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Bruce Memblatt
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atticmirrorghost.jpg
Art by Steven Cartwright 2010

The Last Party

 

Bruce Memblatt

 

 “More dust,” Sterling thought as he climbed the steps.

The building was an old wood and brick structure on the edge of town. How many times had he walked up those desolate steps?  Forever, the same view. On the third landing, sunlight streamed through the window. The sun lit up the dust on the steps like sand on a beach.

When Sterling took the job, he was a young man but now everything was old: the building was old, the remaining tenants were old, and he was old. The decaying walls reminded him of forgotten songs about gin-soaked bathtubs and speakeasies during Prohibition when the town and the building thrived.

He had just a few more steps till the top of the landing where he would change Mrs. Cummings’s light bulb again. Why don’t they all just kick off and die? he thought. Why don’t I just drop dead too? And then the sound of his tired steps overcame him and he knocked on her door.

The door was barely locked. He heard the creak as he pushed it open. Saw the old woman’s gray hair from the corner of his eye. Mrs. Cummings sat in her rocking chair just below a portrait of her dead husband.

She pointed up at the light fixture. “About time you got here, Sterling.”

“Ahh, what do you care?  All you’ve got is time.”

“Yeah, I wish,” she said. “Are you going to change that bulb, or are you going to jabber?”

“All right, all right,” Sterling said. “I’m changing the damn thing.”


              “God, the way you carry on, you’d think it was one of those strobe lights like in the discos.”

      Sterling grabbed the stool. “And when have you been to a disco?”

               “Look who’s talking!” she said. “You probably haven’t seen a dance floor since Hoover.”

               “Well, excuse me, John Travolta,” Sterling said. “Let me just screw this bulb in so I can stop taking up space on your dance floor.”

     He struggled with his feet. His eyes searched high and found the bottom of the blackened bulb after he’d clumsily removed the globe from the fixture. It was still too high for his reach, but he managed it just like he’d always managed everything.

   While she rocked, she pointed toward him, saying, “I really should be scared of you, but I’m not.”

What an odd thing to say, Sterling thought.

In the distance, he heard a tune. One of the songs he heard in his memory when he climbed the stairs.

 “Say, do you hear that?” he said.

 She kept on rocking. “Hear what? I hear things all the time.”

“That song. Out there, somewhere.”

 “Guess it’s one of the other tenants.”

“I guess,” Sterling said as he got off the stool.

As he walked towards the door, she abruptly stopped rocking. Smiling, she said, “Sterling, I hear lots of things during the night. You should drop by, sometime.”

And then she laughed. It was the strangest laugh.

Like madness, he thought, but he just shrugged and shut the door.

 

He began to remember what Cummings had looked like, way back when.

 Back in his day, their day.  She was a looker all right:  Stacey Cummings from Peachtree Virginia. That red dress she used to wear. Stacey could kick back a few, too. She could’ve had her pick of any man in town, but in the end, she chose Clarke Cummings.

Then Sterling saw the dusty steps and the dirt-caked walls. He wiped his forehead and looked at the wrinkled hands, and he sighed.

And, for an instant, he thought about how he could have fallen for her, no, how he had fallen for her way back then. 

The last step was always the hardest because of the big drop before the landing on the first floor. He stumbled as his feet struck the faded tiles. He shook his head and stared down the hallway.

Another night like every other night since Lord knows when, lay ahead.

As he opened his door, the musky air hit his face. He reached in his kitchen cabinet and grabbed the whiskey. He sat down on the couch and began to pour.

 

“She loves me; she loves me not,” he half sung, as he brought another shot of whiskey to his mouth.

How many was that? Did it matter?

He leaned back against the sofa and said, “Sterling you’re a damn fool; you’ve been a damn fool forever.”

Then he saw the crack in the ceiling and, to his surprise, remembered his father. “Damn son of a bitch!” he cried.

The tricky bastard had always had a sneaky look, just like the one Nixon had on his mug when he resigned last week.

Sterling kicked the bottle off the coffee table, and it fell to the floor.

 “The, old drunken bastard!” he yelled. Then laughed because he knew he was just like his father.

He started blinking. Was it—that couldn’t be—Stacey in the room?

If it wasn’t her, then it was something that looked like Stacey, like a billowing dream in soft lights and soft colors. She waved to him like she was beckoning him closer.

He got off the couch and started walking toward her when he heard a crash from upstairs.

The vision disappeared into the wall.

 

As he stepped out into the hall, Sterling glanced around, felt a sudden chill. His steps were deliberate and slow. He tried to maintain his balance. Booze, he thought. Maybe it was his mind playing tricks. Maybe he didn’t hear any noise from upstairs. But his gut kept telling him he did.

As he neared the staircase he saw old, bald Mr. Bemis in his first floor doorway, staring out like a zombie. Suddenly, Bemis pointed and laughed.

 “What the hell’s wrong with you?” Sterling yelled.

 As if Sterling’s words were magical, Bemis disappeared.

Sterling banged on the door. “What the fuck is happening?” he cried, as his knuckles struck wood. 

Silence. Frustrated, he kicked the door.

 

 The dusty steps met his eyes again, but it was night now, and another bulb had blown on the second landing. He tried to adjust his eyes to the shadows, as he fumbled his way up the steps.

He held tightly to the railing. As he went up, the light grew brighter.

What kind of game was Bemis playing?, Sterling wondered, but he didn’t dwell on it. Booze, he thought again. Like when he’d thought he saw Stacey in his room.

He couldn’t think too long about Stacey.  If he did, he’d have to think about what she’d done to him.

The edge of the third landing grew closer. He peered further and caught the sliver of light under Stacey Cummings’s door.

From behind that door, he thought he heard voices. He paused and tried to listen.

Then he felt water running under his shoes. He looked down and he saw it wasn’t water, but blood. Blood was pouring down the stairs.

He jerked back, grabbed the railing tighter. He shook his head, tried to focus. When he looked down at his feet again, the blood was gone. All that remained were the same old, dusty steps.

But the voices coming from behind the door, he was sure were there.

He wanted to turn away but he kept moving toward the door. The voices intensified. He was certain he heard laughter and music like a party was underway in Stacey Cummings’s room.

What kind of party could she be having? he thought.

He breathed deeply and pushed the door open. He jumped back quickly when he saw just Stacey rocking beneath Clarkes’s portrait as always. 

Didn’t she ever move from that spot? Sterling thought. And then he realized the voices were gone.

         She smiled, catlike, and said, “What’s the matter, Sterling?  Your ears playing tricks on you? Maybe you’re losing it, huh, old man?”

He slowly approached her, saying, “How do you know I heard something?”

“You wouldn’t be coming up here in the middle of the night if you didn’t,” she said. “But they’re all here.”

“Who’s all here?” Sterling cried. “Are you mad, woman? Don’t you ever move from that spot?”

“Thanks to you, I’m woefully sedentary,” she said. And as the words leapt from her lips, he saw another image of Stacey standing right beside her.  It was just like the image he saw in his room. Younger, in soft colors and soft lights, she beckoned. Her hair moved like a soft breeze had touched it.

He stood, stunned at the contrast between the two images. He yearned to reach out and touch the younger Stacey. But as he did, it vanished.


        “Hey, what’s the matter?” the older Stacey said. “You don’t like that picture of Clarke? Hey, can you hear me?”

 He answered like he just stepped out of a dream. “Huh . . . yeah, it’s a picture of Clarke all right.”

“Well here’s another!” She cackled madly like she had that afternoon.

 Instantly, Sterling felt something cold in his hand.  He saw Clarke, and then he knew it was Clarke’s icy hand that clutched him.

It was like Clarke had stepped out of the painting, only he looked different. A gash ran across his face and blood dripped from his eyes. His forehead looked like someone had gouged out part of it with a knife.

Or another nice, steel utensil, Sterling thought. He knew he should be frightened, but instead, he felt relief.

“Looks like you win, Sterling,” Clarke said in a clear, natural voice.

Then he let go of Sterling. Clarke walked to the other side of the room and stood against the wall. His image, so pale, seemed to dissolve into the white wall except for the blood that dripped from his face and his hands into a puddle by his feet.

          Stacey turned toward Sterling. With a boost of her foot, she began rocking again. “So, you like that one? You’re a strong man, aren’t you?”

“There was a time when there was tenderness in your voice,” Sterling said softly.

She laughed again. “The nights here are long, and they’re lonely, aren’t they?”

He was about to answer when Bemis appeared, but not laughing and pointing at Sterling like he had, downstairs. Bemis was crying and reaching for Sterling, who pulled away, but Bemis kept coming closer.

 Stacey laughed. “It’s a hell of a party you throw, Sterling.”

I throw?” In that instant, fear consumed him, because more people were coming forward.  Other tenants were stepping out of the walls and walking towards him.

There was Mrs. Hanson from 2-B, and Rodgers from 3-D, and Walters from the apartment next door, and some so pale, Sterling couldn’t recognize them.

“Stop this madness!” he screamed.

“It can’t be stopped,” Stacey said. “This is your handiwork.”

 “What?”

“Sterling,” she said. “Remember all that homemade gin we used to drink and that silver flapper dress I wore, when we were young?”

“Why are you talking about dresses, now?”

 “What was the song they played? Don’t tell me! It went something like . . .  ‘Won’t you Charleston with me?’ ” She smiled strangely. “Charleston with me, won’t you, Sterling?”

Then he heard the music and realized that was the song he’d heard before. Finally he’d lost his mind, he thought. It couldn’t just be booze, or all those lonely hours in his apartment. It had to be something real, because it felt so real.

He tried to run to the door, but his feet were too shaky, and he fell on the carpet.

Quickly, they circled him: Walters, Rodgers, Mrs. Hanson, and the others he couldn’t recognize.

Then Dorothy Hanson reached toward him. He recalled how one night long ago, her black hair had fallen across his pillow.

Now she was crying. “Why, Sterling? Why?”

Her hand was getting closer. He pulled away and touched his own sweaty brow. “Please!” he screamed.

          Then they all said, in unison, “Please, please, please . . .” He thought their voices would drive him mad. Like spastic vultures, their wrinkled hands reached for him.

That’s when Stacey got up. As she approached him, the chair continued  rocking. . . .

And, suddenly, as if transported back in time, he and Stacy were back in that club.

The one they all used to go to, to dance the night away in . . . Karloff’s?  He thought that was the name. He could make out the back of the neon sign blinking against the night in the window. The song was playing: “Won’t you Charleston with me?” 

And he and Stacey were dancing. She had on her silver dress. A cigarette holder was in her hand.  Heavenly smoke drifted from the tip of her cigarette.

Then Clarke walked in. Looking angry, Sterling thought.

Clarke walked toward the corner of the room, where they were dancing. When Stacey saw Clarke, she released Sterling and fell into Clarke’s arms. Wildly, they danced to the middle of the floor, then turned to stare at Sterling.

Blood dripped down their faces. The music sputtered like it was winding down with the strains of a broken music box, all sick and screechy. Then, on top of the music, Sterling heard the tenants’ voices again: Hanson, Bemis, and the others.

Sterling was back on the floor, and they were still standing over him, screaming, “Please!” over and over like mad things.

          Directly above him was Stacey. Pointing, she cried out, “It was just a dance, Sterling! That’s all it was, just a dance!”

The others fell silent.

“What are you saying?” Sterling whimpered, from the floor. His heart was pounding. He could feel muscles contracting in his chest.

“You know what I’m saying?” Stacey shrieked. “There was nothing between you and me. It was just one dance that night! But you’re a crazy bastard. You’ve always been a crazy bastard. In your head, you built up this huge affair between us, and now we are all paying for it!”

“What do you mean? Sterling said. How could she know what went on in his mind?

“Look around you!” she screamed. “Look at what you’ve done!”

Done? What had he done? He tried to understand, but he didn’t know what she meant.

Weakly, he got up. Bemis, Walters, all of them, backed away like they were scared of him. Like he was a monster.

“Where are you all scared of?” Sterling shouted.

One by one, they peeled their skin away from their faces, revealing gouged- out eyes and blood-soaked scars. Their lips hung loosely, severed from their mouths.

Waving her hands, Stacey walked toward Sterling. Her body was slowly dissolving into the background. “Go to your room!” she told him. “Go to your room!”

Then she peeled off her skin like the others. Blood ran across the floor.

And she vanished.

Sterling ran toward the door. Whatever the madness in Stacey’s apartment, he wanted no more of it. He’d never go back. Tomorrow he’d move. He’d find some way out. He’d give up booze. It must have been the booze.

But what did she mean?

He ran it through his head, over and over. What could he have done?

Doesn’t everyone like the feel of steel?  The slice of the knife? The swift cut?

Wasn’t she in love with him?  She had to be in love with him. That’s why she drove him crazy. That’s why they all drove him crazy!

He walked downstairs, watching his feet. As the dust kicked away, he saw bloodstains on the steps. Maybe he was still consumed by the madness that had taken over the building . . . Ha, ha!

When he reached the bottom, he stood there trying to listen. In the distance, he still heard their voices upstairs.

 He needed sleep. He had to make it back to his apartment. All he had to do was close the door, and go to bed. In the morning everything would be fine. The voices would stop. Everything would be quiet. Quiet.

As he approached his door, his heartbeat picked up. He could feel it race under his chest.

He pushed the door open. He walked past the kitchen into his living room. He saw the bottle he kicked over earlier, still on the floor near the sofa. He reached to pick it up.

Next to the bottle was a bloody cleaver.

          He picked it up and wiped it off.
                                     

 

Bruce Memblatt lives in New York City He has had his stories featured in such magazines as Aphellion, Static Movement, Danse Macabre, SNM Horror Magazine, Jeani Rector’s The Horror Zine, The Piker Press, A Golden Place, Eastown Fiction, Short Story Me!, 69 Flavors of Paronoia, Suspense Magazine, Audience Magazine, Black Lantern Publishing, The Cynic Online and The Feathertale Review. His short fiction eBook The Painter was released by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in February 2010.  His short story “Pandora’s Surprise” has been published in the anthology from  Pill Hill Press, Pandora’s Nightmare: The Horror Unleashed. His short story “The Police Station” is featured in the Anthology from The Horror Zine: Twice The Terror. Bruce writes a series for The Piker Press based on his short story “Dinner with Henry.” The first installment appeared on March 8, 2010. His short story “Victim Number 13” has been accepted for publication in the summer 2010 issue of Strange Weird and Wonderful magazine. His short story “A Cut Above the Rest has been selected for publication in Bewildering Stories.

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