By Aaron.Dries On Dec 24 2012, 6:12 am
The following is an excerpt from my debut novel, “House of Sighs”. Here, Reggie Frost indulges in the spirit of Christmas. For her, it’s the end of the world masquerading as every dream come true. For us, we who know better, it’s a fantasy born from the horrifying murder of this poor mother’s family (in fact, there is a knife in her back and she’s caught between a conscious state and the lullaby of darkness) … It’s neither pretty nor merciful, as the festive season so often can be. Delusions, after all, can have claws.
“A bulb switched on in the Frost home and a slice of light cut across the lawn. A silhouette moved past the living room window. The soft shhhh-shhhh-shhhh of its dragging feet could be heard from outside. Then all fell silent. It studied the landscape on the other side of the rain-speckled glass. It saw grass, the driveway and the monolithic form of the bus wrapped in blue nightfall. These things did not hold its attention. It focused on the dead trees near the veranda, at the fairy lights winking into life in its branches. It tilted its head and saw the Christmas cutouts. It was early November and yet it felt a chill. The silhouette looked up at the sky. The storm clouds were gone.
Something fell across Reggie’s vision in gentle, downward swirls. “I can’t believe it,” she said, blinking.
It was snow.
She turned from the window and surveyed the living room. The tree was decorated with stars and tinsel. It was not the plastic tree she usually put out every year. It was a Fraser Fir. At its peak there was a crooked angel. At the tree’s widest girth hung the two plastic Santas, their faces no longer bent inwards. Their eyes were wide, donning eternal smiles from ear to ear.
Under the tree were presents in wrapping of every conceivable color.
She felt warmth flow over her face. It felt so good. Her soul felt light. Yes, she was happy. For the first time in many years, she felt good. The record player started upstairs, the vinyl crackling through the old speakers. It hissssssed.
The air was warm. She could hear the sound of crackling wood. But we don’t have a fireplace, she thought.
She started when she heard laughing children. They seemed familiar. It was then that Liz and Jed ran into the room, slapping at each other with tennis rackets. They were young, their faces round and sunburnt. Their hands were covered in orange pulp. The children looked up at her, sheepish.
“We didn’t mean to make so much noise,” Jed said.
“It’s all right, honey. Why don’t you take your sister upstairs and wash yourselves good and clean. Okay?”
They nodded and ran, tagging each other all the way. Their feet thumped up the staircase. And they were gone.
Reggie rubbed her hands over her face. Her palms smelled of herbs and stock. That’s right, I was getting dinner ready, she remembered. As she crossed the room, she caught her reflection in the framed photographs on the walls. She was thinner than she had been in a long time, her hair pulled up in a loose-fitting bun.
The kitchen was full of food—lettuce, tomatoes, mashed potatoes and stalks of fresh broccoli. Sauces and gravy and honeyed carrots sat in individual bowls. There was a pile of festive paper napkins near a chopping board. They peeled away from the stack and flew into the air one by one. Reggie’s gaze shot to the opened kitchen door. She ran to it, the wind blowing her bangs across her vision. She grabbed the doorknob and forced it shut. Just before it closed she heard the sound of distant barking and rattling chains.
Stray maybe, she thought.
She turned to pick up the napkins but they were back in the pile. Wes stood next to the table, returning the last to its place. He looked up at her with kind eyes. Reggie smiled—he looked so handsome. Her husband was well built, broad-shouldered and tanned. She liked that he was balding. There was something masculine about it. It made her tingle, her heart flutter.
“Gee whiz that smells nice,” he said. “Is that the roast cooking?”
Reggie was caught off guard. She had to think. Then it dawned on her—yes, it was the roast chicken in the oven that he could smell. How could she forget?
A bell rang in the room.
She ran to the oven, opened it and reached inside. Without the use of mitts she took the tray and placed it on the chopping board. Juices pooled and sloshed. The aroma of white meat and rosemary filled her nostrils; she breathed it in and a shiver climbed her back. A small splash of liquid had spilled when she transferred the chicken to the table. She took a tea towel and bent down to wipe it up. When she threw the soiled towel into the sink, it was covered in rank blood. She did not notice.
Husband and wife embraced in their kitchen. Wes pushed his nose into her collar. “You smell great, hon.” He ran his huge hands over the small of her back. She arched her chest against his. A wave of ecstasy prickled her skin and made her dizzy.
“It’s just me, I’m not wearing anything,” she told him.
“You smell great, hon.”
Reggie cocked an ear, thinking, Didn’t he just say that? She dismissed it and kissed him. Their lips ground together. It had been a while since they had kissed like movie stars. It surprised her how easily they fell back into the rhythm, their tongues flickering together, tentative at first and then bold. She felt his hardness against her legs and was thrilled.
Thumping from upstairs.
“Hold your horses, Wes, the kids are coming.”
They drew apart.
Looking at him, Reggie realized just how much she loved her husband, despite his anger, his flaws. On nights like this when everything was perfect and he touched her like he used to, she could forgive him for anything he did to her or their children.
Jed and Liz ran into the kitchen, panting. They were clean, as were their clothes. “Why don’t we open a present or two while we’re waiting for the chicken to cool,” Wes said, turning to Reggie for affirmation. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Yeah of course!” She laughed for a moment and then stopped. Had he just asked her in an accent? Reggie was positive he had. A thick, midday television, American accent. She shook her head, feeling stupid. You’re losin’ it, Reg, she told herself, chuckling again.
They all went to the living room and kneeled before the tree and each took a present.
The record continued from upstairs, only it was playing at half speed. The words were drawn out and pained.
Reggie watched Jed open his gift. He tore the red cellophane away. She felt his expectation and smiled with him. Revealed was a small, hardcover book on eagle breeds. It had been her husband’s idea to get it. Jed loved it, flickering through the pages and coming to a double-page spread, an eagle’s wings stretching from left to right. It was a beautiful illustration, very detailed.
“You must have behaved yourself this year, Jed,” she told her son. “Santa’s been good to you.”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” he replied, holding the book to his chest.
Liz sat before the tree, its needles in her hair. She opened a shoebox-sized gift. Reggie watched her face light up when she saw her present. Part of the joy of being a parent is to live for and through the happiness of your child, this she knew.
The box was empty.
“Oh I love it,” Liz squealed, holding the nothingness to her underdeveloped breasts. “Thanks so much, Mom, Dad.”
Wes kissed her. “Don’t thank us, thank Santa.”
“Oh yeah.” She winked at them. “That’s right.”
Liz stood and hugged her mother. “Gee, girl. God’s stretching you like taffy. I’m going to have to put a brick on your head just to slow you down.” Reggie ruffled her bangs. They laughed. “Let’s go eat, what do you think?”
Wes, Reggie, Liz and Jed sat at the kitchen table. Wes cut the bird open with her sewing scissors. The rib cage snapped open with each brutal clench. The meat was bright red, dripping juices.
“Smells awesome, Mom, seriously it does,” Liz told her.
They helped themselves to the food. They ate in silence, with only the sound of clinking forks and scraping plates. After a few minutes the back door started to rattle in the wind, and then it blew open with a bang.
Reggie ran to it and looked out into the backyard. Snow covered the grass and the trees behind the yard. Bound to the clothesline on a thick chain was a large Rottweiler. Its eyes glowed in the dark, its mouth wide and dripping foam.
From behind her she heard Wes talking to Liz. Only his voice was slow and grating, just like the record player. “You’re nothing but skin and bone,” he said. “I’vvveeee ssseeeennn ssscccaaarrreecccrooowwwss wwwiiithhh mmoorrreee ssstuuffiinggg.”
Reggie threw her weight against the door but the wind blew harder. She squinted as she looked back into the yard. Beyond the dog, on the ground near the trees, there was a young man, a stranger on his side facing the house.
Another gust of wind drove into her face. Gasping, Reggie looked down at her feet.
“I’m not wearing any shoes,” she said out loud. She could have sworn she had been. Reggie was also surprised to see that she was wearing a thin, floral dress. Her apron was gone. She could see her bulbous knees, the beginnings of her cellulite-dimpled thighs.
The dog’s barking grew more vicious.
She looked up. The young man lying down in the grass was gone. And so was the snow. It was so very dark outside.
The wind died. Her hair fell about her face, lifeless and spent.
Reggie turned around. She felt heavier. There were pains in her body that had not been there moments before. It was as though the wind had disappeared and taken with it all the warmth from her bones and from the room.
The kitchen was empty, food scraps on the table.
A noise escaped from the living room. Her heart skipped a beat.
Holding a hand to her chest, Reggie crossed the kitchen. As she walked the wallpaper began to peel in thin, curling fingers. Her shadow grew long behind her. She absently nudged an uncooked chicken with her foot. It slid across the linoleum with a sick sound.
She entered the living room. Above her, blind moths beat at the exposed bulb, burning themselves alive out of love for light. An ochre glow blanketed the room. It was the color of cigarette stains and tea bags. Reggie looked at the Christmas tree. The branches had dwindled and died, a large pile of needles scattered over the floor.
Reggie felt life bleeding out of her. She looked for the photos on the walls and saw that they were gone, shattered and destroyed on the stairs.
“What’s happening?” she asked the room. “Where’d you all go?”
On the carpet at her feet the two Santa ornaments looked up at her. Their faces were bent inwards again.
She heard the noise again. A quiet scratching from somewhere.
Reggie looked up. Her eyes scanned the room for movement. She felt hollowed out when she saw that the tree was gone. Where it had stood there was only the remains of the reading lamp and dust balls.
The room was alive with the frenetic shadows of the moths.
She saw the window facing the front yard.
And saw the face staring in at her.
Rabid eyes looked out from behind twisted locks of hair. Its mouth was open and its tongue lolled out like a wet, blue steak. The face was streaked with blood and brains and strips of flesh that dangled from its chin.
The creature in the window screamed too, a high-pitched mewling—in its cry one heard tortured cats.
Terrified, Reggie turned to run and saw it turn too. Then she saw what was in its back, sticking out from between its shoulder blades at a ninety-degree angle.
A carving knife.
A bolt of pain like nothing she had ever experienced before, both blunt and sharp and hot and cold, exploded in her back. Reggie reached her arms around her sides until her fingers brushed up against something hard. Like a dog chasing its tail she spun and saw only the kitchen door.
And the long river of blood that stopped at her feet.
“Oh God,” she cried.
She turned back to the window, praying that what she feared was not true.
The monster in the window was her reflection. It came back to her in a blinding flash: the man grabbing her by the ankles and pulling her into the kitchen. He had the knife in his hand and drove it into her back. The sound of it puncturing through her flesh had filled her mind and echoed.
It can’t be true, she told herself. If I’ve been stabbed, I should be dead. I’m alive, aren’t I? I’m alive.
Darkness clouded over her—she felt weak and dropped to her knees. And saw the headless body of her daughter. She recognized her distinctive jawbone, the remains of her uniform.
Reggie felt the blade push in farther, find her soul and tear it to shreds. She caught sight of something large and red in her periphery vision.
It was her son. The walls surrounding him near the bottom of the staircase were streaked in haphazard arcs of blood. His wrists had been cut.
Her mouth was open but no sound came out. Agony filled her, burning hot. Everything was falling away from her. The faster her heart beat, the darker it got.
And then she saw what was left of her husband…”
* * *
To find out more, visit http://www.aarondries.com/
… and yeah, it does get worse.