Black Petals Issue #88, Summer, 2019

The Dead Are Not Lonely
Home
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
A Place of His Own-Fiction by Dorian Sinnott
Blood on the Riviera-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Chapter 13-Fiction by A.M.Stickel
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Chapter 14-Fiction by A. M. Stickel
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Chapter 15-Fiction by A. M. Stickel
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Conclusion-Fiction by A. M. Stickel
Red Dress-Fiction byTrisha McKee
The Dead Are Not Lonely-Fiction by A. L. Hodges
The Taxidermist is Hatching-Fiction by Michael Mulvihill
This Isn't You-Fiction by J. David Thayer
Love River Forever-Poem by Hicham El Qendouci
Fire Rages from Her Fingertips-4 Poems by T. B. Kelley
Sheepsquatch-3 poems by Richard Stevenson

playground.jpg

The Dead Are Not Lonely

 

By A.L. Hodges

Deadly reunions

             

           

Ray woke up late on the day of his planned excursion, a bad start to an expedition where precision was of the essence. He also let time slip up on him as he hunted down all his art supplies. He grabbed up any tools he could lay hands on and shoved them willy-nilly into a leather case along with anything else he could think to bring. The pressure of having to track it all down at once was not helped by the state of his room which, like everything in his life, was a total disaster. 

He had towering stacks of National Geographics scattered here and there, along with canvases covered in half-finished paintings of Aztec and Mayan ruins, pictures of Teotihuacan being the most prominent. His desk was piled high with a hodge-podge of art books, featuring the works of Kahlo, Rivera, and Orozco, along with a huge volume featuring Eckhout’s paintings of the Tupis. Mixed with this were sketch pads featuring his own imitations of these better works among discarded pencil boxes and ink pens. Everywhere, a combination of Latin art and hurried attempts at replication concealed the necessities of his room like jungle foliage.

 He began to dig through the swill like a disgruntled archaeologist, gathering up what he needed in a desultory fugue. He checked the time, again and again, knowing that sunset would catch up with him if he was not careful, and doubled his efforts as the time grew tight. He believed that, if he left around two, he could get there by three, and easily get started with the actual work by four-thirty or so. It was the spring-summer transition, and so he figured on having enough time to at least get down some preliminary sketching and coloring. He felt like a man going fishing in a new stream, an adventurous mood tinged by the awareness that he needed to hold his expectations in check. There was a long list of things that could very easily go wrong, and he had to be prepared for failure and unforeseen complications. In this mood of determined foresight, the final article he decided to bring along was his electric lantern, which would be of assistance to him should he need to find his way back after dark.

 Ray managed to get his things together by two-thirty, a little late, but tolerably so. Further tragedy struck, however, when, on his way out of the house with a canvas and easel under one arm and the leather case under the other, he was stopped by his mother. She buttonholed him in the front hallway, coming out of the kitchen with a washcloth in her hand. She explained in Spanish that she wanted him to run some errands that day, and that, if he intended to go out, he was expected to return with some items on her grocery list. This forced Ray, in a rather exasperated way, to explain his designs to her, and why he expected to be out late into the evening. When she heard that he was going to the park, she gave him a very strange look and expressed her desire for him to avoid the place.  She said this rather emphatically, as a command, in the tone unique to a mother talking down to her child. 

She even invoked his full name, Ramone Vasquero, a sign that she was hitting him with the fullness of her authority as his mother.

Ray stubbornly pressed the point, refusing to give way due to his age and newfound independence as a sophomore college student. He demanded, with the force of a skeptic raised in the zeitgeist of modernity, to know the source of her fear and consternation. This prompted her to give him another odd look and solemnly proclaim that the place was extrano. Unable to understand this remark, Ray promised he would be careful, and then set out.

Ray did not consider the part of town in which he lived to be on the whole unpleasant, despite its many quirks. The age of that particular city block, with its combination of old brick and cracked mortar, made the buildings look more rustic than anything, hearkening back to previous eras. But that part of the city had started to go downhill as the mainstream businesses moved to another part of the town, drawing money and activity like osmosis.

It pained Ray to see grand old Victorian houses and Georgian manors decaying with weeds in their front yards and their paint peeling. Nothing but mini-marts and laundromats could survive out here; a few restaurants and book stores clustered close to the brick walls of the college downtown, but all else was a hinterland of empty buildings and mean streets. 

Ray lived locally and thus knew the area well. He did not fit in with his peers or with the blue-collar locals, bearing an artistic sentiment that had no real equal amongst his peers. Despite his anachronistic character he was at home here, finding a sense of beauty in the age and diversity. That he had not yet decided to use Langhorne Memorial Park as a subject of a painting was somewhat curious. Only a few blocks from where he lived, he had passed it often while driving around town.

The park was one of those places existent in every city never mentioned despite its status as a landmark. One could not help but notice that the park trees now towered unpruned over the top of the ten-foot wall that surrounded it, their branches reaching out like the desperate fingers of a starving, skeletal man. The neglect was obvious, and yet the cause of it remained largely submerged in the minds of those who lived nearby. 

The revelation struck on one particular day during the summer of his second year of college. He had been driving down the road, returning home after a trip into the countryside beyond the borders of the town. A loner by nature, he enjoyed these little trips, where he went seeking inspiration in the bare wilderness. He had been scouting out landscapes, and the process of listing what he wanted in a potential candidate had been occupying his mind. He had paused at a stoplight, and, glancing casually to his left, had seen the park gate open, revealing a world within that smacked of the Carboniferous. The idea that came to him was intrinsic and obvious as if it had always been lying behind the park gate, just beyond his grasp. The place was sure to be full of naturalistic wonder, and as an added benefit, was largely devoid of visitors and onlookers. The compulsion to paint the place suddenly struck him in a very powerful way. He vowed, that very moment, to set aside time to explore the place and to attempt to speed paint one of the sunsets he was fond of observing.

So far, he had been an utter failure at capturing sunsets, creating gradients of various shades that were rendered correctly in the technical sense, but had no vividness or visceral soul to them. Photographs were wholly useless in this respect: something was lost in the picture, something essential in the lighting and texture that was absolute in its essence, and which made it impossible to transmit the particulars of the blending and coordination. He had thus set out to attempt to master sunsets based on firsthand experience. His current technique was to set up shop in a more rural part of the city and take on the task of capturing the horizon via observation. 

The need to work fast had made Ray a nimble painter, and he had discovered shortcuts that might have raised an eyebrow from any of his teachers. He usually had to get started at three, get set up maybe by four if he was lucky, and utilize the remaining two hours to the best of his ability to get the preliminary aspects of his work down before dark. This was all planned under the assumption that he wouldn’t be interrupted, a typical occurrence. Passersby, the overly curious, and aggressive public officials had sent him packing prematurely many times in the past.

The sun had not yet begun to set, but Ray, wary of its position as noon proceeded, began to walk more swiftly. He was hoping to make the best time possible and to give himself a broad opportunity to get set up and get a good start. Finding a spot would, itself, probably take a good twenty minutes to half an hour, and he hoped to get there by three so he could reasonably get started by four. He made his way in a brisk manner, passing through a street of crumbling houses and overgrown yards without taking his normal dawdling detours. 

He was still not sure how to temper his expectations, but his current goal was to at least lay the foundation for a new painting. What would come of it, he couldn’t predict, but practice was what he aimed for at this stage in his artistic career. He had confined himself thus far to studies, simply trying to master the basics, and his own evolution on the process of colors and capturing mood was very apparent to him. Perhaps this painting would be a breakthrough, the beginning of a new technique or a newfound capacity to create engaging reflections of the world in oil and brush stroke.

 Within twenty minutes of leaving the house, Ray was walking parallel to the tall stone wall that served to protect the world from the park’s profusion of green. There had already been some escapees from the interior, however: the cracks in the stone sprouted ivy and kudzu that crept up over the mottled brickwork like teal veins. He started to follow the wall as he made his way down the sidewalk, knowing that the gate was about halfway up the block. As he walked, he began to ponder the wall itself with a critical artist’s eye. Staring at it was like looking at an inordinately large cage and wondering what beast it once contained. He had his arms full, but badly wanted to run his hand over the stone surface and feel the complex cornucopia of textures that threaded the scarred stones. It was such an old thing, a patchwork of necrosis and death, with the life from within slowly but surely conquering the exterior. It fascinated him as never before, and he began to take note of the beauty that its age had etched on its surface. It reminded him of the old houses, a once marvelous thing turned savage.

Scanning the top of the wall, he saw the obtrusive branches and fuzzy tops of the tall beeches, maples, and evergreens that had grown so ponderously high. He considered just how erect they were, many of them thick as a redwood. It was a regular jungle in there, and it was just as well that he had given himself time to navigate it. A look at that protruding greenery informed him that he was not dealing with an ordinary amount of neglected forestry, but something truly spectacular. His eyes tried to focus on the zigzagging, interconnected branches which formed the roof of green over the entirety of the park, but he found the patterns too complicated to trace. The trees had seemingly grown together, forming a kind of solid, organic mass that was like woven fabric. He began to realize just how dark it was going to be when the sun went down, and was grateful for the lantern, which more and more looked like a necessity for navigating the place.

The iron gate was now before him, a rusty thing composed of two hinged doors only loosely attached to a frame. One was open, revealing a gravel path that wound between vine-covered trees and colossal bushes. Ray stood before the open gate for several moments, considering the strange world that it revealed. The wall had tipped him off about the state of things, but seeing those plants grown to such a gargantuan size filled him with a peculiar sense of dread. There was both an age and an emptiness to the place, the feeling of hallowed ground untainted by the footsteps of mankind.

The park was a place that the plants had reclaimed, and where the once evident devices of modernity had been blotted out. He thought of vine-covered Aztec temples, ancient and forgotten scions of a dead civilization, lost in the wilderness and reclaimed by the Earth. Like those temples, which he had studied for many an hour in his father’s National Geographic collection, there was a darkness to the park. It spoke of unspeakable heathen rites, done by a people lost to time.

In his hesitation, he grew contemplative, and turned away from the gate. So many different textures, rendered in bark and waxy epidermis, had assailed his retinas that he had to focus them elsewhere. He turned his head to one side, gasping, feeling that there was some monstrous effort in simply standing outside the gate and not being drawn in. There was an allure to this place, a kind of unnamable force that was trying to pull him in. He could feel it now very distinctly, tugging with increased vigor. It was like being drawn, by unknown powers, towards that path.

As Ray turned away, he saw something else of interest, which mercifully distracted him from the place’s grasping aura. Behind him was a gray breaker box, probably the one containing the electrical fuses for whatever equipment was located within the park. The box itself was a rather bare, ordinary thing, situated next to a telephone pole on the edge of the sidewalk. What drew Ray’s gaze, however, was the image plastered over the door of the box, something so odd that Ray stepped away from the gate and moved closer to get a better look. It appeared to be a cutout of a missing person’s flyer, the sort of thing one finds on milk cartons or on the bulletin board of the local shopping mall.

The printout showed a little girl of about ten, her expression as dark and Latin as the sunset over the temple of Kukulcan. Time and weather had attempted to erase the picture, but they had clearly failed: the face was still very distinct, and the image it showed was quite powerful indeed. She was beautiful, Ray saw, no matter how faded and worn the picture might be, her dark curly hair falling about a round face that showed an expression which cut into him with all the fury of a hurricane. Her face was dominated by a pair of protuberant hazel eyes which stared out of deep sockets set above her high, thin cheeks. The eyes had magnetism in a way that was even more powerful than that of the park gate, and her stare went through him like X-rays. Her dark, pleading expression filled him with a sense of moroseness.

Below that face, in phosphorescent paint, someone had written: LOS MUERTOS NUNCA ESTAN SOLOS

As he looked at the picture, Ray felt memories stirring inside his mind. He had seen that face before, and his brain roiled with the effort of trying to figure out where. It took him a few moments of fumbling about in the corridors of his brain before he finally grasped something from his childhood. He recalled, as a little boy, hearing about a young girl from a local family who had been killed. It was one of those incidents that everyone had talked about with great intensity for a month or two, and then had fallen utterly into obscurity. He tried to recall the details but found that he could not even remember what the girl’s name had been—Anna or Maria, something very common like that. So far as he could remember (which wasn’t much), no suspect had ever been caught, and so the case had probably gone cold by now. How long ago had that been?  He had been maybe eleven or twelve at the time, and he remembered the story only in connection with a curfew imposed on him and his siblings by his mother. The picture looked rather worn, speaking of a passage of maybe a decade. Yet those dark eyes still stood out, very firm in their reality, reaching out to him.

With surprising effort, he turned back towards the gate. She had been found in the park, hadn’t she? Like Proust’s narrator, he strained his brain to try to grasp what might explain the strange pictures and their connection to his current place in time. She had run away from home (if he remembered rightly) and had been found dead in a tent that she had been living in. The details were still hazy in his mind. Her fate is a reason NOT to go in there, he thought, then he shook his head, pushing away irrational paranoias that were attempting to crowd into him. He was burning precious daylight standing here, wasting time contemplating the preposterous.

He stepped through the gate, shoes crunching on gravel, his procrastinated hike finally commencing. Moving farther towards the heart of the park, he saw again those staring eyes, forcing their way into his mind. What a lonely way to die, out here, in this park. Who could have done it? Even the local drug peddlers, vicious as they could be, would refrain from harming a child like that. He shook his head again, trying to refocus in spite of the doubts crowding him. It was best not to consider such things, or at least, not too seriously. He had work to do, and was already getting losing time. He walked with renewed resolve, hoping to find the right place to set up just ahead.

Yet, as Ray progressed farther down the path, he began to realize that something was unquestionably wrong. He noticed that his entire perspective on the place was slightly off, in a way that became more obvious to him the farther in he went. It was like looking at the world through cellophane sometimes. Outlines became fuzzy, and colors seemed to run together to make odd, non-Euclidean shapes and forms. Everything looked like something else until you focused directly on it, with leaves that seemed to crawl about like insects and trees that seemed to sprout laughing faces.

Was Ray losing his vision? That didn’t seem to be the case because, whenever he directed his attention to any particular thing, a single tree or a copse of foliage, everything was alright. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a number of strange and inexplicable angles that could not exist and movement that the trees ought not to be able to exhibit. He would turn sharply towards something and, staring at it directly, find it normal. Then, as he started on his way, he would see it move or change in some indescribable manner out of the corner of his eye. It was all very odd.

He also noticed something else that started to upset him more as he went along: everything here sat in oppressive silence. This impression did not hit him for the first few minutes as he progressed deeper into the park, yet when it did register, weighed on him. No birds sang, no squirrels moved about, and he heard no voices or movement from park visitors. Even the passage of cars outside the walls was stifled. There was a sense of finality to moving forward, going deeper into this other world. He felt again that sense of being drawn in, which, coupled with silence, created a feeling of utter isolation akin to being slowly buried alive. Despite all this, he kept slogging on down the path while doing everything he could to suppress his irrational perceptions.

The trees only got thicker and more closely clustered, the branches more plentiful, and the shrubs became a festering of leaves and fronds. The only signs of humanity’s stake in this wilderness were the lamps which dotted the sides of the path. They were really just simple iron poles topped by electric bulbs in a diamond-shaped glass container, once ornate though now in rusty ruin. There was one every thirty feet or so, their original intent obviously being to help park visitors see in the twilight, although the vines and dirt which now encased them made Ray doubtful as to whether they worked at all now. Every so often, Ray would stop and examine these sad specimens, taking note of the bushy vines and thick underbrush growing on and around the corroded iron. Wasn’t the city supposed to maintain these things? Then again, Ray highly doubted the city workers had been anywhere near this place for a good many years. He saw no benches, fountains, or any other sign of decorative leisure typical of parks and public areas. 

Through the canopy overhead, Ray, noticing the sun starting its descent, quickened his pace. Not his pressing schedule, but his increasing fear of being caught in the dark drove him. The electric lantern had been merely a technical consideration. He had not really thought all that much about how he would actually feel in the darkness, that he might be afraid of the growing twilight. A grown man is not supposed to be afraid of the dark, he knew, but his isolation had clearly started to work on his nerves.

Ray kept imagining he saw things move through the trees, and the silence seemed to be filling up with muttering and ringing. It was only, he thought, the emptiness being filled with phantasms from his own overactive imagination. The mind, like nature, abhorred a vacuum, and he was now inventing illusory sensations. That face appeared before him again and again, those dark eyes looking at him with a grievance he could not name.

The gravel path suddenly broadened, and Ray found himself in a kind of large clearing, which he estimated to be at or near the heart of the park. The trees formed a circle about what appeared to be a pleasure area, made for park visitors. There was a rusty playground, with some benches off to one side and a drinking fountain by a crumbling and now unreadable park map.

The open area seemed to be simultaneously anachronistic and yet somehow at peace with the surrounding foliage. It was like Stone Hinge or one of the abandoned castles of the Balkans, a creation of man now on the path to blending back in with the natural world. This place had become untamed, with the human element slowly trickling out of it with the passing years. The remnants spoke of a long-dead organism that had existed in a different era when the world had been newer.

What caught Ray’s attention, though, was the playground, which stood out to him in a singular way. The bluish-yellow light from the sky filtered in through the roof of tree limbs overhead and cast a dim but colorful hue over the collection of metal and tin devices. There was a two-person swing, a slide full of rust holes, and a splintery merry-go-round with iron handles that were rough with orange scabs. It was all bathed in an exquisite shading that, with the background of dark trees and thick bushes, made everything almost breathtaking in its surreal beauty. Ray knew, instantly and intuitively, that this was the place he had come to paint. He felt like a man emerging from the jungle to find a lost civilization where no foot had tread for many centuries. His fears fell away as his artist’s fervor took him over completely and set him to work.

Ray dropped his leather case and canvas, going about the process of positioning his easel as quickly as his fumbling fingers would allow. He took a little bit of time to get the angle and perspective he wanted, though he spent no longer than was necessary. He worked quickly to get everything in place, in order to maintain the best view and to have the best possible access to his paints and brushes. His fears were wiped away like cobwebs and all he thought of now was just how lucky he was to get this perfect lighting. 

Kubrick could not have shot a better scene, and Monet could have scarcely replicated better colors. He had to work quickly, with no room for mistakes if he was to get it all down in the appropriate time.

Soon, he had a soft graphite pencil in hand and was laying out the first bit of sketch work. He worked with a good deal of gusto, getting the general layout thrown onto the canvas with very little effort. Things started out well, but as he finished laying out the overall shape of what he was to paint, he began to feel strange. He managed to push away the host of nagging doubts that assailed his mind at first. Soon, it felt like the night after a funeral service, a kind of gray mist of mourning and helplessness fogging his brain. It felt like he did when climbing into a cold swimming pool, the submersion slow, then suddenly absolute. Soon, he was in over his head, emotion penetrating every inch of his body. Why did he feel this way? There seemed to be no direct correlation between his surroundings and what he felt, yet it was pervasive. The place itself seemed to be pressing in on him. Just as alcohol or drugs could enter and affect one’s mental state, this place seemed able to enter and change his state of mind. 

This is where it happened, he thought. This is where they found her, in this playground. He knew it intuitively, as a deathwatch beetle knowns the time of expiration. The memory of it lingered here like a smell. It wafted onto him, seeping into his mind and heart.

After a little more than half an hour, he had finished the sketch and began checking over his work by comparing the sketch to the surrounding scenery, trying to get the two as close as possible before adding the paint. Time seemed to pass slowly, for which he was grateful, but he found it difficult to pinpoint exactly. There was a sense of heaviness to everything, as if he were moving in slow motion. It was difficult to concentrate on his work, finding that his mind wandered. He would let his brain flow easily as he worked, getting into a groove…and then her face would appear.

When this happened, Ray would shake his head and look up at the sky. The sun had been in the early stages of descent; every time he looked again, it seemed to have progressed a little more—four o’clock, four-thirty, five—time ticked away, but in a seemingly irregular manner. How could he paint when her face was everywhere? It was in every rust stain in the slide, every wooden crease of the bark, the leaves of the ferns, and the texture of every bush. She glared at him from every surface, pleading, begging, hungry for his attention. Those beautiful golden shades were coming into everything, but tinged with the cool, dark greens of the fuzzy and thickly-clustered trees. In those dark shadows, she seemed to lurk, watching him.

Ray started to work with his oils, mixing colors and dabbing them on. He worked to capture the shades as best he could, trying to get a foundation done for his color work. His movements were mechanical and without real passions, the practiced motions of an automaton. He was trying to keep his mind blank, as a defense against the shadows attempting to crawl into him. He felt like he was shutting down, his body attempting to defend itself against the invading force created by the sheer mood of this place.

The melancholy Ray had felt earlier had begun to bottom out, just as a stabbing pain becomes a dull throb. A terrible draining depression settled in on him, sapping him of strength. He worked much more slowly than he ought to have, with precise, but sluggish movements, as if his limbs had grown too heavy. This all made the work seem like drudgery and the minutes heavy with inertia.

As six o’clock began to settle in, the trees became dark blotches, the underbrush an amorphous mass. Soon, he would have to either leave or be content to utilize the electric lantern. A chill blew over him, an uncharacteristically cold one for this time of year. He shuddered and noticed that a breeze was descending upon the trees. They swayed slowly and gently, the branches creaking and tracing patterns in the air. Was it really only six? He checked his wristwatch, confirming this to be the case. It was so dark that he was already having to squint at the canvas, and soon, he would have no choice but to stop. Had he underestimated the darkness here that much? The sky had really passed its prime anyway, the descent into further darkness having seemingly occurred without his notice. The shadows were rapidly growing long and obtrusive. It was strange…

To make things worse, his eyes kept falling on a mound of cloth that lay a few feet away by the slide. It drew his eye every time he looked up from the canvas. Soon, he could hardly see the sky at all, only the cloth. An image began to form in his mind, an impossible one. He chided himself for it, but it was taking over in spite of his efforts to maintain control of his brain.

Now he was utterly fixated on it. He stared at the pile of clothes, which was illuminated only by the twilight that trickled in from between the branches overhead. What he was thinking could not even be considered, and yet the compulsion it set into motion was irresistible. He had to know. He had to be sure. 

The brush fell from his limp fingers, and he started towards the mound. He moved slowly, carefully, as if approaching a prone lion who could be either dead or asleep. His feet crunched loudly over the soft whisper of the breeze, thundering in his ears. It was now terribly dark, the whole of the park blanketed in shady blue, the cool greens turning into muted browns. It must be the trees, he thought, blocking out the setting sun. That explained the sudden onset of the dark shadows and the rapidly dimming light.

The sunset no longer concerned Ray, only the pile of clothes. It and it alone was worth his consideration. He knew what he would find: it was impossible, but he already knew. There was an inevitability to it, with the events to follow set into motion the minute he had stepped through the gate and onto this hallowed ground. The sacrilege committed had doomed him to this, and now he could not turn back. He did not want to really consider this with any seriousness, but every fiber of his being proclaimed the truth. He stooped over the pile of clothing.

She was lying there, her skin pale, her eyes closed, her hair a puddle of black. Her arms and legs were splayed as if she were making snow angels, dressed in the jumper and white shirt. There was a coldness to her, like a marble statue buried in a glacier. She seemed to radiate blasts of frigid air, to absorb the heat from everything, even from him. He feared his breath would touch her cheek and awaken her. He knew the eyes were closed in death, and yet he knew there was life in them. He could sense a terrible spark in here, and though the figure did not move, he felt those eyes upon him. The picture seemed superimposed in his mind, the picture that matched so perfectly this sleeping figure. Yet in the picture, the eyes were open, and he feared that keeping it in his brain would cause the figure to replicate this action.

Those eyes would accuse him, accuse him of the impossible and the terrible.

And, looking down at that face, at that moment, Ray began to scream. He opened his throat and let out a series of shrieks that seemed to fill the heavy, dark night with his howls. He screamed into the night, screamed into void, screamed for the dead and the innocent, for the victims of unspeakable desires and corrupted purposes. Screamed and screamed, until his throat was raw.

And with nothing else in him, he turned and ran. The park was pitch black now, the trees casting deep shadows.

The wind was howling, the silence shattered by the shriek blasting through the underbrush. Everything was moving, the branches swaying and dancing a crazed polka in the whipping wind. Ray could not even hear his own breath in his ears over the sound of the gale shouldering its way past the tree trunks. He was running, not caring about the darkness before his eyes, but content to stumble away from that horrid dead thing. He had his hands out before him, casting about helplessly in the darkness. He groped at trees and bushes, stumbling and falling, climbing to his feet, only to stumble again. He didn’t care about the pain of his exertions, nor the branches that slapped against his cheeks. He was as blind to these sensations and to everything else, simply running pell-mell in one direction. He ran right into a tree so hard it knocked him down, but he was up again in an instant and running without care. He had to get away, and the ache of his bleeding nose was only an insignificant detail.

He had to get out. How didn’t matter in the slightest, since the need itself was pervasive and absolute. It was like being in a pit at the zoo, knowing that he was trapped with an animal on the loose just behind him. He had left the lantern behind with his easel, but he scarcely registered this absence. His heart felt like it was about to explode, and he was gasping for breath. He would run himself to the point of fainting if necessary, oblivion preferable to the thoughts that had now completely infected him.

Those eyes, flashing in the darkness.

Accusing.

Begging.

Her hand touched her neck.

There, purple welts, the marks of fingers.

No, not me! I didn’t know!

Hiding in the tent.

Noise.

You looked, but what did you see?

Was it…

His palms smacked into the wall, pain shooting up his arms from the impact. Relief shot through him, finding something so friendly in this dark place. He began to run his hands along it frantically, running his hand parallel to the brickwork. He had to find the gate, and quickly. The wind was picking up, shrieking in his ear, calling to him in a terrible, frantic voice. He could taste vomit in his mouth, and he felt blood running down his chin, but he could not consider this at all. These seemed like superficial observations, considering what was in here with him. He followed the rocky wall, moving as quickly as he could, forcing himself to move, to walk. The underbrush had started to whisper, and the trees were now creaking and cracking. Somewhere, off in the distance, he heard what sounded like a branch fall with a terrible crash. The place was alive with her terrible wrath now.

He had to get out.

Get out!

The wind…

She was riding on the wind,

eyes coming out at him from the darkness,

hands reaching…

        NO! Not me! I wasn’t there! I didn’t know.

        The place is strange...

        The dead are never—

        He fell through the gate and collapsed onto the sidewalk in a pile of shaking and twitching limbs. He lay there, his mind coming back to him slowly, his body singing a song of pain. As a daguerreotype develops, so too did his situation fall on him gradually and in slow shades. His tears of utter despair turned to sobs of utter relief. He heard the cars passing, saw the shadows of the city lights, and became aware of the sounds of the town he knew and loved. 

        Ray stood slowly, pulling himself up with a lot of popping and pangs of pain. The signs of humanity were like water in the mouth of a man dying of thirst. And then he started to run again. 

A few hours later, the police came by the Vasquero home in response to a strange but urgent call that they had received. Two officers were sent after a long 911 conversation with the still-jittery Ray Vasquero, the young man who had raised the alarm and had insisted over the phone that there was a dead girl in Memorial. During the interview, his parents sat on either side of him on the couch while his siblings looked on in awe. The cops stood over him, questioning him about the whole evening, and he gave them a very cobbled-together version of events. He told them about his painting project, about his trip to the park, and finally about seeing the body. He kept it simple, trying to make it all sound as rational as possible. He could not even tell them the vast majority of what he remembered, the nature of the events being too disorganized and vague for verbal expression. 

 The police listened patiently, and when he had finished, broke the news: they had conducted a search and had found no corpse at all. They had located his easel and canvas at the playground, along with his other painting equipment, but there was no sign of the dead little girl. More questions were asked, and suggestions about what had actually occurred were made on the fly.

Mrs. Vasquero served them all coffee, and the officers had a “good talk” with her poor, twitching son. Yes, the police confirmed, an incident had occurred there several years ago, a terrible pity, but nothing like that had happened since. The occurrence had tarnished the place’s reputation, but that was the only long-term effect. They assured Ray that they had gone over the place with a fine-toothed comb, and discovered nothing out of the ordinary. 

The police returned Ray’s painting equipment and half-finished canvas to him, smiling and shaking their heads as they did so. They clearly regarded him as a silly young man and were already trying to paint the whole thing in an almost comical light. His father was starting to chuckle over the incident as well, and his mother was already lecturing about how he had ignored her warning. Everything became very warm and friendly, and the police left smiling and laughing. They were guided out by Mrs. Vasquero, who sent them off with profuse apologies and gracious goodbyes. 

Ray retired to his room and spent the rest of the evening regarding his painting.  It was only half-finished, and he scarcely remembered doing any of it, but looking at it gave him an odd feeling. The colors themselves were moody and dark, and the tree line suggested that something might be hiding in the brush. Somber and tense tones fringed everything and recalled that feeling of mourning that he had felt in the park. The melancholy blues and golds, contrasted with the black trees and forest-green shrubbery, made everything feel somehow on edge. There was a coolness to it as well, a chill to the colors and textures that made him shiver. It made him think of lonely places in Canada or Alaska, cold bits of land where few men had tread, set apart from the warmth of humanity.

 Towards the bottom was the playground, a collection of odd shapes in penumbra that he had managed to capture quite well. The shadowy nature of the background enhanced that feeling of coldness and distance which implied another planet entirely. It looked like a ruined temple on Mars, the semblance of a lost civilization removed from the eyes of mankind and speaking of a history that humanity had no part in. The whole thing was surreal, set apart from the world as he knew it, taking the viewer to something quite dark and nebulous. Staring at it made Ray uncomfortable, and yet he could not look away. 

Lying in the corner of the playground by the slide was the little girl. She was on her back, arms spread out, head turned to the side so that she faced the viewer. Her eyes bulged, staring but not seeing. They would never see again, Ray thought. Despite the shadows over the body, he could see the angry purple marks on her neck. She looked ragged, limp, a mere thing cast aside like a forgotten toy. Figures had never been his strongest suit, but without knowing it, he had captured a surprising amount of fear and stark pain in those large, pleading eyes. He could not recall drawing this, and the only explanation he had was that seeing that poster had affected him in a very deep way. It was grotesquely effective, depicting a sense of anguish that was far too real.

 But the worst was what stood over her.

 A shadow, tall and faceless, cut a shape against the foliage. It was difficult to see, dark as it was, but he could make it out, an anthropomorphic figure bending over the fallen girl. It was adult, he thought, and almost definitely a man, staring down at the helpless, prone victim. Something about that shadow radiated hatred, to the point where looking at it made him feel deeply disturbed. It was a black splotch in the shape of a man, and yet it embodied something terrible, the cusp of a revelation that he could not quite grasp.

 No, the dead are not lonely.

 On that night, even she had not been alone.

     

The End

 

 

A. L. Hodges, exmortis34@gmail.com, of Bedford, VA, who wrote BP # 88’s “The Dead Are Not Lonely,” was born in Suffolk, England, but spent the majority of his life living in Virginia. Growing up on a farm, he showed a very early interest in both naturalism and fantasy stories. He has worked a variety of jobs, including as a pain contractor, community college biology teacher, and plasma center bottle processor. He enjoys writing horror fiction and draws heavily on his love of Appalachian scenery and biology.

Site Maintained by Fossil Publications