Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Marsten Place

When two boys explore a haunted gallery, they suddenly realize they are not alone.

             One last time, tenderly, cautiously, I touch his stubbled chin. The axe handle juts out of his chest, blood seeps from the blow that killed him with its force. Even in the dark, I see it, like black ink, oozing out of him, spreading out from his body. I scream until there is no sound left in me. I puke until there is nothing but bile. Up comes the Jack Daniels that burns the back of my throat just as it did going down. His brown eyes, still open with surprise and fear, seem to look straight ahead.
              The pine floor boards creak. Whispers echo off the damp walls. The portraits in the gallery stare at me, everywhere they are watching. I need to get out.  I pull myself up, a dizzying array of stars and a ringing in my ears almost makes me retch again, but just then I hear something, a rustling, like the scuttling of rats, a furtive sound of movement. I listen.

            He said the place was haunted. It looked it. Tucked up on a hill along a dirt road lane in the deep east end, enshrouded by arching willows and overgrown vines, it went unnoticed these days by the tourists and the summer people. The locals walked past it, it was a shortcut to that part of the bay beach, through brambles and banks of summer roses. "It used to be a show place," Billy said, "an art gallery, like a museum."
            "What happened?"
             "Old Mrs. Marsten went crazy," Billy said. He passed me the joint. I put my lips where his were, the paper still slick with his spit. "She went nuts and cut up her whole family. Chopped 'em up with a hatchet."
            "Why?" the dampness and cold seeped into me, I shivered despite a healthy swig of whisky.
            "She was an artist. Painter. Maybe she was touched, or the wind in the dunes made her snap." He reached for the half empty bottle.
            The sky was gray and low, the bay flat and slatey blue. He puffed smoke. The chilly air had that high note tang of the sea. "It smells like rain." He had a habit of rubbing his stubbly chin because he liked the feel of it. Billy's the first kid in our grade to shave. He let me touch it, the rough texture of it. "Maybe I'll grow a beard," he said. He ran a finger down my cheek. "Soft like a girl." He laughed. I punched him in the stomach. "You hit like a girl, too."

            We were drunk enough. He grabbed a rock and hummed it at one of the many windows, whose panes were all broken. "She still walks the place at night, calling out for her babies, the ones she killed in their cribs."
            I picked up a rock too and winged it, it bounced off the shingles. "Artist's Studio" said a peeling sign that swung precariously in the wind. Evening came on, it got dark early this late in September. Fog was settling in, a thickening mist that clung in the tall beach grass. When the first drops of rain came down, he headed for the front door. "Come on."

            The rusted hinges groaned as he pushed against the cracked oak. A heavy door knocker, the head of Medusa, rattled as the door gave way. Inside: cobwebby, spiders and fat insects skittering in corners, white looming shapes of sheet-covered furniture, broken glass, the whiff of must and mold and thick dust. Paintings covered every inch of wall space. Down narrow hallways, collections of portraits were hung floor to ceiling. We stopped in front of a lady with a high white wig and a low-cut gown. "She's a real beauty, ain't she?" She mutely witnessed as he leaned in closer, close enough that I could feel his breath that smelled of smoke and booze.
            Then he kissed me.
            He shushed me, and kissed me again. If the guys at school could've seen. Eddie da Silva and Joe Walsh, the big kids, used to beat me up every day, until Billy got to be my friend. "Faggot" they still say. Right then, I didn't care if it was true.
            Right there, with him so close, I kissed him back.

            "Take our picture," he said. "We can prove that we were here."
My phone had next to no charge. I opened up the selfie stick and we stood there, grinning in front of the wigged lady, his arm around me.
            It got cold as night fell. "Gotta take a whizz" he said. "Be right back." and he disappeared into the blackness. By the fading light of my phone, I looked at the faces on the gallery wall, white, pale, ghostly. I checked the pic we took, of Billy and me. There we were, grimacing, but the lady in the painting had eyes with a feral glitter, a twisted smile that showed teeth. And then the phone went dead.

            Billy's scream was horrible. There was the sound, a whacking, hacking sound as the hatchet met his sternum, as he thunked against the wall and fell, and then silence. 

            Now, I listen. The rain hits the broken window glass, rhythmically tapping. Wisps of fog creep in, they curl fingerlike and quietly moving along the dust coated floor. There are footprints in the dust. There is someone nearby. I hear them. There is someone laughing.  

            And then I knew. We'd been followed. They'd been watching all along.

            Just as I run to the open door, lightning flashes dazzling bright, electricity cracks and sizzles the air, the brightness is blinding.
I hear again that laugh.
            "Hey Faggot" says Joe.
            "Where's your boyfriend?" Eddie's voice is like the rasping of a whetting stone on metal.
The glint of silver is all I see. The blade finds its way.
            My eyes are open.


The Missing

            Small animals went missing. Cats, at first. Emily Bradford's calico Cookie, then the battered tom that haunted the Portuguese bakery. An entire litter of kittens was taken from the Smith's barn.
            "The mother was going frantic, she cried all night. I can't imagine what would make off with them," Arlene Smith said to her daughter during their weekly phone call. She could see the open barn door from the kitchen window, she could still hear the keening cry of poor Tabby. "It's like a human in mourning, it's awful, she's wailing for her babies."
            "Where could they have got to?" asked the daughter.
            "They didn't go nowhere, something grabbed them off, I told you."
            They talked a bit more, about the kids who were fine, and Joe who was still Joe, and them coming down Cape for Labor Day before the boys started back to school. When they hung up, Arlene glanced again at the barn, closed the checked cafe window curtains, and turned up the radio by the fridge to drown out the sounds of a mother's sorrows.
            The Brown's German shepherd was next. There were flyers at the A&P with his picture, but Fritz was never found. Speculation as to the culprit began to spread. It was thought to be a fox, or maybe a coyote. Ed Da Silva said he'd seen one skulking around the dunes, "a wild feral critter with orange eyes," he said, "a coyote will pick off anything, they're fierce bastards."
            Esther Rogers, who ran the cash register at Adam's drug store, was sure it was a fisher cat. "Vicious killers," she told people, as she counted out change for cigarettes or newspapers, "they got teeth that could cut through an aluminum can."
            All the chickens at Arnold's farm were found slaughtered. "There were feathers and gore everywhere," Mrs. Arnold said over her fence. She could still remember the metallic smell of blood in the hot coop, the mangled dismembered birds, their bodies heaped in a pile. It made her gag when she recalled it, she tasted bile at the back of her throat.
            "This business makes me uneasy," her neighbor, old lady Johnson, said. She frowned at the gray flat sky, and the chill that came in late September. She buttoned up her cardigan and shivered.
            When the black Lab puppy was found with its neck broken in front of the Old Colony Tap, people really started talking. His name was Cinders, on account of his coloring. The Dodd kids had only had him a few weeks.
           By the time Elmer, the last horse left at the Bayberry Stable, was killed with a hatchet, everyone knew about it. They'd all heard about the blood-soaked hay, and the meat that was hacked off the poor animal senselessly. "The flies was on the carcass thick as mud," Joe Reyes told his wife as they drove that Sunday to Mass. "The axe handle was broke off, the blade was still in his skull."

            Louise gave an anxious glance to the kids in the back seat. "Shhh," she murmured, "they'll hear you." They were too young, she thought, too young to know about the evil in life. There was time enough for that.
            "Whoever it was, he was a butcher, a God damned butcher!"
            Cathy couldn't help but hear every word. "Mommy," she said, crying.  She remembered the old horse, who used to nibble her fingers when she held out a sugar cube, or a carrot. His back swayed, and his ribs showed. His teeth were yellow, and his tongue tickled like velvet on her palm. He was a good horse. Her sister Becky was strapped safely in her car seat, her head lolled to one side. Maybe she slept. "Mommy," Cathy cried again.
            "Now look what you've done," said Louise.  
            Joe gripped the steering wheel. "Butcher," he said, one last time.

            "There must be a maniac loose," said Miss Thomas from her porch, she'd just come from Bingo where she'd been told the whole thing. That night, for the first time in all her years of living in the town, she locked her doors and windows. We'd seen her peeping out behind her old faded drapes, before the light winked out and she just stood there in the dark, still looking out.

            Even the summer people heard about the strange happenings. When a visiting couple from Old Saybrook, Connecticut reported their terrier had disappeared, Alice Marsten, who made the breakfasts at the Sea View Inn, told them. "The woman went hysterical," Alice confided to Mr. Marsten as they sat down to dinner, "she carried on like it was her baby. So sad."
            "Anyone who'd kill God's simplest creatures has got no respect for life at all," her husband agreed. He did not touch his steak, even though it was cooked the way he liked it.
            "Are you feeling alright, Stanny?"
            He pushed the plate away. "Not too hungry, I guess."
            At the Squealing Pig, there were few diners, but the bar was packed. The lone waitress, Kelly Sanders, looked at the nearly empty dining room, felt the lightness of the tips she kept in her pocket, but smiled brightly as she dropped off the ketchup to the table in the back corner, where Billy Powers tucked into his dinner. He didn't smile back. She plunked the bottle down on the dull wood table top. "Holler if you need anything else," she said, to which he just grunted. He never was a bright talker. He did not talk to anyone, though they all knew him. A few nodded when they recognized him, but he did not seem to notice, he was fixed on his food. He held the leg that had been picked clean of meat, he sucked at the bone to the soft marrow inside. The cartilage he chewed until it disintegrated. He picked his teeth, to savor again the gamey taste of flesh. Afterwards, he licked his greasy fingers. Terry Watson watched him from the bar where she was nursing a Sam Adams. "Jeez would you look at that guy put it away, kinda makes me queasy." Her boyfriend wasn't listening. The Sox were leading in the 9th.

            In the quiet East End, where tourists browsed the shops and galleries, business slowed after Labor Day, but the weekend brought swells of people who took the ferry from Boston, or drove up the Cape to enjoy the last of the good weather. At the Muse, folks sipped white wine from screw top bottles and picked at hard cheese. Billy Powers eyed them: a couple, handsome, sleek New Yorkers, in matching pastel sweaters, talked in low tones about the abstract entitled "Nude at Dawn;" some kids who just came in to drink free wine pretended to be looking at landscapes; an older lady with heavy makeup moved around the sculptural bronze. No one would end up buying anything. A sucking sound of derision, his tongue flicking against his teeth, was louder than he'd intended, but he didn't care if they heard him, not really. He looked at the crowd passing by, the sea of humanity moving up and down Commercial Street. They were fat, and lazy. They lolled around in flip flops. They were day trippers, and rich folks, and drag queens dropping sequins, and gay boys, and moms with kids in strollers, and retirees, and silly teenagers who stopped every two feet to take pictures of themselves with selfie sticks. They didn't buy art. They bought T shirts, and ice cream, and lobster bibs with funny pictures, and 15 dollar cocktails, things they could carry or consume.
            The lady approached him. "Are you the owner?" He could see the powder caked in the lines of her yellow skin.
            He greeted the question as he always did, with a smile and a shake of the head. He was only the assistant, he told her. The owner was a rich bastard who didn't need money. He wrote off the losses of this white elephant, and lived in a house that went for a couple million up in the hills a few months out of the year. Winters he spent in Palm Springs, and his summer house sat empty, like all the houses in the hills. All the fat cats packed up and left for warmer temps at the first turn of the leaves, when the town went dead.
            These tourists had no idea, he thought, what it takes to make their vacations restful and lovely. Their gentle lives of ease and affluence made them soft. He knew different. These specimens of walking carcasses didn't give a fuck about the invisible drones who brought their food or poured their drinks or made their beds or ran the shops. He was working his ass off, three jobs, all summer, while they got massages or flopped on the beach, or got drunk, or grew fatter. He slogged waiting tables at Saints, and tended bar at the Vault, where he saw with growing disgust the blubbery lips slobbering down liquor and sucking oysters, the voracious insatiability of bellies and maws always talking nonsense, always stuffing themselves, and he'd have to smile and serve the disgusting pigs for the meager tips they deigned to give. The gallery gig got him a little room upstairs, a stifling 5x5 box in the eaves, a bed and a microwave. At night, he didn't sleep anymore. The wind blowing through the town made him restless, there were voices in that wind, the voices of ghosts, the crying of mothers and lost children, there was the fury that screamed in that wind that was relentless, and he'd hold his pillow against his ears, but it did not stop. It never stopped. He'd sweat so much with fevers and rages, his sheets had been clawed to rags.
            "I'm interested in the sculpture," the lady went on. She was plump underneath her caftan and scarf. "Do you have anything more figural?"
            They were alone now. The other browsers had all left. Dazzling daylight streamed in through the plate glass. He blinked a couple times, and seemed to contemplate the question.
"I think we have more inventory down in the stock room, if you'd care to have a look."
            "Marvelous!" she said, following him down the stairs to the cellar.
            He seems like such a nice man, she thought.

            When she didn't return to the boat club that evening, her husband called the police. Two days later, the local news reported that the scattered remains of Mrs. Roberta Strickland of Kennebunkport had been found.  A pair of legs were in a dumpster behind the cemetery, a torso was stuffed in a drainpipe, arms had been flung in the woods. The head was never found

            A fog settled in, a thickening mist that clung to the steel blue bay. Mrs. Johnson, taking her clothes off the line, chuffed at her hands to keep them warm. Her mums and dahlias bobbed in the air that smelled like rain.
            Mrs. Arnold called over the fence: "Abigail, what do you think has happened?"
            "Not another one?"
            "The little Miller boy!"
            "Oh no! That poor mother."
            "She's near hysterical with grief."
            "Who could do such a terrible thing?"
            "Some monster, some terrible sick fiend."
            They both nodded.                 
            The rain started then, it fell in thick fat droplets. It was going to be quite a storm.
They hurried inside, and bolted their doors tight.       
            That night, the wind blew through the town, like a fury.  It was the bereft cry of a mother for her lost child.