Body Cast


My therapist suggested I write this out. I guess reliving that night and putting my experiences on paper will help me get over the trauma.

A few years ago, I was in a motorcycle wreck. Broke my left tibia and fibula, shattered my right patella, got a greenstick fracture of my left femur, multiple fractures in my pelvis, breaks in almost all my ribs, and two broken collarbones. I was immobilized from the shoulders down by a heavy body cast. They told me I was lucky.

My wife, Violet, was supportive and nurturing. She never once complained about having to care for me. She cooked all my meals, kept me company, and emptied my bedpan without grimacing. About two weeks into my convalescence, Jenna called us, bawling, because her college roommate died. Vi had to leave immediately and be there for her. Vi’s sister, Kathy, was going to take care of me.

When I woke up the following morning, Vi was off to get Jenna. Kathy was there, cheerfully making breakfast and talking up a storm as she helped me with my more embarrassing biological needs. Like her sister, she never made me feel ashamed. She left around 11 that night and told me she’d be back at dawn.

Continue reading “Body Cast”

Maria’s Extra-Credit Assignment


When I was in college, I dated a biologist named Maria. Well, a biology undergraduate. She was a lot of fun, albeit slightly odd. Being a bit odd myself, we hit it off right away. Our first date lasted almost 12 hours – the entirety of which was spent talking as we sipped terrible coffee in a 24-hour diner.

Maria told me she wanted to focus on entomology after undergrad, then started to regale me with passionate stories about the local banana slug.

I was familiar with the banana slug. Everyone on campus was. They have an unfortunate habit of falling out of trees and landing on the heads of unsuspecting students and faculty. Being around 8” long and remarkably disgusting, having one plop on one’s head is pretty close to a living nightmare. My first month on campus, one missed me by inches and splattered on the concrete. I was picking slug out from between my shoelaces for a week.

Continue reading “Maria’s Extra-Credit Assignment”

My cellar door is breathing.


We’d been finding paint chips and broken bits of plaster on the carpet near the cellar door. I’d vacuum them up, but each morning they’d be back. At first, I thought it had to be from mice or termites burrowing into the wall. We’ve had mice in the basement since we moved in, but they’d never been seen anywhere else in the house. Despite that, I looked for evidence that they could’ve made the mess, but I couldn’t find any. There wasn’t anything out of sort whatsoever, aside from what we’d find in the mornings.

Larry didn’t think much of it. He mentioned something about a construction site a mile or so away where they’d been blasting out rock. Apparently the shockwaves they produce can form cracks on walls and ceilings. Just cosmetic issues, he assured me. Nothing structural. But neither of us could remember hearing any blasting – especially in the middle of the night.

My guess was whatever had been making our cellar warmer than usual over the last few weeks was to be blamed. Neither Larry nor I could figure out why that was happening, either, but we both assumed there was something with the furnace. The HVAC technician couldn’t find anything wrong, but even he admitted it was strange that the basement was a full 30 degrees warmer than the temperature set on the thermostat.

So, with the working belief that the paint and plaster chips were from the expansion and contraction of the doorway, we went on caring about more important things and hoped the heat issue would fix itself.

Last week, I was getting home late after a red-eye flight back from my sister’s. Larry was dead asleep when I walked in the house at 4:30am, and I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t believe I hadn’t killed myself driving home. After I put my stuff down and was getting ready to head upstairs, I saw something that, at the time, I was certain was the result of my exhaustion: the cellar door and the surrounding frame were moving in and out.

I shook my head to get my senses back, but the door and frame still moved in a slow, deliberate pattern. Tiny flecks of plaster fell with each contraction. I walked up to the door and put my hand on it. I still wasn’t trusting my eyes and knew that touch would confirm or deny what I was seeing. As I expected, the second I touched the door, the movement stopped. I went upstairs and slept for 10 hours.

Larry was at work when I woke up. He was pulling a double that day, and I likely wouldn’t see him again until the next morning. After I showered and went downstairs, I found quite a bit more plaster and paint on the floor than usual. The memory of what I thought I’d seen the night before came back, and I experienced an involuntary twinge of fear. It made me feel a bit silly – almost like how I’d felt when I was a little girl and still afraid of the dark.

I brought out the vacuum and started to clean up the mess. When I was running the vacuum over the carpet right next to the cellar, I felt hot air rushing out of the cracks on the sides and bottom of the door. Not warm. Hot. I shut off the vacuum and listened. Aside from the gentle rush of hot air, there was nothing.

I tentatively touched the doorknob, ready to pull back if it was too hot. It wasn’t. It was very warm, but not hot. The fear came again as I knew I was about to open the door and go downstairs. I didn’t want to. The child me wouldn’t have. But I’m 52 years old. This is our house, and we’ve lived here for 26 years. We know it inside and out. There was nothing to be afraid of.

The fear remained. I opened the door and was hit in the face with a rush of hot, wet air.

While the temperature wasn’t unendurable, it was entirely unpleasant. My plan was to rush downstairs to make sure nothing was on fire, then run back up and call the HVAC man for an emergency visit, no matter the cost. I tiptoed down the old, wooden steps and entered the basement.

The wind rushing up the stairs faded as I got closer to the bottom. All that remained was humid, oppressive air. I began sweating immediately, and I walked across the room toward the furnace. It wasn’t even on. I touched it, and while warm, it wasn’t close to the temperature of the room.

Condensation was covering the tiny windows at the top of the walls. And there was an odor. It was heavy and thick and reminded me of vomit. I felt my stomach churning as my mission now became finding the source of the smell. Whatever it was, it had to go.

It didn’t take long.

On the other side of the furnace, up against the wall, was a pile of dead mice. Tens of them. Maybe 50. They were hideously decayed and dripping with dark yellow slime. I gagged so hard I felt my eyes bulge and I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t noticed them before, and I was miserable about the prospect of cleaning them up. But it had to be done.

I ran upstairs, grabbed a bucket, some kitchen gloves, and a bottle of bleach. Back in the stifling basement, I grabbed the vermin as quickly as I could, threw them all in the bucket, threw the gloves on top, and poured bleach over the whole area. I’d come back later and scrub the remaining slime and bleach and sloughed fur off the floor. I just couldn’t take any more at the moment.

I grabbed the bucket and headed back upstairs. I could’ve sworn I saw the cellar doorway widening and narrowing as I went, accompanied by waxing and waning gusts of hot air on my skin. My fear and disgust were bordering on terror as I burst through the doorway into the cheery living room.

I stood in the center of the living room, watching the doorway. It wasn’t moving. The bucket of dead vermin smelled incomprehensibly putrid. I went out the back door and was ready to throw the whole thing way out back where the property met the woods, when I stopped. There was smoke coming from the gloves on top of the mice. Another smell joined that of the putrefying rodents: burning rubber. I upended the bucket into the brush. I saw that the parts of the gloves that had touched the mice were bubbling and burning away.

As soon as I got back inside, I called the HVAC guy. He said he was booked solid all day and any work after 6pm would be at double the usual rate. I told him I didn’t care. I needed the furnace fixed. I needed whatever it was leaking removed. I couldn’t have our home in the shape it was in anymore.

The HVAC guy arrived around 7. I felt bad to be pulling him away from dinner with his family, so I made him a sandwich and some macaroni and cheese. He appreciated it, and brought the plate downstairs with him so he could eat while he worked. I wasn’t exactly sure how anyone could eat under conditions like I’d seen that afternoon, but I didn’t bother arguing. I left him to his work and went next door to see my elderly neighbor.

We got to talking, and it was almost 10 by the time I realized the HVAC technician was still working. I wished Gladys a good night and went home. The tech’s van was still in the driveway.

I walked inside and headed to the cellar door. Plaster and dried paint chips littered the carpet and were being blown across the room by the steady breeze coming up the staircase. Three deep cracks in the door frame and ceiling had appeared.

I called down to the technician and asked how it was going. He didn’t reply. I called again, louder. Nothing. That same fear welled up in me again. I looked around. This time, the cheery living room was dark. The windows showed nothing but blackness and the distorted reflection of diffuse kitchen light and the harsh illumination from the tech’s lamps in the basement.

I called a third time. He didn’t respond, but I jumped when a loud, splintering crack rang out right next to me as another fissure appeared in the door frame. I could’ve sworn I saw the frame move right before it happened.

My fourth and final call went unanswered. For the second time that day, I knew I’d go down the stairs. My 52 year-old body carried my frightened, 8 year-old mind down the steps. I felt hot, sticky air on my face.

The moment I reached the bottom, the smell hit me. It was just like it’d been with the mice, only heavier. I spoke the tech’s name, rather than calling it. My voice was small and weak and I realized, as I walked toward where he’d been working, I was shaking.

I reached the furnace and headed around to the other side. The smell was so strong, my eyes had started to water. But even through my bleary, tear-filled eyes, I could see the technician’s clothes and shoes. They were covered in the same yellow slime and smoked weakly as whatever was burning them ate its way through. The man who owned the clothes was nowhere to be found.

I ran upstairs and called the police, fully aware that the doorway was moving in and out as I ascended the staircase, feeling cool air against my face, followed by hot air against my back. I left the house and waited with Gladys for them to arrive.

It’s been five days and the technician has not been recovered. There’s been a town-wide search for him, and his wife and daughters have appeared on television begging for him to come home. Larry and I have allowed the police to search the house while we stay at a hotel. I’ve refused to go back until everything is resolved.

It wasn’t the terrifying strangeness of the cellar that has kept me out of our house. It wasn’t the still-missing man who came to fix our furnace. It was something else. It was the result of the chemical analysis of the substance on the HVAC man’s clothes and the mice I’d taken from the basement. Normally, we wouldn’t have been given that information, but Larry’s brother is a cop. He told us what it was, and now I know I’ll never set foot in that house again as long as I live.

Stomach acid.

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People are disappearing in northern Canada.


For the last 35 years, a lake in northern Canada has been the site of hundreds of suspected drownings. The location is in the middle of the Canadian tundra. There is nothing around. No food, no shelter. Just cold, inhospitable wilderness.

The lake is frozen eight months out of the year. Nothing happens then. But during the thaw, when we’re doing our flyovers, we’ll see clothes floating on the surface of the water.

Like we’ve always done, we’ll dispatch a team to investigate. They’ll bring back what they can recover, which will invariably be clothing and someone’s wallet or purse.

So far, we’ve never recovered a single body. Continue reading “People are disappearing in northern Canada.”

The Sleeping Game


My brother and cousins and I used to play a game whenever we had a sleepover. It was simple: we’d stay up and scare the living f**k out of each other. When we were at Erin and Kyle’s house, it was the scariest by far. Her house was haunted. That’s what everyone said. Even her parents knew it. “Don’t worry about Mr. Toombs,” they’d say. “He’s harmless.” Then they’d laugh and go back to what they were doing.

Mr. Toombs was the man who owned the house before Erin’s parents. He died all alone and no one realized he was gone until many months later. Even though the house got gutted and renovated before it went on the market, we had this feeling he’d died in the basement right near the furnace. The air there just felt thick and heavy – like old, sour breath.

We’d have our sleepovers a few times a month. Our parents all worked at the same factory. Whenever they had to take third shift, we’d either stay at home and Erin and Kyle would come to our house or Greg and I would go over to Erin and Kyle’s. I never minded all the moving around until Kyle said we had to play that game. I hated it.

Kyle was the oldest and could be mean if he wanted to. He wasn’t a bully; he usually knew when to back off and genuinely felt bad if he made one of us cry. But he still liked to get his way. And that meant we’d have to play the sleeping game.

The first time we played the sleeping game, we were at our house. The four of us were in our sleeping bags in the living room and Kyle started to tell a really terrifying story about a skinny alien that comes through the window and cuts you up in your bed. Greg, Erin, and I hated the story, but I could tell Erin was especially horrified. She was only six. I kept telling Kyle to take it easy on his sister, but he was relentless. To Erin’s credit, she didn’t cry, but I think that was the problem. He probably would’ve stopped if she had.

The game went like this: after the story, you weren’t allowed to get out of your sleeping bag. No matter how scared you were, you couldn’t get up to get water, you couldn’t go to the bathroom, and under no circumstances could you run upstairs to get comfort from the grownups. If you did, you’d have to get an indian burn from the rest of the group.

The night of the alien story, I couldn’t stop looking at the living room windows. Whenever a car went by and cast its light against the wall, I’d shiver and feel my balls drawing up into my body while goosebumps rose on the back of my neck. Stupid Greg and Kyle were asleep already. Erin, whose sleeping bag was next to mine, was crying to herself.

“I need to pee,” she whispered. “And I’m too scared to get up and I don’t want to get an indian burn when I get back.”

I looked at Greg and Kyle. They were both completely out. “Go ahead,” I whispered. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Erin gave me a tight-lipped smile and snuck out of her sleeping back and padded down the hallway. Right around when I’d assumed I would hear the bathroom door close, she screamed. It was a shrill, horror-filled explosion from her tiny lungs, and the three of us, now wide awake, vaulted from our sleeping bags in her direction. We got there a couple seconds before my parents were thundering down the steps. They flipped on the lights.

Erin was in the corner of the bathroom, sobbing. Her pajama pants were soaked. Mom picked her up and held her to her chest and asked what happened.

“The alien,” Erin whimpered, then pointed to the shower curtain. Dad opened it. Nothing was there.

“It was just a shadow, honey,” Dad told her. He glared at us. “Come with me, boys,” he ordered, and brought us back into the living room while Mom drew a bath for Erin.

After a long lecture from my father, we agreed to not tell any more scary stories. Erin eventually came back to her sleeping bag, and with Dad snoring on the couch, we all went to sleep.

The next night, of course, brought more stories. They were much tamer, though. Greg told a dumb one about a lady who gets pulled into a grave by a killer. I told an even worse one about some teenager whose baby brother’s head came off. Erin actually laughed at that one it was so bad. We got ready to go to sleep, still bound by the agreement that we couldn’t get up for any reason until it was morning.

At some point in the middle of the night, Greg shook me awake. “Hey, we caught Erin coming back from the bathroom.” She was already rubbing her arm in discomfort from the burn her brother had given her. Greg grabbed her other one and twisted, making Erin yelp. I took her arm and just squeezed it a little. I felt bad.

Months went by and we played the sleeping game every time we were together. Everyone got caught at least once trying to sneak out. Indian burns were had by all. Erin, though, got the most. It was obvious she wasn’t having any fun. To make matters worse, she looked exhausted on the mornings after we played. I brought it up to Kyle, and he thought about it for a minute, then said we’d do it once a month instead of every time. I didn’t argue.

We kept our little agreement to ourselves because we didn’t want Erin to think we were treating her like a baby. That night, we were sleeping at their house. They had a beautifully furnished basement with a big-screen TV, a ping-pong table, and all sorts of other fun stuff. We set up our sleeping bags and played video games until well after 10pm. My aunt came down and said to turn it all off and get to sleep, so we made like we were getting ready for bed, but when the lights went off, Kyle said it was time to play the sleeping game.

I groaned, but he shot me a look and mouthed “only one,” to me. At least he was holding up his end of the bargain. Like we always did, anyone who needed to get up to pee or get a drink beforehand was allowed to. I went, followed by Kyle, then Erin. We all came back.

In the glow of the flashlight Kyle liked to hold under his chin when he told his stories, Kyle started to talk about a ghost. The ghost. Mr. Toombs. Even Greg looked uncomfortable as he stared at the slatted wooden door which served as the barrier between the furnished and unfurnished cellar. The furnace was on the other side.

“Mr. Toombs waits until you’re asleep,” Kyle whispered, “and sucks your breath into his lungs. The longer you sleep, the more he takes away. And if you sleep for too long, you won’t have any air left to breathe and you’ll…be…dead.”

My eyes were wide with fear and Greg just stared at the ground. Kyle, too, looked like he’d successfully startled himself, especially when the furnace kicked on and we all jumped. Erin, surprisingly, had actually managed to go to sleep first, despite bawling her eyes out by the end of the story and making Kyle promise to give her his snack at lunch or else she’d tell on him. I snuck her one of the Lifesaver candies I’d stashed away to help her feel better. I guess it’d worked.

The rest of us tried to go to sleep. Kyle caught me getting up to pee and gave me a wicked indian burn, but since he caught me while he was on his way to the bathroom himself, I was able to reciprocate. Hard. He punched me in the arm and I swatted him in the balls. I won. We tiptoed back into the basement and got in our sleeping bags. It was the worst night’s sleep I’d ever had; each time the furnace kicked on, I knew I’d see Mr. Toombs floating above my sleeping bag ready to suck the life out of me.

Like always, my aunt came downstairs in the morning to wake us up for school. She started with gentle calls, then hollers, then shouts, then, since we always ignored her, she stomped down the stairs and threatened to haul us out of the sleeping bags.

“Let’s go!,” she ordered, “get dressed and go get your breakfast. Erin, if I have to ask you again I’m gonna flush your goldfish.”

Erin didn’t budge.

“I swear to God, Erin, Goldeen’s going down into the sewer with the Ninja Turtles in 3…2…1…”

Nothing. Concern flashed across my aunt’s face. Kyle, who’d been sleeping next to her, shook his sister. She didn’t respond. My aunt rushed across the room and pulled Erin to her. She hung limply out of the sleeping bag.

Everything went really fast for a while. The ambulance came while my aunt and uncle screamed and cried and Kyle, Greg, and I just sat there in stunned silence. My parents arrived soon after. They were also crying. We were all asked if we saw her drink any alcohol or take any medicine. None of us had. I knew Erin had been the last one to use the bathroom before bed, so I mentioned that. Someone went into the bathroom and returned with an empty bottle of sleeping pills that’d been in the medicine cabinet.

Through her tears, my aunt insisted that the bottle had been empty to begin with; that she’d been saving it so she could remember which kind had worked for her so she could get it again. But there was no other explanation at the time. Erin was dead.

There was a funeral. It was terribly sad. But I went on with my life. Everyone did. I learned years later that the toxicology reports had been negative and Erin’s death had been ruled an accidental asphyxiation. They blamed the sleeping bag, and my aunt and uncle sued for millions.

When Greg was moving out before his first year at college, I was asked to help load the van. I didn’t want to, but I helped anyway. Some of the heavier things were boxed up in the unfinished part of the cellar, by the furnace. I went down and tried not to think about poor Erin.

When I opened the door and entered the warm furnace room, I remembered that feeling I got the first time I’d been in there. An image of Mr. Toombs decaying next to the furnace flashed through my head. I shivered. But then I noticed the familiar, strange heaviness in the air. I noticed the smell. It was different from the sour odor that’d reminded me of the last breath trapped inside a corpse’s rotting lungs. This smell was sweet. It was cloying. Like the breath of someone who’d eaten a lime Lifesaver.

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