type s6303 Elmgrove Approx. 3,310 words Spring, TX 77389
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Cliff Ashmon listened to sounds only absolute quiet can reveal: curtains rustling under the vagaries of a playful breeze; the occasional creaking of floorboards settling into sleep; the hushed heartbeat of the captain’s clock on the mantle. And his own heartbeat, rising then falling in time with his not-yet-uniform breathing.
He was alone. The living room was dark save for a cloudy wash of light seeping in from the doorway leading to the basement. Earlier, he had neither turned the light off nor closed the door, oversights which now had him somewhat ill at ease but with no overriding compulsion to correct. In fact, as his breathing steadied and the darkness surrounding him softened, he felt a queer satisfaction in staring at the light, at the opened door. They kept the memory of the chore he had recently completed fresh and animated in his mind.
He sank back to the couch, closed his eyes, and let his mind drift back to earlier that night.
The chore had taken less than an hour, which surprised him. But everything had proceeded smoothly and without severe complication. Still, it had been exacting work, the type requiring care and attention to detail. His brow gleamed with sweat; the muscles of his arms and shoulders throbbed. His back burned with each movement and his knees ached from kneeling on the floor. Moreover, the smell in the room was abominably bad – a consequence he hadn’t anticipated – and at times had his mind spinning. But he endured the nauseating discomfort because he didn’t dare open the kitchen windows for fear that the breeze swirling outside would gossip his activity to neighboring households. Especially to the people next door, Jason and Kim Tate, who at any moment day or night might decide to take off one of their three-mile jogs around the neighborhood.
The Tates were world-class weirdos.
The word appeared as a question burrowing through his thoughts of the Tates. His eyes popped open and raced back and forth across the living room. His ears primed for sound. A sharp breath clawed at his chest. But there was nothing to see except the familiar layout of the room, now populated with formidable but fixed shadows created by the light spilling from the doorway leading to the basement. Nothing to hear but the natural sounds of the house at night. Yet he felt his heart thumping and found himself rigid, his limbs locked, his fingers digging into the plush stuffing of the couch.
Nerves, he concluded with a rush of breath…or something stirring outside; something ordinary and unthreatening he normally wouldn’t have given a second thought to. Nothing to be alarmed about.
His pulse began to slow and he eased back into the cushions, his mind again on the chore he had completed earlier this evening in the kitchen.
He had been fastidiously thorough in his preparation for the chore. There could be no mistakes. No flaws. No errors in judgment or action. No slip-ups that might cause his plan to tumble around him.
He had, he believed, thought of everything.
He had covered that area of the kitchen floor where he did the chore with a thin, clear polyurethane sheet, then had surrounded the sheet with dry, fluffy bath towels to catch any overflow. He had positioned the huge washtub Donna used to wash her dog Cisco in the center of the sheet and had filled it with an adequate supply of sturdy plastic trash bags. The curtains to the windows over the sink had been drawn, the door to the back porch had been locked, and he had meticulously sharpened the huge bone-handled butcher knife and the short-handled axe. Earlier that afternoon while Donna was at work, he had gone so far as to empty the upright freezer in the basement and had hauled its contents of frozen meats, breads and vegetables to the Travis River, where he furtively dumped them in. He would need the freezer for a time – long enough to ensure that the oozing, pulpy parts he intended to stuff into the trash bags would sufficiently gel so that no telltale trace would leak through the bags to the bed of his pick-up during the 20-mile drive to Adamville.
One couldn’t be too careful with a chore that, if discovered, would put him behind bars or in his grave.
He was about to deposit Donna in the freezer.
Donna Nelsen, his – although she abhorred the word – companion for the past six months. Donna, the girl he had hoped to save from the depraved existence she had chosen. Donna, who, he had sadly come to realize, was corrupted far beyond deliverance by the temporal world. Talking with her, pleading with her – even praying for her – had accomplished nothing. So, when she returned that night from her sinful job at the SWIZZLE STICK LOUNGE, he had killed her, fully confident that this punishment would ensure her redemption in the next world.
Cliff sank deeper into the couch and let memory replay the chore that had saved Donna’s soul.
He waited behind the kitchen door, sharpened butcher knife in hand, and grabbed her from behind when she walked in calling for Cisco. His free hand glued to her mouth, his elbows strapping her arms to her sides, he maneuvered her to the sink and used his weight to pin her against the counter. He forced her torso over the sink, pulled her head back, and drew the blade of the butcher knife swiftly but deeply across her throat.
“Hell’s fire won’t get you now, my love,” he whispered into her ear.
A warm sticky wetness bubbled through his fingers from her mouth and gushed thickly from the neat almost surgical gash above her trachea. Feeling it, a sudden vigorous rush of exhilaration surged through him. That strange yet stirring sensation disturbed him for a moment. His mission, after all, was one of salvation. But as though caught in the acute sludgy slowness of a dream, he watched bug-eyed as Donna’s blood painted the sink red.
An hour later she lay before him on the polyurethane sheet in fifteen neat and separate pieces.
Her hands, chopped off with the ax just above the wrists.
Then her forearms, hacked off at the elbows.
Upper arms amputated at the shoulders.
Her legs, too, were severed into three sections each: feet and ankles together; then her lower legs to her knees; then upper legs to the juncture of thigh and groin.
Her head and neck were severed as one piece, with a single, hearty swipe of the axe.
That left her trunk, which he split vertically between her breasts with the butcher knife. “How’s that for cleavage, baby?” he had said while slicing through her chest.
He laughed aloud at that remark but stopped abruptly when her intestines began spilling out. He grabbed at them but they slithered through his fingers like frightened eels. Blood trapped in the cavity of her chest flooded the floor as panic flooded his brain. He found himself groping madly on the polyurethane sheet, grasping desperately at her innards and sliding about like a bar of soap in a wet tub. The absurdity of his effort caught up with him as he lay on his stomach, cradling Donna’s insides as though they were toys he wanted no one else to play with.
When reason returned he laughed again and wondered what the perverted patrons of the grimy strip joint where Donna worked would think of their Darling Donna now? He pictured the separate parts of her lewdly gyrating on the small stage, showering blood and gore upon the drunken, slobbering crowd as they madly reached and groped for a piece of her. But then an image of Donna dancing the obscene dance she danced at the lounge every night took hold and shook his mind from its eidolon. He had begged her repeatedly to quit that iniquitous employment and abandon Limboland, the vile backwater of the city where once-human fiends peddled physical and emotional contagion to those who wallowed in decadence.
“Once and for all, get off it, Cliff!” she had said two days before in that brusque and belittling tone of voice she like to use on him. “Like I told you before you suggested this arrangement of ours…don’t EVER get the idea that you own me! My living with you is strictly a matter of convenience, and it’s strictly temporary!” A wicked smile then curled the corners of her mouth as she said, “Besides, I like my job. I’m damn good at it.”
Not for long, you’re not, he had thought at the time.
It took three trips with the washtub to transport the five trash bags containing Donna’s parts to the freezer in the basement. Once they were frozen, he would bury each bag separately and deeply in an uninhabited tangle of woods and marshes near Adamville, some twenty miles north of the city.
Cleaning the kitchen wasn’t nearly as difficult as he imagined it would be. His foresight proved invaluable: the polyurethane sheet and huge absorbent towels kept the mess nearly contained. Still, he meticulously scrubbed the floor and sink then stuffed his blood-soaked clothes into a trash bag. Finally, he scrubbed himself nearly raw under a hot shower.
One couldn’t be too careful.
The noise again.
An incongruent sound. Not an ordinary middle-of-the night sound, but a brisk, rough scratching irregularly punctured by a short sharp howl. Cliff sat stiffly upright, his heart thudding in his chest. His eyes shot to the opened door that led to the basement, to the light streaming into the hallway.
The sound suddenly stopped, and he listened for a full minute before he breathed again. But the breath was long and deep and not at all confident. He questioned himself about going to the door, about looking down into the dim bowels of the basement where the parts of Donna were turning to ice in the freezer.
Then came an ordinary sound: deep rolling thunder not far away. He looked to the window and saw bright bolts of lightning stabbing the black sky. The storm, he thought, remembering tonight’s weather forecast.
He pushed himself to his feet and stood unsteadily, trying to decide what to do next. Then he went to the door and peered through the thin screen of light into the basement.
The not-ordinary noise sounded again…a deep, fierce growl that smacked of something familiar. Before he could move, a dark gray shape with blazing yellow eyes raced into the light and up the stairs. Instinct spun Cliff sideways as the shape tore past him, its teeth slashing at his legs. He whirled about, his back to the basement, and braced himself within the doorway as the shape made a clumsy pirouette on the wood floor and lunged again at him.
Caught square in the chest by the snarling, raging horror, Cliff toppled backward and crashed to the stairs in a bone-jarring explosion of white-hot pain.
He came to slowly, drifting erratically toward consciousness through a maelstrom of sharp, stabbing light and rumbling noise. As his eyes cracked open, he thought the fireworks in his brain to be mental imprints of the storm which he could see flashing in the doorway at the head of the stairs like faulty strobe lights. Yet some deep persistent signal suggested that something more was wrong. Something which still lay numbed beneath a groggy disorientation.
Disorientation suddenly gave way to agony.
His left ankle began screaming, pumping fiery waves through his leg into his groin. He reached reflexively for the tortured limb, but was driven backward by a fresh explosion of pain. He let the agony subside then forced himself to calmly examine his predicament. He found himself supine on the small platform that joined the perpendicular sections of the stairs, wedged like a crippled puppet into a corner of the walls. His legs angled up the stairwell, his left crazily twisted, his ankle trapped beneath a corner of a step and the base of a post that supported the handrail.
How?…formed on his tongue.
As he remembered, agony gave way to anger.
“CISCO!!” The name roared out of him with a rage that smothered the pain boiling below his knee.
Cisco answered with a ragged growl, and Cliff realized that the dog was here, with him, watching from the shadows near the freezer.
He swallowed thickly, squinted into the muddy darkness of the basement, and saw a pair of molten eyes. Behind them was Cisco, Donna’s immense Husky, who hated him as deeply and passionately as he adored his mistress. During the past six months an uneasy truce had existed between them, but with Donna gone, so was the armistice. Cisco was now ninety pounds of savage fury that could rip him to shreds.
Cliff’s mind reeled backward to hours before, to another perceptive step in his precise plan. Knowing full well that Cisco would have gone for his throat had he seen Donna assaulted, he had lured the beast into the fenced-in back yard with a flank of raw steak before she arrived.
He nearly bit through his tongue when he remembered the hinged oblong window just above ground level that Donna left unbolted for Cisco’s convenience. His eyes shot to it, now creaking back and forth with the wind. Water washed freely in from the force of the rain and coursed its way toward the freezer.
He hadn’t remembered the window earlier. He should have.
A burning ball of lead formed in his gut as he realized that he had to free his trapped leg before Cisco decided to free it as well as the rest of his limbs from his torso.
He tried…and couldn’t. Not by fighting his way through a firestorm of suffering in a slow deliberate reach…not by using his free foot as a lever to pry the captive limb loose…not by a desperate all-out grasping lunge which did nothing but drive scorching spikes the length of his leg.
He fell back against the wall, sweat streaming down his face, teeth clenched so hard they hurt. But not nearly as much as his leg, now grotesquely swollen and throbbing angrily.
Cisco stirred, and Cliff’s breath froze. The water from the flapping window had reached the dog; the beast was on its feet and moving. Its molten eyes brightened, the dark-gray features of its head gained shape. A vicious, feral snarl soaked the air then was lost beneath a fresh assault from the storm. The house shook and groaned. The lights flickered, flickered again, and Cisco sought refuge under the double sink beneath the flapping window.
The water reached the freezer. Then it reached the frayed power cable, which looped to the floor between the wall socket and the freezer’s machinery.
The cable went berserk.
Like a speared snake, the cable whipped and thrashed crazily then split in two amidst a shower of sparks and hissing blue light. The live end slammed into the puddle of water and the water boiled and bubbled and glowed like some eerie deep-sea phosphorescence. The cable leapt from the frothing water, lashing about and spitting its fiery spit. For a moment it hovered like an arched cobra then impaled itself into the back of the freezer. The freezer hummed. It quivered. It shuddered like some squat oblong beast slapped from sleep. And it glowed, an electric blue-green singing with static.
“Sweet Jesus! This can’t be real!” The words took flight on their own, winging from Cliff’s mouth like a flurry of bats spooked from a cave.
Then came another sound. A vague, muffled whispering that had Cisco moving toward the freezer from his spot beneath the sink. The sound was what it couldn’t be. Donna’s voice. Hushed and distorted by the metal skin of the freezer, but Donna’s voice, beseeching Cisco to come to her.
Cliff’s breath, too, began moving, slashing through his chest like exploding shards of glass. He stared incredulously at the freezer, his expression that of a corpse come back to life only to find itself trapped in a box beneath the earth. It was absolute terror that then had him lurching repeatedly forward, stretching fervidly for his imprisoned ankle. Spurring this effort was a riotous surge of dread that swept sense and pain aside…and got him nowhere.
Thwarted, exhausted into submission, Cliff collapsed against the wall, unaware that the bone above his ankle had splintered and torn through his flesh. His mind was elsewhere, busy issuing an ardent petition that the phantoms swirling up from the dark chasms of his mind would wither away.
A fresh wash of light in the basement hooked into his eyes and pulled them around toward the freezer. The door was opened, and Cisco sat attentively in front, his tail sweeping the floor, his great gray head peering inside, his ears aloft and listening.
Listening to a voice from the freezer…a garbled voice, the voice of someone talking with a mouthful of marbles. Donna’s voice, telling Cisco to pull her out.
The dog obeyed. One at a time, Cisco slowly and carefully worked his mouth around the trash bags containing Donna’s parts and gently lowered them to the floor. When he completed his chore, he lay dutifully beside the bags as though awaiting a new command.
A bag moved, then split open. Donna’s right hand, covered with death-gray frost, crawled out and took immediately to task. It clawed at the bag, widening the rent in the plastic. Next, her left hand crept free and used its finger-legs to spider itself to a second bag. That bag torn open, Donna’s feet emerged and hopped free like a pair of toads. Soon all the bags were opened; all of Donna was free, and her hands began working feverishly to piece her parts together.
Hopelessly stupefied, Cliff could only watch.
The sections of her legs merged reasonably well together, except for her left foot, which had been badly mangled by the axe. It ended up canted awkwardly inward from her shin. Her torso proved more problematic. The vast rift between her breasts wouldn’t completely close, and her intestines tumbled out like loops of slippery ropes.
Undeterred, Donna’s hands continued their chore, next linking her upper arms to her shoulders then her forearms to her upper arms. That her left forearm had become lost under a tumble of shredded trash bags seemed to her a minor annoyance. After but a moment’s fruitless search, the hands adjoined her head and neck to her trunk then scrambled to their positions on her limbs. Her right hand quickly and easily bonded itself to the proper forearm, but her left, unable to gain a suitable hold on the stump of her elbow, had to torpedo itself into the shredded flesh below her biceps.
Her parts reunited, Donna Nelsen laboriously gained her feet and stared at Cliff, her eyes flat and yellow in the faded light, a horrible grinning urgency splitting her mouth. She staggered forward, her left foot dragging awkwardly, her stunted left arm swinging like an amputated pendulum. She paused at the double sink for the axe, gleaming like Satan’s tooth where Cliff had washed it clean. It rose clumsily above her head as she wobbled toward the stairs, toward Cliff. Her mouth dropped open and words came out, cold and greedy and thick with wicked anticipation.
It was then that the feeble bridge linking Cliff Ashmon’s senses to sanity gave way, pitching his mind into a black and endless abyss. Now totally immured within the protective cage of utter lunacy, Cliff’s body went limp. His face went blank; his eyes grew wide and dumbly curious. His lips parted to release a long, high-pitched moronic giggle.
Donna’s words bounced unheard off his skull.
“I’ve got a chore to finish, too, Cliffy.”