Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
I make beer that comes with its own bull. Urban Legend, it’s called, and each can’s got a story printed on it. All you need to do to impress that lady is read the can while her back’s turned, then entertain her with amazing, terrifying tales. Of deadly South American spiders lurking under restroom toilet seats. Of children bitten by snakes living in carousel horses. Of slighted dead brides seeking revenge or spots where cars roll uphill. No matter how wasted you are, you’re glib as Saki.
Yup, it’s a winning idea. People drink the bars out of Urban Legend faster than I can brew it. Last year, I surpassed Sam Adams in output, for God’s sake. I own the second biggest brewery in the country, and I’m now rich.
And famous. Just ask last month’s Beer Times. Or Bottle Talk. Everyone wants to know “Why Urban Legend’s got ’em talking!” But don’t bother reading the articles; I know the story. Consider the couple who brought home a dog as a souvenir of their Mexican vacation (turned out it was actually a rat). Or the homemaker who bought a very expensive cactus (which suddenly exploded, infesting her million-dollar home with deadly tarantulas). Or the girl who swam with her mouth open (nine months later, she gave birth to a frog, a lizard, or an octopus. Depends which version you hear). This stuff sounds plausible. It plays on common fears. Add a little alcohol, you get a sensation. I figured out how to capitalize on that. That’s why Contemporary Brewery dubbed me “King of Bull.”
Which gives me a lot to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day. It’s bright and cold, and this makes it out of the question to eat at home. No, I like where I live. It’s an abandoned factory that’s been converted to lofts. Except for the unfinished top floor. Because I live underneath it, on windy days like today, there are all kinds of frigid drafts bouncing around my apartment. And all kinds of weird noises from up there. Like the skitter of leaves or maybe rodents looking to get out of the elements. Not to mention winds screaming through every crack. So I eat my Uncle Cluck’s Cock-n-Bull Special—chicken and roast beef in gravy—in my office at the brewery, where it’s warm and quiet.
That’s when she walks in. A wisp of a woman in a white gown with a poinsettia-red bow at the bodice. Attractive, save for her thin lips and slightly blue complexion. And the smell. Like slugs, boiled rice, and rubbing alcohol.
“You.” She points a squiggly, curled fingernail at me. “You’re the one that’s gotten me in this mess.”
I suddenly regret not being at home.
“Uh… I’m sorry. What mess?” I get the pit in my stomach. The one that signals unavoidable catastrophe. Like a lawsuit, maybe she cut herself on a can. Just give her what she wants…
“The mess that’s brought me back from my perfectly pleasant vacation.” She takes a cigarette from the pack on my desk and rams it in her mouth. “I’d like a light please.”
“In the bowl, there.” I nod.
She strikes a match and lights up. “People had almost forgotten about me. I was finally going to get some rest!” She blows out a long column of smoke. “But now that you’ve got every inebriated individual telling my story, I’m running all over the place again, and do you have any idea how outlandishly cold it is in a cemetery in the middle of October when you’re only wearing a nightie?”
I just blink at her.
“Okay. Fine. How about this. A typical night of my life. In Vermont, I hang from some bridge because my bastard lover jilted me. Then I travel to New York and rise up out of some dirty lake looking for my dead child. If I get done with that before witching hour, I get to Connecticut, where I streak across the road scaring motorists. If there even are any at that hour. And then, just before dawn, I’m in New Jersey, where I was either killed immediately after my wedding or following my first prom, and I’m still looking for either my new groom or my prom date. I think. Hell, I don’t even know who I am anymore! All I wanted was some time to find myself!” Then she cries.
I reach over and touch her arm. It’s like touching a cold keg. “I’d like to—”
“Get away from me!” She recoils. “Don’t touch me.”
“Look, ma’am, I really—”
She slams her hand down on the desk. The ax-shaped ashtray jumps, and my pencil cup falls over. “You don’t understand!”
The pencils, one by one, roll off the desk.
She is suddenly nose-to-nose with me. “Every time someone tells my story, I get more real. Look at me, for God’s sake! I’m practically opaque. I have no shimmer anymore!” She shudders and rubs her arms. “Horrible. I’m like this flat gray pasty thing.”
I know the story on this one. She obviously just believes she’s the Lady in White. Yup. Like someone who skipped the meds today. All I need to do is appease her, talk her down. “What… what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to pull all the cans with my stories on them. All the variations that have a white lady, I want them all pulled. Off the shelves, out of bars, wherever else you’ve got them. Pulled.”
Why don’t crazies ask for simple stuff? Like give me six cases of free beer? Or give me a check for fourteen grand? “Look, miss, I… I can’t… what you’re asking me to do would be impossible… cost-prohibitive—”
“Fine. You’ll hear from my lawyer, then.” She opens the door and whisks through it.
This isn’t new. I’ve been threatened before. When I bought the abandoned asylum to turn it into a brewery, people around town buzzed. Said I was going to get attacked by the Bulldog Boy. Or the Melon Heads. Or whoever it was that had been rumored to live here. I showed up one day and BULLDOG BOY WILL BITE YOUR ASS was graffitied all over the side of the building. And whoever did it used neon green spray paint—it was obvious as snot on a bridal gown. But there is no Bulldog Boy, of course. There are no Melon Heads, of course. So nothing ever came of it.
When my office phone rings, I answer it on speaker.
“Dix, what are you doing? I thought we were past the days when your mouth was getting you into trouble.” It’s Rick, my lawyer.
“What do you mean?” I glance over at the bar. I’d ripped it out of our old house before I had it bulldozed. Yup. Had to condemn my childhood home. Nothing quite builds character like that.
“You know what I mean,” he says. “I just got a call from Lady White’s lawyer.”
I go over to the bar and get myself an Urban Legend from the fridge. The story on the back claims that if you chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times in a candle-lit bathroom a pissed-off ghost’ll show up and rip off your face. “Who?”
“Lady White? She stopped by to politely ask you to remove the defaming stories from your beer cans and advertising, and you refused? So she went to her lawyer, who promptly called me.”
You have got to be kidding me, I think. I light up a cigarette, lean back, and put my feet up on the desk. “First of all, she wasn’t polite. She helped herself to my cigarettes—”
“I won’t do it, Rick. She’s a nut. I can’t believe you’re buying this.” What’s-her-face’s cigarette butt is still in the ashtray; I pick it up and twirl it in my fingers. The butt has blue lipstick on the filter.
“She has a case. Be smart and let’s just drop this. If it goes to court, you’ll lose. Besides, great stories never really die.”
The only sound is the ticking of the big clock that’s shaped like the state of Maryland. A gift from the guys at Weird U.S.
“Unless you stop telling them.” I toss her butt back into the ashtray and crush out mine. They look like a pair of grubs hibernating in the dirt.
I remember her despair. Her whinnying tears. Oh, hell. There are tons of other urban legends out there. It isn’t like I’m gonna run dry. She’s a little nutty, and it might be best to just play along. And Christ, it is the day after Thanksgiving. “Wait a minute. You know what? Tell her I’ll pull them.”
Anyone else’d be thrilled to see a package outside his office door on Christmas Eve. Well, maybe not if it looks like this one. It’s pretty beat up and has no return address. The brown paper’s stained and waxy like the wrapper you’d find at the bottom of a greasy order of fries.
I set it down on my desk next to my Uncle Cluck’s bag. I crack open a can of Urban Legend, and bite into my Cock-n-Bull Special, contemplate the package as I chew. I suppose I could open it. It doesn’t look like there’d be a bomb in there, and there’s also an antiseptic smell.
Which suddenly I’m not sure is coming from the box or my sandwich. It tastes weird. A little off. The roast beef’s flat, the chicken’s yeasty. I put it aside.
I open the box, and a shower of those damn Styrofoam peanuts sprays all over the room. The smell gets worse as I peel aside a couple of layers of yellowed newspaper. There’s a white satin dress.
And now I know the smell. Formaldehyde. And I know the storythat goes with it. Yup. It’s on the backs of the latest batches of Urban Legend. A poverty-stricken girl gets an invitation to a fancy ball. She goes to a pawnshop and buys a dress. It smells a bit strange, but she thinks nothing of it ‘cuz she’s just thrilled to be able to afford a gown. Only halfway through the night, she starts feeling sick. When she goes home that night, she dies. They do an autopsy and find her blood’s coursing with formaldehyde. Turns out the dress she bought’d been on a corpse just a couple of days before. The embalming fluid soaked the dress and then into the poor girl’s pores. It killed her.
Of course, that’s just an urban legend.
I reach for my sandwich and it’s not on the wrapper. Where the hell did it go? Did I miss the wrapper when I put the chicken down?
I shift papers around. I look on the floor. The damn sandwich is gone.
I consider this a minute. Just as I lift my beer to take a sip, I catch the story printed on the can.
Animal 57: The Evil Lurking Beneath the Drive-Thru Window. Think that fast food is real meat or chicken? Think again! Here’s what’s really going on in the back rooms of those chains we’re all so fond of: ungodly genetic experimentation. Huge, throbbing piles of artificially created meat float in nutrient-rich jelly. Headless chickens with fourteen breasts and thirty-six thighs hang from hooks, feeding tubes coursing through their flesh. Worse yet? Some of these animals are conscious. They know when they’re about to be flayed. They can feel themselves being—er—dismembered. So the next time you’re tempted to cruise the drive-thru, stop and think. And I wouldn’t leave that sandwich unattended if I were you.
My God. Maybe Lady in White is… telling the truth. Maybe anything I print on these cans comes true.
Which means some girl really was just poisoned by embalming fluid. Which means there’s a possessed sandwich crawling around my office with plans to take over the world.
Unless I pull the stories. Put it all back the way it was.
Enter the Lady in White. Only she’s—a little difficult to see. Almost like gauze, sparkles trail behind her like a bridal train. “You!” She twirls toward me and kisses my cheek. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, gracious sir! Look at me!” She flies to the mirror. Apparently she can see her reflection; I can’t. “In just a couple of weeks I’ll be practically invisible!” She tosses her tresses back over her shoulders. “I hope it happens soon! I absolutely can’t wait to get to Florida.”
She turns. “Well, yes. I’m going to retire down south, sit on the beach, and bask in the sun. I’ll be warm! No more nighties!”
I reach for a cigarette. “Glad to hear you’re feeling better.” Her eyes are yellow, like hops. “Want one?”
“I’d smoke another but I’m almost getting to the point where I’m too transparent to pick things up and I wouldn’t want to drop it somewhere and start a conflagration. Well, I’ll be on my way.” She glides by me. “By the way, my name is Constance.”
“Yes. I remembered it just yesterday. I can’t wait to figure out my last name and how I died! Thanks again!”
Over the next few hours, the snow turns to freezing rain.
When I leave the air’s warmer. Thick fog cottons the parking lot. Yup, it’s real Loch Ness weather to the point I have to guesstimate where I parked my car. The second I get in and start the engine, it rains, like small brutal fists beating on my hood. Visibility’s sucking. But I know these roads, so it’s all dandy.
Until I start over the railroad tracks and my car dies right in the middle of them.
Which it’s got no reason to do—I’d only driven it off the lot in June. I sit back in the driver’s seat and think. It’s still pouring, I have no umbrella, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of houses around here I can run to anyway.
Just as I think I should get out and see if I can push my car over the tracks, there’s a God-awful rumble. The clang-clang of the bell and the red warning light that translates to get your ass moving because there’s a train coming. And there is. Chugging around the bend, hell-bent right for me.
I go to bust open the door and something holds it closed. An angry teenager glares at me. Some of his teeth are broken. Then, in the back window, I see a dozen or more petite shadows. I feel the car move. Something is pushing it over the tracks. The kid glares at the group in the back and starts yelling, but I can’t hear him. The train blasts its horn.
Jesus. I know this story. I’m being pushed over the tracks by a bunch of dead kids.
I cringe as I hear the shocks creak and groan before the car slams down safely on the other side of the tracks. The train rockets past, so close the car shimmies.
First, I thank God for Urban Legend. Then I roll down the window. “Listen, you crazy—”
The kid who had trapped me shouts at the others. “I told you guys we could have ended this if we just knocked him off. But no, you have to be a bunch of humanitarians!” Angry Teen folds his arms across his chest. “Listen, dude. It’s like this. We were gettin’ all cozy. We were goin’ home to the light. And then you started with the stories on the freakin’ cans about the dead little kids in the school bus accident and how they haunt the place where they died and now? Now we’re back where we were. Once again we gotta stand out here every freakin’ night and wait for clowns like you to come along and break down on the railroad tracks.”
A little girl with blond curls clutches Angry Teen’s leg. Trickles of blood play at the corners of her mouth. “You’re mean. Please let us go home.”
“Stop printing our story,” Angry Teen says as the group gathers around the car. They yelp please please please please and it sounds like a flock of Canadian geese. I roll up the window and their hands paw at the glass.
A vacant parking lot greets me at the apartment building. Not unusual for Christmas Eve. My five neighbors’ve got relatives in better towns. They’re at family dinners where everyone secretly wants to stab everyone else with forks.
I turn off the headlights and smoke a cigarette. It’s gotten cold again and freezing rain pelts my windshield. I think about the kids at the railroad crossing. If they’re huddled in some cave, trying to keep warm. If they’re trying to remember their last Christmases. Or if they even know that today is Christmas. I should pull those stories. Let those kids go home.
But I’m the King of Bull. What am I going to do with no stories to tell?
Right now, nothing. I’m doing nothing. I’m going up to my apartment. I’m plugging in that scraggily half-dead thing I call a Christmas tree. And I’m drinking a few more beers.
I get out of the car and make my way across the lot to the building entrance. There are strange-shaped footprints in the snow, ones that don’t have toes. And the door to my building is wide open. There’s also a gash in it, like someone splintered it with an ax. Snow and ice have blown into the hallway. Icicles stalactite the mailboxes. The lights buzz and flicker.
This doesn’t feel right. But I climb the stairs anyway.
They’re blocking my front door: a clown with glowing eyes and blood running from his mouth, and a man in a rabbit suit, who’s gripping an ax.
Dear God. I know these stories. The Phantom Clown and the Bunnyman.
Which means at this point it’s probably too late for me to do anything.
“Mr. Robinson,” Bunnyman hisses. His face is pocked, like from years of bad acne. “We’d like a word with you.”
Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s work has appeared in The Taj Mahal Review, Adirondack Review, Afternoon, Barbaric Yawp, Bewildering Stories, Chick Flicks, The Circle, Citizen Culture, I Like Monkeys, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and a host of others. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and lives in Danbury, Connecticut. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com