By Mark Slade
At first we just laughed at Mr. Sawyer. Paul and I couldn’t believe what he was telling us.
“Well,” he said nervously, chewing on his ink pen and hugging a clipboard to his chest. “Around here,” Mr. Sawyer continued. “It is customary to offer gifts as one is given thanks for what has been given to them.”
He was a meek, mild man. No taller than five-one with a balding plate and a handlebar mustache. The wire rimmed glasses were bent so much that the frames did not fit correctly on his face.
We were standing in the middle of the front yard. Dead leaves and wirey twigs swirled around us as a cold wind cut through the flesh. The farmhouse was perfectly fine. A two story house with a steeple roof, gable end windows, and a dilapidated veranda. The land it stood on was in ruin. It was hard to believe anything had ever grown on this farm.
We just blinked at Mr. Sawyer.
He struggled to carry on with the conversation, so he changed the direction it was going.
“Well, uh, as you can see, the land will be wonderful for farming.”
“We aren’t going to be farming,” Paul laughed. “I’m building a flower garden here.”
“Oh,” Mr. Sawyer was disappointed. “I see.” He feigned a smile. “To each his own.”
“Absolutely,” Paul said. He touched the small of my back to keep me from giggling. “Mr. Sawyer, do you enjoy board games?”
I stifled a teeter.
This was Paul’s way of poking fun at people he considered “sticks in the mud”, very uptight people who would bore the bark off trees.
“Why, yes, Mr. Kosskof. Mrs. Sawyer and I enjoy a game of Life, once in a blue moon.”
“Really? You must come over when the house is rebuilt,” Paul said.
“Rebuilt?” Mr. Sawyer was shocked. “Ohhh, um, the old owners would not like that—”
“Mrs. Kosskof and I enjoy a game of Life, as well.”
Mr. Sawyer blinked. Realizing Paul was putting him on was harsh. Tight lipped, Mr. Sawyer scoffed.
“Yes,” he said, indignant. “Come this way. I’ll show you the shed.”
“Ooooooo…” Paul did his best “Les Nesman” imitation. Mr. Sawyer ignored him. I was fighting back laughter so hard, I almost peed my pants.
We walked several yards to the middle of the distraught land full of vines, patches of grass, and hard soil. There was the shed all by its lonesome. A seven foot by three foot, with a steeple roof. The door was held closed by a chain that would surely turn to dust if it was touched, and a padlock that was a shadow of its former self.
“Looks small,” I said. “What could be stored inside?”
“You’d be surprised,” Mr. Sawyer said.
“Store chicken feed,” Paul said.
“Precisely,” Mr. Sawyer concurred.
A burst of teeters escaped my lips. My hand fell over my lips a second too soon. Mr. Sawyer gave me a cool look. He inhaled and exhaled sharply. We could tell he was not a man who liked good natured joshing.
“One of you is a photographer, I hear?”
“That would be me,” I said. I felt Paul pinch my ass and I squealed, giggled. I turned and fake slapped Paul. He fell into me. I hugged him close. We kissed.
Mr. Sawyer glared at us. Fuming. We could tell he was losing patience with us.
Paul pulled away from me, glared back.
“ Not me,” he said. “ I hate art. I’m a banker. “
“Yes,” Mr. Sawyer gave Paul an icy look. “It’s a very noble profession. Dealing with money. “
“Yep. Beats my part time job,” Paul said.
“Oh? What would that be?” Mr. Sawyer was interested.
“I’m a stripper at Golden Horse Club off 81.”
Mr. Sawyer was done with Tom foolery.
“I suppose you are ready to go back to the office and sign the paperwork?” He said without looking at me or Paul.
“Of course,” Paul said. “We love this place. Right, honey?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Very beautiful. Can’t wait to fix up the house—”
At that moment, I saw fluttering in a dying tree at the edge of the farm itself. In the distance, I could see something sitting on a fragile limb, which was bowing underneath, what I assume, was a bird. An owl, perhaps?
“You see that?” I asked.
Paul and Mr. Sawyer turned to where I pointed. Mr. Sawyer squinted. Paul stared at the tree for a short time and declared he didn’t see anything.
“Hmm, neither do I,” Mr. Sawyer said.
“An owl,” I said. “I think I saw an owl. The sun on it caused its eyes to glow red.”
“Oh, no, no,” Mr. Sawyer shook his head profusely and chuckled. “Owls do not come out during the daytime, Mrs. Koskoff. At twilight, yes. Nighttime, most definitely. Not in the midday.” He wagged his finger. He turned quickly from us and meandered to his cutlass Lincoln several decades out of fashion. I shot him the bird and Paul laughed. Paul puts his arm around me and we both followed to that dusty blue and white landshark Mr. Sawyer must have bought while he was still in highschool in the late seventies.
Paul brought in the last of the cardboard boxes. He yawned, looked at his phone.
“Man, we’ve been going at it since seven thirty this morning. It’s already midnight.”
I kissed him, patted him on the butt. “I know you’re tired, honey.”
“No,” he fought off another yawn as he sat in the big rocking chair. “I’m okay. “
“C’mon,” I took him by the hand and tried to pull him up. “ We can finish tomorrow.”
Paul pulled me to him. I fell in his lap with a loud squeal.
I awoke suddenly. A chilly breeze whipped through the open window. At some point Paul must have got up and opened it. I shivered, pulled the blankets to my chin. Still too cold in the bedroom. I decided to close the window myself. I threw the blankets off and rose from the bed.
Paul snored. He stirred slightly, turned over. I smiled. The love of life. Snoring and farting in his sleep.
I padded barefoot on the ice cold floorboards toward the window, the bowing wood planks creaked. The breeze blew back my hair, causing the flimsy green, see-through nightgown to swirl around me.
I stopped dead when I saw those florid red eyes staring back at me.
A thin, bald man with pointed ears was crouched on the roof, looking in the bedroom. His wings were pulled in close to his hairy torso. His claws were mounted on the window seal for safe perch. He opened his mouth to reveal a forked tongue. Words were spoken, but they were not heard by my ears. No. They flooded my mind, reverberation that caused me to fall to my knees.
My bulging eyes still tested on the winged man. His eyes lit red, seemed to fade and heighten with every word communicated.
I heard the voice crooned in a morosely, emotionless tone.
a thin veil.
Into a thin veil.
The voice stopped.
The window slammed shut.
I awoke choking. I sat up in bed and spat out dry, crisp soil. I felt the particles dribble down my chin to my neck. I cried out, and Paul ran to my bedside.
“What?” He asked in a panic. “What is it?”
I burst into tears, so bed hard. I could taste the soil, felt it on my tongue. I tried to speak, but my weeping got in the way of forming coherent sentences.
Finally, Paul was able to calm me down. I told him all about the dream.
He shrugged, nodded. “I don’t know what it all means,” he said. “Sounds terrifying.”
“For some reason I feel that… thing was trying to earn me.”
“His verse has such a minimalist style,” Paul laughed.
“Paul,” I furrowed my brow and chided him. “I’m serious.”
“I know. I understand you’re pretty shaken up by it. Just try to forget it. Just dream,” he kissed me softly. “ Nothing more.”
I sighed, nodded. “You’re right. Paul?”
“Did you open the window last night?”
I was looking for more closet space to store my extra cameras when a box fell from the top shelf. It was a puzzle. Five hundred pieces. I was intrigued. The cover was of the shed on the farm.
I took the puzzle to the kitchen table, dumped the contents and spread them out. One piece caught my eye immediately. Two red glowing eyes. I slid the other pieces away leaving the two red eyes by themselves. I glared at it; and remembered the dream, the voice that delivered that haunting verse. The eyes flashed at me.
I shook it off. The voice left my mind. The verse faded out. The red eyes went back to being two dimensional cardboard.
I heard Paul screaming my name. I ran outside and saw Paul with a shovel in his hands, staring at the ground.
“What is it?” I asked, breathless from my jog.
“This,” he pointed to the area missing grass. “Look.”
Blood bubbled to the top of the soil where the shovel cut into.
“What the hell?” I said. I knelt, touched the oozing red with a finger. Red liquid smeared my index finger.
“When I dug into the ground,” Paul swallowed hard. “I heard a voice scream out.”
“No way!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, yes,” Paul drew in a quick breath. “Then Moaning and weeping. This is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.”
“No doubt,” I said.
When I looked back down, the bleeding had stopped. The soil didn’t even have a cut from the shovel. It was like… like it had healed itself.
I stood quickly and pointed. Without even speaking, Paul dropped the shovel. He fell to his knees. With both hands in sweeping motions, Paul felt the ground, disturbing dried dirt clogs.
“No,” he said. “No. No. No. What the fuck is going on?”
“I—” the words wouldn’t come. “I’m not sure…”
I helped him to his feet. Paul burst into tears. He wept hard. I pulled him to me, wrapped my arms around his neck and back. His sobbing was muffled with his face buried into my neck and breasts, I felt his cold tears sting the skin.
I took a shower and was drying off when I caught a vision of myself in the long mirror in the bedroom. I liked the idea I still had a good body even though I was over thirty. Paul liked it too. We’d been busy the past two weeks, too busy for sex. But yesterday he was more than in the mood. My breasts were still firm, and I had an urge to make sure they were
But something strange happened.
In the mirror image I saw two burning red eyes appear under the skin of my midsection. I gasped and moved my hand there.
The eyes disappeared.
We didn’t talk for two days. Neither of us had slept in two days. Both of us were disheveled, Paul with two beard, me: with tangled hair, splotchy skin; both of us with dark circles under our eyes.
He was obsessed with the ground. He would lie on his belly and place his face to the ground, watching intently for hours at a time. Paul wanted to see if it bled again.
I sat at the kitchen table and worked on the puzzle. I don’t remember eating. I don’t remember being hungry. I’d completed half of the puzzle. Took a lot of concentration. I mostly stared at the cardboard pieces. Hypnotized by those red eyes.
The farmhouse was now visible, as was the shed. The pieces fit together easily. No matter if we’re not meant to be. I purposely connected ones that were shaped out of place, and they melded together. I touched the cardboard as they morphed together, the thick cardboard felt fleshy.
The backdoor opened and slammed shut. Paul came into the kitchen looking very angry.
He glared at me., breathing heavy, wringing his hands.
“All you do is fiddle with that stupid puzzle,” he said.
I sighed, pushed a few pieces next to each other to see if they belonged together.
“Looked like you were busy out there,” I said calmly. “ I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You never pay attention to me,” I said. My voice was monotone.
“You never cared about me!” He screamed.
Without warning, Paul swiped the puzzle and all the loose pieces off the table. They landed on the floor.
I slowly raised my eyes to him. We glared at each other.
“Do you feel better?” I asked.
“ I feel ANGRY!” He screamed, making his hands into claws. “I can’t stand the way you ignore me!”
“I do not ignore you,” I said.
Paul started pacing again, wringing his hands.
“You don’t care about what’s happening to my garden. You don’t care about the bank, what I go through to make us comfortable.”
“That’s not true, Paul.”
“You only care about you and what’s going on in your small world!”
Suddenly, his attention was drawn from me.
I follow his gaze. A woman in a black dress down to her black shoes is standing outside their window. A black veil hides her face. Beside her was a disfigured man, with no hair. His features were twisted as if he’d eaten a lemon. That’s not the strangest thing about him. He had no eyes. He was very short legs and hobbled. His upper bad was very large, barrel chested, in a jacket, white shirt and black tie. His arms were longer than the rest of him, and according to the deep lines in the dirt, he’d used his oversized hands to push himself along as transport.
“Oh no,” Paul said, his voice shaky. “They’re here. They’re here.”
“Who are those people?” I asked.
“They’re here,” he repeated. He walked in circles, wringing his hands.
“Well who are they? What do they want?” I said, following him.
“You know who they are!” Paul whined. “You know what they want! You won’t give it to them because you’re too selfish! They are here to take what they fucking want, you selfish bitch!”
I gasped. I was shocked at the way he was acting, and the way he spoke to me.
“Paul, you have never talked to me like that,” I said.
Paul burst into tears and ran out the backdoor, waving his hands and yelling at the strange woman and man.
“It’s not my fault! It’s hers! She doesn’t care about anyone!”
I trotted after him. “Paul! Stop acting so crazy!”
“I didn’t do anything! I swear!”
He ran straight into the man and woman, and they faded away. Tiny particles that had made up their physical appearance dissipated into nothingness.
Paul fell to his knees and sobbed. I helped him up and put him to bed. He slept for twelve hours. When I checked on him, he was sweating profusely and his body jerked in crazy animations. He kept mumbling in his sleep, “Don’t leave. Please. Mother. Sky. Mother.Sky. Mother. Sky Don’t leave.”
I fell asleep at the kitchen table. A loud banging woke me. I raised my head, looked around. Hard cardboard was stuck to my right cheek. I blinked twice and smacked the puzzle piece away.
I went to the window and saw Paul hammering at the doorknob on the shed. I ran out the door, and screamed,
“What the hell are you doing?”
He stopped, glared at me and hit the doorknob one more time before explaining.
“He’s in there and this stupid fucking door won’t open!”
He went back to weiding the hammer wildly, missing the doorknob more than hitting his target.
I folded my, padded slowly, barefoot on the cold ground.
“Paul,” I said gently. “Put the hammer down, honey “
Very weird. The doorknob was not affected by the hammering.
He turned to me, and snarled. He had a strange glint in his eyes, and I swear I saw the pupils flash red before he stepped toward me.
“Put the hammer down?” Paul said.”Put the hammer down? Do you realize how important it is to me to get inside that shed? To see him?”
“Paul… stop. You’re scaring me.”
I backpedaled from him. He swung the hammer casually, not aiming for anything. We did this weird ritual for a while, until I sprinted to the house. Paul chased me, still swinging the hammer.
“Stop this,Paul!” I told him. “You’re acting crazy!”
I made it inside the porch, slammed the door in his face. Instead of opening the door he knocked out the mesh wiring and opened the door from the opposite direction. I ran into the house and locked the door with the deadbolt.
“You’re acting like a selfish bitch!” I heard him say, his voice muffled “You don’t want me to go in the shed! You want me all for yourself!”
The front door flew open. I didn’t wait to see if he was inside the house or analyze why the door opened by itself when no forced entry occurred, nor did I see the deadbolt unhitch itself. I ran quickly.
I ran to the bedroom and locked it. I waited. No footsteps. No one spoke. Just irregular breathing.
Then I heard a flutter of wings. I spun around and saw that winged man sitting inside the open window, his flashing red hot to deep milky black, as if he was sending me signals.
I awoke, my head pounding, and I was lying on the floor. I sat up and my hands automatically felt my swollen belly. My unborn child was silent. My belly felt red hot.
“I had a dream,” Paul said.
His voice was jarring. I had no idea he was there sitting on the bed. He was solemn, staring out into nothing. He spoke slowly with long pauses.
“We were out in the garden. Standing there, permanent twilight, with a man named Sawyer. He spoke, but his voice was detached from his moving lips, always seconds behind. He left us and we went inside the house and we never left.” His eyes slowly moved toward me. “You told me you didn’t want me anymore, or the house, our life. The baby.”
“There is no baby,” I said.
“I know,” Paul said.
“It was just a dream.”
“Paul, I would never say that,” I struggled to get to my feet and I sat on the bed next to him. “ I love you,”
I kissed him on the cheek and I felt how cold his skin was. I could see the bone structure of his jaw and how hollow his eye sockets were, no eyeballs. Just a black chasm. I drew back. I saw how thin the flesh on his face was.
“No you don’t,” Paul stood, and walked out of the bedroom.
“What is going on?” I said.
I heard the front door open and slam shut. Through the window, I saw Paul cross the front yard, trek to the shed. He stood there a moment and started to weep. He placed his hand on the doorknob. The door opened on its own. Paul went inside and the door shut behind him.
“Paul!” I screamed. “Paul!”
I ran out of the house, to the shed. I opened the door with ease
Paul wasn’t there.
Nothing was there.
I felt myself hyperventilating. I backed away, turned on my heels and ran into the woman in the long black dress. I screamed and fell to my knees. I wept hard. Sobbed hysterically into my hands.
Her strangely uneven limbed friend shuffled up behind me. He helped me to a standing position. The woman lifted her black veil slightly. Her lips moved, her calm, serene voice soundless, yet the words filled my mind.
I looked at my big round belly. The skin was fire red, and those two eyes burned bright. The child was coming anytime. I could tell.
They led me back to the house. I stopped at the kitchen table, placed the last piece in the puzzle. I was standing out in a full garden, trees and flowers in bloom. The Shed was a few feet from us, and the ground bled beneath our feet. The woman in the long black dress stood to my right and the man stood to my left. The woman had her arm around my shoulders. The winged man was perched in a tree behind us, his eyes glowing red.
I heard the winged man’s voice as the woman in the black dress led me upstairs to the bedroom.