from the short story collection "Brain Matter"
It was the second day in my new place, a house I had rented during the spring to write my first book. Mother Nature was putting on quite a show that night, starring thunder and lightning with a special appearance by the rain. According to the weatherman, the performance was booked for the entire weekend. It was only Friday and, for some reason, the light and sound show was keeping me from sleeping. Unusual.
I looked at my bedside clock for the fifth time: 3:13 am. It seemed like an hour had gone by since 3:12.
I stared at the ceiling, thinking about my old place in the city. For three years I had been surrounded by muggings, rapes, robberies, murders... you name the crime, I probably knew a victim. Especially when it comes to random shooting victims, I know of this first hand.
A month ago, I was sitting in my living room watching TV when an argument erupted in the yard across the street. Five minutes later, the angry voices were replaced with the sounds of gunfire.
Before I knew it, I was in the hospital with a single bullet wound to the head. Though I was unconscious for a while, I could still hear the beeping of the heart monitor and the mechanical breathing from the respirator keeping me alive. After a while, I had learned to tune them out. To this day, I have no idea how or why I am still alive. It seems I have cheated death.
I looked back at my clock: 3:14... no... now it was 3:15.
Unable to sleep, I got up and went downstairs to the kitchen to make my favorite sandwich: ham, American cheese and Cheetos between the last two slices of marble rye. I decided I would go shopping in the morning. I grabbed the carton of orange juice from the fridge and took my snack out onto the screened back porch where my lawn chair was waiting.
The floor of the porch had become wet from the rain splashing through the mesh screen, but the intoxicating scent of the rain filled my senses and was enough to relax me to the point of nearly falling asleep right there.
That's when I remembered that I was naked. If I were anywhere else, I would have gone back inside, but the eight foot privacy fence that enclosed the back yard gave me the confidence to stay put. So, I indulged in the serenity of the rhythm of the warm spring rain creating a soothing melody on the roof of my porch and the warm, wet breeze flowing over my nakedness. Which, by the way, I highly recommend; it is one of life's most relaxing experiences.
I was drinking from the juice carton when, for a moment, my ears detected a different kind of sound, slightly masked by the rain. It was a kind of shucking sound coming from the yard on the other side of the fence to my left. I knew the sound, but, at first, thought I was just hearing things. Who the hell would be digging a hole in the pouring rain at this time of night?
I listened more closely.
Shuck!... Shuck!... Shuck!
“No way,” I said to myself. Quickly, I finished my sandwich and ran upstairs to my writing room that overlooked that property.
It was the third of three bedrooms in the two story house. I had my desk and computer on the far wall, away from the window, along with a bookcase which held three shelves of essential reference books that any author should have. With all that help, my book was going to kick ass... just as soon as I came up with something to write about. But my gut was telling me that a plot wasn't too far away. Possibly next door.
I walked to the window and moved the curtain aside, wiping away the condensation from the window so I could see out. It was too dark to make out much of anything; at least it was until Mother Nature cued the lightning. Three quick flashes were enough to reveal a sight that I couldn't believe and would, soon enough, wish I hadn't seen.
There were two people, men or women, I couldn't tell, each wearing a hooded black raincoat, sunglasses, and a bandana that covered the nose and mouth like a bandit from a western movie. One had just stuck his shovel into a pile of mud next to a hole the size of a shallow grave while the other knelt next to a long piece of cellophane that seemed to be rolled up like a six-foot burrito. In that instant, my heart stopped as I assumed the worse: they were burying a dead body.
I tried to look away and think the best. Probably just a little late night gardening. It had to be.
I looked back out the window, now obsessed with the weird scene unfolding next door. In the darkness, all I could make out were the two silhouettes against the rain-soaked ground as they picked up the giant burrito.
Another flash of lightning!
The burrito wiggled violently, as if trying to escape their grip!
The pair almost lost control of it as they heaved the thing into the hole.
Holy shit! The poor bastard they were burying was still alive!
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust after that last flash. Then, through the darkness, I could see one pick up the shovel and begin throwing mud into the hole. The other stood aside, crossed his arms and just watched.
More lightning filled the sky as a rumbling thunder shook the floor beneath my feet, warning me to mind my business.
That's when I noticed the one with crossed arms looking up at me. There was no mistaking it. We stared at each other for an eternity... or at least until Mother Nature turned out her lights in the sky.
I dropped to the floor.
The thunder rumbled, again... “told ya so”.
Somehow, something inside me was convinced that he hadn't seen me, but I knew that voice had to be a big fat liar.
I cautiously glanced back out the window.
The lighting filled the sky again.
The shallow, muddy grave sat alone in the rain. The two late night gardeners were gone!
I left the room and raced down the stairs to lock the doors and windows. Half way down the hard wood staircase, I slipped in a bit of water that I must have tracked in from the porch when I had climbed up to spy on my lovely new neighbors.
Stunned and a little turned around, I found myself on my back at the bottom of the stairs. Still, I managed to get up and limp to the front door. It was bolted and locked.
My left leg was a little weak, but I hurriedly hobbled to the kitchen to lock the back door. I had failed to lock it earlier.
I knew the windows were all locked because I had done before I went to bed when I had heard it was going to rain.
In the kitchen, I slumped into one of the chairs at the breakfast table and rubbed my throbbing left knee I had banged up when I tumbled down the stairs. Then, I leaned forward in the chair and let out a sigh of relief that those two nuts were locked out of my house.
That's when I saw the first one on the floor. Then the second, and the third. My eyes slowly followed them from the back door, across the linoleum floor of the kitchen and onto the hardwood floor leading to the living room: muddy, size twelve shoe prints. I hadn't noticed them in my haste to lock down the house.
One of those sons of bitches had gotten in.
My first thought was to call the police, but my house phone wouldn't be turned on until Monday and by then I could be fertilizer in my own backyard.
My mind raced. I could dash out the back door, but there was only one set of footprints on the floor. With my luck I'd run right into the arms of the other one out there.
I got up and peeked out the window of the back door. Just as I suspected, he was standing at the bottom of the steps to the back porch in his hooded raincoat, cradling his shovel.
Then, I remembered my cell phone. In all the excitement I had completely forgotten about it. The only problem was that I had to get back upstairs to my room to get it.
I could have just gone to the front door, but I didn't know exactly where this guy was hiding in the house. Plus, outside I'd have to deal with two of them and, right now, I wasn't in much of a condition to take on just one.
With my left leg still throbbing and a little unsteady, I walked to the kitchen doorway and scanned the darkness. I could just barely make out the stairs about fifteen feet away. I almost turned on the lights, but stopped myself. I would much rather have kept us both in the dark for the moment.
A quick flash of lightning streaming through the windows showed me that the coast was clear.
I made a dash for the stairs, nearly slipping as I left the kitchen. That's when I felt the floorboards tremble, not the from the thunder, but under the weight of the stranger right behind me. I heard his shoes pounding the floor as he ran at my heels.
I was almost to the stairs!
Just a few more feet!
A thought quickly entered my mind, “Please, God, don't let me slip this time!”
I could feel the intruder right behind me the entire way, like a shadow I couldn't shake. His shoes thumping the floor.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
Almost there! My left leg was about to give out!
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
My outreached hand grabbed the newel post of the banister, and, using my momentum, I hoisted myself up the first five steps in one pull. But, I came down on my left leg and it buckled, sending me falling forward.
The stranger grabbed my ankle; his grip tight; his hand cold and clammy. Quickly, I snapped it out of his grip and kicked blindly, feeling my foot connect with his face. I turned and climbed, banging my right knee on one of the steps.
“Damn it!” I yelled and scurried the rest of the way up.
I hobbled to my bedroom, slamming the door and locking it. I had no time to catch my breath; that bastard could come through that door any minute.
I sprang for my phone and swiped my finger across the screen to open it. It came to life with a loud beep. Odd, I thought.
I dialed 911 and the phone went dead.
“Fuck! Not now, you piece of shit,” I hit the power button.
Beep! The screen lit up again. That was weird.
“You've got a full battery, you motherfucker!”
I tried again, and realized I was still naked.
I ran to my dresser to get something to throw on: shorts, shirt, anything.
I heard the phone beep again in my hand as I glanced into the mirror that sat atop my dresser. I wouldn't have even taken a second look, but the sight chilled me to the bone. A sight more frightening than the burial I had witnessed in the yard next door.
My world stood still for just a moment as I stared at my reflection in horror.
The phone beeped again.
I stared at my reflection and reached up to touch the right side of my head but all I found was a gaping hole! Half of my head just above my right eye was gone! Missing! Blood began to run down my face from a bullet hole above my eye.
The phone began to beep on its own, keeping time with my own increasing heartbeat.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
“What the fu...” I glanced down at the phone and dropped it to the floor.
I looked back into the mirror and it came to life like a movie screen. I saw myself as a child opening Christmas presents and hunting Easter eggs with my brother. I saw my high school prom and my date, Suzy Brentwood. And, then, there was my first car, my wedding day and the birth of my son! They all fluttered by so fast, but the few seconds seemed like an eternity. And, somehow, I knew the images were all real.
The final image was of me sitting in my old place in the city watching TV with my son. I could hear arguing across the street, then, the gunfire from that night. I shielded my son just as a single bullet shattered the living room window and tunneled through my head, blowing it open like a ripe melon. Blood gushed like a runaway faucet, bathing my son in my gore. My wife was at my side and on the phone.
Next, came the paramedics. Then, the hospital.
I saw myself lying in the hospital bed surrounded by machines and tubes and wearing a gauze turban. The tubes were everywhere: in my nose, my mouth, my arms. Half-empty I.V. bags decorated my bedside like grim Christmas ornaments. The respirator was working overtime to keep me alive while a heart monitor played my life rhythm to everyone in the room.
My wife was there, holding my hand with my son as my parents knelt at my bedside, begging God to spare my life, or, perhaps asking His forgiveness for what happened next: the doctor walked over and turned off the respirator!
That's when the stranger outside my bedroom door began beating on it profusely, bringing me back to the moment at hand.
Death was knocking. A chilling thought smothered every other idea in my head: it was death that caught me watching earlier as it went about its gruesome task next door. And the person they had buried wasn't really a person at all, but just another soul they were sowing; a defiant seed that wasn't any more ready to be planted than I. These two dark figures weren't my neighbors, they were gatherers of the dead and I was destined to be their next gardening project.
The beeping of the phone was slowing and I realized that what I was hearing was the rhythm of my own heartbeat.
I screamed at the mirror, “I'm still alive! Damn you, I'M STILL ALIVE!!!”
But, I was dying.
This house, this neighborhood, this entire ordeal had been nothing more than a dream.
No... it was a nightmare. My final nightmare!
And it dawned on me that a month hadn't passed as I had imagined. I had been shot just a few hours ago!
I once read somewhere that just because a person was in a comatose state didn't mean they couldn't hear what was going on around them. I knew, now, that it was true. I could hear my wife crying and my parents praying.
The phone beeped every few seconds now and my legs had become too weak to support me. I slumped to the floor against the dresser, facing the door, and waited for death to come for me. I wasn't quite ready to let it in.
With only two solid blows, the door lost the battle and shattered into a million pieces as the stranger in the hooded raincoat stepped through. He wasted no time and came right for me, wrapping his cold, clammy hands around my throat, choking the life out of me.
I blinked hard and reached for his face. My fingers caught his sunglasses and bandana and ripped them away and I found myself face to face with a hideous skull. Its eye sockets were nothing more than voids of total blackness and its ghastly, toothy grin made it obvious that it was enjoying its morbid job.
I grabbed its hands and felt the flesh peel away like layers of onionskin, revealing its skeletal arms and appendages. The bones of its hands crackled as they tightened their grip on my neck.
My hands fell to the floor, tired and numb.
The lightning flashed once more and bathed my vision in an ocean of light that began to fade slowly as my vision gave way to an eerie, lonely darkness from which there was no escape.
The cold grip of death held on to my throat until the last thing I heard was the long, steady, high-pitched tone from my cell phone-