Tim Waggoner

The March Special Guest Writer is Tim Waggoner

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tim waggoner

by Tim Waggoner 

“So that’s the grand tour. What do you think?”

The two of us stood in the living room, and I made a show of looking around as if I was considering whether or not to take the job. But of course I would.

The woman was younger than I by about twenty years, in her late twenties or early thirties. She was tall, thin, blond, pale-skinned, and wearing glasses that sat on her face at a funny angle. One slate-gray eye seemed large than the other, and her lips were dry and cracked. She wore a black sweatshirt inside-out and a long hippy skirt that reached to the floor, concealing her legs and feet. She wasn’t unattractive, exactly. She was prettier than I was, that’s for sure. But an air of unhealthiness clung to her, as if she were one of those people who are always either sick, about to get sick, or recovering from illness.

“Given the size of the house, I’ll have to charge ninety dollars a visit. I can come once a week, once every two weeks, once a month—whatever you’d like.”

“Once a week would be good. That’s how often the last cleaning person came.”

The woman’s voice was nasally and breathless at the same time, and it sometimes made it difficult to understand what she said. I had no trouble understanding her this time, though, and her words sent up a red flag for me.

“What made you decide to switch cleaning services?” What I was really asking was What’s wrong with the job that made the last person quit?

She answered a beat too early, as if she’d anticipated the question and had already prepared and rehearsed her answer.

“She retired.” The woman added a smile, as if it would make her reply more convincing. Her teeth were yellowed and slightly crooked. They all leaned to the left, both the top and bottom rows.

“Of course,” I said, pretending I believed her. Cleaning people—especially those who work for themselves like I do—don’t make enough money to retire. They keep working until their bodies can’t handle it anymore or until they die, whichever comes first.

The woman—Cheryl Wilson, she’d said when she’d called me—didn’t live here. At least, not anymore. This was her parents’ house, and she’d called me on their behalf. Her father had a home office in the basement, and he was always super-busy at whatever he did—Cheryl hadn’t been clear about what line of work he was in—and her mother was bedridden with some unspecified chronic illness. The “tour” Cheryl had given me had not included the basement or the master bedroom. Those doors had remained closed.

The home was a two-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, with a basement and an attached garage. Family room, living room, kitchen, dining-room, laundry room, attic, deck, and a good-sized yard with several elm trees. In terms of the basics, it was more or less like most of the houses I cleaned. It made me wonder even more why their last cleaning lady had decided to quit. If this size house hadn’t been too much for her to handle on her own, maybe she’d quit because of the owners. Some people might’ve found the situation uncomfortable, working in a house while the residents—whom they’d never met—remained behind closed doors, but I was used to strange jobs.

“When would you like me to start?” I asked.

The woman looked relieved, and more, almost pathetically grateful. She grabbed hold of my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Not a handshake, exactly, but something like it.
“Once we’ve signed the paperwork, you can begin as soon as you like. Right now, if you want.”

“That’s fine.”

We’d left the contract I’d brought on the dining table, so we went into the dining room to sign it. Before we could sit down, though, the quiet was shattered by an ear-splitting shriek that made me jump.

“Don’t worry about that,” Cheryl said. “Mother does that from time to time. Pay her no attention.”

She pulled out a chair and sat, and I did the same.

The next scream that came was louder and longer. Cheryl acted as if she didn’t hear it as she perused the contract. This time, I didn’t jump. A few screams weren’t the worst thing I’d ever experienced. Not by a long shot.

* * * * *

It was the last week of summer break, and I was sitting on the couch, working on the first week of lesson plans on my laptop. This year, I was determined to be ahead of the game when classes started, instead of scrambling like mad to get everything done at the last moment.

I heard the kitchen door open and close, followed by the sound of Ray’s bare feet on tile. A second later, I heard water come from the sink faucet, followed by the sound of him washing his hands. He was seventeen, and he’d be a senior this year. I had no idea where he’d been all day. He was too old for me to keep tabs on like I had when he was younger. Plus, he resented my showing any sort of interest in his life. He considered it prying. I figured it was because of what had happened between myself and his father.

So when he finished up washing and walked into the living room, I didn’t ask where he’d been or how his day was. I just looked up from my computer, smiled, and simply said, “Hi.”

He didn’t answer right away. He stood there in an Ohio State basketball jersey and khaki shorts. His skin was deeply tanned from having been outside all summer, and his brown hair stuck up in a spikey cut that all the boys his age seemed to be wearing that year. There was sweat on his forehead and upper lips, there was a look in his eyes that I couldn’t read—a mix of fear, confusion, and disbelief. Seeing it sent a chill rippling down my spine.

I closed my computer and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I did something bad, Mom. Real bad.”

He didn’t move, his expression didn’t change, but tears started sliding down his face. I hadn’t seen him cry since he’d been a child, and it was those tears, more than anything else, that truly scared me.

* * * * *

Once the contract was signed, Cheryl lost no time in getting the hell out of there, claiming she had “errands” to run. “Besides,” she added. “this way I won’t be in your hair while you work.” She gave me a parting smile and refused to meet my eyes as she left.

I went out to my Prius, folded the contract, put it in the glove box, and then took my cleaning kit from the back seat. I keep my cleaning fluids, sponges, duster, etc. in a plastic carrier with a handle in the middle, and I held it with one hand while I carried my upright sweeper in the other. I went back inside the house, but I didn’t lock the front door behind me. It’s reassuring to know I can make a quick exit if I need to.

Since I wasn’t supposed to clean the basement or the master bedroom—or go anywhere near them, for that matter—the job would go faster than usual. I started in the kitchen and continued from there. I did my best to make as little noise as possible while I worked. I wanted to be able to hear any noises coming from elsewhere in the house. None did, though—not until I was dusting the family room. It wasn’t, as I’d expected, another of the mother’s strange cries. She had been quiet since her daughter fled the house. This sound was a soft creaking, as if a door had opened just a crack somewhere. The family room let out onto a foyer which led to the front door, as well as the stairs to the second floor of the house, where the bedrooms and master bath were. But directly opposite the doorway to the family room, just to the right of the stairs, was the basement door. I moved to that end of the family room, even though I’d already dusted there, and pretended to work while I glanced at the door. It was open. Not much, only a couple inches, but it was enough for a strip of darkness to be visible between the jamb and the door’s edge. Cool air wafted through the opening, carrying with it a sour smell like an old milk spill on mildewed carpet. I couldn’t help making a face at the smell, and I breathed shallowly to keep from inhaling it deeply.

I couldn’t see anything through the crack in the door—there were no lights on in the basement where Cheryl’s father was supposedly working—but I could feel a gaze settled heavily upon me, and I knew that I was being watched. I heard no breathing, though. Either whoever stood behind the door peeking out breathed so softly I couldn’t detect it or he wasn’t breathing at all.

I was re-dusting a set of shelves to the right of a flat-screen TV mounted to the wall. Among other knick-knacks on the shelves were several framed pictures of a little girl who was most likely Cheryl. She was alone in the pictures. No Mom, no Dad.

The mother started screaming again, startling me. As if the sound was a cue, the basement door slammed open and a large figure burst forth from the darkness and rushed toward me, the sound of his heavy footfalls covered by his wife’s mad shrieking. Hands with discolored sausage-link fingers reached for me, and I thought, It’s about time.

* * * * *

Ray led me to the garage. The door was closed, and no cars were parked inside. I tended to park my Prius on the street outside the house because I hate backing out of driveways. Ray’s car was an old Firebird that perpetually leaked oil, so I insisted he park the damn thing on the street too. The garage wasn’t completely empty, though. We kept lawn equipment there, and I had a set of metal shelves where I stored holiday decorations in neatly labeled cardboard boxes. But there was something new in the garage: a body lying face-down on the concrete floor, a halo of blood spreading outward from the head. It was that blood, the sheer amount of it, coupled with the body’s utter stillness, that told me I was looking at a corpse. So I didn’t rush forward to check for a pulse, and I didn’t run back inside to grab my phone and call 911. Instead, I stood next to Ray, who was sobbing openly now, and I struggled to understand exactly what it was I was looking at.

I couldn’t see the boy’s face, but I could tell that he was around Ray’s age and had a similar height and build. He wore a pair of faded jeans with ragged cuffs, but no shirt. He was a bit more muscular than Ray, so I figured he played some kind of sport or maybe was into weightlifting. His hair was short and black, but it might have appeared darker because of the blood soaking it. The back of his head was a concave depression, and I looked at Ray and asked, in a voice far calmer than I felt inside, “What did you hit him with?”

Despite his tears, a calculated look came into his eyes, and I knew he intended to lie. I slapped him—hard.

“The truth,” I said.

“I used an axe handle. It’s . . . It’s in the trash.”

My slapping him had done more than get the truth out of him. He’d stopped crying as well.

“Don’t move,” I told him, and then—making sure to give the body a wide berth—I walked over to the corner by the garage door where we kept the garbage container. It was a large green plastic receptacle that the town provided to residents. The lid was attached to the container, and I flipped it open to look inside. There, lying atop several full white plastic trash bags, was the axe handle, one end covered with thick dark blood and bits of hair. The head had broken off the axe that winter, when Ray had been chopping wood for the fireplace. I’d been after him to fix it, but he’d never gotten around to it. I closed the lid and looked back at the body. A trail of blood spatter led from it to the receptacle. I looked back at Ray. His hands were clean, and I remembered hearing him wash them in the kitchen before stepping into the living room. Now I knew why.

I walked back to Ray. He was staring at the body, his expression unreadable.

“Who is it?” I asked. I suppose I should’ve said was.

“Paul Gilman.”

I didn’t recognize the name. I knew all of Ray’s friends, and since I was a teacher in town, I knew many of the other kids that lived in the area, but not all of them.

“He’s new,” Ray said. “He moved to town at the end of the school year.”

“What happened?”

Ray didn’t answer right away, and I thought I might have to slap him again to get him talking. But just as I was about to raise my hand, he said, “He sold drugs. Nothing major. Marijuana, mostly. Some pills. Xanax, Vicodin, Percocet, stuff like that. I wanted to buy some off him a couple weeks ago, but he said he was out of supplies. He told me to give him my money, though, and he’d get the stuff for me as soon as he could. I kept checking with him, but he kept telling me to be patient.”

“And today you lost your patience.”

I’d had no idea that my son was into drugs, but right then it didn’t seem important, not with the dead body of his would-be supplier lying on the floor of our garage.

“I called him and told him I wanted my stuff or I wanted my money back. And if he didn’t deliver, I was going to spread the word that he couldn’t be trusted. He came over to talk, but he didn’t bring the drugs or my money. We were talking in here, and I got so pissed at him. I saw the axe handle lying in a corner, and then I . . . I . . .” He trailed off, his voice flat, toneless.

He didn’t need to complete the story. The ending was obvious. I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything. Ray and this dead boy had been talking, maybe even shouting at each other. And surely the boy must’ve cried out when Ray struck him. Unless my son had attacked too swiftly, too savagely, for the boy to have a chance to make any sound before he died. The TV hadn’t been on and I hadn’t been listening to music while I’d worked. How could something like this happen when I was close by without my having the slightest indication of it?

“I don’t know what to do, Momma.”

I was startled. I couldn’t remember the last time Ray had called me that.

You knew enough to put the axe handle in the trash, I thought.

I looked at my son. I’d brought him into the world, fed him, nurtured him, taught him, done my best to be both mother and father to him after his dad was gone. And now that boy, who’d once been a smooth-skinned, sweet-smelling baby suckling at my breast, had taken a life. No, that was too gentle a way of putting it. He was a murderer.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “We’ll make it okay.”

* * * * *

The duster I was carrying had a wooden handle, and I’d sharpened the end. Instead of trying to flee my attacker, I spun toward him, raised the duster, and plunged the handle toward his left eye. He was naked and fat, with mottled blue-white flesh that looked as if it belonged to some species of marine mammal instead of a man. His body was completely hairless, his scalp covered with thick, throbbing purple veins. His eyes were bulging and bloodshot, the whites yellow, tear ducts oozing black pus. His nose was almost nonexistent, and his lipless mouth was round like a lamprey’s and ringed with small but very sharp teeth. The stink that rolled off him hit me like a solid blow, and my gorge rose as I rammed the duster into his eye. The eye popped like an overfilled zit, spraying black fluid that smelled like hot tar. It stippled my hand, face, and blouse, but I ignored it and put as much muscle as I could into driving the handle deeper into the bloated creature’s head. He squealed like a hog in the process of being slaughtered, and an orifice opened somewhere in the wobbling flesh folds of his nether regions, releasing a foul-smelling dark liquid. It splattered onto the family room carpet and filled the air with the stomach-churning stench of rotting meat.

He reached up with his sausage fingers and tried to pull the duster out of his eye, but the handle was too slick with whatever substance clogged his veins in place of blood, and he couldn’t get a grip on it. I was having similar difficulties holding onto the handle, so I released it, placed both of my hands on the fuzzy end of the duster and shoved hard. I felt a soundless pop as something inside the creature’s head gave way, and the duster handle slid further in until the tip encountered solid resistance that I assumed was the back of his skull.

His squeal became a shriek, and he stumbled backward toward the open basement door, pawing uselessly at the fuzzy end of the duster. I ran forward and pushed the creature. My hands sank into his obscene flesh, and I could feel thick liquid sloshing around in there. I imagined he was nothing but a skin sack filled with black goo, and for a moment I feared that his chest and abdomen might explode just as his eye had done. But he was already stumbling backward, and my momentum added to him tumbling down the basement steps. I stood in the doorway, my heart racing, and peered into the basement. The light from the foyer was enough to show that the lamprey-mouthed thing lay at an awkward angle on the concrete floor, the veins on top of his head ruptured, and black fluid spread out in a fan pattern behind him. He wasn’t moving.

I reached through the open doorway and felt along the wall until I found a light switch. I flicked it and fluorescent lights buzzed to life. I watched the creature for several more moments, but he remained still. Finally, I went down.

The basement was filled with mounds of junk—old furniture, broken TV’s, floor lamps missing shades and bulbs, stacks of ancient moldering newspapers . . . Most disturbing were the piles of discarded clothing, all in various styles and sizes, none of which was large enough to fit the dead thing lying on the floor. Atop one pile was a dark blue polo shirt, and stitched in white letters above the left breast: Sparkle-and-Shine Cleaners. I found shirts from several other cleaning companies, but since many cleaners wear their own clothes when working, there was no way of telling how many of these had belonged to members of my current profession. More than a few, I assumed.

The sweet-sour odor I’d detected in the house when I’d first entered was thick down here, and I walked to a closed door on the other side of the basement. I opened it, making sure to hold my breath, and I gazed upon the room’s content for several moments, trying to estimate how many people the bits and pieces inside had once belonged to. Eventually, I gave up, closed the door, walked to the corpse—making sure not to get too close to it and keeping a wary eye on it the whole time—and headed back upstairs.

I closed the basement door behind me and listened. I expected the mother to start screaming again, especially after hearing her husband’s death cries, but no noise came from upstairs. I went to the kitchen, pulled a butcher knife out of the block on the counter, and started up the carpeted steps toward the master bedroom. I was halfway done. Time to finish the rest of the job.

* * * * *

“Is this deep enough?”

Ray stood in a two foot by six foot hole. The edges were uneven, and the hole only came up to his waist, but I figured it would do and said so.

Grateful to be done, he put the shovel on the ground, climbed out of the hole, and stepped over to stand beside me. It was nearing dusk, but although the sun was low to the horizon, it was still hotter than hell out, the air wet and heavy with humidity. Ray had removed his shirt before starting to dig and sweat poured off his tanned skin. I’d brought several water bottles, and they lay in the grass at my feet. I bent down to grab one and tossed it to him. He caught it, twisted off the cap, dropped it to the grass, then drank quickly.

I looked at the cap lying on the ground. I’d have to remember to pick it up before I left.

While Ray hydrated, I glanced around to make sure that no one was watching—something I’d done at least once a minute since we’d arrived—but I saw no one. My grandmother, Ray’s great-grandmother, had passed away a year earlier. She’d left me her home and property—a small house on six acres in the country. The house was empty, but I paid a property maintenance company to keep the grass cut. Not that I could easily afford it on a teacher’s salary. There’d been a For Sale sign in front of the house for months, but no one had made an offer yet. Today, that was working in our favor, though. I’d driven the Prius to the back of the property near the fence line. There were a number of trees back there, making it hard to mow, so the grass and weeds were higher, providing sufficient cover for our work. I’d debated whether we should do this now or wait until dusk, but in the country, lights and noise draw attention at night since there’s little activity to complete with them. I’d decided we’d be safer getting this over with as quickly as possible.

Cleaning up in the garage had been easier than I’d suspected. Some water, bleach, and a couple rolls of paper towels had taken care of the blood. A plastic garbage bag slipped over the boy’s ruin of a head, an old carpet to roll him up in, and duct tape to seal him in had done the rest. I’d backed the Prius into the garage, we’d loaded the body into the trunk, and I tossed in another garbage bag containing the used paper towels along with the axe handle. The entire process hadn’t taken more than thirty minutes.

“Let’s finish this,” I said.

Ray nodded, finished the rest of his water, and let the empty plastic bottle slip from his fingers. One more thing I’d have to remember to pick up.

We walked to the rear of the Prius, I popped open the trunk, and together we hauled the body out, walked it to the hole, and dropped it in. The carpet tube made a muffled thud as it hit, and Ray jumped. The poor thing was nervous. I didn’t blame him. I was too. I had one more task to attend to, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

I returned to the car, got the garbage bag, and carried it to the hole. I didn’t toss it in, though. Instead, I rejoined Ray and placed the bag near my feet.

“I just don’t understand how it happened,” Ray said. His gaze was fixed on the carpet tube in the hole. The carpet hadn’t been large enough to completely conceal the dead boy’s body, and his sneakers stuck out one end. Despite his bemused tone, Ray’s nostrils flared as if he were trying to pick up the body’s scent from where he stood.

“You couldn’t help it,” I said. “There’s always been a darkness in you. You’ve gotten in so many fights since you were a child, and we haven’t been able to have any pets, not since what you did to the dog when you were nine. You got it from your dad, of course. Once I found out what he was, I shouldn’t have married him, but I did. When people started to go missing in the neighborhood, I told myself it wasn’t his doing. But it was. And once I found out . . .”

“You had to clean up his mess,” Ray said.

I nodded. “It was my duty as his wife. And after he was gone, I’d hoped you wouldn’t inherit his . . . inclinations. But you did.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I guess you have to clean up my mess now, huh?”


I bent down, opened the garbage bag, and pulled out the axe handle. I managed to get a solid grip on it before Ray turned to me, hands now claws, eyes black and cold, barbed tentacles lashing from his mouth toward me. He looked so much like his father at that moment. It only took me two swings to bring him down, and a couple more to finish him. I don’t think he could bring himself to hurt me, else it would’ve been much harder.

I rolled him into the hole with the other boy, tossed the axe handle on top of them, then I picked up the shovel and got to work putting dirt back where it belonged.

* * * * *

I opened the master bedroom door, releasing a smell like dead flowers into the hall. I held the butcher knife before me, in case the mother rushed out to attack, but she didn’t. I saw why when I stepped into the room. The thing on the bed, sitting with its back against the wall, wasn’t simply reclining on the mattress. It was part of it. The “bed” was actually an extension of its body. The mother was naked—rail-thin where her husband had been fat—and her skin was a similar blue-white hue as his, but with a grainy texture that made me think of bleu cheese. The bed was made of the same substance, and while it had a suggestion of mattress, box springs, frame, and legs, it grew from the creature’s waist—or maybe she grew from it. Her eyes were milky and clouded, like an animal that’s lived its entire life underground. Her mouth was more human than her husband’s, but not by much, and mottled tufts of gray hair clung to her scalp. Instead of hands and fingers, she possessed two long curving hooks, and although I was certain she couldn’t see me, she sliced them back and forth through the air, as if trying to warn me off.

The room was bare of any furnishings or decoration. Bones littered the floor, all of them broken, as if she’d wanted to get at the marrow they contained. My guess was that Dad fed first downstairs, then brought up Mom’s share for her. He might’ve been a monster, but at least he’d been a good provider.

Once it became clear the creature presented no threat to me as long as I didn’t go near it, I retreated into the hall and closed the door. She started to scream then, but I didn’t care. She could make as much noise as she wanted. She’d be quiet soon enough.

I returned to the kitchen, put the knife down on the counter, picked up my cleaning supplies, and went outside. I had several cans of gasoline in the trunk, and after I put my supplies in the back seat, I carried all the cans inside. It took me two trips. I left them in the foyer, retrieved the butcher knife, then sat down on the couch in the living room and waited. Cheryl would return before long to make sure her parents had fed and to get rid of my Prius. But when she entered, she’d find me waiting with the knife. When I finished with her, I’d empty the gas containers throughout the house, taking care to thoroughly soak the basement and master bedroom. I’d light a few matches, toss them, and then leave.

I’m so glad I retired from teaching and started my own business. I like being my own boss and setting my own hours, and I get a lot of satisfaction from my work. There’s a lot of darkness in the world. I should know: I married a piece of it and gave birth to more of it. But I cleaned up my messes, and now I do what I can to clean up others’. And when I clean a place, I make damn sure it stays that way.

The front door opened tentatively, and I heard Cheryl call out in a hesitant voice.

“Dad? Mom?”

The mother screamed louder than ever, as if trying to warn her daughter.

I rose from the couch, gripped the knife handle tight, and headed for the foyer.

About Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner has published nearlyfifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications.
He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, the HWA’s Mentor of the Year Award, been a multiple finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he's had several stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year's Best Hardcore Horror.

He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.



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the forever house