Halloween Haunts 2013: A Walk in the Mists by Keith Deininger
My sophomore year in college, I rented, along with a couple of friends, a house within walking distance of the University in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a large house, at least for the price we were getting, a little rundown, but we didn’t care. And it had a basement. A strange basement, with an ancient cast-iron furnace with pipes that snaked up through the floor, and there were some weird things down there. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” the lady showing us the place told us, after I insisted we see the basement, “but the residents a couple of years ago used to make videos down here.” She looked around nervously, whispered, “S&M videos…”
A couple of weeks before, in a drunken fugue, I’d blurted out to my good friend my idea to move off campus, to have a house where we could be as loud as we wanted to be. We’d stayed up all night talking about it along with this girl we’d maybe a week ago from one of the other dorms that had been hanging out with us a lot. Young, and high, and spontaneous, I suggested the three of us find a place and we all agreed.
The house was rented to us by the law firm that owned it next door, but the firm closed by 5PM and we were free to have people over and throw parties without risk of eviction, despite our reckless habits. I wanted to throw a Halloween party at our new house, but, it didn’t happen that way.
In the basement, there were old things in boxes, nothing extraordinary, just forgotten desktop items and trinkets. Looking up, one could see a crimson handprint on a support beam, clearly paint, but meant to look like blood, and there were others one could find, if one really looked. Deeper in, moving past the yawning furnace, the concrete walls crumbled into dirt and there was a small, dark area with strange graffiti scrawled over what was left of the walls: dull suns with grinning faces, laughing demons, zags of lightning. And, once inside this chilly area, turning to go back, one could see a wall built from wooden planks, leather straps and chains hanging across it, hundreds of tiny nicks in the wood, where someone had practiced throwing a knife.
Halloween night, by the time I got off work at my shitty job bussing tables at a 24-hour diner, all of my friends had already left for the party they were attending down the street. I hurried into a makeshift costume, which was really just my bathrobe and a noose hanging around my neck, and drove to the party. When I got there, everyone was already so drunk I didn’t even bother trying to catch up with them. I left, disgusted and disappointed, and returned to the house alone.
Sitting on the couch in the living room, drinking a beer and watching TV restlessly, I heard something crash in the basement. I jumped to my feet, crossed the kitchen, and opened the rickety door. I looked down those steps into the dark. I flicked the light on and it was only slightly less dark. I was stopped on the first step by a scratching sound—something scratching down there in the dark. I was suddenly scared, even though I knew I shouldn’t be; I was an adult now, and drunk; I had nothing to fear. I took the steps one at a time.
When I reached the bottom, I knew the sounds I’d heard had come from the back area with the crumbling graffiti and the knife-nicked wall. I brandished my beer bottle like a weapon. I could still hear that scratching sound, faintly, but still there. I walked around the unsettling face of the furnace and approached that dark area where the S&M videos had been shot. I thought there might be movement in there, flickering of some kind.
There was a crash, a startling thud. I lost my nerve, turned, and ran up the stairs, slipped, skinned my shin on the steps, and flung myself back up through the door and into the kitchen. I slammed the door behind me.
My friends had just come home with some people, yelling and screaming and drunk. I went to the freezer, swigged vodka straight from the bottle, and went to join them. Soon, I lost myself amongst my friends and the night drained to its inevitable conclusions.
We were evicted from that house after only a couple of months. The girl I’d barely known and so impulsively invited to live with us became my wife years later.
– – –
When I was in 6th grade, I went trick-or-treating with my friends for the last time. At each house, we were appraised by the adults on the other side of the door: “Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” We all nodded shyly and held out our bags for candy, which was still given out, however reluctantly. Then, when we were safely on the street, we’d scoff, and kick someone’s jack-o-lantern, smash it with our sneakered feet.
One of my friends had dressed up as “Pumpkin Head,” hollowing out a real pumpkin, carving eye-holes in its side and a leering grin to put over his head as a mask. By the time we’d hit maybe a dozen houses, he was complaining of a headache, and feeling dizzy, and his mask quickly became another casualty of orange guts in the gutter.
We stayed out much later than we should have, ringing doorbells even when the lights were off, and then running away laughing. We came around the corner, sometime after midnight, and there was a group of older boys at the end of the street, standing in a circle around something. We were close to the park and there were fewer streetlights in this part of the neighborhood. The older boys were wearing masks and appeared to be taking turns kicking at whatever it was they were surrounding. One of the boys looked up and pointed—he was wearing a wolf’s mask—and we turned back and ran.
– – –
When I was in 4th grade, I was fascinated with the children’s books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I used to herd my friends into the window wells around the side of my house, which were shadowy even in the daytime, and read to my friends, as dramatically as possible, trying to scare them.
That Halloween, obsessed with Legos, I wanted to be a pirate Lego man. My mom helped me construct the costume, sewing my clothing and taking me out to buy the necessary accessories. I spent the entire night telling people I was a Lego character, but none of the adults understood, insisting I was just a pirate.
Later that night, lying awake in bed angry, I drifted into nightmares. In one of them, a demon with blue-tinted skin sat on my dresser; nodded to me, grinning.
– – –
Just a few weeks ago, while walking around in the afternoon, I was looking up at a flock of birds when I saw one of those bird’s wings suddenly cease flapping, and the poor creature plummeted to the earth. I was sure it was dead before it struck the ground.
One moment: alive.
The next: dead.
And so I’ve known Halloween was coming…
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Keith is offering one free print copy of The New Flesh.
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KEITH DEININGER, an award-winning writer and poet, is the author of the novel THE NEW FLESH and the novellas FEVERED HILLS and MARROW’S PIT (March 2014). He grew up in the American Southwest and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and their three dogs. He is cynical and a skeptic. Visit his website: www.KeithDeininger.com
Read an excerpt from The New Flesh by Keith Deininger:
What Jake’s parents didn’t know, what they could never understand—what they’d forgotten as they grew older and matured into adulthood—was that the world was a wondrous and mysterious place, and that it was always a matter of perception, that things bubbled and boiled beneath the surface of what could be seen, and felt, and heard; that sometimes these things reached out—like plunging your hand blindly into a murky pool in an attempt to recover a dropped key to the next door before you—and touched you in ways you could never understand.
When he was very little, he used to have these dreams about riding through the open desert on horseback, even though he’d only ever seen such things on the TV and never actually touched a real horse. His dad would tell him stories about their ancestors being some of the first to settle the American Southwest and he’d try real hard to think about what life would have been like back then—sleeping outside, and hunting for food, and gunfights in the streets—but he could never quite figure it out, and soon he started to dream about other things.
Mostly about fire, after what happened—the “incident,” his mom called it. He was guilty, and scared. He’d been so mesmerized by the flames he’d lost control.
And sometimes his dreams were vivid, so real he had no way to be sure if he was awake or asleep, or absorbed, perhaps, in a television program. And sometimes he saw things, strange contortions in reality; things that couldn’t actually be there, that blossomed from his imagination and hung about as apparitions unnatural to common law, things that were often disturbing in strange ways he could never quite grasp.
Sometimes, in his dreams, he saw the Melting Man.
But his mom and his dad were right: his fantasies weren’t real and he believed them. He shouldn’t feel guilty for something that had happened over three years ago. He’d stopped having dreams about fire. He’d moved on. His imaginary friend, just as his dad insisted, did not exist.
It had been his son—whose strangeness, even at the tender age of six—had inspired his most successful screenplay. Never released in mainstream theaters, The New Flesh became a cult success as one of the “strangest horror movies of the decade,” as quoted from an online ezine of some repute and plastered on the cover of the DVD release.
But these fucks had never seen it, probably never even heard of it; these fucks could only think in numbers—money churned from the constant production of low-budget pornography and sold to websites such as his—had probably never thought twice about artistic merit or expression before dropping to their knees and licking the shiny leather boots of the Great American Capitalist Machine known affectionately as Uncle “Don’t-Call-me-Motherfucker” Sam.
On the little flat-panel display on the wall of the cramped studio that served as his conference room, Harlan Bowden watched the same old scene—a woman with large fake boobs bent over what was supposed to be her teacher’s desk moaning melodramatically while a barely in-shape man did her from behind, sucking air through his teeth with every thrust and without much enthusiasm. The men presenting the video, Lee and Derek, one to each side of the table—dressed in “business casual”—wore duplicate, mirthless expressions.
When the video was done—the man blowing his disappointing load across the woman’s face and open mouth—the one known as Lee turned to him, folding his hands on the table in front of him: “So…”
Harlan grimaced. “Yeah, I’ll buy it. Of course I’ll buy the fucking thing. I always do, don’t I?”
“Excellent,” Lee said, pushing his chair back from the table and already standing.
“Just do one thing for me, will ya’?” Harlan asked. “Bring me something new.”
Lee, standing now with his briefcase in hand, looked at Harlan blankly.
Derek, still comfortably in his seat, leaned over the table. “What do you mean by new, Mr. Bowden?”
“I mean I want something different, exciting; something that pushes the boundaries. I want more than the same five fucking positions. I want story. I want violence. Anything!”
Derek’s trimmed eyebrows raised. “Violence, Mr. Bowden?”
“Well, no, not exactly. That’s not what I meant. I just want to start a new site; one that’s a little more artistic. I have the money; I’ve been saving. You bring me something that I like, something that really gets my blood pumping, and I’ll pay big. You know I will.”
“Of course. I’ll see what we can do.” Derek stood. “Have a good day, Mr. Bowden.”
In The New Flesh, the little boy Denny watches a lot of television as a way to escape the real world because his parents are always arguing, often violently. He begins to talk to the TV and it is revealed part-way through the movie that he is in contact with a being he calls ZigZig—imaginary or otherwise, it is never revealed—who tells Denny about things he could not possibly know. In one scene, Denny sits transfixed before the television set while his parents argue over whether or not they should seek professional psychological help for him in the other room, Denny hearing every word, his face contorted in terror.
The woman’s name was Grace and, as usual, she was overdressed for the video shoot. Harlan had asked her once, after another shoot, if she was going to a cocktail party on Mulholland Dr. later, but she’d only shrugged, given him her sarcastic smile, and said: “You only live once. I just want to look good while I still look good.”
Sitting in a couple of folding chairs, they watched the procession together, as they had numerous times before. Other producers sat in a tight little semi-circle with them. It was hot, humid; the sweat was in the air they breathed, the smells sour and organic. Harlan sighed inwardly, glanced at the others—pressed denim jeans and greasy light-colored shirts unbuttoned around the throat for the men, the woman also in jeans with flats on their feet and hair pulled back and up in messy swirls—sitting in their little chairs like lazy directors, some nodding slightly, others only watching intently through the curls of cigarette smoke. Serious faces—seeing money in each hump, in each moan; seeing the stenciled-green faces of dead presidents printed across each breast and butt cheek, along the shaft of each penis. He shifted in his chair, rubbed his temples absently against the looming headache. The director was telling one of the women to lie on her back while the other woman straddled her in the classic ‘69’ position. He directed the man to stand behind the redhead. How creative, Harlan thought sarcastically, pressing his fingers along his temples.
After the shoot people mingled, as they always did, discussing the new video and the industry. Harlan brooded in a corner, a Crown and Coke sweating in his hand. The drinks seemed to be helping his headache a little and people seemed to sense he was in no mood for casual discussion and were, for the most part, letting him be. He couldn’t wait for this tiresome obligation to be over so he could get back to his apartment, draw the shades, maybe have a few more drinks, and pass out on the couch watching an old classic from his movie collection—his regular movie collection.
Grace, her flowing vibrant dress unmistakably red amongst the shouldered earth tones, was walking up to him. Oh great, here we go, Harlan thought.
“Enjoying the party?” she asked, her lips already showing signs of her sardonic smirk.
Harlan huffed. “Yeah, right. Party? This thing?”
Grace leaned casually against the wall next to him. “Actually,” she said, “I know what you mean. I’ve been coming to these things for a while now and nothing much has changed over the years. I’m just so sick of all…this.” She waved her open hand at the mumbling crowd. “I’ve grown bored of the whole charade.” She shrugged. “But what else is there? Maybe I’ll retire soon. Who knows?”
Harlan nodded absently, knowing it was all just small talk, expecting her to go on, perhaps asking him his opinion on the evening’s shoot, but she didn’t.
After a while, she said, “I wish someone would bring us something new and exciting. There’s simply no creativity in our industry, I’m afraid.”
Harlan looked at the woman, noticing for the first time the fullness of her lips, her pale cheeks flushed lightly from the martinis she was drinking. “I’ve been feeling the same way.”
Grace turned to face him fully, the alcohol and the noise from the room drawing them close. “I thought that might be the case,” she breathed. “I could tell by the way you were sitting there watching the shoot.”
Harlan’s head buzzed. “I’ve been looking for something…” he began, “something new. I used to be a screenwriter, you know.” He must be getting drunk if he was sharing things like this with her.
“Really? I used to be an actress,” she said, “and not in pornography—a real actress; television mostly, a few commercials, but movies too.”
Harlan nodded. “I could have guessed that.”
Grace blushed, clearly pleased with the remark. “What do you say we escape this sleazy little hellhole?” she said, proffering her arm.
Harlan circled his arm over hers. “Why not?”
Grace smiled, slightly canted. “Shall we?”
There was a small package—wrapped in brown paper, not in his mail slot, but leaned upright against the foot of the door to his apartment—waiting for him. Harlan bent, snatched it up, tucked it beneath his arm and fumbling the keys from his pocket. Grace stood patiently behind him, leaning on one leg so that her hip curved to one side dramatically.
Harlan dropped the package by the door and left Grace to putter about the living room while he made drinks in the kitchen.
“Is this your kid?” Grace called out across the apartment.
“Yeah, you must have found a picture of Jake. That’s my son.”
“He’s a weirdo.”
When Harlan entered the living room with their drinks, Grace was standing in front of the couch holding the brown paper package, turning it from side to side. “It feels like a CD case,” she said, a slight crease running between her eyes.
Harland took the package from her and handed Grace her martini. He tossed the package on the end table, sipped his drink.
Grace was looking at him. “Well? Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Oh come now, I’m not here to pry. Aren’t you curious? No name; no return address—what could it be?”
“Alright. Fine. Let’s see what it is.”
Harlan set his drink down and took up the package. He ripped the paper away and tossed it by his feet. He turned the CD jewel case in his hands; it was blank, no labels. Grace was by his shoulder, “Oh, what is it?” He flipped the case open to a blank DVD, one of those cheap ones you can buy in the spools.
Harlan shrugged. “Let’s try it.” He stood, took a couple of steps across the room to his entertainment center, opened the extravagant doors with row after row of DVDs meticulously categorized, to his 90” LCD flat screen, and slid the blank disk into the player. He dropped back into the couch next to Grace and flicked the screen to life with the remote.
“Impressive collection. What are all those?”
Harlan powered on the DVD player and hit Play on the remote. “Horror movies mostly, but there are other things too.”
The screen flickered in the dimly lit apartment. A room came into view, framed in medium shot—a small room, tiled floors, a grand red curtain pulled across the background, and a single piece of furniture; a table made from three large slabs of stone, the largest resting atop the other two.
Grace leaned forward eagerly.
Harlan lit a cigarette.
For a minute or two, it was only the room. Then, a woman in panties and bra stepped into the scene, tiptoed like the room was cold, and climbed up onto the stone table. She looked at the camera, blinked a couple of times. A man came after her; he was wearing a mask of large dark pooled eyes and an exuberant cartoon grin. He held a dangling coil of chain in one hand. Another man followed the first, this one wearing an equally hideous mask, its stretched mouth turned down to a droopy frown. The two men used the chain, wrapping it beneath the table and over, tying the woman in place about her waist.
“What is this?” Grace breathed.
“I don’t know.”
Both men, the happy and the sad one, produced black leather whips from the folds of their robes and began taking turns whipping the restrained woman. The woman cried out with each lash.
Grace shifted in her seat. “Is this real?”
“I don’t think so,” Harlan said.
What followed was a not-entirely-original torture and sex scene. The men took turns, one holding the woman down while the other fucked her furiously. There was slapping and roughness. At one point, the woman bit the happy-masked man, who yelped in surprise. But mostly it was a brutal scene that ended with both men bent over the writhing woman, choking her until she was still.
When the video stopped, there was stillness in the apartment, the air buzzed with silence.
Slowly, Harlan bent and picked the discarded wrapping paper from the ground, turning it, looking for a clue as to who might have sent him this video. Is this what they thought he was looking for? He broke the silence: “That was a little weird, huh?”
He turned to look at Grace for the first time since the video had started—her bosom was heaving, her eyes smoldering, pupils dilated.
She licked her swollen lips. “Kiss me,” she said.
“ZigZig told me about other worlds. One’s in there,” Denny says in Harlan’s only produced film outside of the porn industry.
Denny’s father: “In where?”
“There,” Denny says, pointing at the TV screen jagged with snow, his face soft with wonder.
“What’s it like in there?”
“Lightning and fire.” A whisper: “Lightning and fire.”
Last night, Jake had had that nightmare again—the familiar one, the one he hadn’t dreamt in a while, the one where he didn’t put the fire out, where he couldn’t put it out, and flickering orange flames spread and burned, lurching around in their creepy dance. It had been bad this time; bad enough to stay with him while he sat at the kitchen table trying to choke down his bowl of fast-going-soggy Lucky Charms; bad enough that he jumped when his mom cleared her throat behind him, shuffling past in her droopy coffee-stained robe; bad enough he couldn’t help himself from starring at the little orange spot of flame at the end of the match as his mother moved it to the tip of her cigarette.
“Do I have to go to school today, mom?”
“Of course. It’s only Tuesday. Why? Are you not feeling good?” She picked up her muffin, put it back down, took hold of her mug (pictures of cartoon cats cavorting around its rim), and sipped her coffee.
“I’m not sick or anything. I just—” Jake tried to think what he could say, how he could get his mom to understand how he felt. “I don’t know,” he said, sighing into the bowl of grayish-blue milk leftover from his cereal. “I guess I’ll just go to school.”
“Good. Now hurry up and get dressed. You’re going to be late.”
Jake shuffled down the hallway to his room.
There was a bus that could take him, but he only lived a couple miles from school, so he usually walked. Besides, the bus was too crowded, too noisy, too many kids screaming and throwing things. It made him uncomfortable—his face would flush, his palms would sweat—he didn’t fit in. He didn’t like being squished against the cold thin steel of the bus’s frame, his breath fogging the window, his butt sticking on the plastic seat, the kid next to him who wouldn’t sit still, bouncing, jigging; yelling to be heard over all the other kids. He preferred to walk; it was only a couple of miles and he liked being outdoors. Sometimes his friend Jesse, who lived a couple of blocks down the street, would walk with him, or Jesse’s mom would give them a ride, but most of the time he walked alone.
Today, the morning air was crisp and cool. Before long, he forgot about the nightmare and his earlier trepidations. He moved easy, whistling softly to himself (a talent he’d practiced for countless hours in his room to master and was quite proud of). His walk took him through the neighborhood. He passed Jesse’s house and came up to Old Man Greene’s perfectly green and meticulously manicured lawn. Greene’s house was a corner lot and Greene was known to chase kids that dared to cut across his lawn on their way to and from school away with a broom; Jake was careful to use the sidewalk. He passed Johnny’s place, known to most of the kids Jake’s age as ‘Johnny the Babysitter’ because he picked up extra cash watching kids around the neighborhood and let you watch rated R movies if you wanted to. Then he came upon Mrs. Marlow’s extravagantly gardened yard and her collection of plastic gnomes spread throughout the lush vegetation.
When he reached the construction zone, where the suburb came to a halt, he cut across the street. Since the company that had been working on the housing expansion product had suddenly gone bankrupt a couple of years ago, several of the plots had been cleared and now stood empty and abandoned, leaving, in some places, the skeletal husks of houses that would probably never be built.
On the other side of the street was a large apartment complex. Cutting through a pathway between the uninspiring brown buildings with their high-spire roofs, he came upon a dirt bike path skirting the edge of the creek that ran through the middle of the neighborhood. The creek wasn’t really a creek, but more of a ditch for water runoff, to keep the neighborhood from flooding, a flat expanse of sand cut through with shallow rivulets of water. He often spent time wandering the creek and playing in the water, and sometimes, when he had more time, walked to school along the sandy bed itself. Today, however, he took the path, walking briskly, passing over the large concrete, algae-encrusted drainage pipe that was like an opening into the caverns beneath the city, passing the swampy area with the tadpoles and the little frogs you could catch, and out into the playground at the back of his school. A little ways further along, there was a small forested area the locals called Sherwood Forest where Jake had built his tree house. Three years ago, he’d started the fire in there, started the fire he couldn’t put out—a charred area of black, still barren of all growth even after two years, as if some kind of demon had risen there, coming up from beneath the earth, blighting that spot, marking it for future entrance.
School, that day, was boring—as usual.
Fire—he’d learned once he’d really seen it in action—lives and dies by its own sordid rules. It hypnotizes: so small, then multiplying. Its flickers don’t appear real, but it heats the cheeks and the bridge of the nose, sitting crouched before a pile of leaves, a pack of matches in his grubby hands. It mesmerizes, erases the rational mind. It is primal and it is powerful. It dances and it eats, and grows and looks for more.
And it’s everywhere and he is afraid he started it; he must have started it. He falls into these trances and he just can’t help himself. He licks his lips and lights the matches and he hardly knows what he’s doing. He lights the dried leaves like insect crusts and he stares at the little flames licking up their sides and folding over and upwards and when he has a chance to stop things from getting out of control—to stomp out the flames under the rubber soles of his Keds—he just watches and feels the tingling heat on his face and hands. It’s just, he’s not in control of himself; he feels good in these moments; it feels only natural to let go of himself and bask in the hunger of the flames. Let it burn, he sometimes thinks, as he inhales the acrid smoke.
Then everything is burning. In the forest grove the branches of the trees above enshroud the scene in lowly crackling flame; the bushes sputter and crunch like the carcasses of dead animals, brittle bones snapping one then another; the underbrush sizzles, smoke rising from the tender green foliage going gray, loosing color. He looks up and out between the burning branches and the horizon is black and he can see his school and the playground is burning and there are horses in a panic in the soccer field, whinnying and kicking the smoke-filled air with their hooves—the monkey bars melted and sagging—and the buildings are charred behemoths.
“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
The voice is right over his shoulder, but he doesn’t want to turn; he can feel the cool spray of breath on the back of his neck.
“But it’s about more than esthetics. It shows us what life is really about, wouldn’t you agree? It eats and eats for as long as it can, as much as it can, and then dies and only the charred remnants of its destruction are left behind.”
He shudders. “I…” he begins, “I want to wake up now.”
The voice inhales like water droplets hitting a fry pan. “Of course, but don’t worry. All you have to do is remember; you must not forget: you can change the world and I can help you.”
“Not now. You can go. It’s okay.”
He begins to turn. Oh god. He doesn’t want to turn. He can feel his heart pounding at his ribcage. He can feel his hands sweaty and trembling. If he turns he’ll see that face; he doesn’t want to see that face. But he can’t help it. This is what happens at the end of the dream; this is what always happens.
But the face is already fading back into the flaming foliage. He only catches a glimpse—a face like melting grease, flesh running and pooling about a wide grin of shark’s teeth; pointed ears bent, striated with pulsing veins; eyes looking out through the shifting miasma bright and mischievous. And he tries to look away, to force himself to awaken from the nightmare like pulling himself from a warm drowning pool. He struggles, but his body will not move.
“Someday,” the voice of the Melting Man, high and crisp, says, already fading, muffled as if speaking from the other side of a window, “you’ll have to follow me and see what happens. I can show you things. Beautiful things. You’ll see.”
The boy gapes. He can feel himself shaking all over. His heart beats frantically at his chest like a cornered animal.
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
The face of the Melting Man continues to fade backwards, then bulges, inflating from the side so that one eye expands—the quivering glare of a runny egg—and there is a gleeful tittering like a cruel cartoon or fun-house clown taking pleasure in repulsing its young audience.
Wake up! Please! Wake up!
Someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes. Jesse loomed over him.
“Wake up. Come on. Recess is over, Jake. It’s time for Social Studies.”
“What the hell, Jake? Falling asleep on the soccer field? You’re a weirdo.”
Jake smiled ruefully, his dream already a distant memory. “Yeah, that’s what my dad says.”