Surprise! I’m not dead.
Been a long time since I posted I know. But I thought I’d share with you another short story I’ve written. Gonna try to get back into the swing of things with writing. Covid definitely shook all of our worlds up.
But without further ado, here is the story.
Two nights ago, I killed myself for the third time.
It seems like ages ago that I was living in the bright, sunny world of Los Angeles. I had a nice enough apartment, a steady job that paid the bills, and free time to pursue my writing passion. But I never could have predicted how fast my life would change.
I was lucky. My first book thrust me into the spotlight and garnered critical acclaim.
My second book sold even better than the first.
The problems started with the third.
From its inception, it was clear something was amiss. Frequent cases of writer’s block impeded my progress and little distractions kept pulling me away. As time went on my publisher grew impatient, demanding that I produce something soon. So I forced myself to write, willed myself to continue. Eventually, it was done.
The headlines called it a “failure”.
The readers decried it as “boring”.
The critics slammed it as “trash”.
For weeks I paced back and forth in my apartment, wondering where it had all gone wrong. How had I failed so spectacularly? Did I never have the talent to begin with?
I became a different person overnight. I spent hours every day lying on the couch, descending ever deeper into myself. Even looking at a blank computer screen was enough to send me into an emotional tailspin.
Soon enough, the thoughts began.
They were gradual at first…sneaking their way into my life from time to time. Maybe I would just step into traffic. Maybe I would jump off a building. Maybe I would swallow a bottle of pills. Images of how I’d do it flashed through my mind daily. Initially I just shrugged them off as products of life’s turmoil.
But when I woke up in the kitchen one night clutching a knife, I knew something had to change.
I decided to give up the apartment, the spotlight, the fans – everything. I reached out to a friend of mine in the Midwest to see if he could help locate some property. The place he presented me with was rather quaint: a two-story log home nestled in a grove of pine trees. It had a detached garage and a large, wooden deck out front which provided a spectacular view of nature. And it was close enough to the village proper that I wouldn’t have to travel far for any necessities.
It was, for lack of a better word, perfect.
I kept my name off the mailbox and hidden from the address books. I bought a P.O. box in a nearby town, but that was it. When I first moved, I checked it about twice a week. Then it became once a week.
Now it’s lucky if I decide to check it once a month.
The village of Alsey was a place most only knew through the windows of their car. With a population of only a few hundred, it was the perfect place to shed the spotlight I had once adored. During the first community meeting, I proclaimed my desire for privacy, and the village folk accepted it without question.
If there’s one thing small town America is good at, it’s keeping secrets.
Winter gave way to spring. Spring blossomed into summer.
I’d always loved the Midwest during this time of year: the scent of fresh pine, chirping bird calls in the morning, and crickets humming at night. There’s a symmetry to the area, a symbiosis. It makes you feel like you’re co-existing with the land, rather than trying to control it.
Green became yellow became red. The air harbored a chill. The bugs all but vanished.
Late September, the dreams began.
One night I had been enjoying a well-cooked steak when there was a knock at my door. I opened it to find a young lady, likely in her early twenties, standing on my front deck. Under the dim yellow light above the door, I could see that she had eyes like the ocean and a jacket the color of grass. A colorful, wrapped box was cradled in her arms.
“Happy birthday,” she proclaimed cheerily as she held out the gift for me. “I’m a big fan.”
Unwrapping the box, I found myself stunned to see a Remington brand typewriter. It was clearly decades old but had been cleaned and polished so much that its black finish gleamed like new. I thanked her with the best smile I could manage. With a laugh, she bounded back down the road.
Once she was out of eyesight, I tossed the wretched thing in the garbage can.
The past was the past. It deserved to be forgotten.
The first dream visited me that very night.
I sat up in bed, the room cast in shadow. The darkness ebbed and flowed, almost like it was alive. My body ached, every movement seeming to take monumental effort. I reached over to the bedside table and pulled open the drawer to reveal a black pistol. I took it and left the bedroom.
Stumbling down the stairs, I could barely see through the tears streaming down my cheeks. I pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down, the dim night lights casting a doleful aura over the room. I loaded the pistol, the slide snapping into place with a sharp click. Thecreaking of the chair kept me company as I rocked back and forth, fingers rapping against the side of the gun.
Eventually, my hand seemed to move of its own accord, raising the weapon.
Cold metal kissed my skull. A deep, gasping breath escaped my throat.
I pulled the trigger.
Next thing I knew, I was throwing the sheets off of me in a frenzied panic. Jumping out of bed, I dashed into the master bathroom and flicked the lights on. The blinding white lights burnt away the darkness, revealing a disheveled caricature of myself in the mirror – dark brown eyes quivering wildly, reddish hair drenched with sweat. The more I stared at the reflection, the more I was convinced it wasn’t my own. My body felt wrong somehow…as though it didn’t belong to me.
Turning on the tap, I doused my face with ice cold water, hoping the shock would snap me out of it. Gradually, it worked. A weight lifted from my shoulders. The mania that had seized me soon abated, a deep confusion settling in its place.
I’d never had a dream that powerful before. As a child, I occasionally had terrifying nightmares that sent me running for my mother’s room, but even those were tame by comparison. Something about it shook me to the core. But I couldn’t put my finger on why. It was as though my body was aware of something my mind wasn’t…a subconscious act of terror.
Eventually, I returned to the bedroom, catching a glimpse of my haggard reflection in the dresser mirror. Pale blue light filtered in through the cracks in the window blinds, casting my face in pale shadow. Shivering, I hopped back in bed and pulled the covers over me.
My sleep was deep and dreamless.
“You haven’t heard?! Paul killed himself last night!”
“What?! That’s horrible! He always seemed so happy…”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sad.”
“Do they know why he did it?”
“No…he had no financial problems as far as I was aware. His life seemed perfect. I just saw his wife a little while ago…she’s a complete wreck…”
Two women were having a conversation as I passed them on the streets of the village, our shoes clicking against the sidewalk. Their words washed over me with little impact. I was so lost in my own thoughts that I never considered the ramifications of their conversation.
I was – and still am – a stupid, selfish man.
The two women disappeared behind me and soon I arrived at the general store. It was a red brick building, a flimsy wooden sign announcing its Ma and Pa origins with all the subtlety of a foghorn. A tiny bell chimed as I entered, catching the attention of the old man behind the counter. He greeted me kindly, a warm smile stretching across his calloused features. A polished wooden cane sat under his left hand, supporting his aging form. I did my best to feign a smile back and began browsing the store: selecting some fresh fruit, a carton of milk, and a handful of canned vegetables.
“Rough night,” the old man asked as I brought the items up to the counter.
“Yeah,” I admitted, “had trouble sleeping.”
“Valerian tea’ll help,” he offered. “Cures insomnia without any of those nasty side effects. I got some in the back if you wa-”
I held up a hand to stop him.
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I assured him. He bagged up the items and I left, hiding a grimace on my face. Eagerness like that always irked me. Serves me right for living in a small village I suppose.
Everybody knows everybody.
As I made my way back home, I passed the house Paul had lived in. A black and white police car sat out front, yellow tape blocking the front entryway. A pair of cops in uniform stood on the patio with grim expressions, talking to the widow. Clearly distraught, she kept wiping her red and puffy eyes on her sweater sleeve. The officers were asking her questions, but she could scarcely answer through the sobs that racked her body.
I didn’t linger. Something urged me to pick up the pace…
The second dream came a couple of nights later.
Just like before, the bitter throes of depression pulled me from a deep slumber. Throwing off the covers, I stumbled my way through the darkness, heading downstairs and into the garage. It was a sad affair: chipped concrete on the floor and orange, rusted flaps of metal adorning the walls. A rickety wooden door sat loosely in its frame at the far end, a portal to the outside world. My eyes locked on an old metal workbench in the corner. Reaching underneath, I retrieved a shotgun and a box of shells.
The legs of the metal stool screeched as I dragged it across the floor. A flickering yellow light hanging above my head was my only friend in that dusty garage. The chill in the air made my body shiver as I sat down, slid a shell into the shotgun, and cocked it.
Inserting the barrel into my mouth, I grimaced as the sour taste of metal oozed down my throat.
My breath quickened as my finger curled around the trigger.
A thunderous bang echoed into the night.
The shock of snapping awake sent me tumbling out of bed, pulling the sheets off with me. I did an awkward, frenzied dance as I tried to rid myself of them, soft fabric clinging to my legs like a voracious parasite. Once free I fled into the refuge of the windowless, white-walled bathroom. In a repeat performance the mirror presented the reflection of a man drenched in sweat, body trembling like a leaf in the wind, hair matted and snarled. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe, splashing frigid water over my face.
Like before, the feeling eventually subsided. My mind kept racing.
Where was this coming from? I had dark thoughts back in Los Angeles after the book failed, but I had gotten over it. I had put all that behind me when I moved. Was I wrong? Was there some part of me that was still dwelling on my failure? Was there some part of me that was so broken it was dragging the rest of me down with it?
Had I just run away from my problems instead of solving them?
When I finally stumbled out of the bathroom, mentally and physically drained, I had no answers. I didn’t even bother to collect the sheets from the floor, just collapsed into bed and drifted off.
Harold’s death reached me a couple days later.
I was talking a walk through the village when I passed by the central square, a small park decorated with brightly colored flowers and a stone fountain as the centerpiece. Faint words drifted my way, and I turned to see a couple of sad-looking women consoling each other. As I walked closer, their words became clear.
“-with his own shotgun?”
“In the garage, yes.”
“But…but why? Why would he kill himself?”
A sour taste filled my mouth, and an involuntary shudder rippled through me. Not wanting to appear too strange, I entered the town square and meandered around, making sure to stay within earshot of the two women. Their conversation was illuminating to say the least.
“I can’t believe this is happening…Paul was enough of a shock. But Harold? How could he want to end his own life? It’s just not fair…it’s not fair,” one of them wailed, tears welling up in her eyes. The other woman offered a tissue and a comforting rub on the shoulder.
“I know Marie…it’s terrible. I’m scared out of my wits! Two suicides in one week? It’s simply unheard of!”
The dots connected. The web strung itself before my eyes. Harold had shot himself with a shotgun in the garage. Paul had killed himself with a pistol in the kitchen. I had acted it out in my dreams, the puppet master for some demented shadow play.
Was I predicting these events? Was it all a coincidence?
Or was I causing them?
I wandered the village the rest of the afternoon, taking in the local gossip. The same themes were repeated ad nauseam: both men were happy, nice guys who showed no signs of depression or suicidal intent. No one could fathom why either man had done it.
I could have written it off as mere happenstance. But something inside me wouldn’t budge. The connection ran deeper. It had to.
That evening I stared at my bed for a long time, fearful of sleeping. What if these dreams weren’t dreams, but something akin to prophecy? What if it was even more than that? What if I was somehow…killing these people? I knew these thoughts were irrational. But their whispers in my ear felt so tantalizingly…correct.
In the end, it was tiredness that forced my hand. And so – reluctantly – I put myself to bed.
Nothing happened that night. In fact, days passed without a single dream.
After an entire week went by, I began to breathe easier. I thought, perhaps it was all over. Perhaps I could find peace once again.
Late one afternoon, I found myself walking through the village on my way to visit an old friend. A dreary air still hung over the place. Even the sky itself was dark and gloomy, as if reflecting the general atmosphere. A chilly gust of wind ruffled my brown jacket and caused me to shiver.
Funerals had been planned. Celebrations of life scheduled. The villagers were grieving.
I wanted no part of it. I wanted nothing more than to bury my head and forget it all.
I passed by the general store, a black and white “closed” sign hanging in the front window. Turning the corner, I ambled past rows of old-fashioned houses: some of wood, others of brick. This was the side of the village travelers never saw, the vibrant array of personalities reflected in the odd assortment of houses that had been built.
At the end of the street was my destination: an old, two-story house with wood painted white. On the porch, a man in an old rocking chair rose when he saw me, bright smile stretching across his lips. He had light blonde hair, a rounded face, eyes like warm amber. Cliff Wrenshal was a good man. We’ve known each other since high school, and he was the one who helped find my current residence. After exchanging greetings, he held the door open as I stepped inside.
It was a quintessential, rural American home: a floral wallpaper kitchen with wooden cabinets and a small stove. The second-story led to a bathroom and a slew of bedrooms: one master and two smaller ones for the kids, who were now in college. His wife looked up from the stove and smiled at me as we entered – her starry, blue-eyed visage obscured behind a wall of steam. Cliff led me into the parlor, which he had taken over to display his collection.
Unique, antique firearms were his passion. One look around the room showed there was no questioning his seriousness about the hobby. Shiny, gleaming finishes of brown, black, and gray greeted the eyes from within large wooden cabinets. Other, more exclusive items were sealed inside their own personal boxes, each with intricate golden imprints on the cover. The walls were varnished to perfection, dark brown finish sparkling in the light that streamed in from the bay windows.
Cliff motioned to a couple of wooden armchairs and handed me a beer. Once we were seated the conversation began in earnest.
He asked me about my time in L.A. I asked him about life in the Midwest countryside. We hadn’t really reconnected since I moved into town. I had never been good at keeping in touch. But in the moment, it didn’t matter.
We drank. We laughed. We pined for our youth. Typical adult stuff.
Then Cliff began gushing over his latest acquisition: an old pump action shotgun he had bought at auction.
The atmosphere changed in an instant.
The air grew dark and heavy. My gut began to churn. My back stiffened, a chill creeping up my spine. My arms broke out in goosebumps. Cliff kept talking, but I couldn’t understand him. It was as though he were speaking to me from the other side of a tunnel, his words muffled and indistinct.
I began to sweat.
I tasted metal.
My hands gripped the armrests so fiercely I thought they would snap off.
Cliff’s eyes narrowed and his mouth formed an expression of concern.
His words came through suddenly as the darkness lifted. I blinked furiously. Then shot up from my seat.
“I-I have to head home. I uh…I think left the stove on by accident,” I sputtered.
My hands shook as I slipped on my shoes and jacket, ignoring the repeated inquiries about my well-being. I almost tripped on the front steps as I made my way into the street. Stealing a glance backward as I walked, I saw Cliff. He was still standing in the front doorway, face lit by the setting sun, watching me with concern. I averted my gaze and kept moving.
The air was oppressive, forcing itself down on me. The fall wind now seemed malevolent, swirling around me with palpable hatred. I could imagine eyes in the windows of the houses I passed…watching…judging…
I quickened my pace. When I made it home, I sprinted up the steps and shouldered my way through the front door. Ripping off my coat I flung it onto the rack, then pulled off my shoes and threw them into the closet. Sitting down on the couch, I stared at my hands. They were cold, pale, and shaking.
I sat there for a long time, still as a statue. The sun fell behind the veil of clouds, a thin orange haze piercing through the trees. As the last bits of light were swallowed up by the darkness, I knew what I had to do.
I had to stay awake that night. I could not go to sleep.
Falling asleep would mean another dream.
Another dream meant another death.
I told myself I would not allow that to happen. Sitting on the couch, staring out the window into the black, I mentally prepared myself for a long night…
Sitting on the edge of the bed I groaned. My leg ached and I rubbed it with my hand, trying to soothe the pain. I felt dreary and exhausted, wishing I could just let go. Let go of the pain. Let go of everything…
I grabbed the cane leaning against the wall and left the room.
Limping down the darkened hallway, I opened a door at the far end. It led into a small, dark room with a large desk in the center and a bookcase off to the side. A brown hunting rifle mounted on a wooden plate caught my eye. Gingerly, I lifted it down and pulled open a desk drawer, revealing a few scattered rifle rounds. I pulled the lever back, loaded a bullet, and snapped the bolt into place.
Ping. The noise it made was strangely satisfying.
Cradling the rifle under my arm, I made my way across the hallway to the bathroom, cane thumping against the floor the whole time. I closed the door behind me and took a seat on the toilet. It wasn’t just my leg that was aching…it was my entire body. I wanted it to stop. I needed it to stop. Maneuvering the hunting rifled under my chin I flinched, the coldness of the barrel catching me off guard.
I took a deep breath.
Curled my aching fingers around the trigger.
My eyes snapped open as I screamed, tumbling off the couch and landing hard on my back. Scrambling to my feet, I made a mad dash for the downstairs bathroom, stubbing my toe on the kitchen counter in the process. Hobbling and cursing, I stumbled into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.
I flicked the light switch on. Unlike the brightly lit master, the downstairs bathroom had only a single hanging bulb, which barely dispelled the shadows of the tiny space. The reflection I saw in the hanging mirror was half cast in darkness. But I could still see the quivering, disheveled visage of a man. My skin was clammy and my heart pounded hard against my ribs, like a prisoner demanding to be free.
An irrational desire to punch the mirror overtook me. I wanted to pound the glass with my fists. I wanted to scream, to curse my reflection for being careless. Struggling for control, I managed to turn the tap on and drenched myself in bone-chilling water.
There was nothing I could do now. What was done could not be undone.
As I emerged from the bathroom, scrubbing my face with a towel, I decided not to go into the village the following morning. It was safer that way. Anyone I came into contact with was in grave danger. I was poison. I was a virus, a blight upon the world.
And I had no desire to find out who had been my latest victim…
My intention to stay away from the villagers was dashed the moment I saw the red-haired woman ascending my front steps. I didn’t need to see the sadness in her green eyes or the eerie pallor of her face to know what news she brought.
“Charlie killed himself last night,” she told me after I opened the door. Her voice was monotone and barely above a whisper.
I blinked. For a moment an image of the old man’s smile flashed through my mind, his offer of Valerian Tea echoing in my ears. I shook it off and comforted the young woman, giving her a hug and telling her that everything was going to be all right.
Inside, I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell at her to go away. I was dangerous and I couldn’t be trusted. I wanted her to run.
But I kept quiet. Nothing I said would make any difference. The dreams wouldn’t stop.
People would keep dying.
And I would be to blame.
After she left, I sat at the kitchen table for hours, staring into nothingness. I tried to arrange my thoughts, tried to make sense of everything. If I could come up with some kind of explanation, some kind of reason for why everything was happening, maybe I could come up with a plan. Maybe I could come up with a solution and stop this.
But nothing came.
Instead, my mind wandered – conjuring up images of shadows, slick like oil, their tendrils creeping into people’s minds. In the depths of the inky darkness, I saw a face stretched into an expression of horrific agony – mouth curled into an impossibly wide scream and eyes of deep, endless black.
My face. My eyes. It was all mine.
I haven’t returned to the village in days. What I did or where I went seemed irrelevant. There was no escape, no solution. I was powerless.
And now, night falls once again. I steel myself for what is to come.
I know what will happen: I will lay down in bed, close my eyes, and dream.
Come morning, there will be one less human inhabiting this village…
My eyes open. Darkness hangs over the room, choking away the light.
My thoughts are no brighter.
Climbing out of bed and walking downstairs, I catch a glimpse of flowery wallpaper, colors dulled by the darkness. At the bottom of the stairs I turn and enter another room, gravitating towards a small box sitting in front of a cabinet. Opening it reveals a plush red lining with a shiny silver revolver. I remove the gun from its case, loading a single round into the chamber.
Click. The cylinder locks into place. I take a seat in the nearby armchair.
Tears continue flowing down my cheeks. I can’t do it even though I know I want to do it and that I should do it but I can’t. I just…can’t.
Eventually I find the courage to lift the revolver to my head, finger curled around the trigger.
But suddenly, the world shifts. My body tingles like an electric current is flowing through it. The self-loathing I had felt is just gone, evaporated like water into the air.
Lowering the gun, I am puzzled by the sudden lack of emotion. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can make out some of my surroundings. It’s a sitting room of some kind. I can see the darkened street outside the large bay windows, houses drenched in shadow. Moonlight floods in, glinting off pieces of metal in the various cabinets along the wall.
Trees creak in the wind. Crickets chirp faintly in the distance.
Without warning, a new compulsion seizes me. I know what I must do. Rising from my seat, I slip on a pair of heavy boots and step out the front door, descending into the night.
Darkened houses slink by as I walk. An owl hoots from a nearby forest. Errant leaves crunch under my feet. Fall is in full swing in Alsey. The trees are eye-catching with their yellows, oranges, and reds. The air is chilly, nipping at me through my pajamas. I realize with chagrin that I hadn’t even bothered to put on a coat.
At the end of the street, I turn the corner, passing by the general store. The slanted wooden sign catches the light of a streetlamp ominously, almost like it’s winking at me.
I walk for a long time. Eventually the buildings thin out and I turn onto a rough dirt road. Out of the gloom a large wooden home appears before me, singular porch light illuminating the front deck. I trudge up the steps and enter through the front door.
No one bothers to lock up in this neck of the woods.
Inside, it is pleasantly warm, the faint aroma of cooked meat lingering in the air. Under the dim lighting, I can just barely make out the cushioned couch seated a short distance away from the kitchen counter. All is quiet aside from the ambient humming of the refrigerator. I cross the room, heading for the stairs.
The wooden steps creak, protesting my ascent.
Emerging into the second-floor hallway, I walk down the corridor to a darkened door. Turning the knob slowly, I push it open.
Pale moonlight streams in through the window, casting a blue gloom over the room. I can see a dresser in the corner near the bathroom, mirror set into the upper frame. Thin, white blinds ruffle in the breeze that flows in from the open window.
And there, sleeping in the twin-sized bed, is me.
For a moment, I am overcome with a sense of terrible wrongness, my feet rooted to the spot. Gritting my teeth, I force myself to move forward. The floorboards creak, my heavy boots thumping against them as I make my way across the room. Standing at the side of the bed I look down. I can faintly see the features of my own face, peaceful and lost in deep sleep.
Lifting the revolver, I place the barrel against the sleeper’s head. He – or rather, me – begins to stir. I am overwhelmed with a strange sense of disassociation, of being in two places at once. Movement in the dresser mirror catches my eye.
As I watch, my image warps like ripples in a pond. Something else takes the place of my reflection for a second: light hair, bright eyes, rounded chin. It feels very familiar, like a memory teetering over the edge of oblivion. But just as quickly as it appeared, it vanishes. My own haggard features snap back into place as the mirror ceases its distortion of reality.
Turning away from the mirror, I steady my grip on the gun.
Pull back the hammer.
Take a deep breath.
And pull the trigger.
Shortly after 9 AM, two police officers burst through the bedroom door of the two-story residence to find forty-one year old Clifton Wrenshal sitting in a chair, clad in flannel pajamas, still cradling a steel finish revolver in his lap. Lying in the bed is a male in his late thirties, dead from a single gunshot wound to the head.
The officers order Wrenshal to drop the weapon on the ground and put his hands up. He shows no sign of acknowledging their presence.
After a moment of indecision, one of the officers steps forward to relieve Mr. Wrenshal of his weapon. He offers no resistance. With the gun secured, they once again order him to put his hands up.
No response. The two officers look at each other, then shrug.
The handcuffs go on Mr. Wrenshal’s wrists without incident. But although he doesn’t resist, he isn’t moving on his own either, like he’s under some kind of spell. With no other choice, the officers pull him to his feet, each looping an arm under him. Thick, heavy boots scrape against the wooden floor as Mr. Wrenshal is forcibly removed from the premises.
As the trio emerges from the house, they find that a large crowd of people has gathered. News travels fast in small places like this. The village people murmur to themselves, shocked that Mr. Wrenshal would have ever murdered someone, especially such a dear friend. And all this after an alarming string of suicides in the village.
About halfway to the police car, the spell suddenly breaks. Mr. Wrenshal’s face stretches into a wide, sinister grin. He begins to laugh, a demented cackle erupting from his throat. To the horror of the crowd, he keeps screaming the same thing over and over.
He did it.
He finally did it.
He finally killed himself.