“She was always a shrew,” Gerald said, he struck a match from the book beneath his coattails. Peter gnawed at a stale cracker left over from the afternoon service. All the remaining food was packed up in tupperware and clingfilm.
“From dust to dust,” Peter said, as he rubbed Gerald’s knuckles in search of a long lost comfort, “I hope she’ll be happier there.”
“Where?” Gerald scoffed, “in hell?” He dragged on his cigarillo. He still carried that tin case Peter had given him for their last anniversary, now full of ashes. Peter ignored him.
“We’re gonna be here all night,” Peter mumbled, just audible over the patter of rain, “might as well find a way to pass the time.” Gerald removed the cigarillo and smirked at him. “That’s not what I meant,” Peter retracted his hand and stuck it back in his pocket, “let’s just tell ghost stories until this rain lets up.”
“Sure,” Gerald said, “old time’s sake and all that.”
“I doubt it would interest you,” Peter said, as he clenched tight the chewed-up pen from his pocket, “but I did read something new about this area.
“It was an old manuscript my editor had, but never published. The author just passed away and my editor thought it might at least spark some interest in me. It’s about some bizarre cult operating out in the woods for about ten years. The author had been one of the members as a child. He didn’t really have the chops to be a writer, and it seemed he held a candle for the faith, so his manuscript sat in storage and collected dust.
“The major conceit of the cult was that the soul of Christ will always exist in the world, born of a mortal mother. Their leader claimed as much for himself. However, he did not perform miracles; if he had, his following might have been much bigger. No, his flock came across as generally more gnostic than your average protestant. For ten years they raised animals, practiced a strict vegetarian diet, and would meditate once a day. They kept on relatively well with the town without incident, until one day the majority of members just vanished.”
“Let me guess,” Gerald scoffed, “they drank the Kool-Aid?”
“No,” Peter replied, he shook his head, “at least… not according to the book.
“You see, one other facet of their beliefs was that every iteration of Jesus is destined to meet a violent end. They all saw history in terms of cycles, where small cycles run together and overlap with larger cycles. The author illustrated it by referencing geology, where the erosion of one epoch figuratively becomes the foundation of the next. Apparently, their messiah was having dreams about their cycle. He had visions of magnificent, cerulean lights dancing about in concentric patterns far above their commune. He inferred that these lights were what he called ‘cosmic seraphim,’ whom he thought came to deliver his people every hundred or so cycles. Supposedly, the last event had been in ancient Egypt.”
“What the hell,” Gerald asked, as he put out his first smoke and took up another, “does that have to do with the disappearance?”
“Can’t you be patient for once?” Peter rebuked, he replaced the pen behind his ear. “All the best stories have exposition. It’s like the vegetables you have to eat before your dessert.
“Anyhow, the author was one of the youngest members of the cult, his parents having brought him with them when he was only six years old. The day of the ‘ascendance,’ the leader told all the kids to go into town and find different items for their deliverance. For whatever reason, his item had been a garden hose. A typical sixteen-year-old, he just hopped a picket fence and took the extension hose from someone’s backyard. He returned to the commune within an hour of receiving his mission.
“Upon his return he found all the pens empty, the houses barren, and his parents gone. Throughout the community, the door to each home was open and every surface within was left spic-and-span. The cult had always been spartan and cleanly, yet there were no clothes on the lines, nor even the dishes leftover from that mornings breakfast. One by one the rest of the children returned, all to the discovery that their parents were absent. They waited there three days to be delivered as well, living off whatever food they could find in the pantries. After that they were brought into police custody and, eventually, foster care. Their parents, sad to say, were never found.”
“Huh,” Gerald sighed, he scratched his head, “any of that actually happen?”
“Maybe,” Peter said, and he smiled slyly, “never bothered to check, though my editor called it fictional. We never heard about it before, and you would think every conspiracy nut from here to Arizona would proclaim it as proof that little grey men are out there.”
“Did the guy believe in aliens?” Gerald inquired, he leaned forward and his seat creaked. “What did he say about it?”
“Well,” Peter said, as he stroked his chin, “he wrote an epilogue where he clarified a few things. Said that he still followed the basic doctrine, but thought that the ‘cosmic seraphim’ stuff was hokum concocted by their leader. He theorized that Martin Luther King Jr. was the real Christ for his time. Doubt the man would agree himself, but whatever. He said that he realized the leader was a false prophet soon after the event.”
“What the hell brought him to that conclusion?” Gerald sneered, though he still stared deep into Peter’s eyes.
“He spoke to one of the other kids,” Peter recited, ready to deal the final blow, “a seventeen-year-old girl. She claimed that the master had spoken to her in private the night before all the kids headed into town. Said that the items he had asked of her were two one-way tickets on a flight to Mexico.”
Gerald groaned at the pulp ending. In spite of himself, the story stuck in his head, and he spied Peter sat content with his tale. He turned his head away and took the time to reexamine the room. Gerald didn’t mind entertaining this strange man one more time, as long as it distracted from Pete’s decaying mother over in the closed, mahogany casket. He wondered if all the flowers heaped around it were meant to distract from the guest of honor. All these lilacs, roses, lavenders, their beauty meant to serve in contrast with this woman so ugly in life. Still, Pete loved her, in spite of her hate for Gerry, and years after Pete no longer loved him.
“You know, Pete,” Gerry said, “I don’t think aliens are really all that scary. For one, I doubt that the FBI would be competent enough to hide a bunch of damn extraterrestrials for decades. They do plenty of terrible things, but, in my experience, they’re shit at hiding it.”
“Well then,” Pete responded and rolled his eyes, “I’m sure you have some interesting story that I’ve never heard of.”
“In fact,” Gerry reposed, “I do.” He snuffed out his second cigarillo in order to save some lung capacity. “My T.A., Arianna, told me something that instantly made me think of you. She is a second generation Argentine immigrant, and she shared this with me after a long night of takeout and grading papers. Her grandmother confided it in her the year she had passed. We can go on if you’re up for it.”
“Sure,” Pete said, he glowed in his dour suit. “So far, this has been fun.”
“Okay then,” Gerry sat up in his chair, “as a child, her grandmother had been friends with a little Scottish girl. Oh, her name was Rosa and her friend was Lizeth, I believe. She grew up with Lizeth and all the time she knew her, she swore that her family had moved there in order to escape the curse. The story went that her grandpa and his best pal had both worked at a mill down in England. This was the industrial revolution, mind you, so the workers were treated like dogs. In these shit circumstances, the two tried to get a union together with the other laborers.”
“Seems like a roundabout tale,” Pete said, he folded his hands together on his lap, “jumping from here to South America to Europe.”
“I’m giving it to you straight,” Gerry sighed, “take it up with Arianna if you have any complaints.
“She said that the union worked for a while, and they even helped organize a general strike. However, one day the boss comes to Lizeth’s grandad, knew he was one of the union leaders, and he said he’d reward him if he snitched on others. He did it, who knows why, but he did it. Maybe he wanted to impress his fiancee, maybe he bet that his friend would just get a slap on the wrist, I can’t say. That week his pal was shot, found face down in a pool of his own blood at his own goddamn flat.
“The man knew he had a hand in his buddy’s death, yet he still took the money, and he still started his own factory. His family flourished, lived like royalty in London, but only his death would reveal the blood staining his hands. One day, while on an inspection of his factory, some worker came up and whispered in his ear. He turned white as paste before sequestering off to his office for hours. The next morning, when the workers all returned, they saw many of the machines smashed and smoking, his body swinging from the rafters. In the note he left behind, he wrote out all of his crimes, asking only that in his demise that his family would be spared the same fate.”
“But they weren’t” Pete said, he nodded his head, “vengeful spirits are never satisfied until their wrath is carried out ten times over.”
“No,” Gerry chuckled, “they certainly aren’t.
“Yet Rosa was not convinced of this tales veracity for, as she grew up, Lizeth added more and more fantastic additions to it. When they were ten, Lizeth claimed that her grandma had been crushed under the rotting carcass of a bull just seven days before she was born. At twelve, Lizeth said that her uncle had died when his car stalled passing over some train tracks. The sick little girl detailed how his bloody corpse fused with the shredded metal so that it looked like the car was a monster that half-digested him. Finally, as they were nearly grown, Lizeth cried that her mother had suffered a fever in the last month of her pregnancy, ending with her death during childbirth. The baby she gave birth to was bloated and headless, a wad of gross, purple tissue that might have been a tumor. Soon after that, Rosa stopped seeing Lizeth altogether, as if she just disappeared into thin air.
“The next time she heard from Lizeth was in a letter she got on the eve of her wedding, four whole years since their last meeting. Rosa was overjoyed by this correspondence from her old friend, who wished her the best of luck in domestic life and requested that they meet once more in Lizeth’s old house.”
“I think I can see where this is going,” Pete said, a smirk on his lips.
“Shut it!” Gerry snapped back. “You always told me it was rude to interrupt your stories, so would you mind giving me the same courtesy?
“After her honeymoon, Rosa found herself back at Lizeth’s home, very little changed since their childhood together. The front door was open, but this was pretty standard too from Rosa could recall. She headed in to find that the interior too was unchanged, the same china and family portraits in the same places, only dust and cobwebs in a few corners to attest that time had, indeed, passed. She heard the cry of an infant come from above her, and she wondered if her friend was also married, even had a child of her own.
“She went up those rickety stairs to her friend’s girlhood room, only to find it lacking either Lizeth or her baby. Instead, there was another letter addressed to Rosa lying on the bed, which read:
My Dearest Friend Rosa,
I am sure you remember those tales I told as a child, those you refused to believe. In truth, I never believed in them either, not until that fateful night my mother and little brother perished together. For some time I returned to Scotland, only to find my remaining family slain as well. There I discovered the true nature of the curse that has haunted us for nearly a century. It is not of the blood, it is of the mind. There had been no angry phantom, only a guilty old man looking for an excuse to leave his miserable existence behind. An idea, though, can be just as contagious as any plague. The allure of death only strengthens when it intermingles with supernatural drama. I am sorry that I cannot meet you in person, but I know that it is my responsibility to dispel this curse once and for all. Please forgive me for what I have done.
“Rosa was distressed, she called for Lizeth and determined to search the house despite her fear. She found the only locked door in the house, the one for the downstairs bathroom, and with all her strength she smashed down the door. Inside she found the porcelain tub stained with crimson, the smell of putrid flesh, black teeth, and a ghoulish thing that must have—”
The lights surged with a clash of thunder.
“Shit!” Gerry yelped in his blindness. “Pete?!”
“It’s alright Gerry…” Pete responded, calm in spite of the encompassing darkness, “I’ll go get some candles from the supply closet.”
For a moment, Gerry just sat in the dark, allowing the climax of the story to play over and over in his head until finally fading away. He drew his matchbook again and lit a stick, he held the puny flame out before his adjusting eyes. All that the light could catch were his own legs and the chair of his confidant. Gerry focused on slow breaths, deep circulation, in an attempt to preserve his cool despite the macabre locale.
“Here we go,” Peter said, as he placed a candle on the Lazy Susan between them. “It was probably just a fuze blowing out, we can check in a bit. In the meantime, would you like to finish your story?”
“No,” Gerry coughed, “wasn’t much left to it anyway.”
“Well then,” Peter said, his smile framed by the sparse, yellow light, “would you allow me one more?”
“Yeah,” Gerry said, he nodded to Peter, “I couldn’t tell you the next time we will get the chance.”
“In that case,” Peter replied, “I’ll give you something special.
“On her deathbed, Enid told me something peculiar. When I was growing up, she never said a single word on her family, and she would shut down or lie if I ever asked. Now, since I am the last of her family, she decided that I need to know the secret.”
Gerry furrowed his brow.
“I thought we were forgetting the old bag for now,” he said, as he lit his last cigarillo on the candle wick, “why must we know the dying words of that loon?”
“When she was a girl,” Peter continued, “she spent much of her time in the woods behind the house. She was bookish, and the few friends she kept in the school year disappeared by summer break. She had a sister, whom would have been my aunt, but she was in college and had little patience for her sister in grade school. Most days, Enid would find a tree or a shady patch of grass where she could read until her mother called her to dinner.
“One June, she went further into the woods on a whim, further than the range of her mother’s voice. Beyond a creek and standing in a clearing, she found this dilapidated concrete building that she called ‘The Castle.’ There was a collapsed wall where light would flood the ground floor, which, despite its magnanimous size, was only furnished by a cot, a wooden chair, and an empty bookshelf all in close proximity. Below was the basement, which connected to the top with a long, steel ladder, and it was made up of claustrophobic passages and small rooms with the exact same accommodations as above.”
“Sounds like a prison,” Gerry chimed in, before he took another drag, “or maybe some sort of research facility. I don’t know. What the hell did she say?”
“I couldn’t ask questions,” Peter mumbled out, a break from his confidant, storyteller voice, “she only referred to it as ‘The Castle.’
“Anyway, that’s where she started going to read and keep her books. On more than one occasion she stayed past dinner, but she could endure the tongue lashings and cold meatloaf as she learned to track the sun. She said it was special to her because it was her own place, somewhere she felt she could belong. Her sister, finally taking an interest in her, followed her to The Castle. Once she saw it, the visage shocked her enough that she screamed to Enid to stay away from it. Enid was not aware that she had been followed, and in a panic she fled into the corridors below.
“Her sister called for her, even threatened to tell their parents, but when she finally descended she was silent. My mother cowered beneath the bed frame in a room near the ladder, and she listened to her sister clatter down the rungs and hurry past her. Once she was sure that her sister was further in, she climbed back up and ran home. Her sister did not return that night, and Enid was unable to tell her parents where she was.”
“Wait,” Gerry gasped, “did your aunt actually disappear?!”
“I’ve never met her,” Peter sighed, “I don’t know enough to contradict my mother.
“The next day, Enid returned to The Castle and reluctantly searched for her sister. She spent countless time winding the passages and calling out her name until she came upon a single, locked door. It was metal and would not budge against the blows of a child, nor was there any answers for the girl calling for her sister to come out. It seemed an hour before she found her way back to the exit. Apparently, it had been longer than she thought, for it was dusk out when she emerged. Running back home, she found a cold dinner and an enraged father. He ranted that her mother went looking for her hours ago. Her mother was gone too.
“The following morning her father made her lead him to The Castle, where he too was struck silent upon seeing it. He was determined, however, and she led him down the shaft and through the passageways until they came upon the locked door. This time, though, there was a matching door just opposite it. Her father called out to his wife and eldest daughter, but there was no response. He took a crowbar and levered the rusted bolt loose. What was behind that door sent him sprawling to the ground. My mother said that what she saw was like her sister, but her skin was porcelain white, her eyes glassy and unblinking, and a mouth black with blood dripping onto the disheveled bedspread.”
“Do you…” Gerry said, he snuffed out his final smoke, “do you believe her?”
“My grandfather,” Peter whispered, as he stared down at his lap, “my mother said he killed himself soon after."
“She was more alone than ever.”
The thunder struck again and the candle was blown out by a gust of thin air. Gerry brought out another match, and, despite his jittery hands, relit the wick. Peter was replaced by an empty chair. He picked up the candle stick and waved it around the room, frantic in his search for his partner.
“Oh god!” Gerry called out. “Pete! Where are you?!
“Pete! Shit! You scared me, okay!?
“Please! I’m sorry I said all those nasty things about your mother!
At once his cries and the flame were extinguished. The rain still swept through the night, yet even the percussion of lightning was snuffed out in the thick darkness. There is nothing but silence.