The sepia sky threatened to choke the sun that afternoon.
A memory of a storm that was ever present on the horizon stole my thoughts as I jogged across town. My phone was to my ear, but my mind was elsewhere, the line falling dead a sign that I was either being ignored or my friend was busy. I sighed and slipped the phone back into my pocket as I approached the rickety white gazebo at the town’s center. There was a sparse motion of old cars driving around it — a roundabout having been installed many years ago as if to honor the very spot.
Nothing else existed in that circle of lawn except for that antique bit of woodwork. No flowers graced its presence nor did the grass grow very well, and if there had been any trees they were mowed down long ago. Between its sorry existence and the threatening sky, I was reminded of why I felt it was imperative that I be at that very spot.
It was a similar scene and atmosphere to a dream I’d experienced the night before. As most odd dreams were, it was a hazy memory that left me filled with an uneasiness I’d been darkened by in the dream itself. It was as if there was another force at work in the middle of that traffic circle — something of warning to forbid anything living to occupy its same space. I stared up at the decaying structure in wonder, sensing a fizzled out presence that I was certain I hadn’t imagined. I chuckled.
Dreams and nightmares were just that, and my friend had probably ditched me because of my all-too-obvious madness.
My phone buzzed in my pocket and I answered, my friend’s presence finally alerting me to the fact that she wasn’t freaked out by me — yet. She wanted to meet at the convenience store across the way to grab a few things before humoring my weird dream visions, but it was already too late. I turned to see the aging family-owned restaurant at the other end of the small town. I was already late for work.
The phone no sooner went dead before I noticed a familiar form approaching the old country store. I watched through narrowed eyes as it most definitely was my friend. Odd. She’d been home — about a mile away — when we’d spoken. Yet, there she was as if a strange doppelganger was poking fun at my already unnerving bout of mania.
I shook it off and made my way into the restaurant. All was dark until I turned on the lights, which didn’t really help matters. At most I could make out the moth-eaten faded pink table cloths, retro decor, and the smell of old wood that I liked most of all. I shook my head again, my mind getting away with me. It was probably just anxiety; tunnel vision was a bitch when your brain was in a different reality entirely. The nightmare was getting to me, and whatever had been present in that odd place in the center of town was clearly trying to one-up me.
A back room that was also the kitchen served to be no better. A small mouse scuttled across the yellow and white tiled floor that caught me by surprise, but I noticed a dirty plate with rotten food spread out across the stove burners. A glance up revealed a small window to be propped open, and a few dried specks of blood popped out against the metal frame. Lovely.
“What in the hell is this?”
I jumped and grabbed at my heart, forcing the thing back into my chest. My grandma had crept up behind me and examined the damage, shaking her head.
“I locked it up last night, I swear,” I stammered. My head was as full as a balloon from my anxiety now, the pressure threatening to pop. “I have no idea how anyone could have gotten in.”
“Well, can’t be helped now. We should clean up before we open.” She flicked on the old-fashioned red faucet handles and grabbed a bottle of Ivory soap.
I climbed onto the counter to shut the window and locked it tight, and took in the rest of the kitchen. Although the old bulbs were doing their best to provide light, the window’s closing had stolen any sign of day from the room. I swiped a finger across the glass and cringed when a line of dust settled. Food and Safety wasn’t going to be happy about that.
I then turned my focus to my grandma’s submerged arms. The pale green plate in her hands turned over and over in the suds, the food having been tossed in the disposal. Something dawned on me then as I became hypnotized by the monotony.
“That homeless woman that camps out back sometimes,” I offered. “Do you think it was her?” An image of a scraggly woman with long blonde hair, old round wire-framed glasses, grimy clothing, and sooty skin crossed my mind. I’d only seen her a few times before, but my heart sank at the memory of her. I couldn’t be angry. I made a point to leave food for her after closing up.
My grandma confirmed my suspicions, nodding. “I wish I knew what kind of tricks she pulled to get in here. That window’s pretty high.”
“People get desperate when they’re hungry.” I shrugged as I remembered the dried blood on the frame.
“It’s a damn shame.” My grandma flicked water everywhere before turning to me with a towel. “Let’s open this place up. We hired a new waitress and she needs training.”
* * *
Later that day, the sky seemed to grace the stale atmosphere with more luminescence through the restaurant windows.
Business was slow as it tended to be, but the mood was light and the food was delicious. My grandpa had stopped by and was greeting my grandma at the door, I sitting at a booth to chat with a few of the regular patrons. The new waitress came by and fumbled her tray, and I held my breath before she righted it again and sat a guest’s order safely on a table. My grandpa and grandma joined us.
The guests turned their attention to my grandpa, who had taken several seemingly trivial items from his pocket; an elastic string, a few metal rings, a gathering of beads, and other odd bits and pieces. I looked on with my grandma and the others with curiosity, our faces beaming. Grandpa had always been an entertainer, so there was no doubt that he had some tricks up his sleeve to impress.
Grandpa eyed the attractive young waitress and beckoned for her to come forward. He’d been messing with the beads and string for a distraction, but lifted the ring as if to aim it in the proper direction. The young woman leaned forward, and in a blink the ring was through her nose. For a moment she panicked but settled her conscience as pain seemed to elude her. Grandpa laughed while everyone stared in awe, I craning my neck to see any sort of way it had been done. Just as quickly as it had appeared, grandpa snapped his fingers before removing the ring in a swift motion, his other hand flat in the air in a waving motion for show. The few patrons clapped as well as the waitress once she realized it had all been an illusion.
At least, I was certain it was an illusion.
As grandpa started a new series of magic tricks, my tunnel vision returned and I stared off to the far corner of the room, my eyes tracing the vintage floral wallpaper. As long as I’ve been alive, grandpa had always been full of the perfect jokes, and he’d always impressed everyone with his strange ability for sleight of hand. I’d asked him how he managed such impossible tricks, but he could never give a clear answer. His usual, ‘A magician doesn’t give away his secrets!’ went in one ear and out the other as I’d finally just decided to accept the unexplainable. I couldn’t help but shake an odd sense about them, though. They didn’t feel or seem like atypical magic show tricks, but completely random things my grandpa would come up with off the top of his head. This removed any ability for him having rehearsed them.
I was brought out of my thoughts when the friend I’d contacted earlier came up behind me. Her hand on my shoulder reminded me of our meeting, and that I’d completely forgotten and left her standing in that weird space at the center of town. Thankfully, she wasn’t angry in the slightest and shoved her way into the booth beside me, and we settled in to watch grandpa perform more of his illustrious magic.
* * *
I’d completely forgotten about the gazebo and the strange dream that led me there. Instead, I headed toward my grandma’s house that was a block away, she staying behind to close the restaurant. I’d hugged myself in embarrassment during that conversation, ashamed that I couldn’t even lock up a place correctly. Although I was entirely certain I’d done just that, my head had been in odd places all day and since the day before, and I chalked it all up to my mania and my nerves.
My friend had gone home and my grandpa had left at some point as well, most likely due to fatigue from old age. I smiled and humored myself with a silly thought. Maybe he needed to recharge his magical powers somehow, just like a wise old man from a fairy tale. Perhaps he even had a deep secret he had to keep hidden somehow — a wizard sworn to secrecy who had to play his feats off as simple parlor tricks.
I yawned as I kicked off my shoes by the front door of my grandparents’ house. The newly cleaned cream carpet was plush beneath my feet, and I wiggled my toes as the feeling of wanting to lay on it washed over me. I did just that, staring up at the swirled white ceiling like I had as a child. The memories were fleeting, but I remembered lying on my back and telling stories with my friend, our game to continue as long as we could manage while staring at the ceiling and not moving an inch. Whoever ran out of ideas or moved first lost the game. Very vaguely I recalled her telling a story about wolves…
I jumped up into a sitting position as I heard faint shuffling. A distinct smell of decay overwhelmed me just as quick, and I was flooded with a range of emotions that rendered me completely speechless. I threw my hand over my mouth and nose, wondering how I’d missed it all before. My empathic abilities were heightened when I was manic, and it was like being punched in the stomach. It always hit me at once before I had any time to sort any of it.
My breathing quickened and my eyes grew wide. Too much. I felt too much and my skin was crawling. I had to move — knew I had to get off of the floor and find the source of the coppery smell invading my senses. As I managed to stand at last, I searched for a memory of the smell. I knew I’d caught it before, and it was recently. Yes, it was at the restaurant. It was when I’d found the specks of blood on the window.
Dread settling over me moved my legs on impulse. The only light in the house was that of the sinking sun shining through the blinds — the slitted rays painting everything orange that they touched. The kitchen and the living room were empty and silent save for the same inkling of a dreadful presence I’d felt at the center of town. I made my way down the hallway to the bathroom. The smell grew stronger.
Was the dream a warning? Had I missed a message by not going back, and not probing further for the presence that was growing stronger the further I walked?
I was nearly gagging as the smell of decay suffocated me. I reached out to touch the white bathroom door that was just barely ajar and noticed the lights were on inside, spreading out across the hallway as the door creaked on its hinges.
I choked on the lump that formed in my throat.
My eyes followed a trail of blood that split out across the white tile, and it ended in a pool surrounding a young woman in an old-fashioned waitress’ dress. I recognized her instantly from the restaurant. Her eyes were open wide in a memory of fear, and they were now glazed over as they stared up at me. I stared back with rapt attention, unable to tear myself away from the grisly sight. Nausea crept up into my throat and gripped at my stomach, and I felt a strange pull at the back of my head as I began to hyperventilate.
Tunnel vision. Can’t breathe. Dizzy — so damned dizzy.
And then the void.
* * *
A fog clouded my vision as I turned my head. My wrists hurt and I noticed I was on the floor, the young woman’s blood sticking my fingers to the white porcelain beneath me. My limbs were shaky as I pushed myself up to kneel, and I glanced around the bathroom when my vision came as clear as it was going to get.
I found my grandpa standing at the sink in a white tank. He was bent over and focusing in the mirror as if he were attempting to shave the white stubble on his face. I couldn’t make out his expression, but what was clear was his utter neglect of the gruesome scene lying on the floor right behind him. He didn’t seem to be stirred by my presence in the slightest.
“Grandpa?” My voice was hoarse as it shook, my anxiety robbing me of further communication. I desperately didn’t want to believe what I suspected, but nothing else would have made sense. Another fainting spell threatened, but I remained upright despite it.
Without a sound, he finally turned to acknowledge my presence. Tears spilled from the corners of my eyes as my blood turned to ice.
My cheerful, loving grandpa — my secret wizard — wore the darkest, most maniacal grin on his face. His eyes were wide with frenzy and his aged white teeth were on full display like a Cheshire cat. His expression warped his face and exaggerated its features, and I could feel the way murder had corrupted him. It was animalistic and raw in its nature, and something so primal that I knew I would never forget it again. It was bliss and desperation at the same time, mingled together in an explosive passion that robbed of any ability to choke back the feral cries.
I knew there had to be something about my grandpa and his magic. He was most certainly gifted in ways that weren’t only sleight of hand and rehearsed showman magic tricks. He was something else entirely, and for a moment I wondered if my mania was just playing tricks on me. With his razor still in hand, my grandpa approached me, his maddening expression never changing.
“You weren’t meant to see this.” He spoke in a higher pitch than his usual tone, and much quieter.
“Why?” I was breathless as I stumbled backward where I sat, scrambling to get out of that room. When I finally reached the threshold, I was shaking too much to get to my knees and close the door. I hugged myself tight as grandpa squeezed the plastic razor in his hand.
He just stood there in silence, that same grin claiming him as if he had no control over it. Everything was silent save for our breathing, mine coming in short bursts as my body tensed impossibly tight. The bathroom light poured out at either side of him as if it were framing him — as if he held a much grander purpose than even I could ever manage to comprehend.
The door slammed shut. I was bathed in darkness once more and worked up the nerve to crawl down the hallway, the drying blood on my hands staining the carpet. The stench in the house. The body on the floor. That smell of old decay lingering in the walls — grandpa was no stranger to it.
It was the ultimate trick, to make someone disappear.
© 2019 Shane Lestan