Up The Stairs
A half an hour later Bill was in his office looking at a bag of ground coffee. It was Beaumont, a brand that sold ridiculously cheap at the Aldi grocery store that had moved into town. He sat in his chair in his office with his hands laced behind his head, looking at the little Mr. Coffee station. A deeper section of his mind replayed the scene in the Stender house kitchen from earlier that day, during the gig, before the camera crew had arrived to document.
He saw Lucy getting her knee up onto the stove so she could peer into the hood above it. With that one chubby knee there on the griddle and her other leg dangling she’d looked like a very large baby conspiring for the high shelf where the cookies were kept. A baby who then said “Yup,” like a plumber: There’s your problem right there, ma’am.
Bill looked at the manila envelope on the desk in front of him. The note inside read: “Go home and sleep. Big day tomorrow. Tongs and a canvas sack! Good one.” Had somebody been at the Stender house, then, watching? It wasn’t impossible – in fact, it had happened more than once. Someone leaked something and either teenage kids or the press or an angry old neighbor got wind of Bill’s presence and came by to have a look, or try and police the situation.
Someone had possibly been there today, looking in through one of those dusty kitchen windows. Someone who had seen the extraction, someone who had seen the purple rinds beneath Bill’s eyes to know he was tired, or the way he brought the back of a loosely curled fist to his mouth and had yawned every five minutes or so.
Could it have been the camera crew? He went over the group of them in his mind – there was a still photographer, and a videographer. There was a young woman who recorded sound…Becky, was her name. Did that make sense then? Becky? The girl who did sound? Was she the author of the letter, had she sent him the audio tape? It seemed to fit.
Becky could have arrived a little early, hidden away and witnessed the extraction. Maybe Becky had seen how tired Bill was, seen the extraction, and written the note, dropped the tape in the envelope and had the tall man from the diner deliver it.
Well, Bill figured, if there was going to be any answer for it, listening to the tape would be a start in that direction.
He was rocking on the two back legs of the chair at his high school teacher’s desk. He’d left the lights off in his room, the blinds drawn to the outside midday. He looked at the coffee maker again, still deliberating whether to make a fresh pot and listen to the tape right away, or to cool his heels and for at least an hour take Lucy’s advice – hell, take the letter-writer’s advice, el doctoro mysterioso – and sleep.
In the end, free will was fantasy, and Bill conked out. He slept fitfully, exhausted as he was, his head lolling and jerking on his chest.
It was probably toward the end of the nap that he dreamed. In the dream the hood in the old country house kitchen was stained with stiletto jags of rust, the unit cockeyed and out of proportion, forming some kind of cubist’s trapezoid. Dream-Lucy worked the extraction not with tongs and a canvas sack, but with a giant vacuum machine, with clear tubes drawing through pinkish, fatty fluid, making sucking sounds and chuffing smoke.
Parts of the machine hissed and pistoned up and down, dials spun like those on a child’s toy or a carnival ride. Dream-Lucy held the tip of the hose up underneath the hood, where she was fishing around, making scraping noises as she reached with the extension. Bill watched the dream and heard the thunk as the extraction finally took place. He saw the Leftover, as Lucy called them, yanked free from where it hid underneath the hood, the suction of the big vacuuming machine getting a hold of it at last.
Bill watched as it snaked its way through the tube. It appeared as a charred baby, snarling at him, ivory-white eyes glowing around the blackened skin, sliding through the clear plastic intestines of the machine. Its small hands pressed against the inside of the tubing as it went, little more than a blur of a thing, and then whump into Lucy’s machine. And at the whump, Bill had awakened, and thought of his son.
Troy. I’m coming, my boy. I’m coming.
Bill sat straightened in his chair, now unable to drift back to sleep, plagued with the dream’s residue. He decided it was time for that coffee, got up, and shuffled across the small room.
For the real extraction that morning, the Leftover – a physical manifestation of bad psychic juju, you could call it – was a kind of bird. When it wasn’t a bird, the Leftovers were often a sort of bug. They varied in shape and size, the bugs, and when they didn’t resemble a cockroach, they were beetles, round and hard like shining black pebbles. Once there had been a large slug. What didn’t vary, however, was that the Leftover was there. Whether a house was considered cursed because of a crime committed, or an untimely death, the bad event took shape. It left something behind, like a resin, like the gunk that coagulated in a drain. This fact, this extracting of the Leftover was something Bill and Lucy didn’t share with their little media pals. So how could Becky the sound girl have even known about it? And even if she had arrived early, hid herself and spied, how could she know what she was seeing?
For one thing, aside from some microscopic markings Bill was sure only an entomologist would believe, the bugs looked like ordinary household or backyard crawlers. The big cockroaches looked like something you’d find in a tropical jungle, sure, but he was sure their north country equivalents wriggled out from under plenty a refrigerator. And the birds looked like birds, albeit of a species Bill was sure there was no Latin name for, the kind you wouldn’t find in an encyclopedia. So Becky wouldn’t necessarily have attributed seeing a bird to having anything to do with the paranormal.
As he spooned the Beaumont coffee into a filter, Bill thought back. There had been only two times he and Lucy had not been able to find the Leftover, and only one of those times they’d gotten lucky and nothing had come of it. The other time had resulted in something unsavory – the Leftover in this case had been a slug. Some time after the gig was over, the man who still lived in the site house had awakened in the night experiencing sinus build-up. The next morning he’d told family that he felt like he had an ear infection and was having trouble hearing. Since he showed no other symptoms, however, to indicate infection, he decided that the problem was wax build-up, and scheduled an appointment with the family doctor to have his ears irrigated. This had been a year and a half ago, and Lucy knew the receptionist at the doctor’s office, Mandy. Mandy had told Lucy about it over one of their vegan dinners a couple of nights later. Her face wrinkled into disgust and disbelief, Lucy said, as Mandy explained how the doctor had pulled a large slug out of the old man’s ear.
It had died in there.
With the bugs, the extraction was simple. The creature was placed in the potato sack, Bill brought it into the woods (or a ditch, or an alleyway), and stomped it to death. This was the one bit of the job Lucy was squeamish about. But when it came to the birds – forget it. For the birds, Lucy got out her cage and brought them home. Each of the two others there’d been, though, died within a couple days. Lucy said it was because they had no purpose left to serve, whatever that meant. For now, this bird Leftover was still in the sack, stashed in the back of Bill’s Subaru Loyale, probably dead already.
The coffee percolated.
Bill realized he was procrastinating.
“Fine,” he said to the empty office with the water-stained ceiling. “Screw it.”
He went to his desk. He opened up the enveloped and pulled out the small tape cassette. From his drawer, he produced his Dictaphone, a device vastly underused. He placed cassette in the Dictaphone and pressed Play.
White noise hissed for a moment, and then there was the sound of rustling, like clothing.
Someone cleared their throat. Then a voice.
“Go back to the house. Press stop, and play again at the house.”
It was a woman’s voice. Bill stopped the tape, rewound, and listened again. “Go back to the house. Press stop, and play again at the house.” Maybe in her late thirties, early forties. A non-smoker. The voice was clear but sultry, evoking the sinuous smell of a perfume, maybe Obsession. Definitely not Becky the sound girl with her cargo pants and pigtails.
Bill let the tape roll, even more curious now.
“Go up the stairs. Press stop. Press play again at the top of the stairs.”
Bill stood next to his desk, looking down at the small machine in his hand. He pressed Stop. Behind him, the coffee finished brewing and steam rose from the pot.
Bill left the office without getting a cup.
At dusk, he arrived and sat with the Subaru idling, looking across the front lawn at the ramshackle, unkempt country house. He had rewound the tape once more, stopping it where instructed.
He walked inside, and pressed Play.
“Go up the stairs. Press stop. Press play again at the top of the-”
He clicked it off. His left hand on the rickety banister, his right holding the Dictaphone, his gun lightly bouncing against his white-shirted chest in the Docker’s clutch holster, he climbed up, passing the gaps where the spindles were missing.
“-stairs.” There was a brief period of more white noise. Then: “Go towards the back of the house, the room on the right, one of the bedrooms. Press stop.” Bill did as the voice on the tape instructed.
The smell of mildew was especially strong upstairs. A narrow hallway fed into three rooms, straight back from the stairs. As he walked towards the bedrooms at the end, he passed the bathroom on his left and glanced in.
The room was completely spoiled. Green algae-like corrosion grappled to every fixture. Brown gunk in the bathtub reminded Bill of his afternoon dream. He turned away from the room and at the same time felt a pulling, a sickness in lower abdomen, the base of his guts. A stirring there like a fish slipping through a gap in his large intestine, and a dark familiar lure, the lure to drink, to drink hard, to find someone, anyone, and screw until senseless, liquor conjugating with liquor.
He moved on from the bathroom and continued down the hall.
Bill turned into the room on the right. The bedroom was dark. He flipped the switch on the wall. Amber light flitted to life in an overhead fixture, a shallow dome. The fixture was filthy, littered with the mice-turd bodies of dead flies. Two windows at the back of the room overlooked the yard behind the house. In the center of the room floated a bluish-silver sphere.
“Approach the sphere.”
Bill cautiously walked towards it. It was the size of a basketball and looked like a ball bearing. He stopped within two feet of it, breathing faster than normal, gripping and ungripping the Dictaphone in a sweating hand.
“Try to move it. Press Stop.”
Bill pressed the Stop button on the Dictaphone. He wiped his mouth with his left hand unconsciously. He looked at the sphere, he looked out the window, he looked back at the sphere. He took two steps toward it, closing the gap, his chest only inches from it. He slipped the Dictaphone into his blazer inside pocket and brought his hands up along side of the sphere. He flexed his fingers. He closed his hands in, and finally touched it.
It was cool against his skin, the way part of him had expected it to be; it was cool in the upstairs rooms. Drafty. The sensation of something subaqueous in his belly returned for a brief moment, like a startled salmon flashing sunlight.
Bill got a firm grip on either side of the sphere, but the nerves in his hands were already telling his brain what to expect. He put some muscle into it, and tried to move the hovering ball. It wouldn’t go an inch. It was rooted where it hung in the air as if affixed in place by steel gurters.
He wiped his mouth again, smearing away beads of perspiration on his upper lip, this time with the back of his right hand. He grasped the sphere again and tried to wrest it out of its space. Nothing. Not an inch. Not only was it firmly “in place,” he thought, it was as if it were a part of the fabric of reality itself, more immobile than a stump in the earth. A kind of reality completely unalterable and absolute, like a thought, rather than a thing. He felt suddenly removed from himself, as though he were elsewhere, eyes shut, sweat, anonymous, an oily film imbuing everything, a greasy texture in the air, an innocent car ride, tools in the back, the brakes are pumped, the tools fly…
Bill blinked, let his hands drop, and stepped away from the intractable bluish-grey orb. He realized the reflection in it, of himself, elongated and slimmed, the room, walleyed around it, and the overhead light. The bent reflection reminded him of the creamer container in the diner. He thought he saw something or someone standing behind him.
Bill spun around. He stood watching, his chest rapidly rising and falling. He listened. There was only silence, and the sound of birch trees clacking together in the backwoods.
Bill reached into his blazer and pulled the Dictaphone out and pressed Play.
“It can’t be moved, as you can see. Not by you. Wait for the tall man outside. He’ll be there momentarily. You’ll recognize him, and you can verify him – he’ll be wearing the ring. Press Stop.”
There was the ruffling sound of papers, or clothes whickering, and then the click of the record button shut off. This was followed by the white noise of blank tape. Then the rustling again, brief, and the beginning of a sentence: “Go back inside the h-” and Bill pressed Stop then, staring at the sphere, watching his reflection mimic his action.
He heard steps downstairs, on the front porch. His heart pounded. He stood, frozen, waiting to hear the latch, waiting for the hinges. The front door remain closed, but something had changed. Slowly, like a man contained within syrupy viscera, Bill turned and walked out of the room.
He descended the stairs. As his line of sight passed beneath the upstairs floor and he could see the front entrance to the country house, he saw the silhouette standing there.
Bill reached the first floor.
He walked slowly to the two-paned door and drew his pistol. The gun pointed up at shoulder level, Bill watched the silhouette. The he opened the door.
Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Four: The Tall Man and the Four Elements (9.21.11)
CHAPTER FIVE: The Zero Ring Men
CHAPTER SIX: Unbound
CHAPTER SEVEN: You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire
CHAPTER EIGHT: Buried Alive and The Demon Comes
CHAPTER NINE: The Dream