Scott Nicholson

The September Special Guest Writer is Scott Nicholson

Please feel free to visit Scott HERE

scott nicholson

by Scott Nicholson

"Do it again, Daddy." Janie's coloring book was in her lap, forgotten.

Darrell smiled and thumbed open the top on his Zippo lighter. He struck the flint wheel and the flame burst to life. The dancing fire reflected in each of Janie's pupils. Her mouth was open in fascination.

"It's pretty," she said.

"And so are you. Now back to your coloring. It's almost bedtime." Darrell flipped the silver metal lid closed, snuffing the orange flame.

Janie put the coloring book in front of her and rolled onto her stomach. She chose a crayon. Gray. Darrell frowned and placed the lighter by the ashtray.

Rita tensed in her chair beside him. She reached out with her thin hand and gripped his arm. "Did you hear that?" she whispered.

Darrell listened. Janie was humming to herself. The wax of the crayon made a soft squeak across the paper. The clock on the mantel ticked once, again, three times, more.

He tried to hear beyond those normal sounds. His hearing was shot. Too much Elvis, Rita always said. Too much Elvis would make anybody deaf.

"From the kitchen," she said. "Or outside."

Janie heard the same noise that Rita was hearing. She cocked her head, the crayon poised above the page. She stopped kicking her feet, the heels of her saddle shoes nearly touching her back.

"Mice, most likely," he said, too loudly. He was head of the household. It was his job to put on a brave face. The expression fit him like a glass mask.

Why didn't the damned dog bark? Dogs were supposed to be sensitive to spirits from the other side. He put down the newspaper, paper crackling. Mayor Loeb and Martin Luther King looked out from the front page. Black and white.

"Terribly loud mice," Rita finally answered. Darrell shot her a glance, then rolled his eyes toward Janie. Rita was usually careful in front of their daughter. But having those noisy things around had been stressful.

"Sounds like it's coming from the kitchen," he said with what he hoped was nonchalance. He pulled his cigar from his mouth. He rarely smoked, and never inside the house. But they were a comfort, with their rich sweet smell and tangy taste and the round weight between his lips.

He laid the cigar carefully beside his lighter, propping up the damp end on the ashtray so the dust wouldn't stick to it. The ashtray was shaped like a starfish. They'd gotten it on their honeymoon to Cuba, back when Americans were allowed to visit. He could still see the map of the island that had been painted on the bottom of the glass.

Darrell stood, his recliner groaning in relief. He looked down at the hollow impression in the woven seat of the chair. Too much food. Too much food, and too much Elvis.

Can't go back. Can't get younger. Can't change things. He shook his head at nothing.

"Don't bother, honey. The mice won't hurt anything." Rita chewed at the red end of her index finger.

"Well, we can't let them have the run of the house." It was their secret code, worked out over the long sleepless night. Janie didn't need to know. She was too young to understand. But the things were beyond anybody's understanding, no matter what age a person was.

Darrell glanced at the big boxy RCA that cast a flickering shadow from one corner of the room. They usually watched with the sound turned down. Barney Fife was saying something to Andy, his Adam's apple twitching up and down like a turkey's.

"Get me a soda while you're up?" Rita asked. Trying to pretend everything was normal.

"Sure. Anything for you, pumpkin?"

Janie shook her head. He wished she would go back to coloring. Her eyes were wide now, waiting. He was supposed to protect her from worries.

She put the gray crayon back in the box. Fifteen other colors, and she almost always used gray. Freud would probably have made something of that. Darrell hoped she would select a blue, even a red, something vibrant and found in rainbows. His heart tightened as she chose black.

He walked past her and turned up the sound on the television. Beginning to whistle, he headed across the living room. No tune came to mind. He forced a few in-between notes and the music jumped track somewhere in his throat. He began again, with "I See the Moon." Janie's favorite.

Where was that dog? Always underfoot when Darrell went through the house, but now nowhere to be found. Nothing like this ever happened back in Illinois. Only in Tennessee.

He was in the hall when he heard Aunt Bea's aria from the living room: "An-deeeee!"

They used to watch "The Outer Limits," sometimes "The Twilight Zone." Never again. They got too much of that sort of thing in real life. Now it was nothing but safe, family fare.

Darrell eased past the closet. His golf clubs were in there, the three-wood chipped where he'd used it to drive a nail into the kitchen drawer that was always coming apart. Cobwebs probably were stretched between the irons. Par for the course, these days.

He stopped outside the kitchen. A bright rectangle of light spilled into the hallway. Mice were supposed to be scared of house lights. Well, maybe mice were, but those things weren't. Then why did they only come at night?

There was a smudge of fingerprints on the doorway casing. Purple. Small. Grape jelly.

He tried to yawn, but his breath hitched. He checked the thermostat, even though it was early autumn and the temperature was fairly constant. He looked around for another excuse for delay, but found none.

The kitchen floor was off-white linoleum, in a Pollock sort of pattern that disguised scuffs and stains. Mice would find nothing on this floor.

The Formica counters were clean, too. Three soiled plates were stacked in the sink. He didn't blame Rita for avoiding the chore. No one wanted to be alone in the kitchen, especially after dinner when the sun had gone down.

A broom leaned against the little door that hid the folding-out ironing board. He wrapped his hands around the smooth wood. Maybe he could sweep them away, as if they were dust balls.

Darrell crossed the kitchen slowly, the broom held across his chest. As he crouched, he felt the bulge of his belly lapping over his belt. Both he and his crosstown hero were packing on the weight in these later years.

Where was that dog? A few black-and-white clumps of hair stuck to the welcome mat at the back door. That dog shed so much, Darrell wouldn't be surprised if it was invisible by now. But the mess was forgivable, if only the mutt would show up. A good bark would scare those things away.

He parted the curtain on the back door. The grass in the yard had gotten tall and was a little ragged. George next door would be tut-tutting to his wife. But George was retired, he had nothing on his mind but lawn fertilizer. There was a joke in there somewhere, but Darrell wasn't in the mood to dig it up.

A little bit of wind played in the laurel hedge, strong enough to make the seat of Janie's swing set ease back and forth. Of course it was the wind. What would those things want with a swing set? The set's metal poles were flecked with rust. He didn't remember that happening. Gradual changes weren't as noticeable, he supposed.

In the dim light, the world looked colorless. Nothing else stirred. If they were out there, they were hiding. He almost expected to hear some corny organ music like they played on the "Inner Sanctum" radio program.

He was about to drop the curtain and get Rita's soda, and maybe a beer for himself, when he saw movement. Two shapes, wispy and pale in the faded wash of the backyard. Trick of the moonlight. Yeah. Had to be. They didn't exist, did they?

He looked forward to the beer bubbling in his throat. The bitter sweetness wasn't as crisp as it used to be back when he was young. Maybe everything got flatter and less vivid as a person got older. Senses dulled by time and timelessness.

The big General Electric was nearly empty. The celery had wilted. Something on the middle wire shelf had separated into layers. He didn't dare open the Tupperware container to see what was inside. A half-dozen eggs roosted in their scooped-out places. One had a hairline crack, and a clear jewel of fluid glistened under the fluorescent light.

He fished out the drinks and closed the door. There was a hiss as the motor kicked in and sucked the seals tight. A fluff of lint shot from the grill at the base of the appliance.

The drinks chilled his palms. Sensation. He pressed a can to his forehead. Great way to cure a headache. Too bad he didn't have one.

He went back to the living room. Janie was still coloring, the tip of her tongue pressed just so against the corner of her mouth. Her eyes were half-closed, the curl of her lashes making Darrell's heart ache. He sat down.

Darrell gave Rita the soda, then pulled the tab on his beer. The can opened with a weak, wet sigh. He took a sip. Flat.

"See any mice?" Rita asked, trying to smile.

"Not a single Mickey Mouse in the place. Saw a Donald Duck, though."

Janie giggled, her shoulders shaking a little. Her ponytail had fallen against one cheek. Darrell hated lying. But it wasn't really a lie, was it? The lie was so white, it was practically see-through.

He settled back in his chair. The newspaper had slipped to the floor and opened to page seven, where the real news was located. More stuff on Johnson's mess in Viet Nam. Right now, he had no interest in the world beyond. He looked at the television.

Gomer was doing something stupid, and his proud idiot grin threatened to split his head in half. Barney was waving his arms in gangly hysterics. Andy stood there with his hands in his pockets.

Television was black-and-white, just like life. But in television, you had "problem," then "problem solved." Sprinkle in some canned laughter along the way. In life, there were no solutions and not much laughter.

He took another sip of beer. "You want to visit your folks again this weekend?"

Rita had gulped half her soda in her nervousness. "Can we afford it?"

Could they afford not to? Every minute away from the house was a good minute. He wished they could move. He had thought about putting the house up for sale, but the market was glutted. The racial tension had even touched the midtown area, and middle-class whites didn't want to bring their families to the South. Besides, who would want to buy a haunted house?

And if they did manage to sell the house, where would they go? Shoe store managers weren't exactly in high demand. And he didn't want Rita to work until Janie started school. So they'd just have to ride it out for another year or so. Seemed like they'd been riding it out forever.

He put down the beer and jabbed the cigar in his mouth. "Maybe your folks are getting tired of us," he said around the rolled leaf. "How about a trip to the mountains? We can get a little cabin, maybe out next to a lake." He thought of his fishing rod, leaning against his golf bag somewhere in the lost black of the closet.

"Out in the middle of nowhere?" Rita's voice rose a half-step too high. Janie noticed and stopped scribbling.

"We could get a boat."

"I'll call around," Rita said. "Tomorrow."

Darrell looked at the bookcase on the wall. He'd been meaning to read so many of those books. He wasn't in the mood to spend a few hours with one. Even though he had all the time in the world.

He picked up the Zippo and absently thumbed the flame to life. Janie heard the lid open and looked up. Pretty colors. Orange, yellow, blue. He doused the flame, thumbed it to life once more, then closed the lighter and put it back on the table.

Rita pretended to watch television. Darrell looked from her face to the screen. The news was on, footage of the sanitation workers' strike. The reporter's voice-over was bassy and bland.

"Do you think it's serious?" Rita asked, with double meaning.

"A bunch of garbage." The joke fell flat. Darrell went to the RCA and turned down the volume. Silence crowded the air.

Janie stopped coloring, lifted her head and cocked it to one side. "I heard something."

Her lips pursed. A child shouldn't suffer such worry. He waited for a pang of guilt to sear his chest. But the guilt was hollow, dead inside him.

"I think it's time a little girl went beddy-bye," he said. Rita was standing before he even finished his sentence.

"Aw, do I have to?" Janie protested half-heartedly.

"Afraid so, pumpkin."

"I'll go get the bed ready, then you can come up and get brushed and washed," Rita said, heading too fast for the stairs.

"And Daddy tells the bedtime story?" Janie asked.

Darrell smiled. Rita was a wonderful mother. He couldn't imagine a better partner. But when it came to telling stories, there was only one king. "Sure," he said. "Now gather your crayons."

The promise of a story got Janie in gear. Darrell heard Rita's slippered feet on the stairs. Her soles were worn. He'd have to get her a new pair down at the store.

He froze, the hairs on his neck stiffening.


That sound again.

The not-mice.

Where was that damn dog?

He got to his feet, stomach clenched. Janie was preoccupied with her chore. He walked to the back door and parted the curtain, wondering if Rita had heard and was now looking out from the upstairs window.

The moon was fuller, brighter, more robust. Why did they only come at night?

Maybe they had rules. Which was stupid. They broke every natural law just in the act of existing.

There, by the laurel at the edge of the backyard. Two shapes, shimmering, surreal, a bit washed out.

He opened the door, hoping to scare them away. That was a hoot. Him scaring them. But he had to try, for Janie's and Rita's sake.

"What do you want?" he said, trying to keep his voice level. Could they understand him? Or did they speak a different language in that other world?

The shapes moved toward him, awkwardly. A bubbling sound flooded the backyard, like pockets of air escaping from water. One of the shapes raised a nebulous arm. The motion was jerky, like in an old silent film.

Darrell stepped off the porch. Maybe if he took a stand here, they would take what they wanted and leave his family alone.

"There's nothing for you here," he said. "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

A sudden rage flared through him, filling his abdomen with heat. These were the things that bothered Janie, that made Rita worry, that was the fountain of his own constant guilt. These things had no right to intrude on their space, their lives, their reality.

"I don't believe in you," he shouted, no longer caring if he woke Neighbor George. If only the dog would bark, maybe that would drive them away.

The bubbling sound came again. The spooks were closer now, and he could see they were shaped like humans. Noises from their heads collected and hung in the air. The wind lifted, changed direction. The noises blew together, thickened and became words.

Darrell's language.

"There's where it happened."

A kid. Sounded like early teens. Did their kind age, or were they stuck in the same moment forever?

Darrell opened his mouth, but didn't speak. More words came from the world of beyond, words that were somnambulant and sonorous.

"Gives me the creeps, man." Another young one.

"Three of them died when it burned down."

"Freaky. Maybe some of the bones are still there."

"They say only the dog got away."

"Must have been a long time ago."

"Almost thirty years."

"Nothing but a chimney left, and a few black bricks. You'd think something would grow back. Trees and stuff." A silence. Darrell's heart beat, again, three times, more.

"It's supposed to be haunted," said the first.


"Go out and touch it, then."

"No way."

A fire flashed in front of one of the shapes, then a slow curl of smoke wafted across the moonlit yard. The end of a cigarette glowed. Smoke. Spirit. Smoke. Spirit. Both insubstantial.

Darrell walked down the back steps, wondering how he could make them go away. A cross? A Bible? A big stick?

"I only come here at night," said the one inhaling the fire.

"Place gives me the creeps."

"It's cool, man."

"I don't like it." The shape drifted back, away from the house, away from Darrell's approach.


The shape turned and fled.

"Chicken," repeated the first, louder, sending a puff of gray smoke into the air.

Darrell glanced up at Janie's bedroom window. She would be in her pajamas now, the covers up to her chin, a picture book across her tummy. The pages opened to a story that began "Once upon a time..."

Darrell kept walking, nearing the ghost of shifting smoke and fire. He was driven by his anger now, an anger that drowned the fear. The thing didn't belong in their world. Everything about them was wrong. Their bad light, their voices, their unreal movement.

He reached out, clutching for the thing's throat. His hands passed through the flame without burning, then through the shape without touching. But the shape froze, shuddered, then turned and fled back to its world of beyond.

Darrell watched the laurels for a moment, making sure the thing was gone. They would come back. They always did. But tonight he had won. A sweat of tension dried in the gentle breeze.

He went inside and closed the door. He was trembling. But he had a right to feel violated, outraged. He hadn't invited the things to his house.

He had calmed down a little by the time he reached the living room. A Spencer Tracy movie was on the television. The glow from the screen flickered on the walls like green firelight.

Rita was in her chair, blinking too rapidly. "Was it...?" she asked.


"Oh, Darrell, what are we going to do?"

"What can we do?"


He sighed. "We can't afford to right now. Maybe next year."

He sat down heavily and took a sip of his beer. It was still flat.

"What do we tell Janie?"

"Nothing for now. It's just mice, remember?"

He wished the dog were here, so he could stroke it behind the ears. He thought of those words from beyond, and how they said something about the dog getting out. Getting out of what?

He reached for his cigar and stuck it in his mouth. After a moment, he said, "Maybe if we stop believing in them, they'll go away."

The clock ticked on the mantel.

"I can't," Rita said.

"Neither can I."

The clock ticked some more.

"She's waiting."

"I know."

Darrell leaned his cigar carefully against the ashtray. He noticed his lighter was missing. He shrugged and went upstairs to read Janie her story. He wondered if tonight the ending would be the same as always.

Author Scott Nicholson has written 20 thrillers, 60 short stories, four comics series, and six screenplays. He lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he tends an organic garden, successfully eludes stalkers, and indulges in the vain whimsy of believing his thoughts are important. 

Nicholson has written hundreds of songs and poems and was a musician in a former life. As a newspaper reporter, he won three North Carolina Press Association awards. He’s had the usual collection of odd jobs: dishwasher, carpenter, painter, paranormal investigator, baseball card dealer, and radio announcer. Now he haphazardly trades words for magic beans and uses “haphazardly” as often as possible while decrying the overuse of adverbs.

Entering the digital era with a vengeance, Nicholson has sold more than half a million ebooks. He is releasing original titles, audio books, children’s books, translated editions, and graphic novels.

Nicholson won the grand prize in the international Writers of the Future contest in 1999. That same year, he was first runner-up for the Darrell Award. He studied Creative Writing at Appalachian State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He has been an officer of Mystery Writers of America and Horror Writers Association and is a member of International Thriller Writers and inaugural member of the Killer Thriller Band.

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