I always worried my strange habit would keep people away from me.

I’ve always been self-conscious about my thumb sucking problem. And it is a problem. Most kids either grow out of it or have the habit gently coaxed away by attentive parents or counselors. My upbringing was different, though. I never grew out of it. I never saw my parents for more than a couple hours every week. They’d be so busy with work that the only people I’d see on a regular basis were the servants and housekeepers. God knows they weren’t going to correct the habits of their employer’s only son. The heir to the family fortune.

Maybe if I had friends or family members around, I would’ve matured normally. That opportunity is long gone, though. I think my habit is a plea for security; having no real comfort or warmth in my life probably leads me to engage in such an infantile practice. I’m 20 – way too old to be doing something as immature as thumb sucking, but here I am. I never expected anything to change for the better.

When my parents died in that car fire, I was the only one left. I was 15 years old, wealthy beyond my comprehension, and aside from the servants, the only one in a home that would be better referred to as a palace. The servants doted on me like they’d been taught to. My tutors came and left on schedule. No one dared to tell me to get a social life or interact with the world around me. They left me in peace with my laptop and video games. For all they knew – for all I knew – I’d be browsing and playing alone until the day I died.

Like I said before, I’m 20 now. Until recently, my life continued the way I’d expected. Then I met Aria. Aria is the daughter of one of the servants. She’s younger than me, probably 16 or 17. But she’s the first person who ever took interest in me on a personal level, rather than just going through the motions of servant-to-master interaction. When her mother, whose name I don’t even know, found out, she was very angry with her daughter and apologized to me profusely. I was assured Aria wouldn’t bother me again. I said it was okay. I allowed Aria to visit as frequently as she wished.

We quickly grew close, and it didn’t take long before Aria brought up my habit. I was mortified. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it while she talked to me. I slid the wrinkled, saliva drenched thumb out of my mouth and clenched my fist around it in some halfhearted attempt to hide my shame. Aria told me not to be embarrassed. She took my hand in her own and gently unballed my fist. As I watched in disbelief, my heart pounding so powerfully I worried she’d hear it, Aria took the still-wet thumb in her own mouth.

You have to realize something: I’d never even hugged a person aside from my mother when I was a child. This was a level of intimacy I’d never expected to see in person, let alone participate in. I shuddered with nervous excitement. Aria stopped what she was doing and asked if I was okay. I nodded and told her I just needed to get some air. I left her on the couch.

I stood on the balcony and gazed at the city below. I realized it was the first time I’d been outside in months. While the fresh air loosened my tension and helped clear my head, I felt Aria come up behind me and wrap an arm around my waist. I jumped a little at the contact.

“Shhh,” Aria told me. “It’s okay.” She knew I was nervous, but the feeling was dissipating. I felt comfortable with her. Comfortable enough to engage in my habit without feeling like a baby.

I brought my hand to my mouth. My head spun when I tasted the remains of her saliva on the wrinkled digit. I sucked with purpose, wanting to swallow what had been inside her mere minutes ago. I sucked harder. I felt the nail come off and stick to the roof of my mouth but I didn’t care. My tongue sought out the virgin flesh underneath. Aria turned me around to face her, and our eyes locked.

“Please let me help you,” she whispered. Before I could oblige, the door opened on the other side of the room. A servant came in, pushing a cart with a tray on it. She kept her head down, apologizing for interrupting me.

“I’m sorry sir,” she muttered, “but perhaps you’d prefer a fresh one?” The servant removed the cloche from the tray and revealed 10 severed thumbs, neatly arranged in order of skin color. I dragged the old thumb from my mouth. I’d used it for over a day and the skin was beginning to slough from the bone. Aria looked at the tray with excitement. “Can we share these?,” she asked. I grinned at her, then noticed the bandage on the servant’s left hand. She quickly hid it behind her back.

“We had trouble finding a tenth one, sir,” the servant informed me. “I’m sorry, truly, if mine is not good enough.”

“Which one is it?,” I asked. She pointed to the third one from the end. I picked it up and handed it to Aria. She looked at it for a moment, then slid it into her mouth. Her lips formed a smile around the dark digit.

I dismissed the servant. Aria and I stood on the balcony, quietly sucking our thumbs. I felt her hand wrap around mine and she leaned her head against my shoulder. I beamed with happiness. Finally, a chance to live a normal life.

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A Very Bad Place to Hide

I was always good at hide and seek. While being small for my age sucked most of the time, it was one of my biggest assets when hiding. Combine that with my flexibility I’d developed from being in gymnastics classes since I was four, everyone wanted me on their team when we played. Keep in mind this was before kids had video games and cell phones; if it sounds like we played a lot of hide and seek and that seems weird, well, maybe now it is. Back then, though, we didn’t have anything else to do.

Maggie’s family didn’t have much money and they lived a few blocks away from the junkyard. When the wind blew in a certain direction, their house smelled pretty bad. We got used to it, though, and we still liked hanging out there. Her parents were nice and always gave us chips and soda. I think they were happy Maggie had friends and wanted to make sure we kept visiting her. That didn’t cross my mind at the time, though. All I cared about were the chips and soda. I liked Maggie; don’t get me wrong, but chips and soda were chips and soda.

During the summer months, despite being told not to, our small group would hop the fence of the junkyard and play hide and seek amidst the piles of old cars and dishwashers and microwave ovens. The one guy who worked there, Luis, didn’t seem to care. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he’d tell us, before retreating back to the little shed that housed his television and beer.

On Maggie’s birthday in August, her parents threw a surprise party. All in all, about 20 kids showed up. She had a great time and I was pleased that the wind wasn’t blowing the smell of garbage into the party. A lot of the kids hadn’t been there before and I didn’t want them to be mean to Maggie or her parents if the place stunk. After cake and an impromptu water fight, a few kids left but about 14 of us remained to play hide and seek. For such a big game, we split into two teams – creatively named the Hiders and the Seekers. I was a Hider.

The whole neighborhood was fair game. The only catch was we weren’t allowed to hide in someone’s house. The Hiders would have ten minutes to hide before the Seekers would come out of Maggie’s living room and go looking for them. The penalty for being found was a water balloon to the face. If the Seekers couldn’t find everyone from the other team in an hour, all the Seekers would get water ballooned. I didn’t want to be found. I really, really wanted to be the one to throw a water balloon in Javier’s face. Javier was a dick.

The moment our team was told to go hide, I took off like a shot for the junkyard. The other day when we were hanging around in there, I saw the perfect hiding spot for the next time we were going to play. As I ran, I saw a few kids jumping in bushes or climbing way up into trees. I remember thinking how great the trees were for hiding. The leaves were so thick you couldn’t even see the individual branches. I was really excited for my team to win, even if I ended up getting found.

Once I hopped the fence to the junkyard, I made a beeline for that perfect hiding spot. An old refrigerator. I was moderately dismayed when I opened the door and there was still some gross, rotting food in there. I pulled it out as quick as I could, hid the stuff on the other side of a crumpled car, and jumped inside. Now, keep in mind even though I was young, I wasn’t completely stupid. The fridge had a couple holes in the side that were probably from whatever piece of machinery had moved it. I knew I’d be able to breathe without a problem. So, I situated myself at the bottom of the compartment, tucked my legs to my chest, and closed myself in using the shelf in the door.

It was dark, smelly, and hot. None of it mattered, though. I was giddy with the anticipation of potentially being the only one left unfound; the one who’d win the Hiders the opportunity to give the Seekers a good soaking. Especially Javier. Time went by and I started getting a little sleepy. I might have dozed off for a minute or two, but I awoke with a start to the sound of a loud clattering. Before I could register concern or fear, something smashed into the back of the refrigerator, pitching it down on its front side. I smacked my head hard as it fell and might have lost consciousness for a little while.

When I came to my senses, I panicked. Whatever had fallen from the pile of junk to knock over my hiding spot must’ve ended up partially resting on the fridge. It wouldn’t budge. I screamed and yelled for Luis, hoping he’d hear me. I thrashed around in the confined space, my limbs getting tangled in the wire racks of the remaining shelves which had been dislodged in the fall. I tried to straighten my legs, but they were too cramped against the sides and tangled in the racks to move more than a few inches. I was face down against the immovable door of the refrigerator.

I noticed an intensely putrid smell coming from the area of the freezer near the top of my head. Something wet was spreading around my head and neck. Whatever had been in the freezer must’ve gotten broken or unsealed by the impact. Then I felt something pinch my right earlobe. Hard. I yelped and tried to smack away whatever was biting me, but my arm was too tangled up. I pushed my shoulder up to my ear and hear a loud crunch as I killed it. It took me a second before I remembered what it was; I’d seen a couple earwigs in the fridge before I hid inside. I thought I’d gotten them out when I threw out the food, but apparently I’d missed one.

I kept yelling and trying to get someone’s attention. Another pinch, this time on the other side of my head. There was nothing I could do about it. Not from the position I was in. I felt it again on the top of my head. I pushed my legs against the sides of the fridge hard and forced my head against the plastic in front of me. As I felt the bug crunch against my scalp, a rush of the foul liquid escaped the cracked freezer compartment. I realized pushing my head against the freezer had only made the crack worse, and I gagged as the stuff touched my lips.

The odor and nausea was forgotten quickly, though, as I felt pinches on my head, face, and neck. I felt the earwigs crawling on me, making their way down my shirt and toward my legs. I exploded with as much motion as I could muster, cutting my arms and legs on the wire racks that were trapping them and doing anything I could to slap the biting, pinching things off me.

In the distance, I heard sirens. They were getting closer. Part of me was hoping they’d be coming to my rescue, but I knew there was no way they could’ve known I was trapped. If Luis hadn’t noticed, no one would notice. As the insects crawled over my trapped, contorted body and I struggled and screamed with no effect, I realized for the first time that I might die in there if no one found me. My hope was resting on Luis hearing me scream and the Seekers, even stupid Javier, thinking I might be hiding somewhere in the junkyard.

The sirens kept getting closer. It almost sounded like they were right across the street. I screamed as loud as my already-damaged vocal cords would allow. Then one of the insects crawled directly into my right ear.

I made a sound I never knew could come out of my mouth. I tried to jam my shoulder against my ear again, praying I could kill the thing before it went any deeper. I was unsuccessful. I heard, with terrifying volume, its hard body squeezing through the warm, tight canal. The scratching sound was worse than the countless sets of pincers still sinking into me as I flailed. I heard and felt the thing going deeper – so deep its mere presence was causing pain deep in my head – and with a violent scratching sound so loud it drowned out my screams, I knew it was up against my eardrum.

The sirens had stopped, but my screaming had not. More of the earwigs were seeking a warm, safe place where they could hide. As the one inside my head continued scratching at my eardrum, I felt at least two moving up the leg of my shorts. In any other situation, that would’ve been enough to get me to strip out of my clothes, no matter where I was or who was around. At that point, though, I was just grateful they weren’t biting.

I’d been trapped for about a half hour. My voice was raspy and my throat hurt worse than it had when I caught strep in the winter. The shriek of the sirens started up again and I jumped, sending the earwigs into attack mode again. I felt their pincers lock on my scalp, back, neck, and perineum. The one inside my ear pinched the wall of the canal. It sounded like the loudest “click” you can imagine and stars exploded in my vision from the pain. More sounds of abject terror and misery escaped my mouth.

More time went by. The fluid coating my body had begun to dry and turn tacky. Whenever I tried to lift my face from the surface it was resting on, my skin stuck to it. I had to jerk my head to free it, which only aggravated the earwigs. I wailed and sobbed for a while, knowing I’d be found dead in a month with my body as rotten as the food I’d pulled out to fit myself in the fridge.

An enormous crash made me jump and set off the bugs again. This time, I heard another person yelling. It was Luis. He was trying to get me to talk and say I was still okay. He’d heard me. I screamed that I was trapped and stuck and I needed help. Another crash – this time the world spun as the refrigerator was flipped onto its back and the doors were flung open. The light of the late afternoon blinded me and I felt strong hands pulling me up by my shirt. My eyes adjusted and I saw the face of Luis studying me before he started slapping me all over, crushing or pushing off the bugs covering me. I looked down at myself – there were hundreds of them coating my sticky clothes and skin. They covered me in a reddish brown mosaic, all of them attacking me with their long pincers as they panicked at the violence and light they’d been introduced to.

I pulled off my shirt and threw it on the ground and joined Luis in brushing the remaining earwigs off me. In my head, the one by my eardrum squirmed and pinched over and over. I screamed and Luis, concerned for my safety, picked me up under his arm and ran toward Maggie’s house. He’d seen me coming from there earlier before getting involved in whatever afternoon television he was watching. Apparently after realizing he hadn’t seen me leave, he decided to look around to make sure I was okay. And I wasn’t.

When we got to the house, Luis just said “call 911” to Maggie’s parents and left to go back to work. I wondered where all the kids were, but only for about five seconds – that was the amount of time the earwig gave me before it started moving and pinching inside my ear.

Ten minutes and countless inner-ear pinches later, a paramedic was using a pair of forceps to pull the thing out of my head. He showed it to me as it writhed the metal that was squeezing it. It was so much smaller than it felt. Welts had started to rise from a few of the parts of me that had been bitten multiple times. Mom arrived right around then, and at the request of the EMT, she was going to drive me to the hospital to get checked out. While we were walking out to the car, Maggie told me Ron had fallen out of the tree where he was hiding and broke his leg really badly. Those were the sirens I’d heard.

As I gingerly eased my shirtless, sore, and sticky body in the car, praying the earwig hadn’t laid eggs inside my head, I was drenched by an explosion of water that soaked not only me, but the inside of Mom’s car. One of the balloons. “Nice nipples, asshole!,” Javier yelled over his shoulder as he ran away with Mom screaming at him. Such a dick.

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Amy’s Wish

When Amy was four, I taught her the eyelash game. You know the one. Find an eyelash, close your eyes, make a wish, take a deeeeeeeep breath, and blow it into the air. “If you’re lucky,” I told her, “your wish will come true.” Amy considered it for a moment, then announced it was a stupid game. I laughed and asked her not to say “stupid” anymore. I remember being glad she didn’t think Santa and the Easter Bunny were stupid. That would’ve been a problem.

Right around Amy’s 7th birthday, she got a very special present: a new baby brother named Michael. Amy adored Michael from day one. She’d always ask to hold him, which we allowed once we were sure she’d be gentle. She was. Michael was fond of his sister and if Dawn or I couldn’t get him to stop crying, we’d put him in Amy’s arms and he’d calm right down. Needless to say, we were grateful.

When Michael was a year old, he developed a high fever. We rushed him to the emergency room where they successfully brought down his temperature, but something else was wrong. Tests revealed the worst possible scenario: leukemia. He’d have to begin treatments as soon as possible.

We didn’t tell Amy the full story about her brother’s illness, but she was able to figure out it was serious. I did my best to put on a brave face so Amy wouldn’t get more upset than was necessary. For a little while, it worked. But a few months in, the emotions caught up with her. She descended into a sadness I’d never seen in her young life. One night, over dinner, Amy started crying. “Michael doesn’t think I love him anymore,” she informed me, as tears streamed down her face. It wasn’t a question. She was certain.

I felt like a terrible father. Caught up in the day-to-day living hell of my son’s illness, I’d neglected to help Amy cope with the feelings she’d been forced to endure. At 39, I was having a horrible time dealing with it all; I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like for someone as young as Amy.

After she went to bed, I called Dawn at the hospital and we tried to come up with something that might help. We decided she should visit Michael just to see that he was still okay and that the doctors and nurses were doing their best to make him better. We’d been reluctant to take her to the hospital because Michael was in such bad shape. We didn’t know how she’d handle the sight of him stuffed with tubes and hooked up to monitors, but we also knew too much time had passed. It was important for Amy to see her brother.

When we arrived, Amy was only allowed to look at Michael through the window. To our surprise, she perked up right away. She waved and talked to him, knowing he couldn’t hear her but still wanting to make the effort. I caught her smiling for the first time in a while.

I noticed two eyelashes stuck to Amy’s cheek. Hoping to add to her renewed sense of positivity and not caring if she thought it was stupid, I brushed them from her cheek onto my thumb. Then I asked her to make a wish, half expecting her to roll her eyes and go back to talking to Michael. To my surprise, she smiled again. She closed her eyes, thought for a moment, then blew the lashes away as hard as she could. Then she looked at her brother and grinned. I didn’t need to ask what she wished for.

A couple weeks went by and Michael’s condition improved. It was entirely unexpected and inexplicable; he just started getting better. But the relief brought by the improvement was short-lived. His condition deteriorated soon after. It was what Dawn and I knew would happen but were still unprepared for. Our beautiful son passed away on May 3rd, 2015.

Dawn and I were devastated. Obviously. But Amy was inconsolable. When she learned about Michael’s brief improvement, she got it into her head that he’d continue getting better. She refused to believe he’d taken a turn for the worse. Then, when we explained to her that he had died, all she did was scream. She screamed and cried for days.

Over a month later, when the reality of life without Michael had finally sunk in and the three of us were gradually returning to our normal routines, I made it my goal to be more active in Amy’s life. I’d been neither absent nor distant, but I wanted to be a force of positivity and support for my daughter. After such a trauma, it was what she needed. I made sure she was seeing the psychologist at school and I scheduled a family therapy session for the following week. I was determined to not let our family tragedy scar Amy any more than it had to.

The night before our therapy session, long after I’d fallen asleep, I awoke to Amy standing next to the bed. I could hear her crying. I asked if she wanted to sleep with us for the night, but she didn’t answer. Between her sobs, she was making a blowing sound. I could feel her breath on my face and bare chest. The crying continued.

“Are you okay, hon?,” I asked, fumbling for the lightswitch on the old lamp next to the bed. The crying and blowing sounds intensified. Finally, I found the switch and clicked it on. I gasped.

Amy’s face was drenched with blood. She glared at me with her eyes wide with a combination of terror and rage. She had her hand up to her mouth and was blowing into it. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness of the lamp, I shouted. Dawn awoke with a start and screamed. In Amy’s hand were two, bloody pieces of skin with hair bristling out of them. She kept glaring at me as she sobbed. No, not glaring, I realized. Panic bloomed inside my chest and I struggled to breathe. Ragged flesh dripped blood into Amy’s eyes as she blew hot, panicked breaths onto the amputated eyelids in her palm. The lashes swayed in the humid wind.

“I keep wishing Michael would come back,” she sobbed. “But I’m no good at it.”

“Can you help me wish? Please?”

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After 20 years, my wife finally allowed me to tell this story.

A man screaming

Like all good scary stories, this one begins with a testicle self-examination. Or, as its colloquially known: jerking off. It was my last day in Guatemala and I was sitting in the hotel, waiting to go to the airport, and abusing myself to help pass the time. Things were going as well as could be expected. Until they weren’t. My left middle finger brushed against a lump on my right testicle. My erection wilted like a primrose at Chernobyl.

I did a cursory examination, hoping it might be an ingrown hair. But I knew it wasn’t. It didn’t have the itchy pain of an ingrown hair. No pain at all, actually. It had all the telltale signs of a growth I absolutely did not want anywhere on my body, especially not on my balls. Within 20 minutes, I’d cancelled my flight, phoned Renee to tell her the flight was delayed, and called an emergency clinic to tell them I was on my way.

Fast forward eight hours. Interesting fact about Guatemala: great medical care! I was examined, given an ultrasound, and told, to my enormous relief, the growth was benign. Just a cluster of fatty deposits. It’d go away on its own in a few weeks. I was on the next flight home. Continue reading “After 20 years, my wife finally allowed me to tell this story.”

Farm to Table

farm

I’ve been selling ground meat and sausage made from the people I’ve killed to the hipster restaurants in the city. You know the type: ones with terms like “LOCALLY SOURCED INGREDIENTS” emblazoned on every surface like it somehow makes their food taste good. Not that what I’m selling them tastes bad, mind you. They love it. Everyone does. They think they’re getting some of that heritage-breed pork from those wooly Mangalitsa pigs I’ve got in the yard. Well, they’re not. Those little guys aren’t for sale. The restaurants are buying and serving human remains.

Let me guess: I’m a monster. Oooooooo. Another madman killing innocent people, right? Another psychopath? Well, no. Maybe. Probably not. Here’s the thing – it’s not that I don’t like people. I know everyone has hopes and dreams and blah blah blah.

I had hopes and dreams too. I had a butcher shop and loyal customers for 40 years. Then all the kids started moving in. White kids just out of college. Kids with jobs in technology or some other abstract shit that pays an ungodly amount of money; five times what everyone else in our neighborhoods were making. Kids without a care in the world for the generations of culture they were trampling on.

Rents went up. Fast. Our neighborhoods changed. Fast. Family businesses that’d been operating for years couldn’t afford to stay there anymore and were forced to shut down. After just ten years, the city was nothing like it had been. “Gentrification” was the word that kept getting thrown around. People talked about it like it was a good thing.

I was lucky. I had a nest-egg saved up and didn’t even try to keep paying the rent as it skyrocketed. I saw where it was all going. I closed the shutters on my shop, bought some land upstate, had the foresight to acquire some Mangalitsas before they became popular and expensive, and started my little company. Once a month, I’d drive my van around the old neighborhoods on late Friday and Saturday nights. I’d invite the stumbling, drunken kids to get in for a ride, hit them over the head, and head on back to the farm. Easy peasy Mangalitsy.

Anyway, the great thing about these hipster joints is the owners will cut whatever corners they can if it means they can get an edge on a new or hot product. What does that mean for me? Well, they drive up early Monday morning, buy the meat from me without any USDA stamp, and head on back to the city with a week’s worth of meat. That leaves me with cash in hand and great dirt on the restaurant owners if they ever learn my little secret.

According to one of my buyers – a guy whose claim to fame was when he “Beat Bobby Flay” on TV – the next big thing will be meat from suckling pigs; baby piglets who’ve only consumed milk from their mothers. I glanced at his wife, who he’d brought to show her a “real farm” and “to see how the other half lives.” She nodded absently while cradling a tiny newborn to her chest. Her own little suckling animal.

The guy went on and on about the quality of unweaned, milk-fed product. He went through the recipes he’d planned out. They sounded pretty great, to be honest. Lots of fresh fennel. I love fennel.

I pictured the people bound and gagged in their pens in my basement. Three men and nine women. Basic arithmetic and logistics made me close my eyes for a moment as I thought about how I’d fill the order. The guy talked as I worked out the numbers.

“I’ll be happy to pay you in advance for not only the product, but for exclusivity,” he told me. We strolled around the pigpens as his wife worried aloud about whether the baby could get sick from the smell.

“11 months,” I announced. The guy smiled. Apparently he’d expected a year or more. I shook his weak, uncalloused hand, nodded at his politely-smiling wife, and patted the infant on its little, pink head. They drove off in their Volvo, leaving me with a bag of cash.

Once they were long gone, I headed down to the basement. I thought about the orders I had to fill over the next few months, then slit the throats of the two smaller men and hung them up to drain. I shifted the rest of them around in their pens until I had the grouping I wanted.

As I was heading back upstairs, I turned around and called out to the remaining man, who was sitting in the corner of the pen housing him and his four companions.

“Better start fucking, buddy! Your children are my future!”

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If Anyone Asks

scarecrow

You know when you have something in your house or yard for so long it just becomes part of the scenery? You don’t pay any day-to-day attention to it, but you’d know right away if it was missing or damaged? Well, I’m a retired farmer. I’ve got more property than I know what to do with and more stuff than I know where to put. After 65 years of living in the same spot with the same junk, everything is just scenery. Me included.

Early this morning, when I was making some coffee, I noticed the scarecrow out back was different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It’s pretty far away from the house, and the way my eyesight is these days, I wouldn’t be finding out what had changed until I hauled myself across the field to look from up close. But with the rain coming down as bad as it was, I wouldn’t be satisfying my curiosity any time soon.

I forgot about the scarecrow and went about my daily routine. Coffee with a bacon sandwich on rye with butter. I still have no idea how I developed a taste for rye. When Peggy was still around, she’d always make fun of me for having “exotic tastes.” I did my best to downplay my love for the stuff when she made her own bread. It was good, but wasn’t rye. That said, I’d give up my stupid rye if it meant getting her back.

I had my breakfast at the kitchen table while reading the obituaries. Some poor bastard had published an obit for his Golden Retriever, Happy. Peggy wanted a Golden all her life and I kept putting it off and putting it off until her doctor found the cancer. A month later, I was a widower who never got his wife the one thing she’d always wanted. I hated how that felt. Still do. I tossed the paper across the table and went into the living room to watch some TV.

Morning television is horseshit. One of the things that really stinks about getting older is you just can’t sleep in anymore. It’s not even the fact I’m wide awake as soon as the god damn rooster starts screaming outside, but it’s how I’ve been back and forth to the toilet 12 times since I nodded off the night before. It’s hard to rest when you’ve got a prostate like a softball. Anyway, I was in my recliner watching some awful television about a judge who yells at people when there was a loud “bang” outside near the kitchen.

I figured some poor, dumb bird flew himself into one of the windows or the storm door. I dragged myself off the recliner and headed toward the kitchen, fairly certain I’d have to be replacing some cracked glass. The last thing I needed was water getting in the house.

To my surprise, despite the telltale shape of a bird’s dusty body on the window, all the glass was fine. Filthy, because I’m too lazy to wash them more than once a month, but fine. Satisfied yet tremendously bored, I stared outside and remembered the change to the scarecrow. With my curiosity still piqued, I directed my gaze at it. Same weirdness. The wind was making the remainder of the cornstalks bend pretty badly, but the rain had finally tapered off. I pulled on my boots, opened the back door, and headed out into the field.

The scarecrow stood about 500 feet, or around 150 meters for you Euros, away from the house. Peggy suggested we get it back in the 70s. I never really knew why. We didn’t have any damn crows. She’d dressed the thing in an old tuxedo she’d found at some thrift store, and that was that. Still no crows. Over the decades, the clothes became worn and tattered. The tux was just scraps of cloth but its cork or whatever-wood body stayed pretty intact. That’s why I got surprised when it looked different that morning. The thing was built like a tank.

I couldn’t see a damn thing as I walked through the field in the scarecrow’s direction. Most of the viable corn plants were gone, but lots of crappy ones still grew pretty tall. I was soaked from the dripping stalks after just ten steps. I figured I might as well keep going just to satisfy the diminishing curiosity and feel like I succeeded in doing something today. After a couple minutes, I got to the scarecrow.

It stood about 15 feet high. When I looked up at it, I felt like an asshole’s asshole. Why’d it look different? The wind had blown so hard it turned the body around so instead of its front facing the window, its side did. And if I actually got glasses when the doctor told me to, I would’ve seen that from the kitchen and saved myself a walk and a soaking. I headed back.

I stepped out of the cornfield and went around to the front of the house. I’d forgotten to put away my motorcycle the night before and I needed to make sure the wind hadn’t blown it over. Once I saw the bike was fine, I turned and saw that the fucking storm door was shattered. On cue, the torrential rain resumed, further soaking me and pouring into the house. I was not happy.

Blood-covered glass from the storm door crunched under my boots as I walked through the front hall. The thing that hit the door must’ve been huge; it’d left a trail of gore all the way into the living room. Whatever it was stunk so bad my eyes started to water. As I looked around for its corpse, I stopped in my tracks. The scarecrow, the pouring rain, and the shattered door were put out of my mind when I saw a dog standing next to my recliner. It was terribly injured. Injured to the point where I couldn’t believe it was still alive.

Loops of intestines clung to the floor, leaking putrid grease that bloomed outward as it spread over the hardwood. Its remaining fur, once yellow or some variant thereof, was matted with encrusted blood and other nauseating fluids. It looked emaciated; the flesh of its chest clung to its ribs like rotting shrinkwrap. Through the patchy fur by its neck, a massive infestation of maggots writhed and chewed at the meat. But still, somehow, the dog stood.

When it saw me, the remaining part of the tail swung weakly, as if it was happy to see me. Something clicked and my blood chilled. Happy. The color of the dog was definitely gold. I could see it now that I’d made the connection. I said aloud, “Happy,” and the ruined animal’s tail wagged even harder. Its smell was incomprehensibly awful. Behind the odor of putrefaction, though, something else lurked. Something familiar and, dare I say, pleasurable. I told the dog to stay, assuming it would die from its injuries before I came back, and I walked into the kitchen. Happy, like all Golden Retrievers, disobeyed. He followed me; bowels dragging behind him.

The other smell intensified as I got closer to the kitchen. I looked on the table. A loaf of rye bread sat on a cooling rack with tendrils of steam rising from its surface. My confusion was turning into frustration. Who the hell brought me a loaf of bread? Why’s there a left-for-dead dog stinking up the house? My questions were answered when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped half a mile and spun around. In the same green dress she was married in; the same green dress she was buried in, was Peggy. Wisps of blonde hair grew from the desiccated flesh of her scalp. The empty sockets which housed the eyes I’d gazed into so often gaped at me. Then I knew.

I embraced my wife with care. I didn’t want to damage her. Then I released her and sat at the table, chewing on the best rye bread I’ve ever eaten. Happy sniffed at Peggy, who knelt down, joints cracking like gunshots, and wrapped her arms around its rotting body. She pressed the side of her head against his wormy neck. I could tell she loved him. After I’d eaten my fill and watched Happy’s ragged, dry tongue adoringly lick between Peggy’s teeth, I started to write. And here I am. Well, here we are.

Peggy had gotten the revolver down from the shelf in the pantry. She placed it on the table while I wrote, then came behind me and wrapped her arms around my torso. Now her head is resting on my shoulder, waiting for me to finish up. If anyone asks what happened to the old farmer who lived on the edge of town, just show them this letter. I’m ready to go spend time with my wife.

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Otter

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an otter. When I was six, Mom brought me to the Maritime Center in Norwalk. It was my birthday. Things had been really difficult for us since Dad died the year before. Mom worked long hours and I spent so much time in day care. For a while, it felt like everything was falling apart. But Mom knew I was having a hard time. She did her best to let me know I was loved. And on my sixth birthday, I truly realized how much.

Mom knew how much I adored otters. I had pictures of them from National Geographic hung up all around my room. This one was the best. I had little stuffed otter toys, too, like Ollie here. They made me feel safe and happy. But until then, I’d only seen otters on television and in magazines. When Mom surprised me with a trip to the Maritime Center, I started crying. We walked through the halls, bypassing all the aquariums featuring stingrays and jellyfish and giant lobsters. After what felt like an eternity, we made it to their glass-walled habitat.

I stood, transfixed, and watched their sleek, furry bodies navigate their enclosure. It’d been designed to look like the local estuary from which they came. I marvelled at how quickly they could dart across solid ground and dive into the water where they’d move with equal speed and grace. Then, as I watched, I finally saw it. Two otters, tired from playing around, floated together in the water. I shook with anticipation, praying I’d get to witness what I’d dreamed about. The otter on the right held out its left paw. The left otter held out its right. Then they clasped them together in a gesture of closeness while they peacefully floated.

While I watched the beautiful display, I felt a soft hand wrap around my own. It was mom. She looked down at me and smiled her warm, loving smile. We stayed that way for a long time.

Looking back, that was the best moment of my life. The decades that followed were nothing but heartbreak. Mom passed away when I was 14. Cancer. We had no other family, so I was put in foster care. My foster parents were kind, but distant. They didn’t try to understand me. I know they thought I was weird. I guess maybe I was. A teenage boy with a love of otters and no friends doesn’t sound normal. Because of that abnormality, I started getting picked on at school.

It started off innocuous. Just some name-calling in the hall. “Freak,” “fag,” “retard;” the basic high school Freshman insults. Over time, though, starting around my Sophomore year, the negativity got worse. A lot of it stemmed from when I tried to join the swim team. I’d never been a competitive swimmer. I wasn’t in particularly good shape, either. Add to that a body that was extraordinarily hairy for a 15 year old, and I became an easy target of the school’s more vicious bullies.

Verbal insults increased in frequency and physical violence became the norm. I don’t need to get into it, because it makes me sad to think about, but there were many times I was simply punched in the face as I walked down the hall. Sometimes I’d get kicked in the crotch. One time, someone reached up my shirt and smeared their gum into my chest hair. And all the time, they laughed. I wouldn’t wear my otter shirts anymore. The other students were ruthless with their bullying whenever they saw me with a picture of my favorite animal. Someone started a terrible rumor that since I’d never had a girlfriend, I must have sex with otters. And when they noticed I cried whenever they insinuated such a hurtful, despicable act, it became their insult of choice.

Once or twice, school officials would punish the most flagrant abusers if their words or actions happened to be noticed. But for the most part, it was under the school’s radar. I never said anything. As it all went on, my foster parents never had a clue because they never asked how I was doing. Even if they did, I don’t think I would have told them. My grades were decent enough. That’s all that mattered to them.

By the time I was a Senior, the bulk of the bullying had died down. Still, not a day went by when I could say people were kind to me. I was growing sick of the feeling of isolation that plagued me from the moment I woke up to the time I collapsed back in my bed at night, usually in tears. When the school posted a notice asking for someone to work in the pool area in the afternoons, I decided to apply. It was pretty low-effort work. Some organizing, some water testing, but mostly just cleaning up the messes of the day. No one else was interested, so I was hired on the spot.

The shift was short; about 3 hours starting at 4pm. Most of the students were gone by then. The swim team’s season was over, so they didn’t have practice. Some of the teachers liked to swim and get some exercise around that time, though, so I made sure their locker rooms had towels and were relatively clean. It all went well. I made a few bucks. Nothing much, but more than I was used to.

Once everyone left, I’d swim by myself. I’d float on my back and glide through the still water while my imagination ran wild. I’d imagine myself in an estuary filled with otters and fish and seabirds. We’d all be happy and everyone would get along. I stretched out my hand, half hoping another understanding person would grab it and we’d float away together. Soon after, I’d leave. While I walked home each night, I would cry.

After graduating high school, I kept the job. They were happy to have me. There wasn’t a chance I’d go to college and endure any more abuse, so I was perfectly content with keeping the status quo. My foster parents were glad to have me around, especially once I began giving them a small bit of my take-home money as rent.

When the next school year started up, the swim team started practicing again. I’d hover around the pool area, doing my various jobs, and every so often I’d hear the team laughing at me. They’d point an insult or two in my direction, but I’d just keep my head down and stay on task. After work, I’d head home like I always did, have my dinner, and retreat to my bedroom where I’d sit at my computer and watch videos of otters until I was too tired to continue. This one was my favorite. I still think about it all the time.

On a night in October, when I was finishing up my shift, someone was banging on the door to the pool and demanding that they be let in. It was two swim team members and their mother. They’d missed practice in the afternoon and they said they had to get their laps in or else the coach would force them to miss their next meet. I apologized and said the pool was closed. Their mother started to yell, so I unlocked the door to let her in so we could discuss it. As soon as I opened it, her sons pushed by me, stripped down to their swimsuits, and jumped in the water. While the mother screamed, her pregnant belly bumping against me as she got closer and closer, I closed my eyes and wished I could run away. So I did.

I turned around and ran toward the supply room. I’d left it open while I cleaned, so once I got in I slammed the door behind me, locked it, and sat on a bucket while I cried. The mother laughed at me from the other side of the door while yelling to her sons, “is this that otter fucker you told me about?” I heard the boys laughing as they did their laps. The woman gave one final pound on the door before she muttered, loud enough for me to hear, “I can’t imagine what that freak’s mother must be like.”

Everything went red, then white. I found myself travelling down a lazy river. I was on my back, staring at the sky. It was bright blue and dotted with puffy cumulous clouds. Thick, green grass grew all the way to the riverbank. As the river turned and I bumped into the grass, it felt soft against my furry skin. The water slowed as the river drained into a wide, clear lake. I craned my neck around and saw her. I let the gentle current take me, and I gradually drifted closer. Once I got there, I held out my paw. She grasped it in her own.

Mom and I floated together for a while. The sensation of closeness was almost as wonderful as my birthday at the Maritime Center. Then it got even better. Mom had been hiding my new baby brother in the crook of her other arm. She reached over and sat him on my chest. He squirmed for a minute, but then he was still. Comfortable. Safe. I closed my eyes and felt the warm sun on my downy fur.

When I opened my eyes, I was staring at the ceiling of the pool room. The bodies of the two swimmers floated lifelessly in the shallow end, blood blossoming in the water from their slit throats. I floated, silently, clasping the hand of their mother. She was facing the ceiling, breathing shallowly. I glanced over at her. A gaping wound in her belly was spilling blood all around us. Her breathing stopped. I felt her start to sink and I turned to pull her toward me, but something on my chest shifted and nearly fell. I dropped the dead woman’s hand and picked up what was resting on me. Her baby. It wasn’t breathing.

I worked hard not to panic and I retreated back to my safe place. If I ever really wanted to be an otter, this was as close as I’d get. I felt the sunlight on my fur again as I clutched my baby brother to my chest. I looked over, hoping mom would be there, ready to hold my hand. But she’d ducked underwater to get us some fish to eat. It would all work out in the end. My paws stroked the tiny form of my brother as I floated in the tranquil lake, waiting anxiously for him to wake from his nap so we could play. I love him so, so much.

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