Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Others

John Howe
Dead of Winter ~ Second Place


Shadowy figures

Photo Credit: Anna/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

From inside the drafty wall cavity the shadowy figure watched the two boys as they played. He enjoyed spying on the boys though he would never admit it. The others would not understand such a guilty pleasure, such a colossal waste of time, but the figure still watched as something deep inside him, something fleeting, something resembling familiarity, danced on the edges of his mind. The cold December wind whistled through the siding boards and rattled the shutters of the uninsulated Victorian house but the figure didn’t mind the cold and he continued to watch the boys at play.

“Hey Jake, check this out,” said Jordan.

Jordan and his brother Jake were playing with the amateur forensic kit they had received as a gift on Christmas morning. It was two days after Christmas and their parents had agreed to leave them alone for the entire day now that Jordan had just turned thirteen. Actually, their mother had agreed and their father had reluctantly gone with the flow.

“These are the same fingerprints we found on Dad’s desk,” said Jordan. He carefully brushed away the carbon dust and lifted the print with the special tape that came with the kit.

Jake opened the notebook and labeled a page where the new fingerprints would be recorded.

“These prints don’t look anything like ours,” said Jake. The boys had recorded elimination prints from themselves and their parents as the kit instructions had indicated. “These are weird.” Indeed, the prints were unusual; they were abnormally wavy and exaggerated, like they had been drawn by a cartoonist, and they were all over every hard surface in the old vintage house.

Jordan sprinkled more carbon dust on the shelves of a bookcase. “We’ll show these to Dad when he gets home. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”

Jake fidgeted on his heels, starting to grow weary of the game. “Let’s go outside and smoke,” he said.

“Maybe after lunch,” Jordan said. The boys did not really smoke. They enjoyed playing in the snow and holding twigs in their mouths and puffing their breath in the cold air. “C’mon, a few more prints and we’ll heat up the soup Mom left us.”

As the shadowy figure watched, his emotional state varied between unexplained nostalgia, melancholy, and concern. The boys were dusting for fingerprints and they were finding them, lots of them. The figure knew who had left the prints and he knew he had to tell the others, though he did not relish the task as the others would not be pleased. He receded deeper into the wall cavity and started to make his way to the dusty crawl space beneath the parlor where the others slept, where they waited for the darkness when they could emerge and explore. The figure moved slowly through the maze of wall spaces as jagged plaster fragments and nail points ripped at the pale casing of his form but it did not bother him. How he managed to travel in the wall cavities was a mystery to him, but they all could do it, though it was a slow process. He battled internally with the problem at hand and wished it could be ignored. The figure did not know for sure but he felt there would be no place else he or the others could go if they were to be found out. He was unsure if they could survive if he did not come forward with what he knew.

As he progressed silently and carefully, the figure thought of the boys and the fleeting notions that had gone through his mind. He again considered his circumstances with growing anxiety. He was not a ghost, he thought, as he moved slowly towards the others, he was not a spook or a ghoul but he had been called these things and more by the cruel inhabitants of the walls in which they all existed. In truth, he did not know what he was or how he came to be here with the others. The feeling he had when he watched the boys at play nagged at him but he could not place it, could not make sense of it. The figure attempted to push the thoughts from his mind but they lingered restlessly.

As the shadowy figure feared, the others were not pleased to be awakened. The leader motioned for calmness after the information was conveyed but silent panic spread below the floor boards of the old house as the others twitched and moved about anxiously. The leader silently called for the prodigy to come forward. When she did, the others became motionless and looked on in awe as she soundlessly communicated the plan of action. Even the leader seemed taken aback by her ruthlessness but he knew from past experiences that she was always right when it came to their continued existence.

The shadowy figure led the others through the archaic wall cavities and emerged into the attic space adjacent to the second floor hallway. The leader beckoned for stillness with an impatient wave of his hand. None of them were accustomed to daytime activity and dissension was in the dusty air. The leader motioned for the prodigy to come forward and gestured to the wall. Through cracks in the plaster the others could see the boys working on the doorknobs of the bedrooms with their forensic paraphernalia continuing to play their detective game. The figure once again felt the wistful pull and fought to remain vigilant to the task. Some of the others looked at him oddly and he wondered what it was they saw.

The prodigy surveyed the activity of the boys on the other side of the wall and motioned that she needed space and the others backed away. With a balloon-like hand she traced a rectangular shape on the lath boards. The shadowy figure was baffled by this but remained unmoving amongst his equally perplexed counterparts. The prodigy traced over and over until a faded image appeared. She continued to work on the details by repeatedly tracing until an exaggerated duplication of a door emerged on the interior surface of attic wall. She rested a short while and then twisted her bulbous fist into the side of the image at the spot where a doorknob should be and kept twisting until finally a brass knob appeared. She backed away and joined the others as they waited. The figure knew the door would be visible to the boys on the other side and he hoped they would tire of their game and go downstairs to partake in other activities. But he knew of the power the prodigy possessed and he knew his hopes were unfounded.

From the darkness of the attic space the others watched as the doorknob turned and the face of a boy peered in through the partially-opened door. The shadowy figure recognized the boy as Jordan, the older of the brothers, and he used every ounce of will he had to remain still. It was obvious the boy was confused about the location of the door that shouldn’t have been there. The boy opened the door wide and peered into the space with the light from the hallway behind him. Jordan’s shadow quaked slightly as he attempted to make sense of this strange room he had never seen.

‘Don’t come in,’ the figure said to himself in vain. ‘Please just go away.’

The roughened floor boards creaked as the boy took a few steps into the attic.

The shadowy figure cringed as the room darkened and the boy turned to see the now closed door fading away. Jordan ran to it and the brass knob crumbled into his hand and then the door was gone. Jordan tried to scream but only a muffled squeak wheezed from his mouth. Upon urging from the leader the others converged and silently subdued the terrified boy with globular hands. The prodigy performed tracings over the body of the struggling boy until he succumbed and ceased to resist. The figure looked on with sadness and felt a sweeping responsibility for everything that had happened and he silently wept.

The others could hear the younger boy calling for his brother from the hallway. The prodigy once again went to work on the door and the brass knob. The others waited with eager anticipation after the exhilarating hostility they inflicted on the older boy. The shadowy figure and Jordan watched in silent horror as the knob once again began to turn.

The leader motioned for the shadowy figure to remain behind as the others departed, entering the wall cavities once again. The leader looked back before entering the wall and gave the figure a knowing look, not nearly as menacing as usual. The figure could not help but wonder what would happen when the parents returned home later in the day. Would the prodigy be called upon once again? As if on cue a phone rang from somewhere in the house. A distant voice from the answering machine could be heard.

The figure also wondered about the look the leader had just given him. It was a look of expectancy, as if it was now his responsibility to care for these boys and to teach them the ways of the others, the ways he did not understand but was somehow expected to convey. It was a duty he feared and relished.

The figure approached the trembling boys who were now faded images of their former selves. Their features were raw and exaggerated as if a young child had created two heads from clay. They looked, the shadowy figure realized, like the others and clarity began to slowly seep into his mind. His fingers caressed his own face and he wondered if he too had a similar appearance. The figure also noted that he was approximately the same size as the boys, unlike the others who were much larger. He motioned to the frightened boys in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The younger boy, Jake, opened his mouth but no sound emerged so he held out his small distressed hand in a form of a hesitant greeting. For the first time he could recall the shadowy figure clung to a small bit of hope as the thoughts that had been dancing on the edges of his mind began to grow clearer.

pencilJohn Howe is a project manager at a design/build firm in West Michigan. Although this is his first serious attempt at fiction, he enjoys writing short stories and hopes someday to pursue it more frequently. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com