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a short story

by Harry Shannon

The first time he heard it, the plaintive cry sounded like the wail of a tortured prisoner. The hairs on the back of this story comes from Bad Seed by Harry Shannonhis neck fluttered and stiffened. It was as if he had cleared his throat in a deep canyon, only to have the echo return as a scream.

Walt had been drinking for days, and had slept only hours along the way. He was completely exhausted, almost drunk enough to feel sober again. A serious binge could do strange things to the mind. He found himself pacing in concentric circles. He knew there was no one else in the house. His wife had taken the baby, the furniture and most everything else. Who or what had made that terrible sound? Perhaps a neighbor's dog had been struck by a car, and had crawled under the porch.

Against his own better judgement, Walt found himself moving down the wooden steps into the cellar. He tried the light switch, but nothing happened. He felt terrified, but forced himself to kneel on the cool, dank cement floor. Just enough moonlight to see. He started looking behind the rusty tools and crumbling cardboard boxes. He found only graceful webs, dozens of dead cockroaches, and several desiccated insects hollowed out by hungry spiders.

The cry came again, a sobbing vomit of agony. Walt stumbled up the stairs, searching with bloodshot eyes. Perhaps a wounded raccoon, now running away from him and back up into the house? But there was nothing in the living room but dirt and empty bottles of beer and wine. The bedroom was deserted. The closet doors were yawning open, nothing within but wire hangers and open shoe boxes. He searched the kitchen, even peered under the sink and went through the old cans of cleanser and furniture spray. Nothing seemed out of place.

Walt felt a sudden chill, and an overwhelming urge to urinate. He shivered and lurched towards the bathroom. The door was closed.

But hadn't he left it open, only moments before?

Was he alone in this house, or had someone else come in, perhaps while he was sleeping? Walt swallowed. The urge to pee abruptly disappeared. He knew he was being cowardly, but he backed away from the bathroom. He was in no mood to be brave, much less downright foolish. He began to look for a weapon. He had seen a shovel near the back door. He went searching, stepping carefully in the yellow moonlight, trying not to make the floorboards creak. He gasped in horror.

Two ghastly faces were framed side by side in the porch window: dark nostrils, pale lips and bone-white teeth mangled and flattened against the dusty glass. Walt froze in place, not believing his eyes. One of the apparitions pulled back and reassembled into the sneering features of a teenaged boy. His mouth worked, as if chewing a stick of gum in the moonlit yard. He turned to the other creature and said, in a high, clear tenor: it happened in the bathroom. His voice echoed strangely, like that terrible scream.

Walt blinked and rubbed his face. He was seeing things, hearing things. How long had he been drinking? He had lost track of the time. Since Janet had left with the baby, but was that a week now? Ten days? At least that long, maybe longer. He had to suck it up, get things together. He would have to find another job soon. He needed rent money.

The telephone had already been disconnected, and now all of the utilities were shut off. That's why the light switch hadn't worked.

Walt went back into the kitchen and searched the cabinets, but he was out of booze. Nothing to eat, either. Better get to the market. He started looking for his car keys, realized he'd probably left them in the Ford after the last run to the liquor store. He opened the front door.

A wave of thunder shook the house and lightning crackled through the blackened sky. Suddenly it was pouring rain, and the huge figure on the doorstep was soaking wet. Walt caught sight of a yellow slicker, wide shoulders, blazing eyes. The man raised a massive leg and kicked at him. The door burst open, and Walt fell backwards, trying to scream for help, but only managed a wheezing moan.

The rain stopped, the sky cleared. It was gone.

The vision had hit like a flashbulb, illuminating the darkness and then retreating rapidly into shadow. Once again, a bizarre hallucination had nearly blinded him and then just as suddenly disappeared. What the hell is going on around here?

Walt crawled back into the kitchen, trying to talk himself sober. He'd had enough alcohol. It's time to join AA and get my shit together, he thought. Walt knew he was a young man, with time to marry again and start another family. These had to be hallucinations, maybe even D.T.'s from withdrawal. He sat on the curling linoleum, hugging his knees and shaking with fear. Unless, of course, this place is haunted. The thought came unbidden, but once formed it refused to go away. Haunted?

And then that hoarse cry of agony again, drowning in echo. It seemed closer, now; louder than before. Walt slowly turned his head, searching for the sound.

AAAAAhhhhhhhhhh it cried. Suddenly it was clear to him, the way a man studying a foreign language suddenly makes sense of a previously obscure turn of phrase, that the wail was saying dear god please stop, oh please let me die....

Was it coming from the bathroom?

The teenaged ghost had said: it happened in the bathroom.

Walt ran for the back door, his being filled with dread. He twisted the knob but it refused to turn. He ran for the side door. The faces pressed up against the glass, it happened in the bathroom, one said softly. The words fluttered like moths circling towards the crematorium of a bug light. He screamed a silent scream of his own, and backed away towards the center of the living room. He turned towards the front door.

Paramedics, rushing in with stretchers. They passed close enough for him to make out the detailed stitching on the patches of their jackets and the name of the ambulance company, and then like an old movie stopping and starting again they burst back into the room and went by him and just vanished. Walt closed his eyes. When he opened them again he was standing at the bathroom door. He could hear music, now. Old Doobie Brothers keyboard riffs, one of his favorite songs, "What A Fool Believes." There ain't been one band worth a shit since the Doobies broke up. But that was years and years ago.

Now all the radios played was that rap junk. Maybe this was an oldies station? Either that, or....

The house was haunted, and the radio was playing stuff from a quarter of a century ago.

There was only one way to find out, of course.

Walt backed away again, shaking his head. Too much booze. Maybe he had done some crystal meth to stay up and that was making him fucking psychotic. Better get to a hospital or something, he thought. Get some help. And the cry came again AAAhhhhh and it was coming from the bathroom for sure, and now he was moving back towards the door as if pushed from behind, against his own will. Only one way to find out.

Walt ran and ran and ran, but like in a bad dream he couldn't seem to get anywhere by running. And the door burst open again and that huge figure in the raincoat was coming in the front, and the teams of paramedics were coming in from the side door, and the teenagers were at the back again, and he had nowhere else to go but into the bathroom. Maybe I am dreaming...? He threw the door open and gagged.

Janet was seated on the toilet, fully clothed, with the baby in her arms. Her light brown hair had been parted neatly down the middle by the bullet that had emptied her skull and splattered the pink tiles. The second bullet had gone through the baby and into her body. There was only a little blue hole in the baby itself, and the coat hid the rest of the mess that had once been their stomachs.

That cry again, echoing off the tiled walls of the bathroom: AAAAhhhhhh. It was his own hoarse voice, as he had somehow always known it would be. Walt turned and saw his emptied body lying fully clothed in the red tub, the wounds at his raised wrists gaping open like the gills of two white fish, frothing pink blood, gasping for one last drink of water.

The house was haunted, by a tormented soul never to know peace.

AAAAAAhhhhhhhh...Oh God please stop it, please let me die...

The first time he heard it, the plaintive cry sounded like the wail of a tortured prisoner. The hairs on the back of his neck fluttered and stiffened. It was as if he had cleared his throat in a deep canyon, only to have the echo return as a scream.

Walt had been drinking for days.

© Harry Shannon 2001, 2002.
Bad Seed by Harry Shannon
This story was first published in Twilight Showcase Magazine (March, 2001), and is reprinted in Harry's collection Bad Seed published by Medium Rare Books.

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