The June Special Guest Writer is J.G. Faherty
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"Come feel me, Charlie." Kelli brushed her hands over her breasts. The silk teddy just barely held its place, clinging to the edge of her nipples, exposing the roundness of the perfect breasts I remembered so well.
Then I snapped out of the trance.
“Get the fuck away from me!” I swatted my hand at her. It passed right through her face, leaving me unsatisfied and even angrier, but not surprised. I was long past being surprised. She’d usually go away if I was rude enough, although it didn’t work as well with her as the others. Probably because she was used to me swearing.
Kelli giggled that cute little-girl laugh that had always worked on me when she was alive. “Same old Charlie. You’re so stubborn. Like the time we went to Disneyland, and you were afraid to ride Space Mountain. Remember that day?”
I stayed silent, trying not to stare at the delicate pink nipple peeking out from under the silk.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, her voice low and husky. Her bedroom voice. She took a slinky step toward me. “We ended up riding it again and again. You had a great time. And this will be the same, only I can ride you, again and again. And afterwards we can hold each other. An endless embrace. You and me, together forever.
God help me, I wanted it. I wanted her.
Then I remembered what she was really asking.
"No, you're not real!"
She leaned in close to me, stroking her hand sensually through the air over my crotch. "If I'm not real, then why are you so hard?"
I slid back in my chair, turned my head away. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I couldn’t even look at her.
"Have I ever steered you wrong?" She was so close. I wanted to feel her breath on my face, but I knew that was impossible. "You just need to trust me." Her voice sent shivers down my back.
"How can I trust you after what you did to me?" I finally asked. "You left me here, alone."
Kelli shook her head, put a sad look on her face and pulled away. "Fine. Sit here and pout, then. I'll come back when you’re in a better mood."
Tears ran down my cheeks and I closed my eyes, unwilling to believe she’d give up that easily. When she didn’t speak for several seconds, I glanced over just in time to see her fading away, her body shimmering slightly as it went transparent and then disappeared.
"Thank you, God," I whispered to the now-empty room. Once more I was alone with the only earthly things that mattered to me anymore: my radio, my books, and my bed. All three served the same purpose.
They helped me escape from the real world, and the unreal one.
After Kelli died -- I still have trouble believing it’s been three years since she killed herself -- I kind of lost it. I know I did. Hell, I welcomed it, pretty much let the madness take over me. She’d been my last link to sanity to begin with, my partner in my never-ending struggle. No matter how great the temptation got to just give in, each of us was there for the other, a rock to lean on, a giver of strength. I always told her I thought she was the stronger one, because she bore the pressure with a smile while I was the one who would scream and shout and cry.
Turns out it was all an act; she put on a brave face for me but inside her defenses were crumbling. In the end, she knew she was going to give in, was even looking forward to it, but kept it a secret from me.
I know all this because the first night after they took her body away, she came to me and told me so.
“I did it for you, Charlie. I knew it was the only way to get you to join us. You want us to be together, don’t you?”
She knew me too well. We’d been married almost fifteen years; when you live with someone for that long, you don’t have many secrets. Each facial expression, each twitch of the hand or quiet sigh, tells your partner exactly what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.
Truth was, I did want to be with her. More than anything. At that moment, I’d have gladly done what she asked. In fact, I’d already gotten out of bed and was heading for the garage when the phone rang.
Saved by the bell, I told myself later.
It was Reynolds from work. He’d heard what had happened, and was calling to tell me to take as much time off as I needed, but he begged me to please just stop by the office and drop off the Zymanski file, otherwise the whole project would be late.
“Sure,” I told him. And then I went crazy.
I threw the phone across the room. I kicked over a table. I smashed every bottle in the liquor cabinet. I threw something -- a figurine, maybe, or a vase -- through the front window. When the police came, they found me with a knife in my hand, slashing the sofa cushions. They pegged me for suicidal and brought me here.
My first six weeks they kept me heavily sedated; those were the best six weeks in the last three years. Oh, sure, Kelli came and visited; so did the others. But I was too doped up to understand them, too stoned to care. Most of the time I just laughed at them.
Then the doctors weaned me off the good shit, and reality came crashing down on me.
That’s when I decided I liked my little white room; that it might be nice to stay awhile.
I’ve never left.
When Kelli and the others get to be too much for me, I throw a fit and get a few days back on the hard stuff, the drugs that make me sleep through the night and laugh all day. Kelli hates it when I do that.
“She’s not the only one who hates it.”
A stern, disapproving voice behind me. I turned and saw my mother standing there, her arms crossed, a scowl on her face. The same look she always gave me when I’d do something she didn’t think was in my best interest, like waste money on a new book or spend all day watching TV. When I got older, the supposed infractions changed -- a new car, or working on a Saturday instead of coming to see her -- but the look remained the same.
“This is no kind of life for you,” she said now. “Sitting in this place. We both know you’re not crazy. How long do you think you can fool the doctors?”
I smiled. It was always easiest to talk to my mother. I didn’t know why they would even send her -- she never could get me to do anything I didn’t want to do. “As long as I have to, Mom. I’ll stay here forever. Better than the alternative.”
“Better than...?” Her eyes grew wide and insulted. “You’d rather be locked up and hooked on drugs than spend time with your family, your wife? What kind of son did I raise?”
“A smart one,” I said with a shrug.
“A smart aleck, more like it,” she countered. “We’ll see what your father has to say about this.”
Before I could respond, she vanished, leaving me blissfully alone again. But the respite didn’t last long; it never did. Things were just getting started for me.
Flickering movement caught my eye, and I swung around in time to see my father take form.
“Hey, Dad.” It was hard to get the words out. My relationship with my father had been a lot better than the one I’d had with my mother. We’d done all the father-and-son things growing up: playing catch, going fishing, watching ballgames together. He’d taught me how to ride a bike and how to tune up a car. When I moved out to be on my own, he’d helped me buy my first house, walking through it with me and pointing out what needed to be repaired.
The day he’d put the gun in his mouth and decorated the living room walls had been the worst day of my life.
For a moment, he didn’t say anything, just looked at me and shook his head. When he finally spoke, his words dripped disappointment.
“Why do you treat your mother like that, Charlie? All she wants is what’s best for you. For all of us. You know how important family is to her.”
“You should have all thought of that while you were alive,” I said. “We were already together.”
“Not all of us,” he reminded me.
I closed my eyes. I knew what he was referring to. The extended family, the grandparents and great-grandparents. The aunts and uncles. The cousins and second cousins. The whole goddamn family tree. Two trees, actually, if you count both sides of the family. Hell, go back far enough and you had a freakin’ forest of relatives. Hundreds of them. All dead by their own hands.
All waiting for me to join them.
“It’s not going to happen,” I said, opening my eyes.
Dad was gone.
Something like a knife stabbed through my guts. I’d never had the chance to say my farewells to him ten years ago, and he still preferred to sneak off when my eyes were closed, or I was looking in the other direction.
“You’re a fucking coward!” I shouted at the ceiling. “You hear me? A coward! You couldn’t say goodbye then, and you still can’t! You’re all cowards and I’m not gonna join you!” I threw my pillow at the wall, just as the door to my room opened and two orderlies came in.
One of them held a needle.
“You seein’ your family again, Charlie?” one of them asked.
I just smiled and held out my arm.
Two minutes later, I was lying on my bed, the world already growing fuzzy around me. Just before things went dark, I thought I saw my brother Jim, but I couldn’t be sure. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, since he ran away and joined the Army.
Jim can’t be here, I told myself. He’s still alive.
Then I was gone, far from everyone’s reach.
Charlie. Wake up. I have to talk to you. Charlie?
Kelli’s shout brought me awake. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and looked at her. She was sitting at the end of the bed, her legs crossed Indian-style, right by my feet. It was how she’d always arranged herself when she had something serious she wanted to discuss.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“It’s time.” Her voice was solemn, her usual smile missing.
“Time? Time for what?” Still confused from my abrupt awakening, I tried to remember if there was something we were supposed to be doing.
“Time to come home. You’ve been here long enough.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m not going anywhere. There’s no home to return to, not with you gone.”
Her lips tightened until they almost disappeared. “I’m not gone, Charlie. You have to listen to me. There are no ghosts talking to you. I’m not dead.” She extended her arm towards me. “Touch my hand. Feel it. I’m real.”
“You’re not. You killed yourself, like all the others. You left me.”
“No, Charlie, you left me. Right after your mother died. Your father and I tried to help you, but nothing worked. The doctors put you in here after you tried to burn the house down.”
Burn the house down? I didn’t remember that. But then, there were so many things I no longer remembered, so many things hidden behind the misty walls the drugs created in my head.
I looked at her hand. It trembled ever so slightly, just enough to cause her wedding ring to glitter in the dim light of the single bulb overhead.
“I’ll prove that you’re wrong,” I said, and I reached out, expecting my hand to pass through hers.
Her skin felt cool and dry against mine, and her fingers tightened, gripping me tight.
“You’re real. Oh, my God, you’re real.” I pulled her to me, wrapped my arms around her, clutched at her body. She sobbed against my shoulder, and I felt my own tears creating warm tracks down my cheeks.
Finally I pulled back, dried her tears with my fingers. “How long?”
Kelli gave me a half-smile. “Eight months, Charlie. Eight months I’ve been waiting for you to come back to me.”
How could I have been so stupid? How could I have thrown away so much time...time I could have been with her? I leaned forward and kissed her, smashing my lips into hers, running my tongue into her mouth, tasting her sweet candy breath mixed with the saltiness of her tears.
I almost cried again when she broke the kiss.
“I can’t stay, Charlie. Visiting hours are almost over. But if you show them you’re better, we can be together again in the morning. For good, this time.”
“Show them I’m better? How?” I was ready to do anything to be with her again, now that I knew my ghosts had been nothing but delusions.
“You have to prove to yourself that your delusions aren’t real. You have to kill yourself.”
“No! That’s what the ghosts have been telling me to do.”
Kelli cradled my face in her hands. So cool and soft against my skin, they calmed me the way water calms a fire. “Exactly. And since it’s not real, nothing can actually happen to you. That’s the only way you’ll really believe it’s all been a nightmare. You have to break the cycle.”
It made sense. If everything around me had been an illusion, a figment of my own imagination, then committing suicide would end it, and I’d be left with reality.
I nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Kelli’s smile burned any traces of fear out of me. I’d always loved her smile. “That’s my boy.” She gave me another kiss and then stood up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched her open the door and leave. For once, the sound of the door shutting again didn’t make me feel trapped or alone.
“Tomorrow,” I whispered.
The first thing I felt when I woke up was pain. My throat ached with it; a burning, vicious red throbbing that caused me to gasp for air. It was like breathing smoke through a straw. I choked and gagged as my lungs strained to fill themselves. I tried to reach for my throat. I wanted to claw out whatever was obstructing the airflow.
My hands wouldn’t move.
I could feel my eyes bulging from their sockets from the pressure in my throat, but I still managed to look down and see I was strapped to a table, bandages covering both wrists. I heaved my body, trying to break free. Each movement sent further jolts of pain down my neck, and caused me to wheeze even harder. My vision grew dim; spots twirled and danced before my eyes.
A figure came into view, fuzzy and indistinct. Something touched my arm. A second later, the pain went away and I was able to breathe easier. I drew in deep lungfuls of air, my panic receding as my body got the oxygen it craved.
“Is that better, Mr. Mason?” An unfamiliar voice, somewhere out of my range of vision.
Something touched my lips. “Drink this, it will help.”
I sucked on the straw. Cool liquid poured across my tongue and down my throat, washing away the last of the pain with soothing wetness.
When I tried to speak again, my voice was almost normal. “Where am I?”
A man’s face came into view. I knew him. Dr. Kray.
I was still in the hospital.
“You’re in the infirmary, Mr. Mason. Do you know why?”
Kelli’s face appeared in my mind's eye. Her visit. Last night? “I’m supposed to go home. My wife said that if I prove I’m better, I can go home.”
One of Kray’s eyebrows went up. “When did she tell you this?”
“The last time she came to visit. Yesterday.”
The doctor’s lips tightened, the kind of expression you see on people when they have to tell you bad news but don’t want to.
“Mr. Mason, we’ve been over this before. Your wife is dead. You’re in here because you’ve tried to commit suicide in the past. You tried again last night. Do you remember that?”
I didn’t. “No.”
“You tried to strangle yourself with your bedsheet. Your neck will be sore for a few days, and it will hurt to swallow, but you’ll be fine. However, we’re going to have to keep you sedated and restrained, at least for a while.”
He jotted down some notes on a clipboard and gave me a professional smile that carried no real warmth. “I’ll be back later to see how you’re doing. Get some rest.”
Kray left, the nurse who’d spoken to me following behind. I heard a door shut, and the room took on a feeling I knew too well. I was alone.
I closed my eyes and started counting.
I’d reached forty-five when she spoke.
“I can’t believe you, Charlie. You screwed up again.”
Opening my eyes brought the expected sight of Kelli standing by the bed. She looked as beautiful as she had the night before, and something inside me broke. My last traces of tenacity crumbled.
I remembered how she felt in my arms, and I knew the time had come for us to be together again. Even if I had to die to do it. I couldn’t stand the thought of another day - another minute -- without her.
Why had I ever bothered fighting it? What good was my life if Kelli wasn’t in it?
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, silly,” she said. “That’s what we’ve all been trying to tell you.”
Flashes of light glittered behind her, and the rest of them appeared: Mom and Dad, my grandparents, long-lost cousins.
“We’ve all been waiting for you,” Dad said. He came forward and put a rough, calloused hand on my shoulder. “It’s so wonderful. We can go fishing again, anytime you want.”
My mother spoke up. “I’ll be the kind of mother I should have been when I was alive, Charlie.”
They gathered around me, my wife and family, telling me how much they loved me, missed me. They laughed and they cried. I cried, too, knowing that I’d be with them soon, that I’d never be alone again.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but suddenly they all stepped aside. A moment later, the door opened, and I heard footsteps.
“Time for your medicine,” the nurse said as she approached the bed.
She swabbed my arm, but before she could deliver the shot, I spoke up. “Nurse, my hand. It’s all pins and needles. Can you loosen the strap? It really hurts.”
“Sure.” She undid the binding and started rubbing my hand. “Is the feeling coming back?”
Instead of answering, I pulled my hand away and grabbed her by the shirt, yanked her forward. Her head landed on my stomach and I shifted my grip, clenching her neck in the crook of my arm like a wrestler delivering a chokehold. I squeezed as hard as I could, but she managed to get out a brief scream before I cut off her air supply. I held on until she went limp, and then I let go, knowing I’d only have a minute or two, at best.
As fast as I could, I fumbled open the strap on my other arm and sat up. I didn’t bother freeing my feet. The only thing I needed was right next to me on a metal tray -- the needle the nurse had planned on using.
“Do it, Charlie!” Kelli whispered. “Hurry!”
The others cried out their urging as well. I grabbed the syringe and pulled the cap off. Without pause, I jammed it into my eye as far as it would go and pushed in the plunger.
I fell back on the table, my hands instinctively clawing at my eye, trying to end my suffering. Dim voices shouted, but I only heard pieces of what they said.
Crash cart. Emergency. Code Blue.
Then it all disappeared.
There was no sensation of time passing, but at some point the black slowly brightened until I was surrounded by white. No walls, no floor, no sky. Just white.
I turned around, and there she was. Kelli, in all her radiant glory. If anything, she looked more beautiful now than she had when she was alive.
My whole family stood behind her in a big, smiling group.
“Kelli.” I started towards her, and she opened her arms, welcoming me.
She waited until I had my arms around her before she changed.
Her beautiful outer shell flaked off in cakey pieces, revealing green, scaly skin, a hole where her nose should have been, a giant mouth filled with jagged teeth. Red eyes that dripped pus-yellow fluids.
I tried to turn around, but her freshly-grown claws dug into my arms. Her head darted forward faster than a cobra and she bit a chunk of flesh from my shoulder. I screamed, but my cries were muffled by the rest of the family, all of them now hideous creatures, as they smothered me, joining Kelli for the feast. They tore at me, shredding my skin, pulling pieces of my flesh with their teeth and nails.
When they were done, there was nothing left of me except my bones and my horror.
“Welcome to Hell, Charlie,” Kelli said, her voice clotted and phlegmy with my blood. Her human appearance had returned. “We’re going to do this every day for eternity, unless...”
Unless what? I wondered.
“Unless you bring someone over,” Dad finished.
“The way I brought you.” Kelli gave me an evil smile. “You’ve caused me a lot of pain. Three years I’ve been waiting for you to kill yourself. That’s like a fucking eternity here. I’ve been gutted, tortured, and raped more times than you can count. I hope it takes you just as long to bring Jim to us. I hope it takes you for-fucking-ever.”
Jim? My brother?
“That’s the price, Charlie,” my mother said.
“No!” I had my voice back. I looked down, saw my body had regenerated.
My family attacked again, only this time they all had fangs full of poison.
“How long can you take it, Charlie?” Kelli asked, as I twitched and writhed from the acid in my veins.
Giving in is always easier when you truly know the stakes.
“Tell me how to find him.”
(previously appeared in Horror Library Vol. IV, 2010)
A life-long resident of New York’s haunted Hudson Valley, JG Faherty has been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award® and ITW Thriller Award, and he is the author of six novels, eight novellas, and more than 50 short stories. He writes adult and YA dark fiction/sci-fi/fantasy, and his works range from quiet suspense to over-the-top comic gruesomeness.
He enjoys urban exploring, photography, classic B-movies, good wine, and pumpkin beer. As a child, his favorite playground was a 17th-century cemetery, which many people feel explains a lot. You can follow him at Twitter and Facebook.