Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Talking in the Dark

In the damp bedroom Victor Ripon sat hunched over his desk, making last-minute corrections on the ninth or tenth draft, he couldn’t remember which, of a letter to the one person in the world who might be able to help. Outside, puppies with the voices of children struggled against their leashes for a chance to be let in from the cold. He ignored them and bore down. Their efforts at sympathy were wasted on him; he had nothing more to give. After thirty-three years he had finally stepped out of the melodrama.

He clicked the pen against his teeth. Since the letter was to a man he had never met, he had to be certain that his words would not seem naive or foolish.

Dear Sir, he reread, squinting down at the latest version’s cramped, meticulously cursive backhand. He lifted the three-hole notebook paper by the edges so as not to risk smearing the ballpoint ink. Dear Sir . . .

First let me say that I sincerely hope this letter reaches you. I do not have your home address so I have taken the liberty of writing in care of your publisher. If they forward it to you please let me know.

I am not in the habit of writing to authors. This is the first time. So please bear with me if my letter is not perfect in spelling, etc.

I have been reading your Works for approximately six yrs., in other words since shortly after I was married but more about that later. Mr. Christian, Rex if I may call you that and I feel I can, you are my favorite author and greatest fan. Some people say you are too morbid and depressing but I disagree. You do not write for children or women with weak hearts (I am guessing) but in your books people always get what they deserve. No other author I have read teaches this so well. I can see why you are one of the most popular authors in the world. I have all six of your books, I hope there are only six, I wouldn’t like to think I missed any! (If so could you send me a list of the titles and where I might obtain them? A S.A.S.E. is enclosed for your convenience. Thank you.)

My favorite is THE SILVERING, I found that to be a very excellent plot, to tell the truth it scared the shit out of me if you know what I mean and I think you do, right? (Wink wink.) MOON OVER THE NEST is right up there, too. My wife introduced me to your novels, my ex-wife I should say and I guess I should thank her for that much. She left me two and a half years ago, took the kids to San Diego first and then to Salt Lake City I found out later. I don’t know why, she didn’t say. I have tried to track her down but no luck. Twice with my late parents’ help I found out where she was staying but too late. So that is the way she wants it, I guess. I miss the kids though, my little boy especially.

In your next book, THE EDGE, I noticed you made one small mistake, I hope you don’t mind my pointing it out. In that one you have Moreham killing his old girlfriend by electrocution (before he does other things to her!) while she is setting up their word processor link. Excuse me but this is wrong. I know this because I was employed in the Computer Field after dropping out of Pre-Med to support my family. The current utilized by a Mark IIIA terminal is not enough to produce a lethal shock, even if the interface circuits were wired in sequence as you describe (which is impossible anyway, sorry, just thought you might like to know). Also the .066 nanosecond figure should be corrected . . .

And so on in a similar vein. Victor worked his way through three more densely-packed pages of commentary and helpful advice regarding Rex Christian’s other bestsellers, including Jesus Had a Son, The Masked Moon and the collection of short stories, Nightmare Territory, before returning to more personal matters.

If you ever find yourself in my neck of the woods please feel free to drop by. We could have a few beers and sit up talking about the many things we have in common. Like our love of old movies. I can tell you feel the same way about such “classics” (?) as ROBOT INVADERS, MARS VS. EARTH and HOUSE OF BLOOD from the way you wrote about them in your series of articles for TV GUIDE. I subscribed so I wouldn’t miss a single installment.

There are others we could talk about, even watch if we’re lucky. I get Channel 56 here in Gezira, you may have heard about it, they show old chestnuts of that persuasion all night long!!

If you have not guessed by now, I too try my hand at writing occasionally myself. I have been working for the past one and a half years on a story entitled PLEASE, PLEASE, SORRY, THANK YOU. It will be a very important story, I believe. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to read it. (You are probably too busy, anyway.) Besides, I read WRITER’S DIGEST so I know where to send it if and when I succeed in bringing it to a satisfactory stage of completion. But you are my inspiration. Without you I would not have the courage to go on with it at all.

He hesitated before the conclusion, as he had when first drafting it four nights ago. On the other side of the window pane the sky was already smoking over with a fine mist, turning rapidly from the color of arterial blood to a dead slate gray. The sea rushed and drubbed at the coastline a mile to the west, shaking and steadily eroding the bedrock upon which his town was built; the vibrations which reached the glass membrane next to him were like the rhythms of a buried human heart.

There is one more thing. I have a very important question to ask you, I hope you don’t mind. It is a simple thing (to you) and I’m sure you could answer it. You might say I should ask someone else but the truth is I don’t know anyone else who could help. What I know isn’t enough. I thought it would be but it isn’t. It seems to me that the things we learned up until now, the really important things, and I can tell we’ve had many of the same experiences (the Sixties, etc.), when it came time to live them, the system balked. And we’re dying. But don’t worry, I’m a fighter. I learned a long time ago: never give up.

I live in my parents’ old house now, so we could have plenty of privacy. In my opinion we could help each other very much. My number is 474-2841. If I’m not here I’ll be at the Blue & White (corner of Rosetta and Damietta), that is where I work, anybody can tell you where to find it. I hope to hear from you at your earliest convenience.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting with bated breath for your book of essays, OTHER CEDENTS, they mentioned it on “Wake Up, America” and I can hardly wait! If you care to let me read the manuscript prior to publication I promise to return it by Express Mail in perfect condition. (Just asking, hint hint.) In any event please come by for a visit on your next trip to the West Coast. I hope you will take me up on it sometime (soon!), I really need the answer. We Horror Fans have to stick together. As you said in your Introduction to NIGHTMARE TERRITORY, “It may be a long time till morning, but there’s no law against talking in the dark.”

Faithfully Yours,

VICTOR RIPON

He sat back. He breathed in, out. It was the first breath he had been aware of taking for several minutes. The view from the window was no longer clear. A blanket of fog had descended to shroud all evidence of life outside his room. The puppies next door had quieted, resigned to their fate. Still a hopeful smile played at the corners of his mouth. He stacked and folded the pages to fit the already-stamped envelope. There. Now there wasn’t anything to do but wait.

He stretched expansively, hearing his joints pop like dry bones, and his fingernails touched the window. So early, and yet the glass was chillingly brittle, ready to shatter under the slightest provocation.

With any luck he wouldn’t have long to wait at all.

• • • •

The days shrank as the season contracted, drawing inward against the approaching winter. Trees bared stiffening limbs, scraped the sky and etched patterns of stars as sharp and cold as diamond dust above the horizon. Victor got out his old Army jacket. The main house became dank and tomblike, magnifying the creaking of dryrotted timbers. He took to sleeping in the guest cabin, though the small portable heater kept him tight and shivering night after night.

He pressed bravely ahead with his story, the outlines and preliminary versions of which by now filled two thick notebooks, reorganizing, redrafting, and obsessively repolishing lines and paragraphs with a jeweler’s precision.

But it was not good enough.

He wanted the pages to sing with ideas that had once seemed so important to him, all and everything he knew, and yet they did not, and no amount of diligence was able to bring them to life. The story came to be a burden and weighed more heavily in his hands each time he lifted it out of the drawer. After a few weeks he was reluctant to open the desk at all.

He stayed in bed more and slept less, dragging himself up for work each day only at the last possible minute. Nothing except Rex Christian’s books held any interest for him now, and he had read them all so many times he believed he knew them by heart, almost as well as his own stillborn effort. Channel 56 exhausted its library of late-night movies and sold out to a fundamentalist religious sect peddling fire and brimstone. The nights lengthened and the long winter closed around him.

Each day, he thought, I die a little. I must. I get out of bed, don’t I?

Mornings he walked the two miles along the creek into town, reexamining the last few years like beads to be memorized in his pocketed fists before they slipped away forever. He walked faster, but his life only seemed to recede that much more swiftly across the dunes and back to the sea. He could neither hold onto nor completely forget how things had once been. Whether or not they had ever truly been the way he remembered them was not the point. The spell of the past, his past, real or imagined, had settled over him like the shadow of giant wings, and he could not escape.

He submerged himself in his work at the shop, a space he rented for small appliance repair behind the Blue & White Diner, but that was not enough, either. For a time he tried to tell himself that nothing else mattered. But it was an evasion. You can run, he thought, but you can’t hide. Rex Christian had taught him that.

Some days he would have traded anything he owned and all that he had ever earned to wake up one more time with the special smell of her on his pillow—just that, no matter whether he ever actually set eyes on her again. Other days his old revenge fantasies got the better of him. But all that was real for him now was the numbness of more and more hours at the shop, struggling to penetrate the inner workings of what others paid him to fix, the broken remnants of households which had fallen apart suddenly, without warning or explanation.

When not busy at work, the smallest of rewards kept him going. The weekly changes of program at the local movie theater, diverting but instantly forgettable; the specialties of the house at the Blue & White, prepared for him by the new waitress, whose name turned out to be Jolene; and Jolene herself when business was slow and there was nowhere else to go. She catered to him without complaint, serving something, perhaps, behind his eyes that he thought he had put to rest long ago. He was grateful to her for being there. But he could not repay her in kind. He did not feel it, could not even if he had wanted to.

By late December he had almost given up hope.

The weekends were the worst. He had to get out, buttoned against the cold, though the coffee in town was never hot enough and the talk after the movies was mindless and did not nourish. But he could bear the big house no longer, and even the guest cabin had begun to enclose him like a vault.

This Saturday night, the last week before Christmas, the going was painfully slow. Steam expanded from his mouth like ectoplasm. He turned up his collar against an icy offshore wind. There were sand devils in the road, a halo around the ghost of a moon which hung over his shoulder and paced him relentlessly. At his side, to the north, dark reeds rustled and scratched the old riverbank with a sound of rusted blades. He stuffed his hands deeper into his jacket and trudged on toward the impersonal glow of the business district.

The neon above the Blue & White burned coolly in the darkness.

The nightlife in Gezira, such as it was—Siamese silhouettes of couples cruising for burgers, clutches of frantic teenagers on their way to or from the mall—appeared undiscouraged by the cold. If anything the pedestrians scissoring by seemed less inhibited than ever, pumping reserves of adrenaline and huffing wraiths of steam as if their last-minute shopping mattered more than anything else in this world. The bubble machine atop a police car revolved like a deranged Christmas tree light. Children giggled obscenities and fled as a firecracker resounded between lampposts; it might have been a gunshot. The patrol car spun out, burning rubber, and screeched past in the wrong direction.

He took a breath, opened the door to the diner and ducked inside.

The interior was clean and bright as a hospital cafeteria. A solitary pensioner dawdled at the end of the counter, spilling coffee as he cradled a cup in both hands. Twin milkshake glasses, both empty, balanced near the edge. As Victor entered, jangling the bell, the waitress glanced up. She saw him and beamed.

“Hi!”

“Hi, yourself.”

“I’ll be a few more minutes. Do you mind? The night girl just called. She’s gonna be late.” Jolene watched him as she cleaned off the tables, trying to read his face as if it were the first page of a test. Her eyes flicked nervously between his.

“Take your time,” he said. He drew off his gloves and shuffled up to the counter. “No hurry.”

“The movie—?”

“We won’t miss anything.”

She blinked at him. “But I thought the last show—”

“It starts,” he said, “when we get there.”

“Oh.” She finished the tables, clearing away the remains of what other people could not finish. “I see,” she said. “Are—are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you don’t sound like it.” She looked at him as if she wanted to smooth his hair, take his temperature, enfold him in her big arms and stroke his head. Instead she wiped her hands and tilted her face quizzically, keeping her distance. “How about something to eat?”

“Just coffee,” he said. “My stomach’s . . .” He sought the precise word; it eluded him. He gave up. “It’s not right.”

Again?”

“Again.” He tried a smile. It came out wrong. “Sorry. Maybe next time.”

She considered the plate which she had been keeping warm on the grill. It contained a huge portion of fried shrimp, his favorite. She sighed.

The door jingled and a tall man came in. He was dressed like a logger or survivalist from up north, with plaid shirt, hiking boots, full beard and long hair. Victor decided he had never seen him before, though something about the man was vaguely familiar.

Jolene dealt out another set-up of flatware. He didn’t need a menu. He knew what he wanted.

Victor considered the man, remembering the sixties. That could be me, he thought; I could have gone that way, too, if I had had the courage. And look at him. He’s better off. He doesn’t have any attachments to shake. He opted out a long time ago, and now there’s nothing to pull him down.

Jolene set the man’s order to cooking and returned to Victor.

“It won’t be long,” she said. “I promise.” She gestured at the old Zenith portable next to the cash register. “You want the TV on?”

She needed to do something for him, Victor realized. She needed to. “Sure,” he said agreeably. “Why not?”

She flicked a knob.

The nightly episode of a new religious game show, You Think That’s Heavy? was in progress. In each segment a downtrodden soul from the audience was brought onstage and led up a ramp through a series of possible solutions, including a mock employment bureau, a bank loan office, a dating service, a psychiatric clinic and, finally, when all else had failed, a preacher with shiny cheeks and an unnatural preoccupation with hair. Invariably this last station of the journey was the one that took. Just now a poor woman with three children and a husband who could not support them was sobbing her way to the top of the hill.

I hope to God she finds what she needs, Victor thought absently. She looks like she deserves it. Of course you can’t tell. They’re awfully good at getting sympathy . . .

But someone will come down and set things right for her, sooner or later. She’ll get what she deserves, and it will be right as rain. I believe that.

But what about the kids? They’re the ones I’m worried about . . .

At that moment the door to the diner rang open and several small children charged in, fresh from a spree on the mall, clutching a few cheap toys and a bag of McDonald’s french fries. They spotted the big man in the red plaid shirt and ran to him, all stumbles and hugs. The man winked at Jolene, shrugged and relocated to a corner booth.

“Whadaya gonna do?” he said helplessly. “I reckon I gotta feed ’em, right?”

“I’ll get the children’s menus,” said Jolene.

“You got any chili dogs?” said the man. “We came a long way. Don’t have a whole lot left to spend. Is that okay?”

“Give them the shrimp,” suggested Victor. “I can’t handle it.”

Jolene winked back. “I think we can come up with something,” she said.

The pensioner observed the children warily. Who could say what they might have brought in with them? He obviously did not want to find out. His hands shook, spilling more coffee. It ran between his fingers as if his palms had begun to bleed.

Well, thought Victor, maybe I was wrong. Look at the big guy now. He can’t run away from it, either. But it could be he doesn’t want to. He’s got them, and they’ll stick by him no matter what. Lucky, I guess. What’s his secret?

Out on the sidewalk passersby hurried on their way, a look of expectation and dread glazing their eyes. Victor picked up his coffee. It was almost hot enough to taste.

There was another burst of ringing.

He braced himself, not knowing what to expect. He scanned the doorway.

But this time it was not a customer. It was the telephone.

Jolene reached across the counter, pushing dirty dishes out of the way. One of the milkshake glasses teetered and smashed to the floor. At the end of the counter, the pensioner jumped as though the Spirit of Christmas Past had just lain its withered fingers on the back of his neck.

“What?” Jolene balanced the receiver. “I’m sorry, there’s so much—yes. I said yes. Hold on.” She passed the phone to Victor. “It’s for you,” she said.

“It is?”

“Sure is,” she said. “I can’t tell if it’s a—”

“Yes?”

“Victor?”

“Yeah?”

“Vic!” said the reedy voice on the line. “Great to get ahold of you, finally! This is Rex. Rex Christian!”

“Really?” said Victor, stunned.

“Yup. Look, I’ll be passing through your town in about, oh, say an hour. I was just wondering. Are you free tonight, by any chance?”

“Uh, sure, Re . . .”

“Don’t say my name!”

“Okay,” said Victor.

“I’m on my way from a meeting in San Francisco. Traveling incognito, you might say. You don’t know how people can be if the word gets out. So I’d appreciate it if, you know, you don’t let on who you’re talking to. Understand?”

“I understand.” It must be hard, he thought, being a celebrity.

“I knew you would.”

Victor cupped his hand around the mouthpiece. The old man from the end of the counter fumbled money from his coin purse and staggered out. Victor tried to say the right things. He wasn’t ready. However, he remembered how to get to his own house. He gave directions from Highway 1, speaking as clearly and calmly as he could.

“Who was that?” asked Jolene when he had hung up.

“Nobody,” said Victor.

“What?”

“A friend, I mean. He . . .”

“He what?”

“I’ve got to . . . meet him. I forgot.”

Her expression, held together until now by nervous anticipation, wilted before his eyes. The tension left her; her posture sagged. Suddenly she looked older, overweight, lumpen. He did not know what to say.

He grabbed his gloves and made ready to leave. She smoothed her apron, head down, hiding a tic, and then made a great effort to face him. The smile was right but the lines were deeper than ever before.

“Call me?” she said. “If you want to. It’s up to you. I don’t care.”

“Jolene . . .”

“No, really! I couldn’t take the cold tonight, anyway. I—I hope you have a nice meeting. I can tell it’s important.”

“Business,” he said. “You know.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

She forced a laugh. “What on Earth for? Don’t you worry.”

He nodded, embarrassed.

“Take care of yourself,” she said.

You deserve better, he thought, than me, Jolene.

“You, too,” he said. “I didn’t plan it this way. Please believe . . .”

“I believe you. Now get going or you’ll be late.”

He felt relieved. He felt awful. He felt woefully unprepared. But at least he felt something.

All the way home the hidden river ran at his side, muffled by the reeds but no longer distant. This time he noticed that there were secret voices in the waters, talking to themselves and to each other, to the night with the tongues of wild children on their way back to the sea.

Now he considered the possibility that they might be talking to him.

• • • •

Victor unlocked the old house and fired up the heater. He had little chance to clean. By the time he heard the car he was covered with a cold sweat, and his stomach, which he had neglected to feed, constricted in a hopeless panic.

He parted the bathroom curtains.

The car below was long and sleek. A limousine? No, but it was a late-model sedan, a full-size Detroit tank with foglights.

A man climbed out, lugging a briefcase, and made for the front of the house.

Victor ran downstairs and flung open the door.

He saw a child approaching in the moonlight. It was the same person he had seen leave the shadow of the car. From the upstairs window the figure had appeared deceptively foreshortened.

The boy came into the circle of the porchlight, sticking his chin out and grinning rows of pearly teeth.

“Vic?”

Victor was confused.

Then he saw.

It was not a child, after all.

“I’m Rex Christian,” said the dwarf, extending a stubby hand. “Glad to meet you!”

The hand felt cold and compressed as a rubber ball in Victor’s grip. He released it with an involuntary shudder. He cleared his throat.

“Come on in. I . . . I’ve been expecting you.”

The visitor wobbled to an overstuffed chair and bounced up onto the cushion. His round-toed shoes jutted out in front of him.

“So! This is where one of my biggest fans lives!”

“I guess so,” said Victor. “This is it.”

“Great! It’s perfect!”

On the stained wall, a grandfather clock sliced at the thick air.

“Can I get you something?” Victor’s own voice sounded hollow in his ears. “Like something to drink?”

“I’d settle for a beer. Just one, though. I want to keep a clear head.”

Beer, thought Victor. Let me see . . . He couldn’t think. He looked away. The small face, the monkey mouth were too much for him. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

“You owe me, remember?”

“What?”

“The beer. In your letter you said—”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Just a minute.”

Victor went to the kitchen. By the time he returned he had replayed his visitor’s words in his mind until he recognized the rhythm. Everything the dwarf—midget, whatever he was—had said so far fit the style. There was no doubt about it. For better or worse, the person in the other room was in fact Rex Christian. The enormity of the occasion finally hit him. Setting the bottles on the coffee table between them, he almost knocked one over.

My time has come, he thought. My problems are about to be over. My prayers have been answered.

“This must be pretty far out of the way for you,” Victor said.

“Not at all! Thanks for the invitation.”

“Yeah,” said Victor. “I mean, no. I mean . . .”

And in that instant he saw himself, this house, his life as it really was for the first time. He was overwhelmed with self-consciousness and shame.

“Did . . . did you have any trouble finding the place?”

“Nope. Followed your directions. Perfect!”

Victor studied the virgules in the carpet, trying to find his next words there.

Rex Christian leaned forward in his chair. The effort nearly doubled him over.

“Look, I know what it’s like for you.”

“You do?”

“Believe me, I do. That’s my business, isn’t it? I’ve seen it all before.”

Rex sat back and took a long pull from the tall bottle. His Adam’s apple rolled like a ball bearing in his throat.

“You must know a lot about people,” said Victor.

“Never enough. That’s why I take a trip like this, at least once a year.” He chortled. “I rent a car, visit folks like you all over the country. It’s a way of paying them back. Plus it helps me with my research.”

“I see.” There was an awkward pause. “You . . . you said you were in San Francisco. On business. Was that part of this year’s trip?”

“Right. Nothing beats the old one-on-one, does it?”

So he didn’t come all this way just to see me, thought Victor. There were others. “From your writing, well, I thought you’d be a very private person.”

“I am! Somebody wants a book, they have to climb the mountain. But when it comes to my fans it’s a different story. They’re raw material. I go to the source, know what I mean?”

“I used to be a people-person,” said Victor, loosening up a bit. He drained his bottle. He thought of going for two more. But the writer had hardly touched his. “Now, well, I don’t go out much. I guess you could say I’ve turned into more of a project-type person.”

“Glad to hear it!”

“You are?”

“It just so happens I’ve got a project you might be interested in. A new book. It’s called A Long Time Till Morning.”

“I like the title,” said Victor. “Excuse me.”

He rose unsteadily and made a beeline for the stairs. The beer had gone through his system in record time. When he came out of the bathroom, he gazed down in wonderment from the top of the landing. Rex Christian was still sitting there, stiff and proper as a ventriloquist’s dummy. I can’t believe this is happening, he thought. Now everything’s changed. There he is, sitting in my living room!

His heart pounded with exhilaration.

Let me never forget this. Every minute, every second, every detail. I don’t want to miss a thing. This is important; this matters. The most important night of my life.

He bounded down the stairs and snagged two more beers and an opener from the kitchen, then reseated himself on the sofa.

Rex Christian greeted him with a sparkling grin.

“Tell me about your new book,” said Victor breathlessly. “I want to hear everything. I guess I’ll be the first, won’t I?”

“One of the first.” The author folded his tiny hands. “It’s about an epidemic that’s sweeping the country—I don’t have the details yet. I’m still roughing it out. All I gave my editor was a two-page outline.”

“And he bought it?”

Rex Christian grinned.

“What kind of epidemic?”

“That’s where you can help, Vic.”

“If it’s research you want, well, just tell me what you need. I used to do a lot of that in school. I was in premed and . . .”

“I want to make this as easy as possible for you.”

“I know. I mean, I’m sure you do. But it’s no sweat. I’ll collect the data, Xerox articles, send you copies of everything that’s ever been written on the subject, as soon as you tell me . . .”

Rex Christian frowned, his face wrinkling like a deflating balloon. “I’m afraid that would involve too many legalities. Copyrights, fees, that sort of thing. Sources that might be traced.”

“We could get permission, couldn’t we? You wouldn’t have to pay me. It would be an honor to . . .”

“I know.” Rex Christian’s miniature fingers flexed impatiently. “But that’s the long way around, my friend.”

“However you want to do it. Say the word and I’ll get started, first thing in the morning. Monday morning. Tomorrow’s Sunday and . . .”

“Monday’s too late. It starts now. In fact it’s already started. You didn’t know that, did you?” Rex’s face flushed eagerly, his cheeks red as a newborn infant’s. “I want to know your feelings on the subject. All of them.” He pumped his legs and crept forward on the cushion. “Open yourself up. It won’t hurt. I promise.”

Victor’s eyes stung and his throat ached. It starts here, he thought, awe-struck. The last thirty-three years were the introduction to my life. Now it really starts.

“You wouldn’t want to know my feelings,” he said. “They . . . I’ve been pretty mixed up. For a long time.”

“I don’t care about what you felt before. I want to know what you feel tonight. It’s only you, Vic. You’re perfect. I can’t get that in any library. Do you know how valuable you are to me?”

“But why? Your characters, they’re so much more real, more alive . . .”

Rex waved his words aside. “An illusion. Art isn’t life, you know. If it were, the world would go up in flames. It’s artifice. By definition.” He slid closer, his toes finally dropping below the coffee table. “Though naturally I try to make it echo real life as closely as I can. That’s what turns my readers on. That’s part of my mission. Don’t you understand?”

Victor’s eyes filled with tears.

Other people, the people he saw and heard on the screen, on TV, in books and magazines, voices on the telephone, all had lives which were so much more vital than his own wretched existence. The closest he had ever come to peak experiences, the moments he found himself returning to again and again in his memory, added up to nothing more significant than chance meetings on the road, like the time he hitchhiked to San Francisco in the summer of ‘67, a party in college where no one knew his name, the face of a girl in the window of a passing bus that he had never been able to forget.

And now?

He lowered his head to his knees and wept.

And in a blinding flash, as if the scales had been lifted from his eyes, he knew that nothing would ever be the same for him again. The time to hesitate was over. The time had come at last to make it real.

He thought: I am entitled to a place on the planet, after all.

He lifted his eyes to the light.

The dwarf’s face was inches away. The diminutive features, the taut lips, the narrow brow, the close, lidded eyes, wise and all-forgiving. The sweet scent of an unknown after-shave lotion wafted from his skin.

“The past doesn’t matter,” said the dwarf. He placed the short fingers of one hand on Victor’s head. “To hell with it all.”

“Yes,” said Victor. For so long he had thought just the opposite. But now he saw a way out. “Oh, yes.”

“Tell me what you feel from this moment on,” said the dwarf. “I need to know.”

“I don’t know how,” said Victor.

“Try.”

Victor stared into the dark, polished eyes, shiny as a doll’s eyes.

“I want to. I . . . I don’t know if I can.”

“Of course you can. We’re alone now. You didn’t tell anyone I was coming, did you, Vic?”

Victor shook his head.

“How thoughtful,” said the dwarf. “How perfect. Like this house. A great setting. I could tell by your letter you were exactly what I need. Your kind always are. Those who live in out-of-the-way places, the quiet ones with no ties. That’s the way it has to be. Otherwise I couldn’t use you.”

“Why do you care what I feel?” asked Victor.

“I told you—research. It gives my work that extra edge. Won’t you tell me what’s happening inside you right now, Vic?”

“I want to. I do.”

“Then you can. You can if you really want it. Aren’t we all free to do whatever we want?”

“I almost believed that, once,” said Victor.

“Anything,” said the dwarf firmly. “You can have anything including what you want most. Especially that. And what is it you want, Vic?”

“I . . . I want to write, I guess.”

The dwarf’s face crinkled with amusement.

“But I don’t know what to write about,” said Victor.

“Then why do you want to do it?”

“Because I have no one to talk to. No one who could understand.”

“And what would you talk to them about, if you could?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I’m afraid.”

“Tell me, Vic. I’ll understand. I’ll put it down exactly the way you say it. You want me to relieve your fear? Well, in another minute I’m going to do that little thing. You will have nothing more to fear, ever again.”

This is it, Victor thought, your chance. Don’t blow it. It’s happening just the way you had it planned. Don’t lose your nerve. Ask the question—now. Do it.

“But where does it come from?” asked Victor. “The things you write about. How do you know what to say? Where do you get it? I try, but the things I know aren’t . . .”

“You want to know,” said the dwarf, his face splitting in an uproarious grin, “where I get my ideas? Is that your question?”

“Well, as a matter of fact . . .”

“From you, Vic! I get my material from people like you! I get them from this cesspool you call life itself. And you know what? I’ll never run out of material, not as long as I go directly to the source, because I’ll never, ever finish paying you all back!”

Victor saw then the large pores of the dwarf’s face, the crooked bend to the nose, the sharpness of the teeth in the feral mouth, the steely glint deep within the black eyes. The hairs prickled on the back of his neck and he pulled away. Tried to pull away. But the dwarf’s hand stayed on his head.

“Take my new novel, for instance. It’s about an epidemic that’s going to sweep the nation, leaving a bloody trail from one end of this country to the other, to wash away all of your sins. At first the police may call it murder. But the experts will recognize it as suicide, a form of hara-kiri, to be precise, which is what it is. I know, because I’ve made a careful study of the methods. Perfect!”

The underdeveloped features, the cretinous grin filled Victor with sudden loathing, and a terrible fear he could not name touched his scalp. He sat back, pulling farther away from the little man.

But the dwarf followed him back, stepping onto the table, one hand still pressing Victor in a grotesque benediction. The lamp glared behind his oversized head, his eyes sparkling maniacally. He rose up and up, unbending his legs, knocking over the bottles, standing taller until he blocked out everything else.

Victor braced against the table and kicked away, but the dwarf leaped onto his shoulders and rode him down. Victor reached out, found the bottle opener and swung it wildly.

“No,” he screamed, “my God, no! You’re wrong! It’s a lie! You’re . . . !”

He felt the point of the churchkey hook into something thick and cold and begin to rip.

But too late. A malformed hand dug into his hair and forced his head back, exposing his throat and chest.

“How does this feel, Vic? I have to know! Tell my readers!” The other claw darted into the briefcase and dragged forth a blade as long as a bayonet, its edge crusted and sticky but still razor-sharp. “How about this?” cried the dwarf. “And this?”

As Victor raised his hands to cover his throat, he felt the first thrust directly below the ribcage, an almost painless impact as though he had been struck by a fist in the chest, followed by the long, sawing cut through his vital organs and then the warm pumping of his life’s blood down the short sword between them. His fingers tingled and went numb as his hands were wrapped into position around the handle. The ceiling grew bright and the world spun, hurling him free.

“Tell me!” demanded the dwarf.

A great whispering chorus was released within Victor at last, rushing out and rising like a tide to flood the earth, crimson as the rays of a hellishly blazing sun.

But his mouth was choked with his own blood and he could not speak, not a word of it. The vestiges of a final smile moved his glistening lips.

“Tell me!” shrieked the dwarf, digging deeper, while the room turned red. “I must find the perfect method! Tell me!”

Dennis Etchison

Dennis Etchison

Dennis Etchison is a three-time winner of both the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. His short story collections are The Dark Country, Red Dreams, The Blood Kiss, The Death Artist, Talking in the Dark, Fine Cuts, Got To Kill Them All & Other Stories and A Little Black Book of Horror Tales. He is also the author of the novels Darkside, Shadowman, California Gothic, Double Edge, The Fog, Halloween II, Halloween III and Videodrome, and editor of the anthologies Cutting Edge, Masters of Darkness I-III, MetaHorror, The Museum of Horrors, and (with Ramsey Campbell and Jack Dann) Gathering the Bones. He has written extensively for film, television and radio, including more than 150 scripts for The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas. He served as President of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) from 1992 to 1994. His latest books are It Only Comes Out At Night & Other Stories, a massive career retrospective from Centipede Press, and an expanded edition of Fine Cuts, a collection of Hollywood noir stories now available in its first U.S. publication from Borderlands Press. His e-books are available from David Niall Wilson’s Crossroad Press.