Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ball and Chain


BALL AND CHAIN

By Shannon S Michaels

Jolene bolted straight up in the pitch dark and opened her eyes and ears as wide as they’d go. A distant motor hummed through the humid night. A cricket chirped. Her pulse throbbed at the side of her throat.

Somebody had sneezed.

She was sure of it.

A slim wedge of sodium light bled in just below the hem of the gingham curtains. The faux woodgrain surface of the dresser held its silence below. Jolene turned her head. The doorframe hung like luminescent angular lips around a sinister black mouth.

Someone was in the house.

“Did you hear that?” she whispered to the lump lying next to her. Empty seconds spooled out through the oppressive black heat. “Earl?” She nudged him with the point of her elbow. “You awake?”

The lump threw the sheet off of its upper half and sat up.

“Good lord,” he huffed. “Are we having another one of those nights?” Earl leaned closer to his milk crate nightstand and fumbled for the clock. Glow-in-the-dark hands gestured to 2:36 in the a.m. “Girl, I have to get up in two and a half hours.” He dropped onto his flattened pillows and yanked the sheet over his head. “Go to sleep, Jolene. This is getting ridiculous.”

***

She had grown up in the tiny three bedroom ranch on Young Street. She was so excited the day she found it up for sale on Realtor.com. She and Earl had worked anywhere between three to six jobs between the two of them, for the past four years, just to scrape up a down payment for a place of their very own. It was tough, especially with all the medical bills, but they had finally made it.

“You sure this is the one?” Earl had asked her, as they stood holding hands in the outdated galley kitchen. Stark sunlight streamed through a dirty window above the familiar chipped white enamel sink. Dust bunnies gathered at the curled edges of the yellowed linoleum. A small unexplained translucent puddle spread out on the faded Formica counter, unnoticed and nowhere near the sink.

“Earl,” Jolene turned to him and threw her doughy arms around his skinny neck, her deep-set piggy eyes glittering in the gloom. “This is my house. Don’t you remember all the times you came over for dinner and such? Mama and Daddy should never have sold the place when they retired up to Hilton Head. Please, Porkie-Pie? This is where I belong.” A far-away look narrowed her eyes. Her entire face scrunched up as though she were straining to hear something. “It’s just… right.”

The house had changed hands four times in the six years since Jolene’s parents had moved. They had “down-sized” after Jolene married Earl, three months after the kids’ high school graduation. Now, the elder couple lived in a nice condo, thirty miles away. Jolene’s Mama and Daddy had never had any problems with the property, but something must have been wrong with it for those other families to evacuate.

But, Jolene wasn’t interested in hearing any tales about her childhood sanctuary. She wanted to “go home,” she’d said, and there wasn’t anything Earl wouldn’t do for her. She deserved it, especially since she’d been in such pain for the past year or so. Maybe a fresh start would put a stop to those damned headaches that kept her so miserable. The next day, when Earl spoke to Sterling Cobb, their realtor – “best in the Coastal Empire,” on the phone, he mouthed four little words to his “Butter-Biscuit” – we got the house. She clasped her hands beneath her double chin and squealed like a tot on Christmas.

***

But, now, hearing that sneeze again, in the dead of night, she wasn’t so in love with the place.

“Earl?” she breathed into the shadows. No response except for a light whistling snore. He was asleep. Eyes and ears still straining against the blackness, Jolene hauled her legs over the side of the bed and touched her bare feet to the mashed shag carpet. She sat there for a few seconds, listening to the silence. A bat or something chirped outside, scaring the wits out of her, but she recovered and got to her feet.

She lumbered out the bedroom door, through the short hall, to the family/living/dining room. Through the shadows she could make out the outlines of the furniture. The pinkish glow from the street lamp outside seeped through the picture window and onto the brick hearth where she’d hit her head when she was five. Billy, her baby brother, had been chasing her during a rousing game of tag, and she had tripped over the dog and cracked her forehead a good one. She still bore the shallow divot above her right eyebrow.

She fumbled along the wall next to the front door and snapped on the overhead light. It was surprisingly chilly in the room. July in Savannah is a lot of things, but cold isn’t one of them. Jolene rubbed her arms and cast her eyes around the space. She was certain that the sneeze had come from out here. But, no one was there and nothing seemed out of place. Four ladder-back wooden chairs stood around the tiny circle of a dining table. Did we leave one pulled out like that, she wondered. Earl must have done it. Jolene had a thing about always pushing the chairs in before she went to bed.

She crept around, inspecting the faded green garage sale couch, the dark veneer ‘70s end tables she’d inherited from her parents, the bright white mantle above the brick fireplace that seemed to glow in the dark…

There, right there, her mind screamed. She walked to the hearth and inspected the mantle. Where was her picture, the one of her from her one and only dance recital? That was her favorite. She was six or seven in that photo, and she wore the prettiest pink leotard and lace tutu. She looked just like a real-live princess. She stood on the elevated brick hearth and leaned close to where the picture had stood in its silver frame. It should be right there. It had been there from the day after the recital right up until her parents moved, and it was the first thing she’d unpacked and placed with such care when she and Earl moved in.

It was gone.

And, she noticed the strangest thing: the place it had been was wet. Little water droplets glittered like shattered glass against the ghostly white mantel.

Jolene swallowed hard and looked straight ahead. She had the unmistakable feeling that someone was standing behind her. She expected to wheel around and bump nose-first into Earl’s bony chest. But, no one was there. She was alone.

She checked the lock on the front door and crossed into the kitchen. The refrigerator kicked on and made her jump. Everything looked normal. Finding the room empty, she checked the lock on the back door and returned to the living room where she snapped off the light.

Plodding down the short hall to the back bedroom, she bumped her elbow on a corner and blurted out a quiet “dang it.” She peered into the doorway of the spare room. Shadows lay heaped in mounds encircling the twin bed that had been hers when she was a child. She flipped on the light and gazed upon the unpacked mess that lived in the room. Exploded duffel bags with clothes spilling out, unopened moving boxes labeled “papers” and “books/magazines,” rolls of slightly torn and wrinkled wrapping paper, a dusty sewing machine, Earl’s computer still in boxes. She made a mental note to organize that pigsty. Finding nothing unusual, she thumped back to her room, climbed back into bed and nestled against the snoring lump of Earl. She thought about waking him and telling him about the missing picture, but he’d just get mad.

She had a headache.

***

The following morning, they’d gotten up and rushed off to work, as usual -- Jolene to the donut shop where she waited tables, ate more than her fill of chocolate cream-filled powder sugared ‘nuts, and caught everyone up on the latest gossip; and Earl to the marina where he drank beer, sang country tunes (badly), and sometimes fixed boats. Jolene would have the afternoon off. She’d clean up the house and maybe take a bath, and then it was her night to work the Silver Screen video store, all on her lonesome. Maybe she’d bring home a movie that she and Earl could watch together while they snuggled and ate leftover pizza from his shift at the Pizza Castle.

Having said her good-byes to the regulars at the Donut Hole, Jolene headed home with thoughts of a romantic evening with her Porkie-Pie. She pulled into the driveway, struggled out of the car, and mounted the sagging shallow step to the front porch. She was just fitting her key into the lock when she saw him. The stranger.

Well, not a stranger, exactly. She knew she’d seen him somewhere before. The Hole, maybe? Silver Screen? Maybe he lived in the neighborhood or gone to high school with her. She didn’t know, but she’d seen him before. Not wanting to be rude, she raised her hand and called out a cheerful “hi.”

He just stood there on the sidewalk, expressionless but definitely watching her.

A chill rushed up her spine, rippling her ample flesh. Creepy, she thought as she pushed the door open and squeezed inside. She tried to think of where she’d seen the rail thin bug-eyed guy with the goatee and dirty hair, but nothing came to her. She locked the door behind her and turned her attention back to Earl. She had yet another splitting headache and was looking forward to a nice long hot bath.

Just as she switched off her hair dryer and the last gurgle of water slipped down the tub drain, she heard it again.

A sneeze.

From somewhere inside the house.

She was absolutely sure of it.

It was getting close to time for her shift at the video store – what should she do? Call Earl? He’d come home and look around, find nothing, and then give her the look again. She didn’t want that. That would rule out that romantic evening of pizza and a movie she’d been looking forward to. And, besides, she’d be late for work if she called Earl. And she was never late for work.

Standing in front of the pink bathroom sink, she shook two aspirin into the palm of her hand. She hesitated, shook out one more, and swallowed them with a slurp straight from the bathroom faucet.

***

Things were quiet at the video store. She’d heard on the radio that there had been a shooting at a convenience store down the street, so she was a little on edge. But, it was turning out to be an easy night for her.

Until he showed up.

Jolene was rearranging the DVD boxes in the “new releases” section, making room for the new new releases that would come tomorrow, when the doorbell sounded. It went “ding-dong,” just like the doorbell she had at home. She liked that sound. It always meant company, and she loved company. She turned around, smiling, and started to say “welcome to Silver Screen,” but all that came out was “well.” Her smile fell.

It was him.

The bug-eyed stranger from the sidewalk – and Lord knows wherever else – stood just inside the door. He scanned the small shop with unseeing eyes, barely noticing the shelves, until he found her. It hit her like a cast iron frying pan. She’d seen him in some of the movies she brought home from the store. A real-live celebrity, right here in the store! He was that character actor in that violent heist-gone-wrong movie she liked, you know, the one with the funny voice.

But, wait. That didn’t make any sense. Why had he been on the sidewalk in front of her house? And at the Donut Hole, or wherever else she’d seen him? She stifled a little laugh, thinking she had a celebrity stalker. It’s not him, you stupid head, she told herself. Maybe those headaches were something more than just plain old head achin’ headaches after all. The doctors never could tell.

Jolene rolled her eyes around the store, looking for something she might use as a weapon just in case he tried anything funny. There was a tire iron behind the counter, but that was closer to him than it was to her. Her hand closed around a Star Wars box set at the end of the aisle. Sure, she could brain him with that. The Force would be with her.

The stranger looked down at his feet, walked in a tight circle, and sat down. Right on the floor, in front of the counter.

Jolene’s head throbbed as she struggled to grasp just what this stranger was playing at. She didn’t know if she should talk to him or what. She thought about running for the door, but he was right in the way. Maybe she could throw the box set. Was The Force strong enough to at least stun him so she could run past? She wished she had a cell phone. She’d call Earl. Pizza Castle was only about ten blocks away.

She didn’t have to fret for long.

The stranger suddenly took a big sharp breath.

And sneezed.

Jolene couldn’t believe her little black eyes.

He’d vaporized himself, right in front of her.

Did you see that, her indignant mind squawked. How rude.

Shimmering liquid droplets sprayed in a dense cloud, raining down on the laminated DVD cases on their display shelves.

Jolene sat down hard.

Her head hurt worse than ever. Her nose and ear leaked red.

***

Things were quiet at home for about a week. She never spoke of the liquefying stranger to Earl or anyone else. She felt a cold spot here and there in the house, but she just ignored it and went about her business as best she could.

One day, she came home from shopping and found a big wet spot on the carpet next to the sofa. If they’d had a dog, she would have assumed Rover couldn’t make it through the doggy door in time. But, she hadn’t had a dog since she was a kid. Whatever happened to that dog, she wondered. She looked up at the ceiling, thinking that maybe there was a leaky pipe or something, but the white popcorn plane was bone-dry. She soaked up what she could with an old towel and put the whole thing out of her mind.

She’d heard footsteps from the attic above a number of times. Then, she’d hear the sneeze and the footsteps would stop. Earl said the footsteps were just the house settling. Wasn’t it old enough to stop settling by now, or was that a never-ending process? She had grown a little scared of the noises, the wet spots, the picture going missing. She thought long and hard about telling Earl that she wanted to sell the house, but the market was terrible and they’d never get enough money out of it to get a new place. As things stood, every dime they made went to paying the mortgage and utility bills. They couldn’t afford to move again. And she had wanted this house so badly. Earl would tell her she was over-reacting. So, she kept her mouth shut and popped aspirin like candy for her worsening headaches.

Jolene had been to the doctor six times about the headaches. The doctor had offered to set up some kind of tests for her, down at Memorial Hospital, but Jolene didn’t want to go stick her head in some giant microwave or anything. You never know what those beeping machines could do to you, give you a brain tumor or make you hear voices that aren’t really there.

Beyond that, the doctor said that Jolene suffered from migraines. He could give her some pills to help dull the pain, but they weren’t guaranteed to work. And they were dang expensive, especially if you didn’t have insurance. She got the prescription filled one time, down at the CVS. Earl couldn’t buy any beer for two weeks. The pills didn’t work that great, anyhow. So, she’d stuck with aspirin, ice packs, and suffering.

Then, one day, she had to call in sick to the Donut Hole. It was the first time ever.

And she saw him again.

She’d been lying on the sofa, sipping sweet tea with an ice pack on her forehead, watching the news at noon. Just as Swan Moreland started talking about the weather, said a big heat wave was on the way, Jolene got the worst chill of her life. She sat straight up, dropped her ice pack on her prodigious belly, and listened.

Footsteps.

In the attic.

Her arms broke out in goose flesh. Her jowls quivered. She tried to tell herself that it was nothing, the house settling, like Earl said. Or maybe it had come from inside her own throbbing head.

But then she heard it again. An unmistakable rhythmic squeaking-creaking from directly above her head.

Summoning all her strength, and more courage than she’d ever thought she’d had, she got to her feet and directed herself down the short hall to the folding attic steps. A round wooden knob swung from a cord, hanging down from the hatch in the ceiling. Before she could stop herself, Jolene grabbed the cable and yanked. The steps clattered down with a screech and a groan. She stared up into the black hole that loomed over her head, stray bits of yellow insulation drifting down like snowflakes. Not a single sound floated down.

Jolene put her foot on the first narrow step and transferred her weight. Her stomach flipped and her knees went rubbery as she climbed up. The little steps creaked beneath her and she was sure she’d fall and break a shoulder.

She poked her head into the black void and stood stock still, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Cold air swirled around her face, tousling her honey-colored curls. She had thought it would be hot up there, since it was summer, and there were no a/c vents. She’d have to ask Earl about that. Deciding that she’d never be able to see in the dark, she climbed a few more steps and stood, hunched over, inside the frosty attic. She groped in the dark for the cord that would light the naked bulb, which Earl had replaced the day they moved in.

Jolene tugged the string and the dim light snapped on. Shoulder-high towers of boxes formed a narrow aisle leading to the back of the crowded space. Jolene wasn’t sure she could squeeze through there. She had lost about fifty pounds since last summer, but she was still pretty far from super-model skinny.

There, at the end of the little corridor, her eyes fell on something that nearly made her pee her pants.

In the dull shadows, she could make out the solid shape of an arm and shoulder, as if someone were sitting on the floor behind the last stack of cardboard cartons.

Jolene swallowed hard, ignoring the violent pounding in her dented forehead. Something, some inexplicable force, pulled her toward the figure at the end of the aisle.

No, please, I don’t want to see, her mind screeched.

The arm retreated. She heard movement from beyond the boxes, a rustling whispering sound, like dry leaves blown across the driveway.

She inched toward the end of the aisle and, after a deep shuddering breath, she peeked, with one eye, around the corner.

She let out a piercing scream.

He was there.

The bug-eyed stranger from everywhere.

He jumped and looked directly at her, eyes wild, shoulders hunched, right there beneath the rafters. He immediately sat on the floor and looked up at her almost sheepishly.

With great horror, Jolene discovered where her missing ballerina picture had gone. In a niche between exposed studs, a crude shrine stood in homage to her childhood. There was not only the recital picture, but one of her with her baby brother, one of her whole family, and, in the center of the display, a beaming Jolene holding her best Christmas present ever -- her tiny beagle puppy, Buddy.

The cowering stranger spoke.

“Jolene,” he whined.

He knew her name.

Of course, he would, this bug-eyed stalker weirdo who had kept a shrine to her in her very own attic! She wanted to run, but he grabbed her wrist.

“Let go,” she whispered. His hand was cold. And wet.

“Wait,” he whined at her. “Don’t you know me?”

She looked at his wild eyes, his big teeth, his dirty hair.

He smiled then, and chuckled. He made a strange growl-whine sound. “Of course you don’t.” He grinned at her. “I’ve been following you, waiting here for you, for so long. But you don’t know me now.” He looked down at his hand, still on her wrist.

She was dumbstruck. Her mouth opened to scream, but her voice had dried up. Part of her wanted to hear how this ugly stranger knew her. Part of her wanted to scream and trip down the stairs and out the front door.

“This is so hard to finally say. Look at you, all grown up.” He smiled at her. “I’ve been waiting here for so long, practicing for this. Don’t be afraid.” He pulled her wrist, pulling her down to sit beside him. She sat, grimacing and shivering.

“Do you remember this picture?” He pointed to the shot of her at the recital. “You were so proud that day. We were all proud. Even me, even though I wasn’t allowed to go and watch.” Sadness tempered his smile.

He pointed to the picture of her with her Mama and Daddy. “Such good people,” he said. “I loved all of you so much. I hope you all knew that.”

Who in the heck was this guy? Was he a long-lost relative she hadn’t seen for decades? An old family friend? A forgotten neighbor? Some murderous kook? Jolene’s head felt like it was splitting in half. A drop of blood fell on her hand. The stranger saw. He looked around the crowded shrine area. Not finding what he sought, he held his sleeve up to her nose and gently blotted her leaking nostril.

“Billy,” he said, pointing to her baby brother. “He was there, you know. Mama made him promise he’d never ever tell you.” He shook his head and sighed.

Her mind whirled. Her sweet tea rose to the back of her throat, propelled by the clenching of her stomach.

He scratched his ear and whined a little.

“You were at school that day. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, perfect in the shade of that big live oak in the front yard.” He clumsily swiped a tear from one bulging eye. “Mama staked me out so I could roll in the grass. And Billy – he was just four, not big enough for school yet, he wanted to play.”

Jolene’s head throbbed in time with her racing heart. The stranger sighed again and turned his face away from her.

“He crawled under the house to get my old tennis ball and brought it over to me.” Bug-eyes sniffed the mildewed air. “He threw it a couple of times, and I strained my chain to get it. I brought it back to that sweet little boy a hundred times that day. He always made good company when you were at school, you know,” he said, choking up.

“One time, though, that last time, he threw it just a little too far. And, you know where the yard slopes down just a bit? The ball rolled into the street. Billy knew my chain didn’t quite reach that far and he started to run for it himself. But, Jolene,” he turned to look at her most earnestly, a tear streaking down his stubbly cheek, “a car was coming.”

She gasped. A memory, stuffed long and deep down into the darkest recesses of her heart, flashed to the front of her splintering mind. Pain like none she’d ever known bored through her forehead. Tears welled up in her eyes.

This was no stranger.

“I pulled as hard as I could on that chain. Billy.” He shook his head and huffed. “The stake pulled right out of the pine straw where Mama had sunk it with her bare hands. Good thing she wasn’t stronger.” He let out a little sound that sounded like a soft “oof.” “He needed me, little Billy, and it was my duty. I ran into the street, right in front of that car.”

He picked up the picture of Jolene and the puppy and put it in her trembling hands. Her vision was failing.

“I held on just long enough to see your gentle Mama scoop up the boy and hide his eyes as they ran to my side.”

Jolene sobbed.

Could it be true? How else would he know…?

He looked different, of course.

“They told me you ran away,” she cried, putting a hand on top of his head, reaching to hug him.

The man looked at her with his big bulging eyes. He still looked like that scrawny character actor from the movies, but she could see something else now. A familiar expression.

Her long lost Buddy.

“You come back, you know,” he told her, taking her hand from his head. “After the pain and the light and the crying and the wonder.” He smiled at her.

“Just, I get to be the person this time, is all.”

He held a pink nylon collar and matching lead in his hands and smiled at her with loving kindness.

Jolene’s head and heart gave a final throb.

“I’ve come to take you home, girl.”

***

The first thing Earl saw when he stepped through the front door was the puddle on the floor beneath the attic door.

“Jolene?”

“Butter-Biscuit?”

____________________________________

Shannon writes: "

I am a working writer living in Savannah. I have had a couple of horror stories published earlier this year (one in Static Movement, the other in Sonar4), and my first novel is making the agency rounds as we speak. Novels number 2 and 3 are in progress. B.S. from Drexel University, M.A. from Emerson College, lived in Moscow, Russia for a few years, then moved to L.A., where I worked for Dick Clark, Ridley Scott, and CBS."

_______________________

Shannon is not a Southerner by birth, but spent two years of college at Tulane, and moved to Savannah with her husband for work. She continues her education in the NASCAR experience in her spare time.

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