after about a month I had saved up enough money to straight-up buy my own house in Charlottesville for the price of a used car. It was an okay little place on Milton Street about two blocks away from The Broken Window. Things were alright for the most part. I hated the town and all those confederate flags but getting back into the groove with Terry made it tolerable. After work most nights I’d just walk over to the Window, drink a few glasses of Wild Turkey, and argue with Terry about which actors from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were actually dead. Other nights I’d stop by to listen to Chop the Willow practice their set in Terry’s garage before turning in for the night. Billie’s band was surprisingly decent, I must admit. They had that kind of outlaw sound of The Black Angels or Murder by Death that went over well with a mostly southern blue-collar audience. To sum it all up, life was getting comfortable. Until the day I found the thing in a jar.

At first I didn’t know what the hell it was I was looking at. Actually, I still have no freakin’ clue, but I mean I REALLY didn’t know what it was. I found it on a shelf in the storage closet one day at work when our embalming machine busted a tube and I had to look around for a possible replacement. Up on the top shelf shoved into the far back was a cardboard box labeled ‘miscellaneous’ that at first seemed promising. I got on a step stool, and just like any other day I pulled something off a shelf. What I found inside the box… didn’t actually startle me. Not at first, but it did peak my interest. Surrounded by random pieces of newspaper and spare calipers was an average sized mason jar coated in a layer of dust and grime. It was definitely full of some sort of fluid. (Dark green, so it wasn’t formaldehyde.) Also it had a label on the side that read “Harlequin No.7,” which seemed cryptic to say the least. The layer of dirt on the outside and the dark liquid inside made it almost impossible to see what sat in there, so of course I cleaned it off with damp rag and held the jar up to the florescent light for a better look. Whatever that thing was, it was ostensibly organic, based off of the pale flesh tone color. It looked like some sort of mutated potato, but that’s a stupid comparison. If I had to guess I’d say that it was an extracted tumor, or maybe a diseased pancreas. The top half was bulbous, with little protruding bumps here and there. The bottom half had a curved tail similar to the spine of a mammal fetus. Also along the midsection were several thick tendrils that corkscrewed off in every direction. It was an odd thing, but not so odd as to alarm me. True, it was uncommon to find such things in a mortuary, but on the other hand, coroners would often keep certain specimens of interest when discovered, usually out of scientific curiosity. Who’s to say what sort of things Lenard or my predecessor or even Mr. Burnswick have found while poking around inside of people. I’d have kept it if I were the one to find it, only I wouldn’t have hidden it away in a box.

I put the Harlequin on the counter next to the hand sink and went about looking for a replacement tube. I found one eventually, thank God, so the rest of the day went on as normally as ever, save for the occasional glance at the green jar. I resolved to ask Mr. Burnswick if he knew anything about the thing-in-a-jar after the viewing service upstairs was over. I really didn’t want to pester him, but I couldn’t leave an enigma like that unanswered, it was just too nagging to ignore.

When I finally got a chance to show him the strange thing, he took a close look into the cloudy green jar after reading the label, but in the end he just shrugged and said it was probably just a gaffe, or a weird prank set up by the previous mortician Ryan Wilcox. Not a huge stretch, the name “Harlequin” kind of made it seem plausible that the whole thing was a joke. Still, I wanted to be sure. I kept a dissection kit at home in my medicine cabinet, and being licensed as both an embalmer and as a funeral director I was legally allowed to handle and transport human remains, if that was indeed what the Harlequin was. Seeing no qualms about bringing it home for further study, I cleaned up the “undercroft” and headed home with the mysterious jar. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to inspect it more closely until the following night. I had Sunday off and I had planned to go out to the open field gun range with Terry and Billie-Joe while the rest of the town wasted their time in Church. More space for us.

I had a good time blowing apart teddy bears and tacky lamps at the range. Billie kept shouting, “It’s coming right for us!” right before unloading a round from her 12-gauge into one of the stuffed bears, and Terry was and always has been such a terrible shot that he eventually became so irate that he threw down his handgun and proceeded to smash apart a lamp with a tire iron he got out of his trunk. I even managed to get a few good shots off myself, of course I would have done better if Terry hadn’t been shouting things like, “score one for the corpse fucker” and other such distracting remarks. Eventually Billie joined in on the mocking and asked me if it was true that morticians go around killing people to promote business.

“No, that’s Burnswick’s job actually, I just set up the marionette strings for the puppet shows.” I responded, jokingly of course.
“Hey, do what you gotta do,” chimed in Terry, “just don’t go crazy like the last one.”
“Yeah, hey I’ve been meaning to ask about that. Why’d Wilcox off himself anyway?” I asked.
“You don’t know? It was in his obituary. Apparently, Ryan Wilcox’s wife died in the paper mill fire, and he started to get more and more depressed and withdrawn over the years. It sorta makes sense, he had to deal with all the funerals of nearly everyone who died there, his wife, her coworkers and friends and all that. He just couldn’t live with it anymore. Said so in the note he left.”  Billie kicked the dirt with one of her chunky motorcycle boots, clearly getting bored with the conversation. “You think we can talk about something a bit less depressing? We’re here to have fun and ignore gun safety, not get all emo ‘n shit.”

“I didn’t mean to be such a downer,” I said while loading up my revolver. “I just wanted to know why. I found something at work yesterday that might have been his.” Terry started to giggle. “No, it wasn’t porn Terry, you ass. It was some weird thing in a jar, like a maybe a mutant organ or something. I was planning on slicing it up today, actually.”

“Can we watch?” Asked Terry and Billie in unison. *sigh. Some people are really into the macabre I guess.

We got back to my place a few hours later after the gun range shenanigans and a late lunch at the local greasy spoon. The sun had already started to set, basking the early autumn sky in an orange glow. Terry sat in the passenger seat of my Charger, Billie-Joe in the back with her shotgun lain across her lap. Pulling into the gravel pit that constituted a driveway I delegated the camcorder to Terry and requested that Billie refrain from poking things. I don’t have a copy of the home video we made, I destroyed the original after mailing a couple of copies to various news outlets a few days after Billie and I had finished hunting down the surviving cultists, but I remember enough of it to cobble together a transcript.

Video Recording: The scene starts with a shot of Mr. Harris walking out of his bathroom. He is wearing a black apron over his suit and a pair of latex gloves. His face is partially obscured by a surgical mask.

Terry:(Behind the camera) Are you ready to win the Nobel Prize for Incredibly Fucked up Pseudo-Science?
Harris: Absolutely! Those morons hunting for Bigfoot won’t stand a chance this year.
Billie-Joe:(Outside of view) Hey guys, let’s get this over with. I wanna use the afterbirth to make soup. Chuckles.

Terry follows Mr. Harris into the living room, where he has set up a few card tables to organize his equipment. On it we can see several empty mason jars, one jar full of what appears to be formaldehyde, a discectomy kit (includes two scalpels, a pair of tweezers, tissue scissors, a curved probing tool, a hypodermic needle, and a clamp)a microscope, and a copy of The Physician’s Desk Reference Vol. 29. Last, in the center on a metal cooking tray sits the Harlequin.

Harris: (Holding Harlequin No.7 up for the camera.) This sick little puppy here is something I found in a mortuary yesterday. We’re not yet sure what it is exactly, but my working hypothesis is that it’s an alien fetus. Either that or a times ten scale model of Terry’s penis.

The frame is briefly blocked by Terry’s extended middle finger.
Terry: Fuck you Stephan!
Harris: Right then, move over here. I am now about to open the jar.

Terry moves to a better angle and zooms the camera into focus over the Harlequin.
Harris: (Twisting the lid off with a slow hiss followed by a loud pop.) Holy hell it stinks. (Grimacing) Nurse, please note that the subject smells like someone barfed into a diaper.
Billie-Joe:(Now in frame)I’m not the nurse damn it, I’m just in charge of soup.
Harris:(Returning to frame) Alright, I am about to remove the specimen from its protective jar. (Mr. Harris inserts a pair of salad tongs into the jar and removes the Harlequin proper. Note here that a minor distortion affects the shot.) Well, it’s definitely organic, judging by how squishy it is. (Carefully placing the subject onto the cooking tray) Oh wow, this might actually be an alien after all. Check out these veins wrapping around the head bubbles. And… Jesus is that an eye?

Terry directs the camera for a closer inspection. From what we can see, there does appear to be an orb that closely resembles the likeness of an eye. Also during the close-up, another line of distortion moves across the length of the screen.
Terry: Dude, you should poke it with something.
Harris: Science is more than just poking shit you know. But yes, I should take a look under these flaps here.

Mr. Harris tentatively prods the strange orb with the blunt end of his probing tool. Unfortunately, the screen pixelates slightly so we do not get a chance to view this maneuver. Also during this scene the camera begins to pick up audio feedback, despite there being no reason for it to do so.
Harris: (Jerking his hand back) The fuck?
Billie-Joe: What’s wrong?
Harris: (Looking startled into the camera) Shit, did you catch that Terry?
Terry: I didn’t catch anything man. Your camera is acting all stupid.
Billie-Joe: What’s going on? What happened?
Harris: I thought I saw it twitch a little. I probably just bumped the table or something.
Billie-Joe: Are you fucking with us?
Terry: (To Billie) Yeah, he’s fucking with us.
Harris: (waving his hands in frustration) Forget it. Terry, move back a little, you’re crowding me. I’ll start over.

Mr. Harris resumes his attempt to investigate Harlequin No.7. He lifts one of the supposed eye lids with his probing tool, and as before the camera pixelates slightly and picks up feedback, but the overall video quality is decent enough to grasp the situation. A minute goes by with Mr. Harris handling several tools before the light above the card tables begins to flicker. At first, only Billie notices this effect.
Billie-Joe: Hey guys, um… (Points to the light)
Terry: (Directing the camera between Billie, the light bulb, and Mr. Harris) Okay, hey, I’m getting kinda creeped out now.
Harris: (In center frame) Right, okay, let’s do this later. (Mr. Harris attempts to handle Harlequin No.7 with the salad tongs.) Holy shit, it’s moving!
Billie-Joe: Get ride rid of it! Get it out of here!

At this point the audio drops and the screen becomes highly distorted. From the few images that remain somewhat clear, we can infer that Mr. Harris is struggling to reinsert the Harlequin into its original container.  The camera also manages to capture several yellow-green pulses of light, but it is unknown whether or not this effect can be contributed to the near constant visual distortions. This portion lasted for approximately forty three seconds, ending when audio is restored with a loud gunshot. When the visuals stabilize, we can see that Billie is pointing her shotgun at the splattered remains of the Harlequin. We can also see that her nose is bleeding.
Harris: (Nose also bleeding) Thanks for that.
Billie-Joe: (Breathing heavily) Yeah, no problem.
Terry: (Yelling) What the fuck was that?!
Harris: (To Terry) How much of that did you manage to film?
Terry: I don’t know man, the goddamn video kept going out! If I coul… Oh… I don’t feel so… (The camera becomes shaky and we can hear the sound of Terry vomiting.)
Billie-Joe: (Running to Terry’s side.) It’s alright, we’re all alright. Just calm down.
Terry: Don’t tell me to fucking calm down! Or did you forget that the room almost exploded just now? What were those noises?

Mr. Harris appears to try to say something, but stops himself when a thunderclap shakes the living room. No one says anything for several seconds, until a flash of yellow-green is seen coming from the nearby window, followed by a second thunderclap.

Harris: Outside. Now.

Terry follows Billie and Mr. Harris outside onto his front lawn. Billie and Harris are looking directly overhead, followed by the camera doing a sweep over the night sky. What we see is a massive thunderhead approaching from the East, and several flashes of chartreuse lightening entangling the dark clouds.
Harris: Terry, Billie… get back inside.

The video ends there.

So yes, we did manage to film the previous events, all the way up to our view of the approaching storm. Unfortunately a good deal of what was recorded ended up being completely unwatchable, so I’ll have to fill in the damaged bits.

First of all, when I was attempting to remove the part that looked like an eye, the Harlequin started writhing and squirming around, which was highly unexpected, to say the least. The next thing I knew, the lights in my house began to pulse and the air in my living room started to shimmer like hot asphalt in June. I panicked and tried to put the Harlequin back into its jar, hoping that would make it stop doing whatever it was that was making the high-pitched screaming that seemed to be coming from all around us. It didn’t, even after I secured the lid. In fact, after I shoved it back into the fluid the damn thing started flashing this blinding green light that made my head feel like it was about to explode. I still have a hard time remembering at what point Billie returned with her shotgun, but after she blew the Harlequin into little giblets everything stopped. Except for the storm.

On September 23rd, 2009, fifty six men, women, and children claimed to have seen the bizarre electrical storm that passed over Charlottesville beginning at approximately 9:13 p.m. EST. These eyewitnesses were the only apparent claims of any weather phenomena, as not a single meteorological study supported such accusations. The storm in question lasted only a few minutes, but because of the witness statements, phone calls, and the complete disregard of the professional news outlets, people in town referred to it as a sign of the End Days. The most vocal of these statements came out of the Trinity Baptist Church, which is a whole separate story in itself. More on that some other time.

Now, after cleaning up my living room and storing what little of the Harlequin remained into sample jars, Billie and Terry went home for the evening. I didn’t sleep that night. I had too much to reflect upon from had transpired.

I was exhausted the next day at work. Exhausted and nervous. Some part of my brain had been switched to panic mode and it refused to shut down. I tried to just move along in my work, hoping that it would help take my mind off that horrible otherworldly screeching. Looking for any excuse to preoccupy myself, I volunteered to pick up a body from the Charlottesville General Hospital. Madelyn got a message from earlier in the morning and had arranged to fulfill a preneed tomorrow afternoon for a Mr. Havenbrook, who had died sometime last night. I didn’t bother asking for any details, I just fired up the hearse and left.

I got to the hospital about ten minutes after filing the paperwork at the courthouse. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Dr. Sarah Liddell (Terry’s aunt and the Pitt County Coroner) which was a bit of a disappointment, but I did have an interesting conversation with her assistant, Robert.

“So how’d this guy kick it?”  I asked Rob while he helped me load Mr. Havenbrook into the hearse.
“Well, from what I heard from Sarah, he and his wife were checking out that freaky lightning storm last night, when all of a sudden this guy drops to the ground and starts having a seizure. By the time the ambulance arrived he was already gone.”
“Weird,” I said out loud, “What did the autopsy show?”
“Aneurysm,” said Rob, pulling out the MRI shots of Mr. Havenbrook’s head. “Probably brought on by the seizure. See that blotch right there at the base of his brain stem? That’s a popped artery.”

I shut the back of the hearse and thanked Robert. From his point of view, everything seemed fine. Flashing lights are known to cause seizures, so big deal right? I however regretted ever leaving the mortuary. I was looking for a way to forget about the events of last night, instead I found out that I may have inadvertently caused the death of a perfectly innocent man. It was a very unwelcoming feeling, like an omen of doom.

I got Havenbrook’s body back to the mortuary not long after. Lenny was off that day and Mr. Burnswick was busy with a client, so I had move the cadaver downstairs myself. The funeral home had an elevator installed for just this purpose, and while the stretcher helped, Mr. Havenbrook weighed at least three hundred pounds, so it took a good deal of effort on my part to move his fat ass onto the slab. Once I got him up onto the embalming table I took a few minutes to catch my breath before proceeding with my work, all while trying not to think about who this man was.

Step one was to wash the body in antibacterial soap and water. I always hated this part due to the fact that there’s always fecal matter residue caked around the ass cheeks and upper thighs, but at least it’s far less disturbing than the second step. Ever give a full body massage to a dead guy? Well I have. The embalming process requires that a body’s circulatory system be un-constricted, and for that the muscles need to be relieved of rigor-mortis (The stiffening of muscle tissue due to an interruption in the ATP cycle.) Interestingly enough, Mr. Havenbrook had hardly any stiffness to him, something that I had not noticed until this point. Rigor mortis sets in at around three hours after death, peaking at around twelve hours before dissipating between forty eight to sixty hours. Havenbrook had been dead for a little over thirteen hours. His back was red and purple from livor mortis (Internal body fluids succumbing to the forces of gravity.), so clearly his heart muscles had ceased functioning. The only rational explanation would be extremely rapid decomposition, a hypothesis that I was capable of testing myself by simply jamming a cooking thermometer into his gut. (Yes, I was obligated to investigate this issue, as it may be health-safety related .Think bio-hazard C.D.C. guys lining the mortuary in yards of yellow tape.) I gave the thermometer a couple of minutes to warn up while I got myself into a haz-mat suit, just in case. The internal body temperature of the post-mortem lowers quite rapidly after death, but will eventually elevate as microbes multiply from within. Mr. Havenbrook had spent most of the night in a cooler, so if he was any warmer than the air conditioned room temperature then I would have to call in the cavalry. Also Dr. Liddell would probably be fired for not taking a proper blood test.

And the internal heat index was… sixty four point three degrees Fahrenheit. One degree lower than the room.  He was fine, and I felt like an asshole in a scuba suit. That and now I had to patch up the hole I had put in his intestinal wall. Good job Harris, now you won’t get to have a lunch break. I didn’t bother taking off the hazard suit while I rushed to make up the lost time. Probably a good thing too, in retrospect.

After I had sealed up the hole and plugged up the anus with cotton swabs, I began the long process of embalming. I started the same way I always had: By making a small incision into the right common carotid artery, the other into the jugular vein. The embalming fluid would be pumped into the carotid artery, which pushes the “displacement,” out through the jugular and down a drain. For a man the size of Mr. Havenbrook, the whole thing would take about an hour and a half to complete, so I started up the pumps while I prepped for the hypodermic stage. As I walked towards the sink to wash off my gloves, I noticed that the lights were beginning to flicker. I stopped walking mid stride, my heart dropped into my stomach as I began to hear a wet smacking noise coming from the supposedly lifeless cadaver of Mr. Havenbrook. What I saw when I turned around made me drop the surgical tray to the ground.

His eyes were open. And they were staring directly into mine. His mouth was opening and closing as though he were trying to say something, but no noise was being made, save for his right arm limply slapping at the tubing in his neck. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to think. All I could do was stand there, motionless with my back pressed against the sink. For the first time in my life, I wished that I had gone to law school.

It wasn’t until the air started to shimmer that I realized what was happening, when I finally understood why the Harlequin was numbered. Twenty four years ago, Ryan Wilcox found himself in this exact same situation. The storm, the aneurysm, the blotch at the base of Havenbrook’s brain: There was more than one Harlequin, at least six others, and they were parasites. They lived inside of people, lying dormant until the time came to awaken. Something else also came to mind. Just before it burst out from the back of his skull, Havenbrook began to smile. Just before the squirming thing slithered down the drain, I heard the sound of laughter.
Maniacal laughter, like someone was in on some sick joke.

Credit To: Stephan D. Harris

Read the continuation here: The Kindness of Strangers


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