Black Petals Issue #76 Summer, 2016

Gone Astray
Home
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Anniversary-Fiction by A. M. Stickel
Flirting with the Alley-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Gone Astray-Fiction by Denis Bushlatov
Surviving Montezuma-Serialized Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Road-Fiction by Walter Kwiatkowski
The Watchers-Fiction by Mike Mulvihill
Ghost Lover-Poem by Janet Ro
My Walk to Emberly Park- Poem by Janet Ro
Honey Island Swamp Monster-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Skin Walker-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Ucu-Poem by Richard Stevenson

rat.jpg

Gone Astray

 

By Denis Bushlatov

…and what found her

 

 

A phone ring sliced the doughy silence. Terehov winced, but reached for the air conditioner’s remote instead, avoiding the phone, noting that his study was as humid as it gets before a storm. The sky seemed boring and bleak. The sickly tree outside that irritated him so much jerked slavishly in the gusts of wind.

“Storm is going to break soon,” he mumbled, and looked suspiciously over at the phone, which was diligently trilling a simple and therefore unpleasant ringtone.

He knew it was going to be her without looking at the screen. Who else could be so, so…annoying?

Trying not to lose it, he hastily grabbed the phone, slid his finger across, and replied: “Hello?” Impatient and questioning, his tone indicated that he was really busy and not ready for a long and absolutely senseless discussion about new sales in Prada, and that this time it was absolutely imperative to…

Sanchik, I got lost.”

Terehov choked up. Very rarely did Lubasha use this sticky-sweet “Sanchik,” knowing how it drove him crazy. As a matter fact, upon consideration… He frowned and abruptly got up from the desk. Lubasha’s voice, normally unnaturally high-pitched, now sounded detached and strained, as if she was about to inform him of her own funeral.

There was something deeply wrong with the phrase itself.

He paced the room in agitation, time after time throwing hateful glances out of the window. The phone was unexpectedly silent. Finally, he broke down and grumbled: “What…sorry, what did you do?”

Lubasha seemed to be expecting the question, as she immediately started to babble incoherently, getting all her words mixed up. “I was driving up Prokhorovskaya Ave, you know, from downtown, and they had this roadwork, er…a sign, like, “We are sorry for your inconvenience,” and this fucking dust all over. And the crows…”

“What…what the—?

“Hold on, don’t interrupt, or I’ll get totally confused. So, I decided to turn onto Chkalova Street; there’s no left turn, but no cops either, so I crossed over the double lines. D’you know what I mean? So I was thinking that if I go through Chkalova and turn onto Estonskaya Ave, then over the bridge, and…”

“Drive out to Skorostnaya Lane,” Terehov automatically finished the sentence. He couldn’t stand the sound of her voice. The tree outside was brandishing its branches mockingly. Out of the corner of his eyes he caught a movement and, looking over, noted with dull surprise, a huge black rat sitting on a thick branch, its back to him. 

“Don't interrupt me!” Lubasha shrieked. He nearly dropped the phone. “Yes, to Skorostnaya, of course. I thought about it. And… Are you listening?”

He nodded, unable to take his eyes off the rat. The disgusting creature had now turned sideways to him, periodically throwing Terehov sidelong glances with its red inflamed eye.

“Huh?” he managed, collecting himself, “Yeah, of course, I’m listening. What did you say happened?”

“I said that you happen to be an idiot!” she screamed. To Terehov this turn of conversation was definite proof that Lubasha had completely lost her mind. He couldn’t find anything to say, still staring at the rat, which kept riding the branch, miraculously holding on.

“You’re not listening to me. Sanchik, please, I’m begging you to just listen quietly, OK? So, I’m driving along Chkalova, and then something possesses me to turn right just before Estonskaya. There was some heavy traffic so…fuck it...I thought that if I turned again, I’d come out onto Estonskaya. Well, I should’ve, you know? But for some reason…” her voice went high pitched again. “Well, for some bloody reason it just didn’t happen. Because there are no exits on that street at all: straight as a ruler and narrow. All I kept thinking about was what would happen if someone drove at me. There would be no way to pass each other! It’s so narrow…already said that, didn’t I? The road is all potholes with cars parked everywhere, buildings like old town—all those fucking fired-brick romantics, with cast-iron balconies, trees…

“So, I drove on and on. No one was there, not a single person, only those parked cars on the curb…under those balconies. Everything is cracked, peeling, laundered boxers hanging on ropes like flags, windows mostly boarded up. I don’t understand why the windows are sealed with underwear hanging outside. How can this be, eh?”

Terehov was quiet, his back to the window, trying to convince himself that the feeling of a pinching stare between his shoulder blades was only a product of his imagination. Lubasha’s monologue seemed to be an absolutely illogical, perverse curiosity. He felt like a participant in “The Twilight Zone.”

“Just don’t disappear, OK?”

He only hemmed back.

She continued, “Anyway, this street…at some point I got that everything was just weird…has no end, no alleys between houses, no byways, no turns. And…the road itself…you know, the road bed…at first was asphalt, right? And then, it changed to concrete slabs, like at an airport, only laid sloppily. My wheels kept jamming in between. I stopped caring about the gear, and just wanted to get out. Then, even the slabs ran out, and there was…well…what felt like concrete poured over cobblestones. The concrete broke up, and I was driving over cobblestones.

“Then…the street turned right and I was so happy. I thought, That’s it! I’m going to drive out to Estonskaya or…just someplace with people. Besides, I kept hearing traffic sounds, like a street car somewhere around. The funniest part was that it never occurred to me to simply turn around and drive back. Now I understand that I wouldn’t have been able to turn around in such a narrow space. I drove another half a block and…listen, Terehov, have you ever been to Wairehonngrluse Market?”

He moved the phone away and stared at it in childish horror, as if lice were going to pour out at any moment. “Warehouse? Did you say Warehouse? I can’t remem—”

“Wairehonngrluse, I said. Have you heard of it?”

“No, what are you talking about?”

“Wairehonngrluse Market is a small square with lots of narrow, twisted back streets branching out. It’s paved with bloody cobblestones overlaid by concrete. What moron would pour concrete over cobblestones? They should’ve poured shit instead.”

She paused, obviously trying to pull herself together, and continued: “There’s a long two-storey building in the center with windows made of…that crap like in old Soviet factories, remember?”

“Glass blocks,” he uttered, barely audible.

“Yeah, those. And wouldn’t you know, half of those blocks had been broken, just like at the abandoned factories. In the middle was a double wooden door, also nailed shut, and overhead, a sign: “Wairehonngrluse Market”. On some doorsteps old women sat selling garage garbage like at the flea market. Everything was laid out on newspapers and…” She suddenly sobbed. “They were selling rat heads, Sasha! RAT HEADS!”

“OK, Luba, calm down!” He tried not to raise his voice, to stay calm himself, but how could he possibly, if…? Feeling trapped, he quickly faced the window, then breathed with relief when he didn’t see a trace of the rat on the violently swaying branch. The little fat bastard must’ve been blown off by the wind.

“It’s only your imagination,” Terehov stated reasonably and quietly.

But she interrupted him, “Not a single word. I’ll ask you when I need to. Listen. I don’t have much time.”

He wanted to ask her what in hell...but Lubasha didn’t even give him a chance. “That whole square is… somehow irregular…something wrong with its proportions. Seeing those stooped little shops, I didn’t even want to know what they were selling, and all those little houses look like they are going to collapse at any moment. They are…lifeless, like theater decorations. But there’s more. Apart from those old women on the steps, I didn’t see a single person, just several dogs, skinny and dirty like garbage dump wanderers. That’s probably where they were from, and all those women too. Not a single car nor person moved when I drove out on the square…where I did something stupid…because the sun was setting and I…”

Bewildered, Terehov looked out the window. The tree was convulsing in agony, as if the sky was pressing it down under the weight of twilight.

“…could’ve turned around and driven back. But instead, for some reason, I decided to keep on moving forward, taking one of those streets past the old women. I expected to emerge onto the normal road, and that’s all. It was like catatonia. In any case, I turned again and… I remember getting a glimpse of a “Trapezoid Street” sign. Funny name, isn’t it?” She giggled nervously. “And I am telling you this as a mathematics dropout. Everything is not right there!” she shouted. “Firstly, these houses…just can’t exist, and should’ve collapsed decades ago. You know, it’s like they’re leaning over the road, almost touching roofs. They are so narrow at the bottom, and yet...they widen at the top. It’s just impossible! I don’t know…” She sobbed again. “I tried not to look around, and, like a fool told myself that the track line and the road are not that far off and…so are people.

“I wasn’t wrong about the tracks.” Lubasha forced out a chuckle, and Terehov went cold. “Rather, I felt them first, and then saw them…under the wheels. Only I don’t understand, really, how a street car could cruise that street, and not demolish a house. And then…Sanchik, that street simply—bam!—stopped. I didn’t realize it at once, since I don’t see so well in the dark, but I braked just in time. Otherwise, I would’ve rammed into it, and then… I wouldn’t be calling you.”

“Rammed into...?” Terehov echoed.

“Into a wall, Sasha…of those cobblestones. The street runs into the wall, and the rails just keep going up the wall! And I don’t know,” she screamed now, without any control, “the height of that wall, because I fucking think that it goes up straight into the fucking sky!”

“Wait, wait…Luba! What are you saying?”

“Ah, whatever…” she brushed him away, “Wait. I’m almost finished. Wait just another minute. Sasha, I braked just in time, a meter away from the wall, turned the lights on, left the car, and looked around. Those damned houses were pushing into the wall. I don’t know. It was hard to see in the dark, but it seemed to me that they were made of wood painted either green or blue. Windows were nailed shut, the boards laid every which way with gaps so big that my fist could easily go through. And underfoot, whatever I stood on felt so…soft. I looked down: everything was overgrown with moss. You just listen to me, and don’t interrupt.

“Then…I decided to get back into the car, but…” she lingered.

Terehov felt a strong urge to hang up, or to throw the phone at the wall.

Then Lubasha started to talk again, her voice stronger, yet mechanical, “I heard…a sound—squishy, like a wet rag dragging on the ground. I looked down, not understanding what it was, as it was so dark at that time. I thought that it would be nice if some street lamps came on. There was one just above me, lopsided and weed-bound, which I was sure didn’t work, you know? It was hard to imagine that something worked on that street. So I moved, until the wall was behind me, and that thing which was so small, no bigger than a rat.”

At that moment Terehov shuddered and cast a cautious glance out of the window.

“I still couldn’t understand what in the hell was crawling towards me. I stepped forward and noticed that that thing wasn’t alone. Just a couple of meters away another one came crawling…and then several more. From where I was, I realized that those were no rats. Rats don’t move like that; they scamper. These were more like slugs.

“Suddenly—a wish granted—I had light. At first, I didn’t understand how; a second later, I got it: the street light behind my back had come on…not just that one, but all the street lights on both sides of the street. It was just flooded…” she choked, “with a dull, yellow light…like pus. I looked ahead, you know, to understand how I could drive back out, over that pavement…and thought I saw…no, just thought I saw that, far into the houses, the road was rising, filling up like a blood clot. From up this narrow way they were coming, crawling…lots, Sasha, lots of these things. With lights on I realized that they weren’t rats at all, but…fish torsos! Gutted, headless fish torsos were wriggling, flipping, clinging onto the cobblestones with their fins, crawling everywhere. God, that was disgusting! There were very small ones, but further on some big ones…and then, much bigger. But,” she snorted hysterically, “I was right about one thing. Rats were there also, darting this way and that among the carcasses, biting them and dragging them somewhere. I don’t remember if I screamed—probably not. Had I screamed, I wouldn’t have heard the same sound behind me.

“Those creatures were dropping off the wall, plopping on the stones, and crawling. Some of them were falling on the car, and twisting happily...smiling at me with their open bellies. And then I realized they were going to eat me, Sanchik. I didn’t stop to think about it. I’d already wasted too much time staring at them. I leapt to the nearest door, which, naturally, was boarded up, but so poorly that I didn’t even have to force it. I ripped off two pieces of wood and… Are you listening?” she asked suddenly, “Are you still there?”

“I’m listening,” Terehov answered, surprised and terrified at his own hoarse reply.

“Listen. It’s good for you. So, I ran into the hall, slammed the door behind me, as well as I could. It was dark inside, but I could still see something, but just barely. There were…the usual things—a short corridor, mailboxes, and a large convector in a corner…and a staircase. Never in my life had I run so fast. I thought I was flying. In a moment I ran up to the third floor. There were two doors per landing, and they were…I don’t know…pushed out? They lay on the floor, the flats gaping blackness…like mouths, Sasha. On the third landing I saw a closed door,” 

Lubasha inhaled now and he heard a sound like bubbles popping in a swamp before she continued.

“I...I don’t know what came over me, but…I heard those fucking fish already inside, flopping up the stairs. And here’s this door, an ordinary leather door. I felt for the doorbell and rang. It trilled! Remember how you told me that your parents once had a Japanese doorbell that trilled like a nightingale? For a second, I thought that nobody was inside, because nobody could possibly live in such a house, but then…I swear that I heard someone say: ‘Just a minute!’ and ‘I’m coming!’ I felt calm, like, when in childhood, it is storming, and you run to your mom and jump on her lap, and she pretends to be angry. (Don’t interrupt me, Sashenka. I really don’t have much time.) Really, though, she is happy and holds you close, and you feel safe and cozy against her breast as you listen to her heart beating. And I did, just now! I heard a heart beating—a level, heavy, wet sound.

“Then…the door began to bulge. It began to crack as if something was forcing it from inside. And all the time I kept hearing: “Coming! I’m coming!” I backed away and went up a couple steps. I was so scared, but still I HAD to see it, you understand? I thought the door would burst into pieces, but it just...split open five ways, like a starfish. From inside—it was hard to see through the darkness, but this substance that was as black as tar and very thick—it discharged towards me, pooling quickly. I ran up the stairs, but they ended in two flights, and…

“Luba!” Terehov wanted to say many things, but couldn’t. At that moment it was important, highly important that she hear his breathing. Instead he felt he was infecting her with his terror.

“I fell in love with you, Sasha,” she gurgled, coughing out something wet, “not at first sight, of course, and I understand that we have a relationship with no strings attached,” she coughed again, continuing, “and without a future. I thought I was waiting for, you know, something bigger. But then I realized that you are that ‘something bigger’. I don’t want anything from you—no money, no presents, just for you to be next to me. But that would violate…” She gasped and inhaled with a nauseating wheeze. Her voice was being overcome by a voracious, raging slurping, “...the rules of, oh, Mommy...of the g-game, there. But you have to…must know…it doesn’t hurt at all, honey. Being so slowly savored gave me enough time to…well…say goodbye. I’m neck-deep in a warm black quagmire, and...I’m sure, my dear, it’s eating me—some external digestion, like spiders have. I was always afraid...”

As Terehov heard louder, more aggressive gulping, Lubasha’s voice faded, unable to overcome the background noise. Pain?

“There’s no pain or fear, honey. It’s like I’m hiding in Mommy’s arms, and can hear her heart beating.” She choked. Terehov, unable to control himself, squealed in terror, as she added, “Maybe it’s anesthesia, and only took effect now. Something gobbled up my fear…”

More of the greedy squelching sound interrupted.

That’s the end, surely! thought Terehov. Amid the evil, triumphant cacophony he thought he heard her final elusive whisper: “Mommy will hide Lubachka on her lap… Mommy?”

The phone glutted viscously and the line went dead.

Terehov pressed the phone to his ear, hard, to feel the pain. “Hello. Hello!” he kept saying, beginning at a whisper, finally ending in a shout. He knew there wouldn’t be an answer, but kept shouting anyway, trying to block out the memory of the wet, glutinous drowning of Lubasha’s confession. And…there was something else.

Outside

Unable to resist, he slowly turned, holding the dead phone to his ear.

Behind the glass, on the branch of the violently swaying tree, was a huge black rat, staring at him with feral, empty red eyes. Thrashing madly in its teeth was a headless gutted fish.

 

The End

 

 

Denis Bushlatov, Rege101@yandex.com, of Ukraine, who wrote BP #76’s “Gone Astray” (+ BP #73’s “Safe Haven, Pts. 1&2”), has had two collections of horror short stories published in Ukraine. His stories are sold in bookstores in Austria, Japan, Ukraine, and the U.S.A. as well as via internet. “Safe Haven” was his first short story translated into English.

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