by Brian Lillie
You reach into the dead horse’s mouth and remove the envelope. There is a name written on it in cursive, which you check against the piece of paper pinned to your coat. It doesn’t match. Your breath steams in the early morning air as you exhale with relief. While taking one last look into the horse’s dull black eyes, you decide to go see the Tall Bearded Man and show him your find.
No one else seems to be awake as you let yourself back into the big house through the kitchen door, locking it behind you. You shrug off your coat, still holding the envelope in one hand. The cuckoo clock above the kitchen table ticks loudly.
Everyone left their plates of barely-eaten food sitting along the length of the main table last night when they rushed out of the dining room in a panic. Someone knocked over the coffee can ashtray. Cigarette butts and ash splay out across the table. You trace an idle finger through the grey powder as you walk through the dining room and into the rest of the house.
You creep up the stairs as quietly as possible, alert. Someone is sobbing in one of the far bedrooms, the sound distorted by the house’s slippery acoustics. One of the children, perhaps?
When you reach the Tall Bearded Man’s room, you knock three times, hoping he is awake. There is a pause, followed by the sound of rustling cloth and then a loud click. The door opens.
“Good morning,” he whispers.
You nod and enter his room.
“Did you get any sleep?” The Tall Bearded Man is wearing a bathrobe and two pairs of socks, nametag already pinned in place on his chest: TONY.
“A little,” you answer.
You close the door behind you and hand the envelope to him. “The horses are all dead,” you say. “One of them had this in its mouth.”
The Tall Bearded Man’s eyes widen, one hand going to his chin automatically. He stares at the name written in cursive, just as you did a few minutes ago outside in the pasture.
“Do you know what that means?” you ask him.
The Tall Bearded Man looks at you for a moment, heavily, and then retrieves his reading glasses and notebook from the cluttered table near his bed. You glance at the wall above his desk, where he’s taped dozens of scraps of paper and scribbled words in bold marker right onto the plaster. You understand none of it.
“Describe the horses,” he says, ready to copy down your words into his notebook.
You take a deep breath and lean against the door. “I went out to get some air, thought I might walk up the hill past the barn and see if there were any lights on down in the village. All the horses were in the pasture, just lying there in the frost, not breathing.”
“Six or seven, I guess.”
The Tall Bearded Man squints at you. “Are you sure?”
“I only checked the one up close. It was dead.”
“No, I mean the number of horses.”
You feel a tingle on your skin, knowing full well where this going. “Yes, there are at least a half dozen out there.”
The Tall Bearded Man flips through his notebook and reaches a page of scribbled lists. He stabs a finger into the paper. “Only two horses yesterday. Amazing.”
“Maybe some escaped from a neighbor’s farm,” you say.
“Perhaps, but I doubt it. I want to see the corpses after breakfast.” He lifts the envelope closer to his face and peers at the paper.
“Should we open it?” you ask after a long time.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” he says, handing the envelope back to you. “We don’t know who this ‘Rosemary’ is.”
You remove the dishes from the dining room table and scrape their contents into the large metal garbage can in the garage. You put the plates in the sink to soak while you set to work on sweeping up the ashtray mess. You are returning with the dustpan for another round when the Curly-Haired Woman and the Boy and Girl enter the dining room. Judging by her puffy red face, you decide it was probably the Curly-Haired Woman you heard sobbing earlier. You wonder if you would be crying all night, yourself, if you didn’t have the chores around the house to tire you out.
Upon opening the oatmeal container, you discover it is filled with human teeth. Your only reaction is a deep sigh and you wonder if it is strange that you aren’t more upset. Do you react like this because you can’t remember yourself, or is it just your nature? You toss the container into the garbage can in the garage and search the pantry closet until you find some unopened boxes of Corn Flakes that appear okay.
Everyone in the house has staggered into the dining room by the time you get a somewhat decent breakfast together, even the Teenaged Girl. You remember she had promised to help you cook this morning, but one look at her vacant eyes as you carry in a platter of toast tells you that she won’t be helping anybody today.
“Thank you for the food, Caroline,” says the Tall Bearded Man. He is now dressed in a flannel shirt and khakis and has his notebook on the table in front of him like a hymnal.
That name—Caroline—can’t possibly be right, you think yet again, glancing at your handwritten nametag. “You’re all welcome,” you say quietly to everyone and take your seat nearest the kitchen.
Only the Man With The Buzz Cut smiles. You have noticed him looking at you when he thinks you are otherwise occupied. He twirls a teaspoon with his right hand as he speaks. “Has anybody seen anything weird so far today?”
Before you can decide if you should share about the horses and the envelope, the Curly-Haired Woman speaks, eyes never leaving the untouched food before her. “At sunrise I thought I heard somebody leave the house so I looked out my bedroom window. Couldn’t see anyone, but just when I was about to go back to bed the… shingles on the garden shed flew away.”
“Was there a tornado?” asks the Boy.
“No. They flew away like birds, like a big flock.”
“Jesus,” says the Man With The Buzz Cut.
After breakfast, everyone shuffles into the front room, where the Tall Bearded Man has his whiteboard set up. He’s drawn several stick figures in two groups—a trio and a quartet. He consults his notebook as everyone takes a seat on one of the old-fashioned couches or rocking chairs surrounding the whiteboard.
“I think I finally have it figured out. Bear with me,” he says and then touches the side of his nose. “I believe that this house is a bed and breakfast establishment owned by myself, Tony Caruthers, and my wife, Ellen.” He smiles at the Curly-Haired Woman, who looks away, and then he writes ‘Tony C.’ and ‘Ellen C.’ under two of the stick figures that make up the three-person group. “Our teenaged daughter is Sondra, here,” he says, gesturing to the Teenaged Girl who sits at the far edge of everyone.
“I don’t feel like anyone’s daughter,” she says—her first words all day. The Tall Bearded Man nods but writes ‘Sondra C.’ under the third stick figure in the group.
“Yesterday, you said I was Tony Caruthers,” says the Man With The Buzz Cut. For emphasis, he taps the paper pinned to his chest, which does indeed have TONY written on it in black marker.
“I don’t believe I did,” says the Tall Bearded Man, peering down at his own nametag. He jumps as if bitten when he sees that it reads WENDELL. “Impossible!” he says.
“Really, this whole situation is impossible,” says the Man With The Buzz Cut.
The Curly-Haired Woman stands in sudden anger and kicks over the whiteboard, sending dry-erase pens flying. “You are a fucking idiot!” she yells at the Tall Bearded Man. In the ensuing chaos, as the Tall Bearded Man yells back and the children begin crying, you sneak a look at your own nametag. It now reads MEET ME DOWNSTAIRS, ROSEMARY. While everyone is caught up arguing, you tug the nametag from your sweater, crumple it, and stick it between two couch cushions. A fleeting bubble of a memory tries to break the surface, then, but subsides. You sneak back into the dining room and wash the dishes.
Later—you have no idea how much later—you find yourself sitting outside on one of the picnic tables nearest the house, absently listening to the music that seems to be coming from the sky. In your hand is a paring knife, but you have no idea why. Were you cooking something? It feels so natural in your grip. Perhaps you were a professional chef back before everything started to come loose at the seams, but that rings no bells.
The Man With The Buzz Cut surprises you, appearing from the direction of the woods, cigarette hanging from his lips. “Hey there,” he calls out.
“Hey.” You slip the knife into a pocket of your coat as he arrives at the table.
“I still can’t figure out what we saw last night,” he says.
You shrug when you realize you can’t remember what happened. “I don’t know,” you say, though there is an anxious blank spot where the memory should be. “Nothing makes much sense lately,” you add to avoid sounding rude.
“Shit—that’s the understatement of the year,” says the Man With The Buzz Cut. “I’m about to try for the village again. You interested?”
The knife turns into something wet and wriggling in your pocket then and when you pull it out, you are amused to see that it has become a single live smelt, gasping and silvery in the grey afternoon light.
“Are we having fish for dinner?” says the Man With The Buzz Cut.
“Maybe.” You notice a figure standing in the woods, just beyond the path entrance. As if sensing your gaze, the figure steps back and is subsumed by the trees.
“Do you mean ‘maybe fish’ or ‘maybe try for the village’?”
“Who all is going?”
“Just me, so far.” The Man With The Buzz Cut finishes his cigarette and stubs it out on the sole of his right boot. “Could be fun…”
You have the sudden and overwhelming feeling that you know him from some time before. That you know who he truly is. “Thank you for the invitation, but I have too much to do.”
At five o’clock, you fill the kitchen’s largest pot with water from the tap, with only the ticking of the cuckoo clock to keep you company. Outside, through the smudged window above the sink, you see what appear to be large geometric patterns moving in the grass. When you realize the patterns are composed of thousands and thousands of tiny red ants, you close the curtains.
The Teenaged Girl sits at the small kitchen table below the clock, watching you closely. She has been tearing her nametag into little pieces, which are piled upon the blue Formica tabletop like fingernail trimmings. ‘S’ is the only discernible letter left on the fragment still in her hand.
“You startled me,” you say, lying.
“Sorry,” says the Teenaged Girl.
You wait for her to say something else. She remains silent. You move to the refrigerator to see how many of the vegetables are still vegetables. “Are you feeling any better?” you ask.
“If you mean, am I still planning to kill myself, then the answer is maybe,” she says, shredding the ‘S’ and adding it to the pile.
“Can you help me shell some peas?”
The Teenaged Girl bites her lip and sighs. “Sure.”
Not wanting to subject her to the ants, you lead the way through the front room. The forgotten whiteboard catches your eye from a spot on the floor, half under the worn corduroy loveseat. The stick figures are gone, replaced by a horribly detailed drawing of the Tall Bearded Man strangling The Curly-Haired Woman while the Man With The Buzz Cut watches, smiling.
You nudge the hideous drawing fully under the loveseat with one foot as you walk by, hoping to spare the Teenaged Girl. As if it were possible to spare anyone from whatever is happening.
At dinnertime, you ring the old bell outside the backdoor, which echoes brittle against the colorless evening air. The Boy and Girl and the Teenaged Girl are the first to arrive. After waiting ten minutes for the stragglers, you start dishing out spaghetti and peas to the hungry kids.
Some time later, you hear the front door open. You wipe your mouth and push up from the table. From the dining room doorway, you can see the Tall Bearded Man and the Man With The Buzz Cut shrugging off their coats, talking in a low murmur.
“Food’s ready,” you say.
“Thank you, Rosemary,” says the Tall Bearded Man. “We will be right in. It smells delicious.”
The Man With The Buzz Cut brushes past you, hungrily rubbing his hands together. “I could eat a horse,” he says, trying to make the Boy and Girl smile. You keep your eyes on the Tall Bearded Man, who is taking his sweet time unlacing his muddy boots.
Even without looking, you sense the Man With The Buzz Cut going stiffly quiet in the dining room behind you. You turn to see the Curly-Haired Woman, covered in mud and leaves, sitting at the head of the table, forking a big red gob of spaghetti onto her plate. The Girl and Boy stare, silently, mouths hanging open like carp.
The Curly-Haired Woman smiles at everyone. “I could eat a whole field of horses,” she says, winking at you.
The Man With The Buzz Cut stands behind his spot at the table, gripping the sides of the chair.
“How was everyone’s day?” asks the Curly-Haired Woman.
The Tall Bearded Man squeezes past you. “Ellen!” he says to the Curly-Haired Woman, beaming. “How was your trip?”
“What trip?” says the Teenaged Girl.
“It was lovely,” says the Curly-Haired Woman.
The Man With The Buzz Cut looks like he is about to cry. The Tall Bearded Man takes his seat and unfolds his napkin. “Do we have any sprinkle cheese?” he asks you.
“I’ll be right back,” you say.
In the kitchen, under the loudly ticking cuckoo clock, you remember the envelope from the morning and take it out. Without spending the time to truly make a decision, you tear it open. Inside is a piece of paper, which reads:
You should know by now the Warden is dead.
There is no signature.
“We never did go out and check on those horses,” says the Tall Bearded Man when you return. He is the only one left at the table now. It is as if everyone else disappeared in mid-bite, noodles still clinging to fallen forks like baited fishhooks.
You hand him the bright green canister and take your seat. “Where are the others?” you ask, afraid of the answer.
The Tall Bearded Man laughs as he begins shaking the sprinkle cheese onto the huge mound of pasta before him. “You would never believe me if I told you,” he says.
Before you are even conscious of movement, you find yourself lunging across the table, kitchen knife suddenly in your hand. The Tall Bearded Man looks surprised to find the blade jammed into his neck, surprised to see his blood spraying out across the table in a great fan, surprised to see you smile for the first time since he can remember knowing you.
He gurgles something emphatically, clutching at your dress. You take a step back. He falls forward onto his face and bleeds out.
Not a professional chef, then. You have lost your appetite, so you pick up your plate and go scrape the uneaten food into the garbage can in the garage. It seems colder, somehow, and when you look up you see that the garage no longer has a roof. The night sky is huge and pierced with millions of stars in dizzying, unfamiliar patterns.
By the time you have retrieved your coat from the kitchen, the rest of the house has dissolved around you. Only the cuckoo clock remains, hanging in the air several feet above the grass, reflecting the starlight and ticking, ticking.
You can hear the Boy and Girl giggling from the woods, and judging by the sounds of their running and jumping you know they must be much larger now, possibly hoofed. Their laughter is infectious and for one tiny moment you are happy. The stars whirl above you. The tree line is undulating, softening like clay. The children laugh even louder.
You approach the dead horse and plunge your hands up to the elbow into its yielding belly. Searching blindly with your fingers, you find two iron handles and tug with all your strength. The horse’s flank pulls away with a stench of rotting molasses, revealing stairs leading downward through the horse’s belly into a Blackness that eclipses the blackness around it like a reverse sun.
Ah, now you remember.
About the Author
Brian Lillie, writer and movie-maker from Ann Arbor, Michigan. A fella so mean he once shot HIMSELF for snoring.
World’s Shortest Author Interview
If you had to watch a duel, who’d be the fighters? Who’d win? What would your delicious viewing snack be, and how would you dress for the occasion?
The duel would be between Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove, at fifty paces, and they would each be armed with a leaky atomic warhead.
We would all win.
I would be dressed in a jaunty pearlescent smock and spats, with a mandibled turquoise helmet. My delicious viewing snack would be cheese-festooned iguana tails, dipped in cadmium.
Make up a word for “uncomfortably warm” and describe its origins.
“High School”. Enough said…
More by the Author
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology and he does most of the Space Squid cover designs. He also has a story in the Avast Ye Airships steampunk anthology due out next week.