(A Bittersweet Darkly is a literary series that will be posted, in the tradition of The New Yorker, as an episodic literary contribution. As with all such examples, feedback, both for story and author, is deeply appreciated)
(Chapter 1 can be read here)
Now, five years later, he sat by his window as a similar storm absorbed the town, looking out onto boring Alders Avenue, where the most exciting thing that happened was Beverly coming out of her house. God, he loved Beverly. Plain and simple. She’d never look at him with the same affection but, in a way, Josh was alright with that. He loved her too much (at least he thought he did) to throw her away just because she didn’t want a relationship. Her friendship was more valuable than anything he’d encountered in his relatively short, extremely uneventful life; in fact, he came to terms years ago with the fact that Beverly Jonson was the only friend he had left. But that wasn’t quite right, was it? No, it was rather that she was the only person whose presence he actually enjoyed anymore. It didn’t matter much to Josh that 90% of their encounters occurred in his nightmare. In fact, he never even considered that.
So he spent most of his days, hours at a time, sitting in his La-Z-boy, staring into space, because that was just the definition of Alders Avenue. It was a small cul-de-sac that contained six houses in its semi-circular contour. Starting with Beverly’s house on the other side of Alders and Green Street, Josh shifted his eyes past the Bernard’s place, a rather ordinary family of four (some might say) on her left, followed by Mr. Santo (please, call me Nell, he thought, doing his best imitation of the old man in his head) the widower of the Avenue (and probably just as old as Old Lady Harrington). The last house Josh could see from his position by the window belonged to the a young couple. Josh had met them once, a few days after he moved in and couldn’t quite remember their names. They usually lived up north somewhere – optimal skiing conditions, the husband had said. Something about maintaining the house for economic reasons, the wife had said. Their conversation was short and the three of them never crossed paths again.
Beyond his view was the house of a gay couple, Jeff Saris and Harry Oswald. These two were a town favorite. They participated in all the town activities; had even organized a good chunk of them. Jeff was a member of the town hall committee and made sure to stop you on the street if he thought you didn’t know about an upcoming vote or assembly. He was a pretty big flamer, if Josh had ever seen one. Josh snickered at the thought and his mind passed from Jeff to Harry. What an asshole that one was, but God forbid anyone say anything to the prick. It almost seemed to Josh that he couldn’t go a single day without Harry criticizing some aspect of his life whether it be about something as trivial as his distaste for cologne, or how he never attended a town meeting or voted for a single thing in the five years he’d been living in King’s Rook. Josh’s hands curled into fists while he was thinking about Harry, and he hadn’t realized how hard he was clenching until he pierced the skin of his palm with his nails. He snapped out of his lapse and relaxed his hands. He licked the blood that had emerged from the wound and intertwined his fingers with his elbows perched on his knees. He leaned forward and returned to his dead gaze out onto the even more dead Alders Avenue.
The last house before the Harrington residence, a wretched hole that somehow seemed to make him more miserable everyday, yet also had a pull on his imagination that wouldn’t let him ignore it. The thought never even crossed his mind. It wasn’t exactly a house. It was a slightly larger version of a shed that the members of Alders used together as a storage unit – where they kept gardening equipment and shovels and everything else that had been accumulated over the years, available for everyone to use. They all had a key to the shed; it was actually quite a convenient idea, and Josh appreciated that, even though he never took a step inside of it.
Suddenly, as if thinking about his neighbors had triggered it, Josh was back to thinking about how much he hated the people of this town. Beverly was always the exception, of course; she was the only person in town that actually called him Joshua, and even though that wasn’t the only reason she was special, he respected her for it. He suspected the neighbors, and everyone else in town, hated him even before he moved in and he further suspected, as he had for a good five years now, that Old Lady Harrington up there was the reason for it. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. For some reason the people of the town dislike her, and if you live beneath her, you’re associated with her. Guilty by association, he thought, bemused.
He shifted his gaze to the thin ceiling that separated him and that old hag who had somehow poisoned his life and made him miserable. He felt no shame blaming her for how his life shriveled up in the way it had because he knew there was something wrong with her,
(Just leave, you’ve got–)
but for some reason whenever he tried to think about leaving, his mind flustered and he lost track of what he was doing. It was Agatha’s doing, and though Josh would never know it, she’d danced to this same tune many times over her long and extremely eventful life. .
He kept his eyes on the ceiling. He imagined she was up there somewhere doing God knows what. Somehow she was the person Josh saw the least of in the entire town, and she lived just upstairs – go figure! He continued staring, now with a hint of contempt brewing across his defeated guise. Soon he’d be up there, soon he’d find out just what her deal was, and he would expose her. Maybe then he could be happy again.
He wanted to sleep. Thinking was hard and it drained him because he always overthought everything. He pulled the lever of his La-Z-Boy and reclined the couch. He kicked up his legs and crossed the right one over the left and closed his eyes. He slept easy, and he dreamt of Beverly and the first day he met her. It was the day after he moved in. There was a thud at his door, followed by four rapid knocks in succession. Thud! knockknockknockknock. Then he heard her voice for the first time.
–home? A strange, lovely voice called from outside.
He had just finished unpacking his clothes and was sitting in the kitchen. The way the house was laid out, the living room fed into the kitchen which had a door leading into the only bedroom on the floor. The bathroom was a part of Josh’s bedroom, which he particularly appreciated because frequenting the washroom in the middle of the night was a common habit of his.
He was sipping tap water when he heard the knock. He put the glass down and crossed the living room to get to the door.
The woman standing on the other side was gorgeous. 1-2 punch; a real knockout.
She was the same height as Josh, and her eyes were on the same level as his. Her slender cheeks were radiant in the sun and her auburn hair flowed in the autumn wind. The first thing Josh noticed about the strange lady at his door was the way her icy blue eyes were not accompanied by your typical blonde hair; he appreciated that.
Josh found himself stunned for the second time in two days by two women, except this one didn’t frighten him, she mesmerized him. There was a brief moment of undisturbed silence as Josh took the stimulus in. Then she spoke for the second time.
“So you’re the new guy in town. Welcome.” She let herself into the house
Josh didn’t say anything. He figured it must be the nature of small towns; investigate the new guy. Anyways, he didn’t mind. It intrigued him to watch this woman in action. Is everyone in this town going to be so strange? A voice whispered from inside his head. A slight smile formed on the corner of his mouth. Beverly had found her way to his room and was just coming back from her own personal tour, walking towards Josh. He closed the front door and broadened his smile as they stood face to face. There was another moment of silence as they stood, appreciating each other. Josh was appreciating the liveliness of this woman and her seemingly carefree attitude, Beverly appreciating… well, appreciating the looks of the man who stood before her. It is fair to say that something was being felt by both parties when Josh decided to break the silence.
“You’re the one who was watching me from across the street,” he said, matter-of-factly. He held his smile as she recoiled in shock; he knew he had her.
“Whoa! That’s creepy, how could you possibly know that Mr…?”
“Sanders. Joshua Sanders, though people seem to prefer calling me Josh. And I’d love to tell you I have some kind of powers, but in reality I saw you when I got out of my cab. I noticed you because you were tending your garden as the cab turned the corner but then stopped as soon as the cab did and the ‘strange-man-from-out-of-town’ emerged. Then when Ms. Harrington scared the living Christ out of me, I noticed your blinds were suspiciously slanted.” As he said this last part, his smile fully blossomed, showing his whites. “I don’t believe I got your name?”
“Hmm, perceptive are we?” she said, after a pause, ignoring his question. She took a step closer to Josh and for a moment he was positive she was going to try and kiss him. It made no sense, they were complete strangers, but she kept getting closer. She had a lovely aroma, and the attraction was sealed. He wanted her. Before it would have been too late, she turned away from him and wandered into the living room. Josh let out a low sigh; he was just about to close his eyes and get ready for the kiss.
An old beat up sofa chair rested pensively near the window and she spun it around. A heap of dust spouted as she did and she immediately let go. Josh kept his ground by the door, analyzing the fine specimen that had barged uninvited (but not unwelcome) into his life. She stopped the couch in its spin with her shoe and turned back towards Josh. They were five feet apart and continued looking deeply into each other’s eyes. She was smiling, and as if her eyes and character weren’t enough, her charming smile sent Josh’s emotions overboard. Where had this woman been all his life? He only hoped she didn’t turn out to be some crazy person.
Suddenly, her smiled faded and she looked up at the thin plaster wall separating them from the woman upstairs. Josh followed her glance and decided he would like to have at least one question answered; there were so many that were accumulating so quickly it was craziness. He took a few steps away from the door and joined his new acquaintance in the living room.
“Who is she?” he asked, ready for any answer, willing to accept anything the angel in his living room would say. Except, she didn’t answer him. Instead she maintained her stare. “Ma’am?” he edged on.
She brought her eyes down from the ceiling and met his for the third time. He nearly gasped, but managed to control himself. Her face seemed so sunken, as if a huge burden had just been placed on her. She looked sick all of a sudden, old. Her mouth was slightly agape.
“Are you alright miss? You just got all white all of a sudden. You’ve been so quiet, I’m starting to get worried.”
“Oh,” she said, momentarily snapping out of her daze. She shook her head as if to clear it and reset her system. “Name’s Beverly Jonson, and yes, I’m the one just across the street facing you. Uhm…” she trailed off, her eyes moved back to the ceiling. Then, picking up where she left off, “Say, uhm, I didn’t realize she was home. Do you feel that? Oh, never mind actually. Now isn’t a good time. Sorry for barging in like I did. I hope I haven’t given you the wrong idea. Maybe we’ll talk later.” She started for the door.
“Wait,” Josh began, but before he could get any further she had brushed past him again and was reaching for the doorknob and pulling the door ajar.
And just like that, she was gone.
Josh watched her go from his porch, the front door still open. When she reached her house, she turned back to him and smiled. She seemed to look a bit healthier, as if she found her ground again, and waved before disappearing into her home. Josh sank back into his own, and found the sofa in the living room. To Josh, it looked brand new, as though Agatha had provided it as a housewarming gift. In fact he never saw the dust it kicked up when Beverly had spun it. Agatha’s influence had begun to engulf him the moment he crossed the threshold the day before. He took a seat in front of his window that looked out onto the crescent and let out a second, this time massive, sigh.
What just happened?! What’s going on in this town? These and more thoughts raced through his head and of course, he was left without answers once again. He looked out at Alders Avenue. Aside from an old man pulling into his driveway two houses down from Beverly’s, nothing was happening. He supposed that was all for the better – he’d had enough excitement for the past two days. It was getting late and he just wanted to eat, read a few chapters in a new novel he had picked up on his way into town, and then hit the hay. Tomorrow would be a busy day, a lot of people to meet, he presumed. Josh stood up, stretched his arms above his head and cracked his knuckles. Right before turning his back to leave the living room, Josh noticed out of the corner of his eye something at the end of the road, at the house where the old man had just pulled into the driveway. He noticed that the man hadn’t gone into his home. Instead he just stood by his car, the driver’s side door still open. He was staring in Josh’s direction, motionless, almost lifeless. It made Josh extremely uneasy, so he closed the blinds with a haste reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shadowfax. Josh let out an exhale so large he thought he must’ve forgotten to breathe as the old man had stared him down.
He went into the kitchen, picked up the phone that hung, apathetic, on the wall and got a local pizza delivery number from the operator on the other end.
After waving goodbye to Josh from across the street, Beverly entered her home and collapsed on the floor, breathing in slow bursts. She hadn’t quite passed out, but she was feeling extremely weak, and needed to regain some semblance of strength. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There was something about the town that made people feel at times, well, off. It was mostly dizziness, though occasionally people reported spacing out slightly before returning to perfect health. People usually referred to it as “just another small town phenomena,” while others called it “country customs,” and went on with their lives. Nevertheless, Beverly thought, it was the strangest thing. She had discussed it with a few of her book club girlfriends who had all reported the same feelings at some point in time. No one really tried to find a solution, and no one ever decided to move because, at the end of the day, whatever feelings came also went just as quickly. Usually after a few minutes or so; sometimes an Advil fixed it. In rare cases, a good night’s sleep brought you back to 100% the next day.
(It’s never been this bad, and you know it)
A voice she recognized as her mother’s pleaded from inside her head, trying to get her to see something, to look farther than “just another small town phenomena,” but she dismissed it. She was already starting to feel better.
As she lay on the ground, her breathing rate returning to normal, she thought about her conversation with her new neighbor
(He must think you’re a fool)
and the bad impression she had undoubtedly made. No one ever knew where Agatha was, or what her agenda entailed, so going over there to meet her new neighbor had been a gamble. But he had intrigued her. It was a gamble because, deep down, Beverly associated Agatha with the weird feelings the town seemed to provoke. She wasn’t displeased, though, when he impressed her with his observation skills. She was attracted to him, too, but only in a very sexual way. She knew it and accepted it. She only hoped if anything happened he would be able to understand and respect that. It wasn’t that she thought he wouldn’t make a worthy companion, but just that she had been burnt in the past by so many men that she had sworn off intimate relationships. Besides, sex was more fun anyways, it was the jackpot of relationships. You get all the good, without any of the bad. Being alone was not something that troubled Beverly. She was happy with her position in life and the friends she had.
When she regained her proper strength, she stood up and made her way to her blinds. She would spend a lot of time looking out of these blinds towards the Harrington home; at the end of the day something made her worry for Joshua Sanders. When she peered out a tiny slit in the blinds, her intuition was rewarded. She saw Josh sitting on the couch she had just minutes earlier been playing with. His elbows lay placidly atop his knees with his fingers intertwined. He looked like a ghoul, staring absently into the street. He was feeling the effect of
the small town; it seemed to be overcoming him, except he didn’t notice it just yet. She would inform him; she felt it was her duty.
She became frightened, watching him just stare like that, like some zombie. Eventually, Josh stood up and stretched. Did he realize his mind was adrift just now? she thought as she watched him turn his back to the window and make way for the kitchen.
Beverly released the blinds, spun around and dropped onto the couch. She let out a huge sigh, and then quivered.
Beverly Jonson truly was worried about the ‘strange-man-from-out-of-town.’
The sun was shining that day, and he thanked whatever God there might be out there that it was. It wasn’t that he expressly detested any other weather, but he hated driving (he always had), and especially when it was raining – or, heaven forbid, snowing. For the most part, he stayed indoors during the winter. Before her death, his wife had been more than happy to do the groceries and run any other errands to spare him the anxiety of driving under any conditions stressed him. These days, in the winter, the kind boy next door did his groceries for an agreed upon fee.
Now, driving down Main Street towards the quiet roundabout that led the way to his little home on Alders Avenue, he thought about how there were really only two times in his life (that he could remember) where he’d driven in the winter. The first was on the day of his wife’s failed delivery of what would have been their only child, when he was forced to take action after her water broke, rushing her to the emergency room despite any irrational fears. The second time was when his wife had the heart attack that eventually took her life. He forced a tear back. He missed his wife, but he was done grieving for her. He knew she was better off.
Darnell Santo (please, call me Nell) came to a stop sign at the end of Main and made a small S maneuver that took him, momentarily, across Green Street and then spat him out onto Alders. As he came around the curve, he was still thinking about his wife. God did he mi–
With a rapid force, his attention was ripped away from thoughts of his wife, as, out of the corner of his eyes he spied what he was sure was Beverly standing at the entranceway of the Harrington home. All he could see was her hand in the air, seeming to wave goodbye to someone (or something he thought, shivering). He continued down the blind alley that was Alders, and as he pulled into his driveway Beverly had already begun crossing the street, and by the time he had parked she was back in her home. But he didn’t intend on getting out of the car right away. He needed to think. The idea of his wife had become insignificant to the point where, had you disturbed his train of thought inquiring about her, his response would have been something along the lines of “what wife?”
Nell took a deep breath. He let it out slowly and considered the possibilities. Ok, he thought, the way I see it, either that thing is back in business and she’s got Beverly on her side. Or, that thing is back and the town is starting to feel her pull again with Beverly already affected, or… and here he paused for what seemed an eternity to him for he did not want to even utter the words, let alone come to find they were true… someone has moved into the house, someone Beverly may have taken a curious interest in, and has brought that thing back in business.
The very thought that every one of these options inevitably led to the conclusion that Agatha was back in full swing made him uneasy. Then his unease turned into anger and he brought a closed fist down on his dashboard with fury. His thoughts were now jumbled; he felt confused and lost as though everything he’d worked for, everything he and the others had sacrificed was all for nothing. His anger became hopelessness and he told himself that he could get nothing done by pouting and remaining in his car, so he finally decided it was time to vacate.
He clutched the handle and when he got out of the car, he turned around and froze by the open door of his Eldorado. He needed to keep his jaw from dropping. It was difficult, however, because what he saw confirmed his worst thought. Standing, drunkenly (though Nell knew based on the history of the house’s owner that the man was not intoxicated by any alcohol or drug of this world), by the window staring out onto Alders was a man of average height with the look of death in his eyes. He’s finished and he doesn’t even know it, Nell thought with a sadness that brought back the memory of his wife. He looked down at his watch and saw it’d been 10 minutes since he saw Beverly walk towards her front door through his rear view mirror. I bet he doesn’t even realize how long he’s been standing there for. This Nell considered with perfect intuition. Josh had in fact been standing in the same spot from the moment Beverly left his presence and this brought on an explosion of goosebumps that raced along Nell’s entire body. It would be a while before Darnell Santo found out that Beverly was also witnessing, from her own drawn curtains, the Joshua Sanders Show – which they both were doomed to watch until its final cancellation. This thought worried Nell even more, prompting him to clear his throat.
At the sound of this, the strange man on the bottom level of the Harrington Home snapped out of his daze and his eyes shot up, directly into Nell’s direction. He figured he must have either intimidated or creeped out the young man, because within seconds (and with a speed Nell hadn’t himself been able to match for years) the man closed his blinds and stormed off in the direction of his kitchen, leaving Darnell Santo in complete isolated contemplation of the events that would surely follow now the he knew for sure Agatha was back in town – no, town was the wrong word for Nell knew she never really left. Business was the right word.
She’s nowhere near strong enough. Not yet.
And with this final thought on the matter, Nell gained a little bit of confidence, finally closing his car door and moving towards his front porch. Tomorrow would be a new day, a good day to start planning. Confident as he may have become, he knew it was only a matter of time before his confidence would fade, and that things, bad things, would start to occur. He conjured up the thought of his wife’s face because it was what he did when he was in need of support. I love you, Martha. You are my light and have always been. Darnell Santo went inside his house, and it was there he remained, leaving only to get groceries (himself) on a few occasions, until Beverly and a gifted young man sought him out five years later.
That night Josh lay awake, tossing and turning for several hours. He couldn’t stop thinking about Beverly. On the one hand he was incredibly attracted to her, he knew that, but on the other hand there was something awfully strange about her too. The way she seemed to change, how she became lost in her own head, when just moments earlier she was the liveliest person he’d ever encountered. He thought about the interesting way she had knocked on his door, a pattern he’d never heard before. He thought about the way she just barged into his home as if they had been best friends for years; what if he’d been a psycho? Boy, she was bold. Then his mind returned to her face, when she seemed to separate from the world. The way she had gotten so lost while staring up at the ceiling. Towards where Ms. Harrington lived. It was odd and it disturbed him. He dismissed the thoughts, completely unaware that after she left he himself fell under the same spell as Beverly.
“Enough of that,” he whispered under his breath in the dark, without realizing the words had actually escaped his lips.
He was sweating. When did he start sweating? Josh kicked the sheets off his body and brought his feet down to his slippers, which were neatly placed by the bed. He felt his way through the darkened room, and flicked on the light switch in the bathroom. The light flickered for a second and then a bright white light illuminated the room in a flash. Josh had to shield his eyes for a moment before they could adjust. He forgot he had put in fresh bulbs just before Beverly had showed up.
He was thinking about Beverly again, how beautiful she looked prior to the little “incident” (he felt odd thinking of it like that) and how beautifully tragic she looked during and after the fact. Was he falling in love? He didn’t even know what love meant or what the feeling was, he just knew he wanted her… in one way or another.
He walked up to his faucet and splashed cold water on his face. For a second, he felt great, refreshed. Then his stomach rumbled uncomfortably. Josh looked up into the mirror in confusion and suddenly, with ferocious rage, a feeling of complete nausea overtook him. His hand quickly found his mouth and he grasped it. He gagged. At the last minute Josh leaped at the toilet bowl, bent over and belched what felt like his lungs out into it. What the Christ is going on? he thought frantically as he continued retching into the bowl.
When it finally ended (and Josh thanked God that it did), he got up and rinsed his mouth in the sink, brushed his teeth and crawled back through the darkness of his room into bed. He was still sweating, but every part of his body was begging him for sleep. He pushed the comforter off the bed and curled up into a ball, with only the thinnest sheet covering him. Within ten minutes Josh entered the most unpleasant sleep of his life, and when he woke up he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d dreamed — scratch that, not a dream, but a nightmare…
He is standing on Alders Avenue facing his new home. The sky is a dark mauve, slowly transforming to a cold onyx. The air itself is rather cold; colder than it should have been this early into autumn. There seems to be a sick feeling about the town, like it was in serious need of chemo. The branches of the trees along Alders Avenue are bare – there is not a bird or leaf to be found. It’s awfully quiet and he brings his arms to his chest. Why is he so goddamn cold?
Josh looks down and what he sees is his completely naked body. Nothing more than a collection of bones struggling to keep their form under a thin layer of flesh. I’m decaying, he thinks, as worry starts to fade and fear takes its place.
He raises his gaze to the Harrington front door, and notices that the house has become something of a nightmare; it strikes him as a vessel of evil. The feeling overwhelms Josh, and a slight quiver passes through his body.
Floating just above the house, Josh sees what he is sure is a hungry dark cloud, ready to devour the county whole. It hovered above as though it belonged to the county, as if all darkness started here and then spread out like gossip in a small town. He blinks and now he was running — no, full out sprinting, sprinting to save his life. He’s sure of it. But what is he running from? Of course, he doesn’t know. The only thing he does know is that his life depends on it.
Eventually, he looks back. To his complete dismay, the house is right behind him. It has been chasing him, except he is positive this is impossible. He runs along the Main Street of the town, the busiest street in town. It is empty.
He passes the supermarket which is all the way at the end of Main, right before the 101 Freeway entrance emerges. Josh has lost track of how long he has been running. No matter; he pushes forward.
He glimpses over his shoulder once again, and what he sees makes him lose his footing. His face hits the floor; he is no longer on the Freeway entrance, but rather desert sand. The house which was chasing him now seems to have taken the shape of a hungry, menacing face whose eyes appear to veer in every direction. The front door has transformed into a great mouth with sharp fangs protruding from a slobbering, gaping hole. It was hungry, yes, and Josh begins to get the impression that the town is its entrée and that he is the main course. But it is what he saw inside the house that makes him tumble, slamming his nose into the scorching golden landscape of this wasteland.
She has that same look on her face as when she visited that afternoon, except now she is looking through the window, directly at Josh. He gets to his knees and turns to face the house, using his palms for traction. What was Beverly doing in the hou-
His thought is cut off. A second black cloud, one similar to that which still floats above Harrington’s roof, creeps up behind Beverly and seems to just stand there. The two of them inhabit Josh’s living room; the La-Z-Boy sits there and it only here that Josh realizes how beat up and dirty it is, though he will not remember or even consider this when he wakes up. It looks as though the cloud is protruding a makeshift arm and outstretches it towards Beverly’s shoulder. Josh watches in frozen awe, both frightened and confused, and the mixed emotions are not settling with him well at all. He has just moved into this house, and so far nothing he has encountered has been normal.
Beverly never so much as bats an eye. Her expression is still as the black cloud comes up behind her. Is it, Josh wonders with horror, whispering something into her ear? Then Beverly’s sunken eyes leave his. She turns around and allows the black cloud to lead her away into the darkness of the house; to God knows where. Josh shudders, unable to move, feeling completely useless – just a confused man, sitting naked in the middle of nowhere, with no answers and no one to help him. He feels like an invalid child. He’s terrified and sweating like never before.
Josh parts his lips to let out a terrific screech, but it seems his lungs have forgotten how to do so and no sound escapes his gaping mouth.
But that is only because dream logic does not follow the laws of reality. He screamed himself awake the next day. Before the details of the nightmare could fade, he managed to make it to his luggage where he kept a notepad and a pencil at all times (just in case, you see, because anything can happen and you might want to record it,) and jotted it down as best he could remember, never taking his mind off that black cloud that the house seemed to be emitting. Never forgetting the look that plagued Beverly’s face.
(Edits : MSP & NZ)