by CHRIS CASTLE
obby sat and looked at the empty chair. The garden was her favourite place in the world. The old plastic chair looked tired and rickety now; something a young family might buy at a garage sale for a joke. The man would hold it up, one handed, to the girl and she would raise her eyebrow, ironic and full of wit, and the two would offer a buck for it. Bobby created the image in his mind and swore he would kill those two people if he ever saw it happen in real life.
The sky was blue and a single cloud trailed across the heart of it. The vapours didn’t ruin the picture but improved it. Bobby had told her the same when she came back with a scar, a trail of grey strands in her hair. Of course, she had dismissed him, told him shush and waved her hand at him, as if to bat away his words, but he meant it. Bobby had always thought that age gave beauty to things and he thought the same of people. His favourite car had been a battered, tired old thing. When he had first received it, years ago, it had been too perfect and too bright and reminded Bobby of all the things that he was not. Over time, however, as it crashed into table legs, as it lost its coats of paint and varnish, Bobby had grown to love it, for all its faults. For a moment, he wondered where the car was now and then remembered it was in his basement, amongst his prized possessions. It was the same for people; youngsters were too shiny, too brash; a breathing version of his new car. Even after he had taken them home, paid for or otherwise and he had tried to take their shine off, they still seemed the same to him. No matter what he stripped back, they still retained that varnish he disliked so.
Older people were his pride and joy. On weekends, when he worked with them, he would listen to their stories and watch their tired eyes dance with memories and would feel his heart soar. Again, they would try to deflect his compliments but Bobby’s sincerity won through; after a while, they could not stop talking. Each time he spoke to a new person, it felt as if he were tapping into the richest novel, the finest play, just to hear their stories. By the time it was over and he was standing by their doors, it was all Bobby could do not to weep in thanks. He would reach their gates - gates he would resolve to fix and did, every time - and turn back and wave goodbye and receive more thanks in return.
The phone rang, bringing him back from his reverie: The Office. He answered the call, accepted condolences, answered questions as to when the funeral had been arranged and waited for the vultures to get round to asking what they really wanted. Bobby told them he would be back in the office in two days time, after everything was taken care of - the minions almost gasped in gratitude and relief. As a way of thanks, they asked for his grandmother’s address to send flowers and Bobby told them to instead put their money to a charity and cut off the call. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and listened to the echoes of his voice rattle around in his head: Bobby the Boss, power-broker and king of the hill. Sometimes, he talked into the Dictaphone of the mobile and played the sounds back to perfect his role of The Worker. Bobby knew it was vital to play the roles that would provide him cover as well as could be. At night, when he dreamt, his roles would sometimes become muddled and he would find himself drenched and dripping in the office. He would not try to escape and instead, would look round and stare every one of his employees in the eye. No shame enveloped him, no guilt pumped through his veins. And still, after a while, and knowing, the younger people would approach him and want to get close to him, even when his true self had been revealed…
Bobby snapped the phone away when he heard the voices. From over the hedge, two doors down, a young couple were talking in loud voices. At first, Bobby assumed they were talking to a young child, until he realised it was a puppy. This was the couple she had mentioned just before the end. Not complaining, for she never complained, but…alluded to; how they kept late hours, how they fought after drink; once, she had mentioned loud noises and Bobby had blushed at what she was suggesting. He had risen from his chair, ready to speak to them, when her finger touched his knee and immediately brought him back down. That was the power she had, to take all his fury, draw it from his skin, with just a single touch. He sat, in awe as always that she could calm him so, but also gathering - information, details - storing it all away, to recall when the time was right.
The garden lurched for a moment, as if bent by the heat. The coffee cup in his hand trembled and he saw a single bee hovering at the lip of the cup. Recognising the sign, he did not blink and soon enough, one became two, two into four until the cup was foaming and over-spilling with insects. None of them crawled onto his skin, not a single one made its way out of the cup; instead, they erupted like lava, encompassing the cup, changing it into something else. Carefully, he set the mug down and watched them mutate, calling him, signalling him, sculpting his next thought, his next idea. Bobby blinked, lifted his eyes to the sun and then expelled breath, feeling the sharp edges and blades of bees in his throat as he did.
He wiped his lips and coughed, though nothing choked him. The bees were gone from the cup; no scratches lingered in his mouth from his breathing. All evidence of the moment had been erased. For a moment he thought of all the other times, all the other signs - how they had formed in a perfect moment before him, through him, out of him and then, in the next second, were gone, as if removed by a force bigger, more powerful, than his own soul.
A wave of sadness rode through him. In his head, he had somehow wished that a sign would not have passed through the garden. It was as much his favourite place in the world as hers. In a way, it made a sort of sense. She was gone and so, therefore, was the spell of the place. Perhaps she was the one who had made it magic the whole time and had kept the darkness inside of Bobby held in check. Now she was gone, and there was nothing to check him, to bridle up and contain what was in him. The blades of long grass that had always calmed him began to sway, but sure enough, there was nothing natural to it. Instead, they bent and creased at the root. Bobby got out of his chair and crouched on his haunches; hoards of ants, flying ants that Bobby, as a child, had despised, crawled amongst them. Sure enough, the garden was changing.
A thought occurred to Bobby then; to raze the whole thing, burn it all to the ground. Take every last ant, destroy each hungry bee, erase and eradicate every last dark trace from what was once a good place, a place of light. He rose, but then felt himself sway and knew that it was not in him. As much as Bobby feared the place becoming corrupted, he knew he would not be able to burn the place she loved so. Slumping back in the chair, he witnessed the twisting of everything; the grasses, the flowers - now smothered with moths, their wings flapping and suffocating each petal in a stranglehold - even the paving stones themselves. The slabs that Bobby had dutifully laid down last summer were now jagged and claw-like, as if they were hungry fingers, reaching out to claim. The last thing that he had cherished and loved was now absolutely corrupted.
And he knew who to blame.
The young couple screeched, the young pup yelped and in his mind’s eye, Bobby saw them, cavorting and unchecked in their own, precious garden. He wondered how much discomfort and shame their actions had brought to her, right here in her garden, in her last days, when all she sought was peace and quiet. Bobby felt the old familiar flush ride over his cheeks, his skin, and waited for her touch to remove it, to still him. But she was gone and there was no touch to check him, to counter to cool fury entrenched in his bones. He rose and felt weightless without her touch. The heat went out of him and was replaced in an instant, by a cool, detached rage that would, could, only be expelled through action. Bobby drew out his arms and felt every sign, from the cup of bees, to the hungry, warring ants to the dreadful suffocating moths’ wings, draw into him. All of their hot, foamy poison channelled into him and he took it, distilling it, hardening it, taking it all in, until it ripened for one perfect, furious action.
Bobby opened his eyes.
The garden was at peace again. Even the old, tired plastic chair seemed to appear lighter, fresher. Nothing in the garden twitched, nothing trembled or clawed. All was as it should be. He turned and looked at the sky. The blue was fading into dusk and soon it would be black. He did not know how much time had elapsed but understood it would soon be late and then after, later. Time. Heavy with everything in him, Bobby returned to his own chair and positioned himself until he was comfortable with his new weight. In the empty garden, in the dark, he sat in the plastic chair and he waited. He listened to the puppy yelp and the couple cavort and the noise and the chaos and the despair it brought.
He knitted his fingers into a steeple and said a prayer, low and into the small funnel of his cupped palms. Foam came to his lips but he did not wipe it away. The prayer came out for a long, long while, insistent and steady in its power, almost drowning out the noise of the growing fornication nearby. Words became sounds, sounds into panting, panting into a ragged, jagged turnover of breath. Above, stars leached into the sky, dripping and hungry; the moon emerged, impatient. Bobby drew breath and paused, the prayer over. Now, it was full dark. He rose from the chair and felt himself floating above the ground, being drawn to the noise and filth.
The wait was over.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, and Button and Pa all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror.
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