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Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Thing in the Cellar by David H. Keller

It was a large cellar, entirely out of proportion to the house above it. The owner admitted that it was probably built for a distinctly different kind of structure from the one which rose above it. Probably the first house had been burned, and poverty had caused a diminution of the dwelling erected to take its place.
     A winding stone stairway connected the cellar with the kitchen. Around the base of this series of steps successive owners of the house had placed their firewood, winter vegetables and junk. The junk had gradually been pushed back till it rose, head high, in a barricade of uselessness. What was back of that barricade no one knew and no one cared. For some hundreds of years no one had crossed it to penetrate to the black reaches of the cellar behind it.
     At the top of the steps, separating the kitchen from the cellar, was a stout oaken door. This door was, in a way, as peculiar and out of relation to the rest of the house as the cellar. It was a strange kind of door to find in a modern house, and certainly a most unusual door to find in the inside of the house—thick, stoutly built, dexterously rabbeted together with huge wrought-iron hinges, and a lock that looked as though it came from Castle Despair. Separating a house from the outside world, such a door would be excusable; swinging between kitchen and cellar it seemed peculiarly inappropriate.
     From the earliest months of his life Tommy Tucker seemed unhappy in the kitchen. In the front parlor, in the formal dining-room, and especially on the second floor of the house he acted like a normal, healthy child; but carry him to the kitchen, he at once began to cry. His parents, being plain people, ate in the kitchen save when they had company. Being poor, Mrs. Tucker did most of her work, though occasionally she had a charwoman in to do the extra Saturday cleaning, and thus much of her time was spent in the kitchen. And Tommy stayed with her, at least as long as he was unable to walk. Much of the time he was decidedly unhappy.
     When Tommy learned to creep, he lost no time in leaving the kitchen. No sooner was his mother's back turned than the little fellow crawled as fast as he could for the doorway opening into the front of the house, the dining-room and the front parlor. Once away from the kitchen, he seemed happy; at least, he ceased to cry. On being returned to the kitchen his howls so thoroughly convinced the neighbors that he had colic that more than one bowl of catnip and sage tea was brought to his assistance.
     It was not until the boy learned to talk that the Tuckers had any idea as to what made the boy cry so hard when he was in the kitchen. In other words, the baby had to suffer for many months till he obtained at least a little relief, and even when he told his parents what was the mattet, they were absolutely unable to comprehend. This is not to be wondered at because they were both hard-working, rather simple-minded persons.
     What they finally learned from their little son was this: that if the cellar door was shut and securely fastened with the heavy iron Tommy could at least eat a meal in peace; if the door was simply closed and not locked, he shivered with fear, but kept quiet; but if the door was open, if even the slightest streak of black showed that it was not tightly shut, then the little three-year-old would scream himself to the point of exhaustion, especially if his tired father would refuse him permission to leave the kitchen.
     Playing in the kitchen, the child developed two interesting habits. Rags, scraps of paper and splinters of wood were continually being shoved under the thick oak door to fill the space between the door and the sill. Whenever Mrs. Tucker opened the door there was always some trash there, placed by her son. It annoyed her, and more than once the little fellow was thrashed for this conduct, but punishment acted in no way as a deterrent. The other habit was as singular. Once the door was closed and locked, he would rather boldly walk over to it and caress the old lock. Even when he was so small that he had to stand on tiptoe to touch it with the tips of his fingers he would touch it with slow caressing strokes; later on, as he grew, he used to kiss it.
     His father, who only saw the boy at the end of the day, decided that there was no sense in such conduct, and in his masculine way tried to break the lad of his foolishness. There was, of necessity, no effort on the part of the hard-working man to understand the psychology back of his son's conduct. All that the man knew was that his little son was acting in a way that was decidedly queer.
     Tommy loved his mother and was willing to do anything he could to help her in the household chores, but one thing he would not do, and never did do, and that was to fetch and carry between the house and the cellar. If his mother opened the door, he would run screaming from the room, and he never returned voluntarily till he was assured that the door was closed.
     He never explained just why he acted as he did. In fact, he refused to talk about it, at least to his parents, and that was just as well, because had he done so, they would simply have been more positive than ever that there was something wrong with their only child. They tried, in their own ways, to break the child of his unusual habits; failing to change him at all, they decided to ignore his peculiarities.
     That is, they ignored them till he became six years old and the time came for him to go to school. He was a sturdy little chap by that time, and more intelligent than the usual boys beginning in the primer class. Mr. Tucker was, at times, proud of him; the child's attitude toward the cellar door was the one thing most disturbing to the father's pride. Finally nothing would do but that the Tucker family call on the neighborhood physician. It was an important event in the life of the Tuckers, so important that it demanded the wearing of Sunday clothes, and all that sort of thing.
     "The matter is just this, Doctor Hawthorn," said Mr. Tucker, in a somewhat embarrassed manner. "Our little Tommy is old enough to start to school, but he behaves childish in regard to our cellar, and the missus and I thought you could tell us what to do about it. It must be his nerves."
     Ever since he was a baby," continued Mrs. Tucker, taking up the thread of conversation where her husband had paused, "Tommy has had a great fear of the cellar. Even now, big boy that he is, he does not love me enough to fetch and carry for me through that door and down those steps. It is not natural for a child to act like he does, and what with chinking the cracks with rags and kissing the lock, he drives me to the point where I fear he may become daft-like as he grows older."
     The doctor, eager to satisfy new customers, and dimly remembering some lectures on the nervous system received when he was a medical student, asked some general questions, listened to the boy's heart, examined his lungs and looked at his eyes and fingernails. At last he commented:
     "Looks like a fine, healthy boy to me."
     "Yes, all except the cellar door," replied the father.
     "Has he ever been sick?"
     "Naught but fits once or twice when he cried himself blue in the face," answered the mother.
     "Perhaps. It was always in the kitchen."
     "Suppose you go out and let me talk to Tommy by myself?"
     And there sat the doctor very much at his ease and the little six-year-old boy very uneasy.
     "Tommy, what is there in the cellar you are afraid of?"
     "I don't know."
     "Have you ever seen it?"
     "No, sir."
     "Ever heard it? smelt it?"
     "No, sir."
     "Then how do you know there is something there?"
     "Because what?"
     "Because there is."
     That was as far as Tommy would go, and at last his seeming obstinacy annoyed the physician even as it had for several years annoyed Mr. Tucker. He went to the door and called the parents into the office.
     "He thinks there is something down in the cellar," he stated.
     The Tuckers simply looked at each other.
     "That's foolish," commented Mr. Tucker.
     " 'Tis just a plain cellar with junk and firewood and cider barrels in it," added Mrs. Tucker. "Since we moved into that house, I have not missed a day without going down those stone steps and I know there is nothing there. But the lad has always screamed when the door was open. I recall now that since he was a child in arms he has always screamed when the door was open."
     "He thinks there is something there," said the doctor.
     "That is why we brought him to you," replied the father. "It's the child's nerves. Perhaps foetida, or something, will calm him."
     "I tell you what to do," advised the doctor. "He thinks there is something there. Just as soon as he finds that he is wrong and that there is nothing there, he will forget about it. He has been humored too much. What you want to do is to open that cellar door and make him stay by himself in the kitchen. Nail the door open so he can not close it. Leave him alone there for an hour and then go and laugh at him and show him how silly it was for him to be afraid of an empty cellar. I will give you some nerve and blood tonic and that will help, but the big thing is to show him that there is nothing to be afraid of."
     On the way back to the Tucker home Tommy broke away from his parents. They caught him after an exciting chase and kept him between them the rest of the way home. Once in the house he disappeared and was found in the guest room under the bed. The afternoon being already spoiled for Mr. Tucker, he determined to keep the child under observation for the rest of the day. Tommy ate no supper, in spite of the urgings of the unhappy mother. The dishes were washed, the evening paper read, the evening pipe smoked; and then, and only then, did Mr. Tucker take down his tool box and get out a hammer and some long nails.
     "And I am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be a man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a-burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and a real man and not something for a man to be ashamed of being the father of."
     But at the last Mrs. Tucker kissed Tommy and cried and whispered to her husband not to do it, and to wait till the boy was larger; but nothing was to do except to nail the thick door open so it could not be shut and leave the boy there alone with the lamp burning and the dark open space of the doorway to look at with eyes that grew as hot and burning as the flame of the lamp.
     That same day Doctor Hawthorn took supper with a classmate of his, a man who specialized in psychiatry and who was particularly interested in children. Hawthorn told Johnson about his newest case, the little Tucker boy, and asked him for his opinion, lohnson frowned.
     "Children are odd, Hawthorn. Perhaps they are like dogs. It may be their nervous system is more acute than in the adult. We know that our eyesight is limited, also our hearing and smell. I firmly believe that there are forms of life which exist in such a form that we can neither see, hear nor smell them. Fondly we delude ourselves into the fallacy of believing that they do not exist because we can not prove their existence. This Tucker lad may have a nervous system that is peculiarly acute. He may dimly appreciate the existence of something in the cellar which is unappreciable to his parents. Evidently there is some basis to this fear of his. Now, I am not saying that there is anything in the cellar. In fact, I suppose that it is just an ordinary cellar, but this boy, since he was a baby, has thought that there was something there, and that is just as bad as though there actually were. What I would like to know is what makes him think so. Give me the address, and I will call tomorrow and have a talk with the little fellow."
     "What do you think of my advice?"
     "Sorry, old man, but I think it was perfectly rotten. If I were you, I would stop around there on my way home and prevent them from following it. The little fellow may be badly frightened. You see, he evidently thinks there is something there."
     "But there isn't."
     "Perhaps not. No doubt, he is wrong, but he thinks so."
     It all worried Doctor Hawthorn so much that he decided to take his friend's advice. It was a cold night, a foggy night, and the physician felt cold as he tramped along the London streets. At last he came to the Tucker house. He remembered now that he had been there once before, long ago, when little Tommy Tucker came Into the world. There was a light in the front window, and in no time at all Mr. Tucker came to the door.
     "I have come to see Tommy," said the doctor.
     "He is back in the kitchen," replied the father.
     "He gave one cry, but since then he has been quiet," sobbed the wife.
     "If I had let her have her way, she would have opened the door, but I said to her, 'Mother, now is the time to make a man out of our Tommy.' And I guess he knows by now that there was naught to be afraid of. Well, the hour is up. Suppose we go and get him and put him to bed?"
     "It has been a hard time for the little child," whispered the wife.
     Carrying the candle, the man walked ahead of the woman and the doctor, and at last opened the kitchen door. The room was dark.
     "Lamp has gone out," said the man. "Wait till I light it."
     "Tommy! Tommy!" called Mrs. Tucker.
     But the doctor ran to where a white form was stretched on the floor. Sharply he called for more light. Trembling, he examined all that was left of little Tommy. Twitching, he looked into the open space down into the cellar. At last he looked at Tucker and Tucker's wife.
     "Tommy—Tommy has been hurt—I guess he is dead!" he stammered.
     The mother threw herself on the floor and picked up the torn, mutilated thing that had been, only a little while ago, her little Tommy.
     The man took his hammer and drew out the nails and closed the door and locked it and then drove in a long spike to reinforce the lock. Then he took hold of the doctor's shoulders and shook him.
     "What killed him, Doctor? What killed him?" he shouted into Hawthorn's ear.
     The doctor looked at him bravely in spite of the fear in his throat.
     "How do I know, Tucker?" he replied. "How do I know? Didn't you tell me that there was nothing there? Nothing down there? In the cellar?"

Check out my two short stories, now published on Amazon Kindle:




Saturday, April 19, 2014

Supplicant (short story) by Timothy J. Whitcher

Dell had noticed it the first time he ate at the Dilly Dally Diner. It could only be seen from the tiny booth that could seat just two, the booth a seeming afterthought of the diner’s original owner, now surely long dead. The shape clung to the aging yellowed wallpaper, never changing but seeming more prevalent with each visit.

He’d originally patronized the diner for no other reason than to satiate his hunger.  Dell worked not a block away, but hadn’t really noticed the diner until one particularly blustery day. He remembered his first visit vividly; the cold, bitter March weather supplanted by the warm interior of the Dilly Dally, smelling of strong coffee and frying eggs with just an underlying hint of mold and dirty vinyl flooring. It wasn’t really a nice place, but it felt safe; unchanging, yet somehow sentient. He thought often of that first day, which was probably more of a miss-memory, since it ran in a loop through his mind, becoming more and more embellished as it spun out into the silent, bleak hours of night, a familiar haunt. Not wholly welcome or unwelcome; just there.

He would eat his lunch there daily in the midafternoon, around two o’clock, excepting Sunday when they were closed. The tiny booth was always empty, waiting. Dell used to worry that it would one day be occupied, but as the months went by, he’d forgotten his worry. There were few patrons that time of day, and the booth was situated in such a tight, dim location that it would be considered a last resort for most.

He was often alone in the diner by two-thirty; the Dilly Dally closed at three-thirty, no longer offering an evening menu. This Yonkers neighborhood was slowly fading around him. The stores and offices were blinking out of existence, but Dell barely noticed. The diner remained. The booth remained. The stain on the wall, close up to the ceiling, above the bakery display case smeared with the fingerprints of children, remained.

It looked like a squirrel to him. It was a squirrel. It was as if Michelangelo himself had lain on a scaffold and lovingly rendered the animal in rich sepia tones. It wasn’t a water stain. Nor a blot of grease left by a careless cleaning crew decades ago, as he’d first imagined. Dell knew for a fact this was a true acheiropoieta if there ever was one. An image most definitely not created by human hands. But it was more than that.  Every day he sat and admired the squirrel as he dutifully ate his dry turkey on rye sandwich, chewing as slowly as possible so as to be able to man his booth as long as he could. He had at some time realized this odd pilgrimage was somehow his destiny, even before the squirrel spoke to him.


“I know you can see me,” said a voice in a conversational tone, quiet and delicate, definitely male. Dell jerked erect, spilling his coffee onto his half eaten sandwich.

“Who said that?” asked Dell much too loudly, startled, as he eyed the couple who had been arguing a booth over, nothing left of their lunch but scrunched napkins and warm half full glasses of cola. The bald man with the neck tattoo gave him a cool look as his lady friend with too much makeup and too little clothing grabbed her leather jacket and rose to leave. Dell quickly averted his gaze and slid down in his seat.

He watched from the corner of his eye as the couple exited the diner, gulped air and then looked up at his squirrel.

“Now, quiet Dell,” said the little creature, “you’ll get yourself tossed out of here for sure.”

“My God! You’re talking?”

“Shhhh… No one can hear me but you, and your God has nothing to do with it, I’m afraid.”

“I’m losing it. I’ve gone nuts,” Dell whispered.

“Excuse me, sir? Would you like a fresh coffee? I’d be happy to…”

“No! No, thank you. I’ve had enough. Please may I have the bill?” Dell said to the waitress, his voice a quiver, never taking his eyes from his squirrel on the wall.

The middle-aged woman looked at Dell quizzically, handed him his bill from the black folder she carried in her apron. She lethargically waddled back through the double swinging doors into the diner’s meager kitchen.  He watched through the pass-through window as she talked to the cook, both darting glances in his direction. Dell’s attention was drawn back to his squirrel, who winked at him.

“Will miracles never cease, eh, Dell? Now on home with you. You’ve had enough for today. I’ll still be here tomorrow. I always am, aren’t I?”

Dell’s eyes blurred then refocused; he shook his head and stood quickly, ramming one chubby thigh into the table top. He tossed twelve dollars on the table. He almost left his jacket behind in his haste to leave, his mind still in a fog, yet once he was outside in the bright light of a June afternoon, his mind cleared.

He knew what had happened. His reverence of the curious stain had lulled him to sleep. He had dozed. Yes, that was it. He had dozed off for a moment and dreamed. Dreamed of a talking squirrel. This something that had become his own, this secret image of a small woodland creature, seen only by him, had invaded his dreamscape. He would be back tomorrow, he told himself, and he would still see the image, but he’d prove to himself that it hadn’t spoken to him. How could it have? Dell caught the bus and headed home, not returning to his job. He’d call and tell them he’d become ill.

He walked from the bus stop in a daze, climbed the four flights of stairs to his floor; he’d barely noticed that he’d buzzed himself in. He’d barely noticed the young man passed out on the ratty tan couch that sat in the foyer. (“Now, quiet Dell.”) Dell let himself into his one bedroom apartment. He threw his jacket through the open bedroom door onto his neatly made bed. (“…your God has nothing to do with it, I’m afraid.”) He completely forgot about calling work.

The whole apartment was neat, clean and tidy, just as his cubicle was at Walker Accounting. Walker Accounting, where he crunched numbers and filed reports. His apartment walls were as void of pictures and decoration as his cubicle. His life was just as purposely unadorned. Dell tried his best not to revisit the past or worry about the future. He just was. He didn’t like complication. Didn’t like confrontation. Dell had made it through grade school, high school and community college with his head down, ears and eyes open. He’d survived, and planned on continuing to survive without any outward influence; any trouble. That is until the squirrel. (“I’ll still be here tomorrow. I always am, aren’t I?”)

He got himself a can of Coke from the fridge, kicked off his brown loafers and sat on the arm of his black leather coach, gazing down the street through the sliding glass doors that opened to a concrete patio. The crumbling gray asphalt and broken concrete sidewalk lay in strong contrast to nature’s clear blue sky. The sun warmed his face and arms, bringing a much welcomed feeling of numbness. His doughy face reflected in the glass. He thought his reflection looked worse than he imagined himself to look, an image that even in his mind’s eye wasn’t flattering. 

He sat and thought about his life, thoughts that he usually avoided, blocked out of his conscious mind, but memories flooded back like so much murky, putrid water. Life for Dell had been one continuous dull pain, like a terminal stubbed toe.  There had been good times. Times when the sun broke through the gloom, but Dell knew that sooner than later the clouds would roll in. The rain would come. The throb of pain would resurface; an ache that settled deep into his very being. Not the ache of guilt or remorse. It was the hurt of resentment, the anguish of paranoia; although Dell couldn’t quite grasp his torment in those terms.

Dell hadn’t been bullied in school. He hadn’t been so much as noticed. He hadn’t been abused by his parents, but merely tolerated, he thought. He had no siblings to torment him, no rivalry with others. He had just been - detached. Dell didn’t quite have the personality to develop many friendships and when the few friends he did have gave up on him, he made it a point to have no more. It was too painful when the rain came and the more often it came, the longer it lingered.

His own Mother had lost her temper with him and berated him over the phone: “You’re so negative!” she exclaimed, “too sensitive!” That was four years ago. He hadn’t talked to her or Dad since. They called, he didn’t answer. Last year the calls had stopped. Shows how much they really care, Dell thought. People forget who you are; that you just might be as human as they are. He decided that they looked at him as if he were the stain. As if he was almost alive, but not quite.

Dell felt compelled to spend the remainder of the afternoon writing down his experiences at the diner. It seemed important. It added clarity to the sequence of events. Dell feared he may slip into madness without this record, this outlet. Some way to remind himself that he was still part of the real world, starting with the day he’d first seen the stain. Hours later, he laid aside the spiral notebook, setting the stub of a pencil on top, his wrist aching, fingers stiff and red. Rubbing his eyes, smudging graphite on his cheek, Dell stumbled to his bedroom. He went to bed, fully clothed, soon asleep.

Dell awoke in the early hours of morning. It was still dark outside. He was more than a little disgusted, falling asleep, fully clothed, not having had dinner or even brushing his teeth. It wasn’t like him at all. Dell was an orderly person. There was a time and place for everything. A place for his few books. A place for his shoes. His shirts hung in his closet in a specific order; all twelve of them, and he knew there were exactly twelve. The food in his refrigerator always separated by type. He even knew the ‘sell buy’ date on his half empty quart of milk. He was more than just disgusted. He was frightened. He needed order in his life. Order kept the chaos out. Kept the chaotic thoughts at bay.

Dell fished his cellphone out of his jacket pocket which lay on the floor, having kicked it off his bed during his restless slumber. It bothered him that he hadn’t plugged it in to recharge. The battery symbol had turned to red for the first time. It was unsettling. He called work to leave a message that he wouldn’t be in today. He hadn’t ever called off before and didn’t feel comfortable about doing so, but he knew that he couldn’t go in. Couldn’t wait until two o’clock, couldn’t wait for his lunch hour. Dell left a message. He waited for the recorded voice to let him know that his message had been received and forwarded to the proper department. Satisfied, Dell pulled the phone from his ear. Just as he was about to push “end,” a quiet voice could be heard, “Come in Dell. I’m waiting.” He dropped the phone on the carpeted floor. He left it there. He quickly got himself around and headed for the bus stop.

On the bus, headed uptown, sitting towards the back, arms crossed in his lap, shoulders hunched, Dell worried. Worried about what was left of his life. Something had happened. It had spoken to him on the phone. The squirrel. He knew in that instant that there was no way back to his old, comfortable world. He didn’t know if that were good or bad.  It would almost be exciting if it didn’t worry him so.

His life had been comfortable the last eight years since graduating college, unburdened for the most part. His isolation kept it that way. It almost felt that time had stood still, just the television shows changed. He was even able to deny that he was aging, most of the time. A memory, unbidden, came to mind, a childhood memory. His Father had brought home a large box from the warehouse where he worked. Dell remembered that his mother had wanted one to store clothing in. She’d made a big fuss over how the box was too big and how his Father was an idiot for bringing it home. He had covered his five-year-old ears as she berated his Father, who left the house without a word. Dell remembered finding him asleep in his truck the next day. He didn’t dare wake him. The box was never mentioned between his parents again. Dell’s Mother put it in his room. “It’s yours, Dell. It can be anything you want it to be, silly.” And it was. Dell spent the whole of that summer in the box. Time stood still.

They boarded the bus two stops before Dell’s.  Two teenaged boys, dressed in the typical urban teen uniform of loose fitting jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Laughing and pushing each other, they sat down on the hard plastic seats. One on each side of the near empty bus, feet up on the seat beside them, both with arms crossed, their backs leaning against the chrome railings that stood bolted from floor to ceiling. The boys’ boisterous conversation shot back and forth between them, studded with curse words. The bigger of the two, probably no more than fifteen, drummed his feet on the seat, laughing loudly at the older boy’s commentary. Dell looked past them at the other passengers, three men nearer his own age. One had his eyes closed, obviously feigning sleep, the second, a tattooed biker type gazed out the bus windows over his shoulder and the last, dressed in a cheap suit and tie, concentrated so hard on the newspaper gripped in his hand that Dell almost expected it to burst into flame. He took a quick look from one teen to the other, noticing the crude tattoos on the older boy’s knuckles (LOVE HATE) and then found himself concentrating on a crumpled silver gum wrapper that bounced to and fro on the floor from the vibration of the bus tires on broken asphalt.

“What did you say?” one of the boys exclaimed.

Dell watched that small ball of foil as it worked its way back and forth over the grimy floor, pulling his shoulders up to his ears, reciting, “one more stop,” over and over in his head like a mantra, a magic spell, the piece of foil a talisman.

“Nothing. Nothing,” said Dell, keeping his eyes downcast. He began to shake, bending over further in his seat, squeezing his eyes shut, his empty stomach tightening like a fist. He waited with a sickening anticipation for the first blow; the first thrust of blade.

“What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with that dude, Kyle?”

“What’s wrong with you, motherfucker?”

The boy named Kyle guffawed, drumming his feet on the seat next to him. Dell could feel the violent vibrations run up his spine.

“Look at him shake! Think he’s crazy?” said the Kyle boy.

“Just… just leave me alone!”

“Man, he is nuts. Come on.”

Dell heard the boy’s shuffling feet on the gritty floor. He held his breath and drew his feet up, knees to his chest. The brakes of the bus wheezed, the sudden deceleration nearly tossing him off of his seat. He heard the bus doors open, his heart in his throat. He should make a run for it, he thought, but he didn’t. He didn’t move at all. He wanted everything to just end; he wanted to just disappear.

The doors rattled shut. The bus accelerated with a jerk. Dell realized he was quietly crying; sniffling. He opened one eye in a squint. The boys were gone. They’d gotten off at the stop. His stop. Dell composed himself as best he could, wiping his wet eyes and running nose on the sleeve of his jacket. The man with the paper was gone as well. The biker sat smirking, still looking out the bus window. The sleeper was still sleeping.

Four other passengers had been picked up, a mother with a small boy with a bad cough and three teenaged girls, whispering and giggling between themselves. Dell’s face burned red. He knew the girls were mocking him. They’d seen him cowering from the boys that were nearly their age. A grown man, afraid to stand up to a couple of punks, they thought. An ugly little man. Look at the old perv, said one in a whisper. He couldn’t quite make it out, but he knew, he knew. And what about the three men who ignored his plight? Had they stood up to the punks? Had they come to his aid? The biker with all his false bravado? The businessman who found the morning’s lead story oh, so engrossing? The ‘sleeper’ who would’ve told the police, “I didn’t see nothing, officer.” If Dell had… well, things would’ve been different, if he had a second chance.

Dell got off at the next stop and walked his way back to the Dilly Dally, weak in the knees. The green wooden double doors of the restaurant, glass panes glistening in the late morning sun, beckoned Dell inside. The stale warm air comforted him like a blanket. He glanced quickly round, making sure that the boys from the bus hadn’t somehow found the diner and lay in waiting.

     Reassured, Dell walked back to his corner booth. He slipped into the dimly lit corner, refusing to look up. He stared at his hands folded in his lap. Why had he come? What was he expecting? He should be at work. This wasn’t right. His Mother would think him mad for even considering what was spiraling through his mind. He could almost see her face sour with disapproval. He decided he’d order toast and coffee, then be off to work. He’d tell them he’d got to feeling better. He’d just not look at it.

     Dell noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned, mouth open, ready to address the waitress, when he realized it was another patron taking a seat in the adjacent booth. A man in khaki pants and a blue windbreaker jacket. He looked at Dell. Dell snapped his mouth shut; the stranger looked away, opening a newspaper he’d brought with him. Dell recognized him. He had seen this man when scoping out the restaurant just minutes ago, sitting on a stool at the counter. Although he’d only seen him from the back, he knew it was the same guy by his close cropped haircut and muscular build. He was in the place just about as regular as Dell; always sat at the counter, until today; always flirted with the same waitress that waited on Dell. ‘Mr. Clean-cut’ Dale had named him, just as he’d named the waitress ‘Miss. Lonely-heart’. She wore a nametag, but Dale never bothered to remember her name. Why should he, he thought.

     “You can’t ignore me forever, Dale. You came to see me, remember? Wanted to see me. Look at me!” commanded the little brown creature.

     “Shhhhh,” said Dale, drawing the attention of Mr. Clean-cut. Dale looked up at the squirrel while at the same time, watched the man in the booth next to him in his peripheral vision.

     “Dell, no one can hear me but you, remember? Isn’t that grand? You’re staring. Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” said the impossible animal, ending with a twitter that set Dell’s teeth on edge.

     The waitress appeared at the booth across from his. Dell used her presence as an excuse to break eye contact with his squirrel, looking down at her no-nonsense work shoes and back at his hands that strangled each other in his lap. He sat and listened while she flirted with Mr. Clean-cut. She’d barely even acknowledge Dell’s existence when she took his order, he thought, which was always the same; turkey on rye with coffee. No, no lettuce or tomato, or mayo thank you. It infuriated him. It hadn’t ever before, but today, well it infuriated him to no end. How Dell was beginning to hate this place and everyone in it. But it didn’t matter. He came now for only one reason: his secret.

     “Yes, I am your secret, Dell. Yours and yours alone and I know we’re going to become good friends. Right Dell?”

     “I… I guess so,” whispered Dell.

     “Did you say somethin’ hun?” asked the portly Miss. Lonely-heart.

     “Um, I’ll have my usual,” he said.

     “And what’s that, hun?”

Dell felt like reminding her that he came here five days a week and ordered the same thing every time, and that she must be some kind of chowder head for not knowing that, and that if she expected to be tipped… but he just gave his order and waited for her to leave him in peace.

     “Chowder head? You mean class ‘A’ bitch, am I right?” said his squirrel, “and don’t answer that aloud, idiot. You don’t need to sputter at me for me to hear you.”

     I am not an idiot, and I don’t sputter, thought Dale.

     “That a boy. Sorry about that buddy, but you’re attracting unwanted attention, if you get my drift.” The little furry animal cast eyes in the direction of Mr. Clean-cut. It would’ve been comical, thought Dell, if it weren’t so surreal.

      Dell’s lunch was soon set before him with little care. The waitress was back flirting with the man in the next booth. Dale thought the man’s toothy grin reminded him of a shark, cold and dangerous. That brought back uncomfortable thoughts of the bus ride.

     “Those boys on the bus have you worried, kiddo? You know, I really enjoy your company. I’d hate to think you might not come back because of those boys. You should do something about it.”

     How would you know about… started Dell.

     “I know a lot about you, my boy. There’s a reason why you can see me and no one else can Dell. I’ve chosen you to see me. You’re special, Dell. Not like the others; callous in their disbelief. You truly see things as they are. See people as they really are; barren and shallow, am I right? Well, I want to be your friend. We are friends, aren’t we Dell? So, what should we do about it?”

     About what?

     “About those hooligans, you numb… Dell,” said the squirrel, raising his tiny squirrel voice. It actually frightened Dell quite a bit, but then the little thing was all honey and molasses once again. “I think you need to protect yourself, my friend. You need to buy yourself a gun. Have you ever shot a gun, Dell?” asked his Squirrel.

     Once. Once in summer camp. It was…

     “I know all about that. It wasn’t your fault, Dell. The boy lived. No harm, no foul, am I right?”

     I’d forgotten all about that. I know it wasn’t my fault. My Mother said it was. No more camp for me. It was actually a relief. God, why am I remembering this crap?

     “Don’t say that word.”

Crap? Dale didn’t understand, but he’d watch his manners. He really did need a friend, even if it was an animated stain on a wall. And that’s all his squirrel was, wasn’t it?

     “Stop thinking like that. Concentrate Dell. Those boys. You know they’re still out there. Still a threat, and I know I don’t want any harm coming to you, my friend. Get a gun. There’s a gun shop just eight blocks up on Union. Six hundred dollars and a little paperwork and you’re good to go.”

     I can’t see as I really…

     “Get. The. Gun. Trust me, buddy, you’re going to need it. You must admit I can see a lot more than you can. Do it.” His squirrel seemed very adamant, impatient and practically rude about it.

      The next thing Dell knew, he was headed towards Union Street. Dell had decided to buy the gun. If nothing else, it would be a new experience for him. It would almost be exciting if it didn’t worry him so.


He’d had to deal with the waiting period, and thought more than once about calling and canceling the order. But the worry left him once he had the pistol, slick with gun oil, loaded (he’d ducked into an alley way and nervously fumbled with the bullets, a rush of adrenaline turning his fear into excitement), tucked in a box, tucked in a bag emblazoned: SANDER’S GUN PRO INC. He hurried to the bus station, heading for home. He hadn’t been to work in a week. They hadn’t called, he hadn’t cared. Dell sprinted up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. He never took the elevator; wouldn’t consider it. Three full minutes trapped alone with a stranger was something to be avoided as much as humanly possible.

     Mrs. Quigley, his next door neighbor, stood in the hallway, as if waiting for him. Dell knew it must be a coincidence, that he was coming as she was going, but it startled him none the less. He covered the package by holding it against his chest while digging in his pocket for his keys.

     “How nice to see you Dell. How are things at the hospital?” she asked, peering cheerily at him through bi-focal glasses, her gray wig slightly askew, dressed in a Hello Kitty sweat-suit. Dell thought she looked like a kid dressed as an old lady for Halloween.

     “A little crazy. You know how it can be for a Res,” said Dell, having found his key and now concentrating on shoving it into the keyhole. When he had started the lie about being a Resident Physician he couldn’t remember.

     “I noticed you’ve been home lately. Not to pry, but…”

     “My Mother’s been sick, is all. Taking some time off. Helping her out, you know.”

Mrs. Quigley looked at him like she didn’t know, but Dell finally got his door open, and headed into his apartment.

     “Nice to see you, Dell. Take good care of your mother,” she said.

     Dell simply closed the door in her face, then watched through the peep-hole until Mrs. Quigley shuffled out of site. He laid the bag containing the box containing the gun on his bed. He didn’t want it anymore. He didn’t like what was happening to him.  Dell wasn’t a participant in life, he was an observer. A watcher. What was he doing with a gun? A week ago he wouldn’t even have been able to imagine going into a gun shop, let alone buying a gun. It was the squirrel. He hadn’t been back to the diner in a week, and even though he hadn’t been conscious of it, he had been avoiding the place on purpose. He told himself he hadn’t wanted to attempt it unarmed, but he’d made the trip to and from the gun shop twice. Maybe he didn’t need to go back. He’d take back the gun tomorrow. He’d see if he still had a job, and if not, look for another. Dell made himself a frozen dinner and watched the news. He fell asleep on the couch.

     Dell awoke, bleary eyed and confused. He could hear a voice spouting nonsense about tile floors. He realized the voice was a pitchman in an infomercial on his TV. He groped for the remote and clicked off the set. He fell onto his bed and attempted to escape back into sleep. As he drifted, he could hear a skittering noise somewhere in the room. Sleep overcame him.

     The early summer sun shone red through Dell’s eyelids. As much as he desperately wanted to remain sleeping, the sun stubbornly kept intruding. He sighed and stretched, his body racked with aches and pains. Dell rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then sat on the edge of the bed. His blinds were open. He normally pulled them down tight, but he slowly began to remember that he’d stumbled into his room groggily from the couch. Dell used the bathroom, then splashed cold water on his face and hair, slicking his hair back in an effort to tame it. Looking into the mirror, Dell was shocked at how white his complexion was and how dark, bruised and hollow were his eyes. He looked sick. More than sick. He looked nearly dead. As he stared into the mirror, he noticed something else; something perplexing if not disturbing. A dark spot on the bedroom wall. The wall that was at the head of his bed.

     Dell went to the spot. He had to climb onto his bed on his knees to examine it. It was a hole through the plaster board. A hole about three inches in diameter. A ragged hole. It looked to Dell as if a rat had clawed its way through. Not from inside the room, but from behind the wall. He could see small lacerations in the plaster there. The thought of sharp bloodied teeth and claws came to mind. Bits of plaster littered his sheets; his pillow. Then, squinting, Dell saw the writing. Tiny writing. Tiny brown writing in a sepia tone. It said: ‘In this hole lives the Wicker King. Kill for my Master. I turn children into Killers.’ It wasn’t in Dell’s handwriting. He wished to God it was, but it wasn’t. Dell backed out of the bedroom, closing the door after him. He couldn’t understand it. Kill for who? Who’s children? He’d been a child once. Was he still one? How had he allowed this to happen? His world had been turned upside down, ransacked. Somehow he’d allowed a hole to be poked in his reality, and there was no way to mend it. Something wrong was leaking through.

     Dell sat on his cracked concrete patio on his one molded-plastic chair, drinking hot black coffee, trying to breathe some life into his fatigued body. He watched the cars roll by below; he could smell the exhaust fumes as their owners fought for position in the morning’s rush hour. He’d made up his mind. He would return the gun to the gun shop, then see if he still had a job. He’d decided he wouldn’t sleep here another night. He’d call his parents and hope they’d give him a place to stay for a while. Dell gathered his nerve and retrieved the bulky package from his bedroom, once again closing the door behind him.

     Soon he was on the bus. The bus was crowded, but it actually made him feel safer. He was just another anonymous commuter. Dell sat as the bus jostled him along, lulling him. The bus was too warm. He guessed the driver thought the weather was still too mild to run the air. Soon he was asleep, drifting in and out of consciousness. (“Dell, get the gun.”) He awoke in a panic. Had he missed his stop? Where was his package (GUN)? Dell stood, grasping the sticky chrome pole nearest him. He looked frantically around. The bag (GUN) was gone. The bus braked, pitching him into the man next to him. “Watch it, bud.”

“Sorry,” stammered Dell, “my stop.”

“Well, good for you, guy,” said the middle-aged man in the too small tweed jacket.

“Excuse me.”

     Dell was off the bus. He shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, a jacket that felt much too warm as the clear summer sky shown down on him. The gun was in his right pocket. It wasn’t a big gun, “good for a beginner”, said the clerk in the gun shop, “Plenty lethal though. Excellent for self-defense.” What would he do without the receipt? Hopefully the guy who sold him the gun would remember him. If not, he’d sell it somewhere. A pawn shop or something. Dell walked towards Union Street.

     The next he knew, Dell stood just within the deep green doors of the diner. He realized eyes were upon him. How long had he been standing there? He slinked towards the back of the restaurant, shoes shuffling on gritty linoleum. He slid into his tiny booth tucked in the shadowed corner. Dell realized he was sweating. He realized he had his hand in his jacket pocket, wrapped around the pistol grip, finger on the trigger of his gun. Dell didn’t even try to avoid it. He looked up at the squirrel.

     “Dell! Happy to see you! Almost thought you’d changed your mind, but I was pretty sure you’d come. You are my only friend, after all. You did have me worried though. However, I know where you live,” it said, moving slightly down the wall, its tiny sharp nailed paws scrabbling on the yellowed wallpaper. Dale quickly glanced around. No one was the wiser. The smattering of customers continued with their benign conversations and senseless banter.

     “You! You came to my apartment, you… squirrel. Those words…”

     “Shhhhh… Dell, remember what I told you. Don’t speak aloud! You’ll spoil everything,” it said bearing its sharp, yellowed teeth, brown eyes now rimmed with red. “And the name is Harvey. It wasn’t I who wrote those words. The whole picture captures much more than just you and I.”

     I’m done with you, thought Dale, his shaking hand threatening to draw the weapon from his pocket.

     “Oh, but I think not. I need you Dell. You need me. You see me. Validate me. You’re on a different wave length from everyone else. You know it as well as me.”

     Dell broke eye contact from the thing and brought his fist down on the table. The silverware set on the white paper napkin bounced and rattled. Dell drew a deep breath through his nose and exhaled with a sob through his mouth. The waitress for his section appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

     “What can I getcha hun?”

     “A coffee. Just coffee Miss. Lonely…,” he caught himself.

     “What was that? You okay fella?”

     “A coffee please,” he struggled to read her name tag, “Lucy.”

     “Sure. Okay. Coffee. Whatever flips your skirt.”

     He watched her waddle away. He swabbed his face with the paper napkin, pieces of it remaining in the stubble of his unshaven face. He watched as she paused at the counter to flirt with Mr. Clean-cut. He hadn’t been there before. Dell checked his watch. Two o’clock, his old lunch hour. Where had the time gone? The missing time put him further on edge.

     “Hey, buddy boy. Don’t be rude to your lunch date. I’m still up here, you know.”

     Why don’t you come down here? Thought Dell.

     “Oh, you wouldn’t want that. Anyway, you need to relax. As I was saying, this thing is bigger than me and you. It’s beyond our control. So, let’s just let it be, okay? Truce?”

     Dell hadn’t been listening to the machinations of the little beast. He’d been watching Mr. Clean-cut. Mr. Clean-cut as he finished his coffee and got up off the red padded stool. Mr. Clean-cut who strolled towards the back of the diner, towards Dell. Who slid into the booth next to Dell. Who opened the folded newspaper that he’d carried tucked under his muscled arm. Dell watched no more. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and clasped hands on the table, now littered with his jumbled silverware and used napkin. Every muscle in Dell’s body was as taut as a piano wire. He wanted to leave, but felt if he tried, he’d run screaming into the street. Miss. Lonely Heart brought the coffee and sat it before him with a clunk, without a word. Coffee sloshed onto the tabletop, a rivulet making a beeline for his jacket sleeve. Dell let the coffee soak in.

     “Well isn’t that the be all? What are you, Dell? Really? What are you? Chopped liver? A doormat? Look at you, sitting there. You lost your job. Your parents hate you. People walk all over you. You’re intimidated by children, for fuck’s sake. I’m ashamed of you. Your only friend, someone who’s tried to help you out, totally and completely ashamed. I have to hand it to you though, you did find the balls to buy that gun. A gun; you know, a gun is a great equalizer, Dell. As a friend I can tell you, that’s what you need, an equalizer. Bring these idiots down a notch or two. Show them who’s boss for once. Look. She’s coming back. Now’s your chance. Teach her a lesson, Dell!”

     The last screeching sentence from the creature’s mouth snapped Dell into action. He went for the gun. It wasn’t like the movies; the hammer of the gun caught on the lining of his jacket, Dell struggled to free it, panicking, as she drew nearer, step by step. With much effort, Dell tore the gun free, his finger squeezing the trigger before the gun was even fully out of his jacket pocket. The report of the first shot exploded in his ear louder than he could’ve ever imagined, the bullet plugging a neat hole through the linoleum covered floor. He aimed the gun for the next shot, but the terrified woman was already diving behind a booth just up from his. Aiming for her head, he took another shot. The sound was terrific. Red blossomed on her shoulder as she dropped behind the booth.

     “Drop your weapon!”

     Dell shrunk back from the bellow, instinctively putting up his hands in a defensive motion, elbows crooked, gun now pointing towards the ceiling. He slowly turned his head. Mr. Clean-cut repeated,

     “Police! Drop the gun! NOW!”

All Dell could see was the officer’s weapon trained on him. All he could think to say was,

     “Harvey told me to,” pointing high up on the wall. Dell put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.


     Officer Nathaniel Casey stayed through the crime scene investigation. The detectives wanted him available if they needed to ask him any further questions. All he could think about was that he was truly glad that Lucy had noticed the strange behavior of the shooter over the course of the last few weeks. She’d always considered him an oddball, she’d said, but the last few weeks he’d started talking to himself and seemed disoriented.

     Nathaniel couldn’t have been happier with the outcome, especially since his handling of the situation had been exemplary. He’d even been told by the EMT’s that Lucy wouldn’t have made it without his medical assistance. Surely that would bode well for him with his current circumstance, as he was under review for misappropriation of evidence. They’d never pin the charge on him anyway. Sure, he took the drugs and sold them, but so did a lot of guys. Nobody could be expected to live on his salary.

     Nathaniel thought about what the guy had said before blowing his brains out, ‘Harvey told me to’. The weird part was how the guy had gestured towards the wall. High up on the wall. He leaned over the bloodstained seat of the tiny two seat booth. There was a stain there. It looked like a squirrel. No, it was a squirrel. The officer lost track of time.
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