A Tale of Terror
About a mother at the brink of despair
My fingers rest on the keyboard like motionless crab legs. Outside, snow covers the box hedge and the sprawling Asheville hills beyond. Bright ice sheathes the fir trees and our wooden fence, its pickets jutting to the sky like cruel daggers. And as I calmly watch this tranquil, familiar scene, I wait for an idea. Something…horrible. Something…grotesque. A tale of terror that I know I can write because this girl has done it so many, many times before.
But I still can’t think of a single…blessed…thing.
The workroom is sunny. Cheerful. Unlike me. Thin December light, diffused by fractal patterns of frost, pierces our double-paned bay windows. My primitive computer warmly hums and sputters as I anticipate a sellable idea to whop me like a brick. I could use the money. The phone was disconnected yesterday. Perhaps an old friend tried to call. I wouldn’t know.
Cable is gone. Kaput. I forgot to pay the bill again, silly me. I don’t mind much, although Ben and Sammy do. They love Sesame Street.
I suspect that the repo man will eventually slink by and commandeer my minivan, but I have no job to reach now, so why should I care? He can have it.
The company laid me off two months ago. Nothing personal, Jackie, they said. Nothing sexist and not my fault. I didn’t believe them.
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, the same tired adage the Bible-thumpers spout. My mother was one of their breed; she toted the Good Book like a six-shooter. Lord, how I miss her. She passed away last month. Pancreatic cancer chewed her innards up and spat out a coffin. But to the credit of the religiously minded, I finally do have time to write again, after kids, a full-time job, a jaunt in the hospital, and messy divorce all murdered my muse.
So here I am. Ready. Waiting, and—yeah—worried.
Worried because as I sit here in raggedy slippers, swaddled in a white terrycloth robe that Chip and I stole from a bed-and-breakfast in Nags Head when we were still in slippery young love, staring at this snow-clean screen and hoping for that delicious writing itch, I know that I must succeed for my boys.
I worry that I will fail them.
Ben and Sammy squeal and splash in the tub. If I could just get into the zone—like the long forgotten days of yore—their distractions will fade to so many muted whispers. When the horror comes a’ knockin’, nothing else matters. Nothing at all.
It is snowing again. Flakes whirl and spin like ballerinas. A foot deep already. By tomorrow another six inches will have fallen. It is quite beautiful, although bleak.
I think about that bleakness. The cold. The ice. Horror surely lurks out there, doesn’t it?
Oh momma, yes, yes it does.
I once penned a story about a newlywed couple trapped in a cabin. Chip and I were on our second honeymoon in Tahoe, while Ben stayed with his grandmother. I had finished reading a book about the Donner Party and their 1846 journey from Missouri to California where winter storms trapped them in the Rockies.
Chip refused to read the book—he was always squeamish; opposites attract and all that jazz—but I fed him the grisly details anyway.
The Donner Party originally numbered in the hundreds, trudging across the Midwest plains with brave, naïve enthusiasm, but snowstorms halted them halfway across a mountain pass. Winter rolled in early that year like some hungry primordial god, and one by one they all
Destined to fail.
A few struggled onward for help, but most stayed behind. The weak. The children. They boiled dirty shoestrings and cooked clunky horse hooves, gnawed leather shoes and chewed pinecones—anything imaginable to survive—but eventually they consumed the dead. They became cannibals.
Enthralled by their fates, and perhaps spurred by their ghosts, I scribbled my own black tale on legal yellow stationery:
The 1970s. A man and woman are vacationing in a remote Pyrenees bungalow. A blizzard howls around them. They expect rescue and fail to ration their supplies. Hours stretch into days. Days into weeks. Hunger knots their bellies. They grow gaunt and frail and begin to look at each other in a different ghastly light. Cabin fever sets in, and they eventually harvest small pieces of each other’s flesh, the least useful parts first, the perfunctory parts, cooking them over a butane burner. When help finally arrives only the woman is alive, crusted with dried fluid and antiseptic cream, bearing stiff slipshod stitches, flexing three fingers and wiggling nub toes. She has no ears and only one breast, sucking the marrow from her husband’s bones, and all she can do is laugh and eat and cry and laugh and laugh some more…
Chip hated that story. Weak stomach.
Fatal Frontiers loved it though. Gave me fifty bucks and published it. So take that, Chip. Your opinion is worth spit. So were your vows. You promised to love me! But… nevermind.
Wind rattles the window, moaning. Maybe it’s the Wendigo of Native American myth and legend. The cold. The remoteness. All excellent fodder for a story, but I have journeyed there before. I need something new, rather than just stagnating in the past.
Four year-old Sammy wails from the bathroom, and Ben says: “Mom! He hit me first! MOM! He hit me first!”
“Did not!” screams Sammy, his words bubbly with angst. Such young drama. Maybe I should write a story about the trials of motherhood instead. They’re just being boys though, and right now I need to write. They need me to write, even if they don’t know it.
“Guys!” I yell over my shoulder. “No fighting! Mommy is working. Be quiet for a while, please. Ben, no hitting your brother, or it’s Time Out! Understand?”
Their splashing subsides. They’re good little fellas. The only loving fellas in my life at all.
Ack. You sap. Okay, Jackie, no time for sentimentality. Back to work. The job at hand. Stay focused. Keep sharp. But it’s hard. A potentially bad headache has revved its engine, quietly now, but soon it will be screaming. Screaming.
I stare at the monitor, remembering how I wrote during college as assistant editor at the Herald. I drank a lot of black coffee back then. I pounded cheap Milwaukee’s Beast on the weekends. I smoked even cheaper reefer, but that stuff just made me silly, slutty. No, my creativity sprouted from the fact that I was…happy.
Now there’s a thought.
I type the word on the screen. Five simple letters. I gaze at them, and then press Delete.
Jackie Durant does not write happy stories. She writes gut-punching horror, and right now she needs something grittily hoisted hand over hand from the deep coal-cave of her soul, something oozing with zest and energy, and then she can edit it, sell it, and if my mother were still alive, I would tell her everything is going to be all right. Doctors don’t know everything, do they Mom?
And then I’ll write another tale. And another after that, with stories pouring from my fingers like…like…a silver plume of letters from lofty crystalline falls. You can do it, my friend.
You can do it.
You can, so do it. So do it. Just do…do-do…just do it.
Can I? I doubt it. I doubt it. Oh, good heavens, who am I fooling?
My brain seems unplugged, shorted out, the ends frayed, sputtering blue fire and failing the leap from left hemisphere to right.
I wonder how the professionals operate; what magic button pumps ideas through the two point two pounds of gray matter between their ears. My noggin almost behaved like that once, and I have the credits to prove it.
Like “Bedlam,” from a twisted dream of mine. An eight-year old girl fears a monster in her closet, but her father doesn’t believe her. A wily demon is actually whispering lies to the child, and has convinced the girl that her father wants to kill her. So, one night she slits his throat and bleeds him good. A preemptive strike…
…and I sold it to Freaky Worlds.
My first Award-winner was “The Unloved Heart,” about a man who wakes to find a gaping hole in his chest, his ribs splintered outward, his heart gone-a-missing. But he is still alive and so is his heart, and it’s in the house with him. Still beating. Still waiting. And still unloved. So he rips the hearts from others and crams them inside the hole, just trying to feel love.
Well, it was a Poe rip-off, but first published in Black Souls and later in The South’s Top Horror & Fantasy.
A personal favorite was “The Ho-hum Conundrum,” the semi-comic tale of a boring frozen dinner salesman who leads a boring life traveling in his boring station wagon. He gets abducted by aliens along a stretch of road between Tucson and Vegas. The aliens have recently included human beings on their menu, but the salesman is a fast talker and offers himself as an intermediary for delivering microwavable Earthling dinners.
That one placed second in the Mary Shelley Awards, the closest that my Icarus wings ever flew to professionalism.
I almost had a book deal with Savage Dreams for a collection of my shorts, but then everything got…complicated. So complicated. And it never panned out. I botched it. No thanks to Chip but I botched it all. You promised to love me no matter what, Chip!
Good dog dog dammit.
I stand and pace. My legs have fallen asleep. My head throbs. I have been sitting for over an hour, gazing between the landscape and the monitor, and I have written exactly one insufficient word:
Ben and Sammy are laughing. It comes naturally to children, at least until the weight of the world bears down on them, a great granite planet of bricks. It can squish someone. I feel its weight even now. My heart beats against it, fluttering under my ribcage like a wounded bird.
I need to make dinner. Macaroni and cheese, sliced hotdogs, cola for Ben and chocolate milk for Sammy.
I’ll take a break, but first I need to write rather than reminisce about the past. My accomplishments. My failures. My so many, many failures…
…like Chip. I tried, oh how I tried mister…I tried and tried and cried and I—
Oh! Jackie! Listen to you. Why did you think that?
(Because it’s true?)
No! He wasn’t a failure! The bastard made his choices—with those other whores—and you made your choices. You have the house and you have the boys and you have your…you have your…your…your…
I stifle a sob. It bubbles up from the empty place where my creativity used to dwell. I don’t know where it has moseyed off to, but it has abandoned the premises. I am a human desolation yes I am. I am
NO NO NO!
Get a hold of yourself! Christ Almighty!
I swallow water and plunk in front of the computer again. I have been thinking about junk. What is important is my family. There is no husband to help us anymore, no Jesus to come swooping out of Heaven to save our butts, even if I do call his name oh-so-often, and there is no angel lurking at my shoulder.
Maybe angels visited the Donner Party on those nights of fierce wind and toothy ice. Maybe angels visit other writers who write as fast as they can to escape the jaws of what they dread, slurping and chomping after them, and they are nudged to success by celestial friends.
And some people like me have no angels at all. I’m just broken I guess.
“Mom!” shouts Sammy. “Ben called me a poop-head!” Sammy has always been the Tattler.
“Did not!” screams Ben through the doorway. Ben is the Denier.
They’ve been playing for an hour with their plastic boats, their hands and toes probably so pruned that they look like tender little fruits.
I rub my eyes. The headache has advanced to a migraine, a nice one too, where I’ll have to lie in a black room with cold towels swathing my head like a mummy’s funeral wrappings. I don’t have any migraine medicine left either. I don’t have any medicine at all. The lithium prescription ran out weeks ago and I haven’t bought another. But I don’t need it.
I’m just depressed, that’s all. I can beat it.
It has grown very cold. The wind whispers outside. I rise and walk to the bathroom. Bubbles fill the old clawfoot porcelain tub. It came with the house when Chip and I bought it seven years ago, seven years that feels like a lifetime. Ben and Sammy look up at me, their eyes bright, clumpy suds in their hair and on their cherubic faces. They sit in a bubbly warzone of rubber ships and yellow duckies.
“Come play, Mom!” says Sammy.
He smiles. The corners of my mouth turn up. It’s just reflex though.
“Yeah! Come play!” mimics Ben.
They both splash, the boats bobbing and whirling. Water strikes my silk pajama bottoms. Perhaps I should play with them. Just this once, the big kid I am at heart. I kick my slippers off, shrug away the terrycloth robe, and to their delight, I step right into the tub.
They laugh, and I squeeze Sammy close—he’s waterbottle warm—kissing his dark hair. I remember when he was just a squalling blue thing shunted from my body. I recall how happy Chip and I felt at the time.
There—that strange word.
Children are always happy, but adulthood is anything but happy. It can be soul crushing. Sometimes adulthood is a teetering tower of missed opportunities. Sometimes I’m glad my mother is not around to see me. Their father must have seen that potential failure in his wife. He cheated on me several times, and now he only takes the boys on occasional weekends. He wants to avoid me. He even calls me…crazy. I’m not. Dammit, I’m not.
The deadbeat tells our sons too much. Like how their mother has had certain problems in the past; how she’s been in special hospitals, and has suffered unpleasant lapses, and I fear that their young faces will crumble as they eventually comprehend what a major malfunction their mother has always been.
No, no, no. I won’t let that happen.
“Sweeties,” I say, “Momma loves you very much. No matter what.”
The Revlon hairdryer sits on the sink. The casing is shiny. Beetle-black. Plugged in. I stretch, feeling old muscles complain, grab hold, and bring it down. 1800 Watts. I wonder if that is enough.
I thumb the switch from OFF to HI. Heat blasts out.
Sammy pretends that his destroyer is exploding my body into chunky fragments. Ben counterattacks anyone daring to assault his mother. So young, but these boys already understand violence. It is programmed at a genetic level.
The blowdryer is just another toy now, one that technically trumps theirs because mine makes cool sounds and theirs do not. Maybe I should tell them that it is a nuclear submarine. Maybe I should say nothing at all.
My cranium has developed stress fractures. Hammers pound on my brain; my fat, useless, damaged brain.
Maybe I’m really a female Christ, and these two are squalid thieves at my side, and we hang on the crucifixes of the Romans. Afterwards, we will be together with momma someplace where my boys will not grow old and spiteful and suffer the world’s indignities. Chip might even find us bobbing here in a few days, maggot-white, stinking and bloated. He so, so deserves it. Chip will never pollute their minds again, and my boys will never grow up to be like me: damaged goods.
But I can wait. I can wait. If I can think of a story in the next few minutes, something radical and inspiring, something thrilling and chilling, like the books and stories from my delightful days of yore, then I’ll crawl out and dry the boys off, cook them a quick macaroni meal, plop down and begin to write.
That is what I’ll do. Just wait and see, Jackie.
It’s not long.
And maybe by then, God-willing, I can think of one single
About the Creator
I am a writer, artist and poet from North Carolina. I recently self published a children's/YA book called Harold and the Dreadful Dreams. You can learn more about it at my blog https://jmhauser.com, as well as other projects.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
This is awesome.