LEASH OF THE LEO
by JESSICA BOWERS
ason Reed waited in the lobby of Caldwell Prison, an austere cement fortress smothered in the humid armpit of July heat. A glaze of sweat covered his brow, and he wiped it away with the cuff of his rolled up sleeve. He wore a collared shirt and tie, entertaining the idea of looking professional even though he was not a single notch above total amateur. Jason appeared no different from all the other unkempt, college-dropout, wannabe filmmakers, but unlike them, he had accrued a great number of friends in high places. He kept them in his back pocket like a deck of cards, adding and subtracting them from his hand with nimble ease.
Thomas Caldwell, son of the warden of Caldwell Prison, was one such friend to Jason Reed. The founder of Caldwell Prison was Thomas’ grandfather, the late William Caldwell. Jason thought it would be a challenge to peel Thomas away from his awkwardly shaped, flaxen-haired relatives, but it turned out to be as elementary as baiting the blind with the promise of visible light. Jason showed Thomas the cramped parties of the starving actor/musician/painter, each room nebulous with smoke and undulating with the sulky, antelope movements of artsy girls who powdered their noses with equal parts nude foundation and Colombian cocaine. Thomas was exhilarated by the alien experience and repaid the favor when Jason asked if he could interview one of the inmates at Caldwell Prison for his documentary. Thomas’ mother, Jillian Caldwell, had approved a one-hour meeting between Jason and the inmate of interest. It wasn’t much, but it would perhaps be enough to give his documentary the edge it needed to win an independent film contest he’d bookmarked on the internet.
The contest was set up by a screenwriter in New York named Kurt Fowley. Jason didn’t know much about Fowley except that he had written a few indie films, and that he liked taking glamor shots of himself in front of his egg-shaped swimming pool. If Jason won the contest, his documentary would be screened for one weekend at a select number of private theaters across the state. The indie bloggers would review it with glossy, engorged details and muse about the creator, Jason Reed, whose tour de force seemed to shatter the scene from out of nowhere and render everyone spellbound.
It was a dream he repeatedly envisioned with sensuous detail, but now, suffocating in the fetid lobby, Jason wondered if he should have just stayed pre-med. The secretary’s face hovered in the sliding glass window across the room, bored and hinged on a yawn. Her keystrokes were muted and lazy. Jason heard a distant surge of choked screaming. He loosened his tie anxiously, to no avail. The secretary offered him no comfort. These were office sounds to her, common as the monotonous bleating of a fax machine.
Jason’s documentary was called Generation Y: the Caustic Counterculture. It featured a series of informal interviews with disheveled, ex-suburbanite youth, kids who had grown up rich but somehow wound up in highway motels, swaddled in the vice grip of drug addiction. The real addicts weren’t the girls on the dancefloor passing hits of X around with their vulpine mouths, their mascara smeared like greasy coal. The real addicts were slumped in piles of ones and twos, nodding off in the corners like anorexic babies, sallow as rotting fruit. Most of them were less than eager to talk to Jason until he offered them a crisp twenty from the fold of his wallet. Once they pawed the cash, they had plenty of interesting stories to tell him.
The last girl he interviewed had been clutching the frayed ends of her rope with trembling conviction. Her name was Anna Rudolph, a twenty-something meth addict all but engulfed in the palpable shadow of death. Her father was a famous lawyer. He had his own commercial and a two-page spread in the local phonebook. Jason met Anna at a party and took her back to her musty motel room for the interview. The room was no bigger than a matchbox and smelled like several generations of mildew and piss. Between snowy plumes of smoke, the camera light blinking by the door, Anna croaked that she’d always wanted to be a movie star. Dark curls hung around her waxen face like oily tentacles. She laughed, reedy and open-mouthed, ready to grace the silver screen in the seventh circle of Hell. Almost all her teeth were gone, turned to chalkdust by the chemical vapor slithering through her orifices like a diaphanous kiss. Jason asked her when she started to lose them. She seemed to ponder for a moment, but instead of reaching back into her memory, she reached back into the gummy recess of her maw and pulled out a molar with the painless ease of picking a dandelion. It made a dry, snapping sound like splintered wood. She held it up to the camera lens like a treasured plaything. It was blackened at the dendritic roots, an appalling example of bodily decay that belonged in the desiccated jaw of a decade-old corpse.
Jason watched the interview a dozen times that night, wishing he had been able to zoom in a little more when Anna plucked out the molar, her tongue probing around the abscess like a gray, muscly maggot. It was the money shot he’d been waiting for; he could have called the project a wrap right there, but Jason Reed was, obvious to everyone but himself, an amateur. Jason’s father knew it better than anybody, his calloused disownment a constant but unheeded reminder.
Fuck, you Dad.
Jason was trying to think tough. It wasn’t working.
“Hey, you ready?” I’m supposed to take you down.”
Jason’s head snapped up. He had been thinking deeply about the chain reaction of decisions that had brought him to this very moment, and maybe somewhere in the expertly crafted blueprint of his plans, there was a pang of regret. He ignored it and stood up from the metal chair.
The CO stood at the end of an open hallway. He was round, bearded, and red as a tomato. Jason thought he looked like a very safe travel guide, and the heavy fluttering in his gut subsided a little bit. The sharp end of another scream pierced through the hall and the fluttering turned back on a dime.
“Don’t worry,” the CO said. “We aren’t going that way. We got her waiting for you in an interrogation room—Miss Caldwell’s request.”
The CO sounded flustered and annoyed. He had better things to do than help some punk ass kid with his homework assignment. Jason nodded at him like a nervous chicken. He scooped up the tripod and the bulky camera at his feet—the one he’d bought with the better part of his student loans. It suddenly seemed like a lot to carry.
“You need any help with that junk?”
“No thanks,” Jason said, juggling all his gear. “I’m ready.”
Neither himself, nor the CO, were convinced.
Jason and the CO stood outside Interrogation Room #2. The metal door was partitioned by a vertical sliver of reinforced glass. Jason peered through. The inmate inside was leaning back in her chair, hands cuffed in her lap, face tilted toward the fluorescent lights as though she were sunbathing. The CO reached for a ring of keys on his belt, then stopped to regard Jason. The kid looked like an alley cat that’d just had a firecracker thrown at it.
“Listen,” the CO said. “She shouldn’t try nothing. But if she does, just holler. I’ll be standing right out here ‘til you’re done. She’s thinner than a toothpick, but then again, so are you.”
“Thanks,” Jason managed quietly. Any louder and it would have been a squeak. He didn’t know why he was nervous now. He’d spent the past three months wading through the gutters, interacting with the most desperate kinds of people. He didn’t think there was much else left to see.
“Don’t you be handing her anything either,” the CO went on. Jason had already been frisked, but the statement demanded reiteration. “We didn’t search you very thorough—this sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed, but this is a private institution, and I’m not the boss. So keep your hands to yourself or on your little camera. If I catch her with anything, it’s on you, kid.”
Jason nodded again. His mouth was sandpaper dry. The CO unlocked the door and Jason walked in, the leg of his tripod catching on the threshold. The clanking sound didn’t bother the inmate beyond a sidelong glance. Her head was still arched back in an illustration of total ennui. The door clanged shut, and the CO plopped into a chair in the hallway. He called on Morris to bring him a cup of coffee. Nobody had to ask him how much he hated his job.
Jason set up his camera in the corner, hit record. He sat down at the table across from the inmate. She was still facing the plaster ceiling, her eyes closed. Jason laced and unlaced his fingers on the table, waiting for her to animate. A modest ahem. No response.
“Emily? It’s me—Jason.”
The eyes came open. They were mossy, blighted almonds. Her hair was androgynously short and dark, something Jason admittedly found attractive. In fact, she was the most attractive heroin junkie he had ever seen, if such a thing could be said without speedy and subsequent injury. Emily looked as though she had been on both sides of the fist in her day, and feared neither.
“I knew it was you,” she laughed. “Do you think they just leash me around without telling me where we’re going? Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. I guess I am looking a little less than human these days.”
The orange jumpsuit all but swallowed her; heroin had done most of the work already. Her cheekbones nearly gouged through the skin like oblique spades. Given four or five more years of dancing with Mr. Brownstone, her face would be a puckered sinkhole.
“I think you look great,” Jason said. It was a strange hybrid of truth and lie.
“You’ll say anything to break the ice, right? I bet that’s not even your best line.”
“Actually, it is,” Jason countered, quick rather than smooth. “It generally works on a pass-fail basis. Any hint as to which one it is this time?”
Emily offered him her crude version of a smile, and it was complete. The opioid tooth fairy had not yet been to visit. Anna Rudolph was undoubtedly giving her plenty of business, for the time being.
“Umm,” Jason said vaguely. He suddenly felt like he had no idea what he was doing. Emily’s eyebrows were astutely raised; the rest of her face played dead. He finally understood why he was nervous. There was something subtly disarming about her, something he would never have predicted from the brief correspondence they’d shared via the mail. Jason had written her a page to request a visit, albeit most of it was hot air about himself and his project. He couldn’t help but self-propagate; he was a Leo. The excuse had never gotten him very far with those who called him arrogant, but his charm usually made up for it.
As a Pisces, Emily was vulnerable to any measure of charisma that one decided to bait her with, or so Jason thought, judging by her response:
Dear Jason Reed,
I would very much enjoy an interview with you. Any time of the week is fine, though I’m sure it won’t be up to me to decide.
Shalom. If anything, Jason thought she would be a little offbeat, maybe a little zany around the eyes. Then again, he hadn’t really done his research. All he knew was that she fit the bill for his project. Her father, Christopher Falmouth, was a renowned plastic surgeon in the tri-state area. Jason’s own mother had been to see him on more than one occasion, but Jason doubted such a minuscule linkage of fates would be unearthed in the time he and Emily had left to talk. He was wrong to doubt her just as he was wrong to doubt anyone, but he couldn’t help it—he was a Leo.
Looking at her patient pensiveness, he got the strange impression that she could read astrological signs by eye alone, could unhinge his ticks and quirks as told by the cosmos. Being the royal lion had never felt so feeble. Something, anything would suffice to say. He eventually mustered a voice.
“For legal purposes, I won’t ask what brought you here. I’m not interested in that. Let’s just start with a little about you. When and why you started using, who introduced you. Start anywhere you want.”
“A little about me,” she echoed flatly. “Sounds like a support group for Junkies Anonymous. Oh, the pressure. A moment, if you’ll grant one.”
Jason felt the seconds ticking away like melting ice. He was still convinced that this was going to amount to something useable, but Emily hadn’t so much as breathed in the camera’s direction. She plunged her cuffed hands into the top of her jumpsuit and pulled out a crumpled pack of American Spirits.
Fucking hippie, Jason thought derisively, followed by immediate regret. She was glaring at him again, a cigarette levered between her teeth. Did she hear me?
“Do you have a light?”
Jason felt he had just received both a question and an answer.
Jason remembered the warning he’d gotten from the CO. He looked out the window, didn’t see him. He also knew that Emily wasn’t going to talk until he gave in. Jason pulled a Bic from his pocket, offered it across the table.
“No,” she said. “You first.”
She slid the pack towards him. There was one cigarette left. Jason couldn’t help but get the impression that she had planned it to be just so. She was a Pisces after all, and they were supposed to be sensitive to the needs of others. He took out the cigarette and lit it. He offered the lighter once more.
“No,” she said again. Then, in response to his puzzled reaction, she motioned him forward. He met her halfway across the table and lit her end with his cherry. It was so quiet he could hear the paper burn as it took the heat. He didn’t notice that her hand had momentarily slipped under his curled palm. She retracted it quickly. Even if he had noticed, he would have assumed that she just wanted to touch him. It was his natural assumption, and it was a poor one.
Emily leaned back, nostrils billowing with blue smoke. She flicked the ashes into the empty pack. They passed it back and forth.
“That was how I started using heroin,” she said abruptly, finishing a story she never started.
“Weren’t you paying attention at all?”
“Well, I thought so,” Jason stammered. “Maybe I’m just dumb.”
Self-debasement was severely against his nature, but he was willing to try anything to make her talk. It worked.
“A little about me,” she mused. Her eyes scanned the ceiling as if she’d written notes up there. “Why is that so important to know? How do you become a heroin addict? Easy. Daddy didn’t love me, Daddy hit me, Uncle Chester touched me, Mommy didn’t listen or just didn’t care. It’s always the same story—but it’s not mine.”
“What happened, then?” Jason kept smoking the American Spirit, even though it tasted like petrified dirt. He felt himself disappearing under a dark curtain of lustful intrigue, but couldn’t find the legs or arms to crawl out of it. He could smell the adrenaline leaking out of her. Just talking about heroin made her pores howl.
“I just wanted to put my head on her shoulder,” Emily said morosely. She stamped the half-smoked cigarette on the table, indifferent to the char mark. “Her—the one who introduced me, as you would say. But it was so much more than an introduction. I can’t show you because of these fucking handcuffs, but every needle mark on me, every single one…she put them there, with my head, my poor hurting head, resting on her shoulder.”
Emily picked up the crooked cigarette. Jason knew what he had to do, and this time, she didn’t touch him—not that he noticed a difference.
“Just like that,” she said with a foggy exhale. “I never would have done it by myself. I wanted her to do it for me, the same way I wanted you to light me. I wanted to be under her spell.”
“What’s her name?”
“Cora Lynch. Don’t bother looking her up, she won’t be interested in anything you have to ask. We hardly talk anymore. Well, that shouldn’t be hard to guess.”
Jason filed it in the back of his mind anyway.
“Is she a Leo?” It suddenly became very important for him to know, with or without reason.
Emily didn’t answer him. It was as though she had just noticed there was a camera in the room, and that it had been recording her every word. She eyed it like it was something she planned to kill and eat. Jason was unnerved. He feared she would soon direct the stare at him, and act upon it swiftly.
“That looks expensive,” she said tonelessly.
The hour wasn’t nearly up, but Jason, inexplicably panicked, called it a wrap. For a moment, he didn’t even want to take the time to gather up all the gear, because it meant he would have to stay in there with her for even longer. She didn’t watch him pack. She tilted her head back, became stoic once more.
Jason was sweating again by the time he got out of Interrogation Room #2. The CO was sleeping in his chair like a tamed bear. Jason poked him awake with the tripod. Jason didn’t leave until he saw the CO drag Emily Falmouth away under his arm, her legs like limp noodles and her rubber sandals skidding dryly against the floor. She wasn’t resisting—she just didn’t want to walk by herself. Jason could not even begin to fathom why in the world she was still smiling.
Jason went for a drink after the interview to calm his nerves and succeeded only in muddying them down a little. It was three in the afternoon; the only other people in the bar were devout alcoholics and Keno fiends. The tectonics within him had shifted slightly, just enough to make him feel like a stuck cog. He thought about dumping the Emily interview altogether. Squiggles of dread wormed through his guts every time he thought about watching it, but even if he deleted the footage, it was still etched into his mind like a permanent afterimage. He’d gone into that prison with the purest intentions of using Emily’s pain and suffering to propel himself forward. He never expected to get anything in return for such a generous act, and now he wasn’t sure whether or not he should be thankful for what he had received. All he knew was that he wanted more.
Jason only asked for the tip of the iceberg, and instead he’d gotten the dark and amorphous thing underneath. He felt one project dying, and another one being born from its grave. It was the dilemma every type of artist grappled with at one point or another: do I finish this piece of shit I started, or do I jump ship to chase this juicy piece of bait before it wriggles away, and gets caught by someone else? The bottom of his glass was a crystal ball into which he blankly stared, waiting for an answer to swim to the surface. He pushed it away when he imagined Emily’s face bubbling up from the amber liquid like an improperly weighted cadaver.
Don’t bother looking her up.
Had that been an invitation? Was Cora Lynch still out there, the hypodermic witch doctor, making girls fall in love with her, then the needle? How long did she keep them twisted under her thumb with the plunger, before hanging them out to dry? It distantly occurred to him that Emily could have been lying about the whole thing, tempting him to go after some deep, dark, lurid secret that didn’t exist. Junkies were cunning. They had to be. Still—Emily Falmouth had been caught, so how smart could she really be?
By the end of his third drink, Jason was convinced. He was her Capote, and she was his Perry Smith. He would call his new project The Hypodermic Witch Doctor.
It was dusk by the time Jason got home. To call it home was a bit of an overstatement; it was more analogous to a crash site. Jason treated people like a deck of cards, and one card that always remained live in his hand was that of Scott Burton, a literature professor whose high stature in academia greatly defied the lackadaisical behavior he exhibited outside the classroom. Burton was a mid-fifties bachelor, and the closest thing he had to a wife was a bong named Roxanne. He hosted private gatherings for his most talented students, whereupon entering the student signed a contract expressing that he/she would no sooner discuss the events of the party than stick his/her head in an active fireplace. Jason Reed, of course, had been amongst the chosen favorites. Party highlights included becoming delightfully stoned and reciting Walt Whitman with the voice-altering effects of helium balloons.
When Jason dropped out of college against his parents’ admonitions and could not return home, Professor Burton offered him a temporary reprieve. He told Jason that he had nine months to birth the next great documentary, and then he would have to hit the skids. That had been a year ago, but Professor Burton didn’t really care who he was rooming with, as long as they kept good company and weren’t afraid of intelligent conversation.
Jason opened the door of the third-floor apartment, looking like a famished caravan of one. The house smelled like spaghetti sauce and the ripe pages of arduously collected first edition novels.
“Hey man,” Burton called from the couch.
“Hey,” Jason called back with a labored sigh. He set his gear down next to the wooden trunk that contained the small summary of his personal belongings. He sank into the couch. The VCR was playing the end credits to Pulp Fiction. The bong sat on the coffee table, misted over with water. A stack of essays was next to it. Burton’s bare feet crossed on top of them as he reclined.
“Mind grading those for me?” Burton asked sardonically. “I’d rather sift through dog shit.”
“How rudimentary of you,” Jason replied dully. His eyelids felt like heavy sandbags. He was viciously tired from all the details of a very strange day.
“Bad day at the office?” Burton asked. He lit a wooden pipe, venting smoke through his chimney of a grin. His variety of psychoactive paraphernalia seemed endless.
“More like a bizarre one,” Jason said. “I had my interview at Caldwell Prison today—the one I told you about.”
Jason didn’t yet know how much of the story he would tell to Burton. The man was sure to laugh at how skittish he had been for not sticking it out for the whole hour, for not uncovering more.
“What was the girl’s name again? I don’t think you told me, actually.”
A series of spasmodic events followed the mention of her name. Burton choked on his pipe, sending a meteoric spray of ashes and live embers onto the carpet. In a scramble to put out the burning herb, Burton knocked over his precious Roxanne with his foot, splashing skunky water onto the stack of Vonnegut essays. He peeled the soggiest essays from the top of the stack and used them to blot out the melting carpet. He would have to explain to his students later.
Jason looked at Burton, flabbergasted and darkly amused.
“What the hell?”
“Please tell me you said something different,” Burton wheezed, still recovering from his botched hit. “Emily what?”
“Falmouth,” Jason repeated suspiciously.
“Shit,” Burton whispered, picking smut from his short ponytail. “I should have asked you sooner.”
“Why? What do you know?” Jason crossed his legs on the couch and pinned his eyes on Burton. He was suddenly wide awake.
“The drug scene around here—well, anywhere really—is like a fishbowl,” Burton said, repacking the pipe. “Everyone is basically swimming around in everyone else’s shit. People are going notice if their dope guy suddenly drops dead, because who do they call every day? Well, you figure maybe it’s not such a big deal. Just because he sells it doesn’t mean he can’t OD on it. So you find another guy, and soon enough, he’s dead too. So that’s when you start to think, maybe there’s a piranha in the water.”
“So about Falmouth, then,” Jason pressed.
“Yeah,” Burton said. “I’ll get to that. First, I’m going to explain a few things, and you’re going to think I’m crazy. But if you want the truth about Falmouth, you have to listen.”
Burton never got straight to the point. First, he paddled way out into the open sea, where everything was dark and mysterious. This time, though, he seemed deadly serious. Jason had no choice but to grab an oar.
“I’ll listen,” he said.
“How much do you know about telepathy?”
“Mindreaders? What does that have to do with this?” Jason thought he’d been prepared to hear anything, but he was wrong.
“Telepathy is more than just mind reading. Some people think that our individual conscious minds are all tethered to a collective pool. Imagine, say, a giant womb with an umbilical cord attached. At the end of that cord is you, Jason Reed. But there are dozens, maybe hundreds of other cords attached to that same womb. My cord, your cord, Emily’s cord—we’re all anchored to the same stinking boat of human ether. And people that are telepathic, they’re keen to these connections. They can feel them out. Finagle them. Sever them.”
Jason was incredulous, as Burton had predicted.
“Is that what you believe?”
“Yeah,” Burton replied. “I’ll get to that too. Mind reading is child’s play for the ones who really know how to tap in. Most of our thoughts are surface level—they come and go in an autonomous reel. It’d be like sitting down to read the phonebook for a telepathic. It’s the stuff underneath that the real ones want, and that’s when it gets dangerous. When they learn how to get down there.”
“So you’re saying Emily knows how to do that?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. But she’s not doing it by herself.”
I never would have done it by myself.
A subzero chill prickled along Jason’s spine. He could see the pieces of the puzzle coming together in some nefarious, thanatoid shape, even though he could not yet logically validate what he was hearing.
“She mentioned someone else while we were talking. Cora Lynch.”
“Yeah, the other girl. Technically, I only met them once. I was driving back from a conference in the middle of January, three or so years ago. It was late, the sky was pissing razor sharp sleet and snow and every other kind of God-angry element. I took an exit to get some coffee and I saw them huddled together in front of a Burger King, sharing a cheeseburger. The manager wouldn’t let them back in because the Lynch girl had a gnarly bruise on her eye and Falmouth didn’t have any shoes. I guess you could say I never earned my Good Samaritan badge, and thought that it was as good a time as any to try. I asked the Lynch girl if she needed a hospital for her eye, and she said no. Instead, she asked if I would take them to a Budget Inn a few exits north.
“I knew that they were strung, and I expected them to ask for money, but they didn’t make a fucking peep, just held on to each other in the backseat like the darkness was a tide that would wash them away. I blasted the heater for them, and when we got to the motel, I gave Falmouth a pair of gym socks from my suitcase, and that was it. They didn’t ask for a single penny, and before I could even have the thought to reach for my wallet anyway, the Lynch girl shook her head, as if nothing I could offer out of my own good nature would be enough for what they needed.
“I had a funny, nauseous feeling the rest of the way home. It could have been the buffet food I had for dinner, but it wasn’t like that. It was a different kind of sickness—a deep, visceral paranoia. A cesspool of hormones churning in the gut. Ask anyone who has ever dropped acid in a place where they didn’t feel totally safe—it was like that. I could still smell them in the backseat, a stale drift of gasoline and dope-sick sweat. Even though they hadn’t said a word to each other in the car, I couldn’t help but feel as though they’d had a full conversation anyway, deep in the reptilian brain where no one but the two of them could hear. I’m no more telepathic than a fucking turnip, but I could still feel the traces of their energy clinging to the confines of my Lincoln like electric sea urchins. Sometimes I still get a little twinge when I drive, and it reminds me how easily they could come back, but I don’t think they will.”
Burton put the pipe down without lighting it. Jason had never seen Burton look so grim. It was as though he had become one of his wartime ancestors.
“What do you mean come back? What do you think they were…talking about?”
“How they were going to kill me that night,” Burton said without reservation. “And boy, did they try.”
Burton waited for Jason to prompt him, but he didn’t. His face was pallid and curdled with fear. He handed the kid the pipe. Jason nearly killed it with one giant, trembling hit.
“No. Just finish the story.”
“All right,” Burton sighed. “So I get home, hit on Roxanne, and unpack. It made me feel better to move around in my own house, knowing those two tweaking pixies were fifty miles away where I left them, holed up in a tin shithouse and probably still shooting black tar anywhere it would take. The Lynch girl had track marks all over her neck like vampire bites. Once you’re desperate enough to shoot heroin in your fucking neck, you’ll be desperate enough to do damn near anything, and then all it takes is a little power and reassurance. Together they had the power, and me? I was the reassurance. A test run to see if they could pull it off and earn their sea legs. I suppose the world could do with one less windbag like me, but hell if I ever thought I would have to defend my humble right to become gelatinous and old.
“I tried to grade a few papers just to put my mind somewhere else. It was around one or two when I went to bed, and I slept like a dead battery. I woke up at nine the next morning. The first thing I did was laugh at myself for being such a puss because everything was fine. I put on my robe and started a pot of coffee. I planned to spend the whole morning grading the rest of the papers so that my students would have one less thing to pester me about.
“So I sit down on the couch and pick the first one up. I don’t even know how to describe it other than this, but the letters on the page were scrambled like alphabet soup. It was completely unreadable except for a little line swimming around in the middle that said, ‘FUCK YOU PROFESSOR BURTON.’ Okay, some square-jawed, simian fratboy hates my guts, what else is new? I balled it up and threw it behind me. Then I picked up the next essay. More alphabet soup. Another ‘FUCK YOU PROFESSOR BURTON’, this time, glaring in red. I mowed my hands through the whole stack. All of them were crazed alphabet soup, and all of them were directed at me like photocopied blackmail. I thought someone had broken in while I was asleep. I turned my head to look at the front door, and the carpet there was wet, as though a bucket had been dumped in from the other side. I could smell the swampy wood-rot of my childhood, of bronzy summer days swimming in the backyard pond with my older brother, Mitchell. I never swam in there again after getting stung in the face by a catfish, and ever since then, I have been deathly afraid of fish, go fucking figure. A trigger snapped open in my brain like a rusty old headlamp, and then the burnt-out geezer version of me was just as afraid as the gawky eight-year-old version had been on that day.
“I swept the papers off my lap. I didn’t care where they landed. I stood up and waded my way to the front door. The atmosphere suddenly felt very thick and cloyed, like living inside a sinus infection. Sounds became faraway, amniotic. My breathing was just a fuzzy whisper at the very edge of my temporal lobe. The door was locked, but the handle was wet. The brass in my hand was like the cold nose of some animatronic dog, but the water sopping up my socks was surprisingly, revoltingly warm. The door was difficult to pull open. It was like trying to fight the direction of a full sail. When I got it open, the hallway and the stairs were gone. All that I saw was black—uninhibited, unadulterated black. And at that moment, I endlessly swear that I was gazing down into Nietzsche’s abyss. That was when I knew—”
Burton stopped short and pivoted fast to check the door. Jason heard the tendons in his neck creak like attic steps. Burton stayed like that for a while, suspended in thought, and Jason hoped, nearly prayed that he would burst out in obnoxious laughter and proclaim his mastery of artful bullshitting.
“Sorry,” Burton said quietly, the exact antithesis of what Jason wanted to hear. His eyes were dilated saucers. “Sometimes I have to check, just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“Just in case they ever come back—just in case I’m still asleep. That was when I knew. I was trapped in my own head, buried alive in my own skin. All because of Falmouth and Lynch.”
A lapse of silence spread out between them like a spool of obscure thread. Finally, Jason:
“Tell me the rest.”
The fact that he had not recorded Burton’s story on his camera did not so much as scrape the surface of his mind. Burton sighed and swept back a wisp of white hair. Jason was beginning to understand why Burton had so many white streaks like that, why he spent the bulk of his days anesthetized from his own lonesome reality. Jason was hearing the darkest secret of an established, worldly man who had become unraveled and paranoid. It humbled him like a car crash, left him supine and gasping for explanations. He understood why Burton had kept him around so long.
He was still afraid.
“So I turn around,” Burton started. He swallowed a jagged lump in his throat. “I turn around and I see Falmouth standing behind me. She was dripping wet with putrid bog water. Her hair was a dark smear of moldy wax, and her eyes were milky with blindness, blinking at me like albino scarabs. Her nose looked like an electrical socket, and the two membranous slits steadily flared and narrowed as she breathed the syrupy air. Her skin was post-mortem blue and enmeshed in a chainmail of translucent scales. Fish scales, Jason. I think she was embodying one of my childhood fears like she had an all-access ticket to all the undesirable memories I’d ever stuffed into the cellar of my mind. She had it tapped like an oil basin.”
“How did you know it was her?”
“She was still wearing my yellow striped gym socks. They clung to her scaly legs like a chokehold of cruel humor. How did I ever think those were going to keep her bare feet warm in the middle of January? Then she stepped forward, the socks squishing beneath her like wet meat. On one side of me was the nightmare curtain of black, and on the other was Falmouth. She advanced on me, my feet no better at countering her movement than cement galoshes. I desperately willed myself to wake up, but it proved no easier than clawing to the surface of a ten-mile grave.
“In the hallway mirror, I saw something long and serpentine and floating, like a silk ribbon underwater. The bendy, skin-colored thing I saw was a rope of a thousand forearms severed at the elbow, each one a sub-organism clinging to the next amputated arm like a finely braided cable of flesh. The fingernails of each hand were coated in metallic blue nail polish, the same gaudy lacquer that had coated the digits of Cora Lynch as she held out a dollar menu cheeseburger for her lover to take a bite. Now, her hands were a spidery leash with which she lowered her lover into my psyche, lowered her down to sic me in my sleep. I could see where one end of the leash ended; a ring of conjoined hands wrapped around Falmouth’s neck like a collar. Somewhere on the other side of the sick limbo was Lynch, ready to reel in her attack dog if anything went horribly wrong.
“It surprised me to realize my coffee mug was still upright in my hand. I slung its contents at Falmouth in a liquid whiplash just as she lunged for me, her hands clawing for my neck like talons. We tumbled in a violent embrace; she cried out in blistered agony as the coffee burned her eyes. Her palms were like cheese graters, shredding my neck as we struggled on the floor, my head dangling over the lip of the threshold and into a chasm of immeasurable darkness, a darkness in which you would learn to be content with falling forever. I scrabbled for her own rubbery neck, but the hands that comprised her collar snapped at my knuckles like a bear trap. I could see myself from below as if I’d already fallen. I could see my head bobbing like a buoy as she squeezed the air out of it, could see the yellow splash of light from the living room shrink to a pinprick as the pipeline sucked me down through warm, velvety black intestines, digesting me like a sticky morsel of plasma. My consciousness was being vacuumed right out of my sleeping body, and wherever in the cosmic bowels I was bound to end up, I was not yet prepared to discover.
“I saw her face in panicked flashbulbs, knowing the mental screenshots would follow me all the way down into the dark like kaleidoscopic debris. Her bifurcated tongue was mottled with a reeking mixture of algae and green chyme. The sinewy muscle thrashed in her mouth like a rodeo bull and slathered me with rotten pesto. Her insectile eyes glared down with inflamed lunacy as the last bit of air floundered in my chest like a butterfly in a tar pit. The collar of hands around her neck writhed and bore into her skin, choking her as she choked me, both of us snared in slimy a Chinese finger trap of desperation. A distantly serene fragment of my mind wondered what I had possibly done to deserve such an absurd execution, and when no clear answer presented itself to seal my fate in a little black box, I realized I had better start kicking her ass.
“My pinwheeling hand scuttled over the coffee mug like a blind hermit crab. I smashed it across her face with a ceramic crunch. The fierce impetus sent her back in an unctuous squirm of her amphibious arms and legs. I scrambled upward and grabbed a jagged shard of glass, knifing it into the receding leash with a manic burst of rage. The thing hissed, it fucking hissed, and then it dragged Falmouth into the dark hallway like caught prey, leaving a snail trail of slime and blood. The whole house tipped and rocked with a moaning, shipwrecked sound, as though its foundation were balanced on a pinpoint. The floor tilted vertical and I fell right out of bed like an anvil, splitting my forehead on the corner of the end table. It was still dark, Falmouth and Lynch were gone, and so was all the evidence—though I suppose you could argue they were never really there.
“That afternoon I drove back to the motel. I asked the desk attendant if I could see the ledger from the previous night, and he handed it over with preoccupied indifference. Two girls named Cora Lynch and Emily Falmouth checked out at nine that morning, the same hour of my attempted murder.”
“It’s impossible then,” Jason uttered thinly. “It had to be a dream—you woke yourself up at the end.”
“Foolish is he who thinks our dreams cannot actually hurt us,” Burton remarked icily. “Like I said earlier, I was just an unlucky chump—a practice vessel for the real plan. And even though I scared them away from me, the thought of not having a steady stash of heroin scared them more. Go ahead and start sniffing around the grapevine, Jason. Ask some of your documentary subjects how the heroin game around here started to dry up. They won’t know how it really happened; all they’ll be able to tell you is that the street pushers started dropping off as fast as they were being replaced, which is plausible until you consider that there was no physical evidence to suggest foul play. All of the victims had seizures in their sleep and suffocated on their own tongues. People just figured the dope was bad…really bad.
“So then the police caught Falmouth driving to the airport with enough heroin in the trunk for a mass suicide. You probably already knew that, but the reason why she did it is simpler than you think. Even junkie girls don’t give up on their love fantasies, they just twist the shape to fit their new junkie mindset. Poor Emily Falmouth really thought she was going to fly off into the sunset with Cora Lynch and a lifetime supply of H. My guess is that Lynch got spooked and left without her, but who knows what they’re planning now. A pair like that doesn’t split up very easily, especially when being jointly addicted isn’t even the most dangerous thing about them. Either way, my door stays locked, as if it would ever stop them from coming back. It’s a placebo thing.”
“How could they be planning anything? They’re separated.”
We hardly talk anymore.
Burton snorted. “They don’t need a phone line.”
We hardly talk…
“But it’s just not—”
Burton frowned. The kid was scared shitless because he knew Falmouth and Lynch could do the same thing to him, with or without motive. Even worse—they had become seasoned pros by now.
“Listen,” Burton said. “I never told you or anyone else, because why would I? You all would have called me a crackpot. Maybe I shouldn’t have said so much, but I couldn’t just sit back after hearing you’d been to see that crazy tweaker, and then come out one morning and find your body tied up in a fucking pretzel knot, knowing I could have at least warned you. I’m not saying they’ll come after you. Hell, maybe Falmouth thought you were great company.”
Burton’s attempt at relief hung in the air like a bad joke. Jason sat as though he were stuffed full of cotton, staring at the blank TV screen. The movie credits were long over.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Burton said solemnly, changing the angle of his voice. “But it’s the truth, man.”
“I think I might know.”
Jason suddenly reached for the stack of essays, flipped one over to a blank page. He took Burton’s red pen, struggled to scribble a symbol on the damp paper. He shoved the page under Burton’s nose.
“What does that look like to you?” he asked pointedly.
“A noose…or maybe a leash.” Burton suggested warily.
“It’s the zodiac symbol for Leo. I did a quick search for Cora Lynch on my phone before I left the bar, just to see if Falmouth was lying about her. She was born at the end of July. A Leo.”
“And this one,” Jason said, showing Burton another drawing. “Pisces.”
Realization dawned on both men like pale death.
Three months later, screenwriter Kurt Fowley received an unmarked package in the mail. The submission period for the film contest had lapsed two weeks prior, but there was always one or two jackasses who thought they were somehow superior to deadlines. He sat on the deck with his laptop and a dry martini, the cyan surface of his swimming pool reflected in his polarized sunglasses. Normally, he would have thrown the package away without even opening it, but there was something peculiar about the wrinkled manila envelope sitting on the table with his name scrawled on in bright red Sharpie. No return address. No inkling as to who sent it, or from where. It was the type of thing that happened in movies when an anonymous somebody had a big secret to tell, and this person, for whatever reason, had chosen to tell their secret to Kurt Fowley.
Fowley could not resist. He opened the envelope and inside found nothing but a thumb drive encased in a small sleeve of bubble wrap. No contact information. No contest application. No cover letter. Just a thumb drive, a plastic hieroglyph waiting to be decoded. Fowley debated briefly with himself, then plugged it into his laptop. There was only one video saved on it, and it was less than five minutes long. Fowley swirled his olive with the tip of his pinkie and sipped. He was already less than enthusiastic to watch the video. At best, he expected a well-orchestrated prank. He lit a cigar and pressed play.
The view was completely dark. Someone nearby was crying softly, hitching on each breath like a bereaved child. Fowley lifted his shades to see if he could make out any detail on the dark screen. There was dry rustling as the camera shifted position like a shaky pendulum. The camera light flicked on, and then Kurt Fowley was staring into the ashen face of Jason Reed as it hovered into focus like a ghoulish moon. His hair was a wiry nest of blond that contrasted with the dark like an electric shock. His eyes bulged out of his face like bloodshot corks, his pupils vacillating tunnels through which he tried to absorb the light into his maddened soul.
Jason slid his camera onto the dashboard and sat back in the passenger seat of his car. He wore a tie and a collared shirt, his face set like a gravestone and twice as gray. His left nostril was crusted in blood from an old nosebleed. He had been snorting copious amounts of cocaine to keep himself awake. The orange halo of a street lamp could be seen burning some distance from the back window of the car, blending jaundiced yellow splinters of light in with the dark. Fowley saw the feathers of a dream catcher dangling from the rearview mirror. The kid was alone in the car. He cleared his throat. His voice was as tense as a tightrope.
“My name is Jason Lewis Reed. I was born August ninth, 1993, under the zodiac sign of Leo. I speak to anyone who may be watching this as a man humbled by fear, a man soon to be dead. A few months ago, I decided to enter the Kurt Fowley film contest. I was making a documentary about drug addiction, which led me to Interrogation Room #2 of Caldwell Prison, where I interviewed a young heroin addict named Emily Falmouth. I could spend a lot more time explaining how I ended up like this, but my camera doesn’t have much battery life left, and it’s doubtful that anyone would believe what I would say. That’s why I want to show you instead. I haven’t—”
Jason’s eyes suddenly darted to the window.
“What was that?” he whispered. His eyes frantically searched for something out of frame.
“Never mind,” he sighed. “I haven’t slept for five days, and I can’t fucking take it anymore. If I don’t face this now, I’m going to end up slashing my own throat because soon I won’t be able to recognize my own reflection. So I have an Ambien.”
Jason showed the white pill, then threw his head back and swallowed it dry.
“I’m going to keep recording for as long as I can. I only ask that you watch this all the way through so that hopefully you will see the exact moment that Emily Falmouth kills me in my sleep. As for how she did it, you can go ask her your fucking self. She still resides in a minimum security cell in Caldwell Prison. They don’t think she’s dangerous. Neither did I.”
Jason howled laughter like a wounded wolf, his face a red contortion of psychosis. His composure fought a battle with a staggered sob and barely won.
Jason closed his eyes and slumped back against the window. Ten seconds passed of him shifting anxiously, trying to relax, then video cut to black. There were still two minutes left on the playback timer. Someone had tampered with the raw footage, but of course they did, thought Fowley, because it was a hoax. He dragged lazily on his cigar, then almost choked on it. He clutched the edges of the laptop screen in disbelief, bringing it closer.
The kid was having a seizure. His arms and legs jerked helter-skelter as though he were a life-sized marionette, his eyelids fluttering as the pupils rolled all the way back like fishes going belly up. His mouth tried to form words but only succeeded in making a foamy O while his tongue arched back in an impossible fold, retreating into the dark hollow of his esophagus like a veiny worm. He clutched at his own neck, a hysterical pantomime of strangulation, his entire body twisting itself into the shape of every letter in the English alphabet. He made a sound like a trumpet clogged with gravel and hit his head on the car ceiling, displacing the camera, his body collapsing between the two front seats in a tangled heap. All Fowley could see were the splayed fingers of one hand as the nerves became mannequin stiff. Nothing else moved. It was very, very quiet.
The replay button flashed onscreen. The video was over.
Fowley did some research on the web, and to his utter amazement, discovered that Jason Lewis Reed really was dead. Who, then, had sent him the video? The question kept him up all night. He only knew one person whom he could ask for an answer. Kurt Fowley scheduled a visit to Caldwell Prison. He was on the brink of a cinematic masterpiece.
Emily Falmouth saved him a cigarette.
Jessica Bowers is a college student from southeast Georgia. She is studying biology and chemistry with the hope of becoming a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She writes to blur the lines between the scientific and the paranormal.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.