On this page you’ll find some excerpts from stories published in my collections Stranger Calls: Dark Tales and The Other Side of the Door: Dark Stories.
From Stranger Calls:
He saw her face.
He thought the streaks on her face were from her head. It took him a moment to realize they were tears. It struck Marlon that he’d never actually seen Pat cry, that he’d never even imagined her crying, that he’d believed, somehow, ridiculously, that she was beyond crying. Seeing tears now startled him, unnerved him. He dropped the ice tray. It landed softly on the carpet.
“What happened? What is it?”
At first she didn’t speak. She didn’t even see him. Then he moved toward her, and she caught the movement in the corner of her eye. She jerked upright, her eyes still not quite seeing, or maybe seeing but not seeing him, Marlon, but something else, something that wasn’t her soft, overweight husband in his Tommy Bahamas.
Pat flung herself backward onto the bed. The towel fell loose, tangling between her legs and then flapping to the floor, revealing her in a way Marlon found obscene. Her arms flailed as if warding off an impending attack. She let out a loud screech, a sound Marlon had never heard before, not from Pat, not from anyone. It stopped Marlon in his tracks.
“What the hell is going on?”
She didn’t stop until she was all the way on the other side of the bed, legs still kicking, arms still pinwheeling, and then she went right off the other end, tumbling onto the floor. The screech cut off. Marlon heard the loud thump of her head bucking against the far wall.
She’s gone fucking mad.
Marlon crossed the room. Pat lay on the floor. When he came around the bed, she saw him, really saw him, and the tension drained out of her lithe little body. He reached down and took her by the shoulders and brought her back onto the bed.
“What is it? Tell me what the fuck is going on.”
Her eyes darted back and forth, searching beyond Marlon’s shoulders at the edges of the room.
“I was just in the shower,” she said, her voice thin and weak. “I didn’t even hear it ring.”
“What? The telephone? Somebody called? Who called?”
Pat shook her head. “It’s him. Jesus Christ it’s really him. I don’t know how he…I didn’t even hear it ring. I just came out and the little light was blinking. You know how it blinks? When you’ve got a message? It was just blinking, blinking. And I didn’t know. I thought you’d called. But it wasn’t you. Wasn’t…it wasn’t you. It was him.”
“Who? Who the hell was it?”
He wanted to shake her. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“Was it Val? That motherfucker. He’s got no fucking right calling you here. I swear to God I’m gonna find that creaky old fuck and…” Marlon trailed off, envisioning various methods of torturing the man who’d cuckolded him.
But Pat shook her head. “Not Val,” she said. “Him.”
It occurred to Marlon then that perhaps Val had not been the only man sleeping with his wife. Had there been others? How many? He pulled away from Pat, trying to read the map of her infidelities in the lines of her face. She put her face in her hands and cried.
Marlon got up and went to the phone. He picked it up and hit the message button.
A voice spoke:
“That you Patty Cakes? I know it’s you. You miss me? Thought you was the little birdie that got away, did you? Thought I wouldn’t find you? Silly Patty Cakes. Dirty birdies don’t get to fly away. Dirty birdies get what they deserve. And you know what you deserve, don’t you? You know what I’m gonna give you.”
The voice dropped into sing-song, a creepy, high falsetto that raked across Marlon’s ears.
“Patty Cakes, Patty Cakes, baker man. Bake me a bitch just as fast you can. Stick her and stuck her and cut out her little V, put her head in the oven for the baker and me.”
Marlon dropped the phone.
The line dangled. The voice on the line chuckled. The phone went dead.
From The Tattoo:
They only brought Jenny because they needed her car. Josh had his own, but it was currently wrecked after a long night of drinking ended on the sharp curve around Binkman’s Point. Nobody injured, but that was the end of Josh’s Camaro, his license and any last shred of faith his parents had in him that spring. Jenny was only a hair past her fifteenth birthday, the ink on her learner’s permit still damp, but she had a car.
“I drive,” she insisted. “That’s the only way I’m taking you.”
Josh started to put up a fight. He wasn’t taking shit from his kid sister, but Adam stepped in.
“Just let her drive, man. Ain’t that big of deal anyway. This way we can properly prepare, the both of us.”
Properly prepare meant smoking a few joints, easing the mind, calming the body, getting into the zone for what they were about to do. Put that way, Josh decided Adam was right. They were already on the highway when Adam leaned over the seat and passed a joint to Josh. He took it and stared at Jenny.
“You tell Mom…”
“I’m not a snitch,” she snarled, but her eyes were on Adam. They generally were. Josh knew if he’d pulled the joints from his own pockets Jenny would have pitched a bitch fit, probably yanked the car off the road and demanded the joints go out the window. But with Adam…
“You got any more?” Jenny asked.
Josh coughed, smoke sucking into his lungs. “Absolutely not,” he choked. “You are not getting high.”
“The driver, unfortunately, must stay clear-headed,” Adam said from the back, a dank cloud of smoke roiling around his head. “And you wanted to drive.”
Jenny threw him a pouty look. Adam shrugged, blew smoke at the back of Josh’s head.
When the turn came, Adam leaned over the seat again. “It’s there. See it?”
Jenny didn’t, and then suddenly she did. It was so narrow and overgrown with trees you wouldn’t notice it unless you knew it was there. She slowed the Rabbit and eased off the highway. As the car slid through the undergrowth, her foot fluttered on the pedal.
“You sure this is the right road?”
“Positive,” Adam said. “My cousin Vin took me out this way.”
“I’m not gonna get stuck, am I?”
“Not if you keep your shit together,” Josh said.
Adam reached out and put a hand on Jenny’s shoulder. “You’re gonna do fine.”
Josh wrenched his neck around, glaring at his best friend. Adam’s hand left Jenny’s shoulder. He rolled his eyes.
“You know what.”
“God, it’s dark in here,” Jenny said.
It wasn’t half past two in the afternoon, but the roadway stretched into forest gloom. The thin branches of the trees arched overhead, interlacing like a spider’s web, blocking out most of the sunlight. What reached the roadway seemed oddly off-kilter, sifted down into its smokier, shadier elements. Heavy undergrowth huddled around the bases of the trees and crowded the road like a mob leaning forward to snatch at passersby.
The tattoo was Adam’s idea. He’d overheard his cousin Vin telling his friends about a guy lived out in the woods who was supposed to be the best tattoo man in the county. Retired, bit of a hermit, but man could he lay ink. Didn’t do much work anymore, only for the right customers, only when the price was right. But you always knew his work.
“Just something different about it, you know,” Vin said. “Not just the art. Something in the ink, my guess. You remember that book by that guy Ray Bradbury, bout that guy with the tattoos all over his body that moved and came to life? This dude’s tats, that’s what I think of. Like they come to life.”
Vin’s words fermented inside Adam’s skull for all of a week, and he spilled the whole story to Josh one late, dull Friday evening. Josh didn’t think much of tattoos, had a thing about needles, but Adam’s excitement caught him anyway. It usually did. It was one of the keys to their friendship. Adam came up with the crazy ideas, and Josh came along for the ride. Sometimes things worked out fine. Sometimes…
“You sure this guy’s legit? I don’t want to get like the plague on my arm, my skin turn black and rot off.”
“When have I ever been wrong?”
“Two words: Carrie Link.”
“You still bringing that up? I told you, she ain’t never used her teeth on me. She must not a liked what you gave her.”
Now, steering through the winding dark of the forest, branches scraping like broken fingers along the windows, Josh wondered if this really was one of Adam’s better ideas. The high which should have lightened his mood was growing muddled and sour, and instead he felt only the desire for fresh air. He inched down his window, and immediately a branch snaked in, jagging for his cheek. He jerked back, rolling the window closed.
“There,” Adam said. “On the right. You want to take it real slow. It goes downhill.”
“Where?” Jenny said.
Adam pointed. “See it? Where the tree branch is broken?”
“I don’t…” And it came into view.
Jenny slammed on the brakes. Everyone lurched forward.
“Sorry. Geez. I just didn’t want to miss it.”
Jenny slowly throttled forward, twisting the Rabbit around the bend. The road dipped downward immediately, dropping so quickly Josh thought they’d steered off an embankment. A deeper darkness folded over them like a heavy blanket, and Jenny flicked on the headlights. The Rabbit jostled over the rutted road, down down down. Jenny scooted close to the wheel, hands at ten and two, the good little girl just like she’d been taught.
The road leveled a few minutes later and then suddenly disappeared. Jenny stomped on the brakes again.
“There’s no road.”
“Yeah there is,” Adam said. “It’s there. See the tracks?”
“That’s not a road.”
“It’s off the beaten path, yeah.”
“I can’t drive through there. What if I hit a tree?”
“You won’t. Just take it slow.”
She did, weaving through the trees, trying to keep centered on the faint lines of the tracks. When it seemed like they couldn’t be anything but lost, the trees finally opened and they were in a clearing. A tiny hovel, little more than a shack, sloped crookedly at the edge of the clearing. A stack of cut firewood seemed to hold up the shack the way a cane might steady a tottering old man. There were no windows, and the single door hung unevenly amidst the poorly hacked logs that formed the building’s walls.
“You can’t be serious,” Jenny said. “You’re not going in there.”
From Not Dead, Not Even Past:
This Monday morning at Village Mart I saw the dead boys in the produce isle. It wasn’t the first time, but the name of the one beside the cilantro and parsley escaped me. They stood like pale statues, gritty water dripping from their sodden clothes and slicking the gray tile, and when the misters came on the faint spray coated the carrots and celery and peppers and passed right through the dead boys. I looked away toward the back of the store. Bill, the manager, gave me a wave.
“Anything I can do you for, Sheriff?”
“Fine, Bill. Just fine.”
“Rough year, huh? Can’t remember one like this, and I been here a long stretch of years.”
I couldn’t either.
When I turned back, the dead boys were gone.
I finished shopping. Getting back in my car, the name came back to me. I took out my notepad and wrote:
Vincent Raines, nine years old. Row twelve. Drowned. Body unrecovered.
I put the notepad in the dash. I didn’t want to forget.
They were getting closer.
From Til Death Do Us:
The box arrived Thursday morning without any kind of label. It was small and plain, and Kenny Perkins left it on the edge of his desk until just before noon. When he finally opened it—he heard a wispy scratching from inside the box as he did—he discovered his wife’s severed finger and her wedding ring.
The severed finger lay shriveled like thin leather. Kenny could see the bone through the dull, translucent skin. The fingernail had grown long and jagged, its tip still that hideous shade of magenta Selma always wore. Now it looked more like blood. The final knuckle bent upward, pointing directly, accusingly, at Kenny.
Kenny set the box on the desk, stood and went to the door. He opened it softly.
“Yes, Mr. Perkins?”
“Julie, the box you brought in this morning, it didn’t have any address on it. Did you notice who left it?”
His secretary shook her head. “It was at the door when I opened up. Is there a problem, Mr. Perkins?”
“None at all.”
He shut the door.
It’s not her’s. It can’t be. This is a sick joke, that’s all.
He took a pen from his drawer and poked it into the box. A thick, roiling gurgle tumbled through his gut. The finger shifted. He saw the ring clearly. One large diamond in the center, four smaller rubies at the corners.
He’d proposed to Selma Nolan on July ninth of 1997. They were married that November. Eight years later, he killed her. He was careful. He planned every detail. Her body was never found. She had, as all the news reports pointed out, simply vanished. And no one had ever known the truth.
Kenny stared at the box. Stared at the ring.