Don’t Like Me? How About This Guy?

No comments on my entries to the first edition of The Midnight Collection, OK.  I wasn’t going to do this originally, but I’m posting what I consider to be the best story from the book.  Written by Joseph Kelly (not me or my ‘nyms), it compares favorably to Clive Barker.  Check it out.  My post here is just going to have the start of the story with a link to where you can finish reading it on The Midnight Collection’s website.  If you love or hate this story, or love expressing your opinion even when that is “meh,” leave a comment either here or there…


Joseph Kelly

Content Warnings:  Loss of Autonomy, Quasi-erotic Horror, Messiness, Mutilation, Murder, Mild Ableist Language.

He dreamt of cutting a body to pieces.  Like a butcher breaking up a pig carcass: this part for chops, that part for bacon.  An awful dream, repulsive.  Not just gross, but he was more disturbed by how he’d behaved in the nightmare: passive, apathetic, annoyed at the chore.  His stomach churned when he woke, sitting up in the rental cabin’s bed.  Sick.  What the hell was wrong with his brain?  He didn’t even enjoy watching horror movies, let alone that gore shit.  And he wasn’t prepping a Thanksgiving turkey recently or anything; he’d been vegetarian since junior high, save the occasional accident.

He fumbled around the cabin, knocking his hip into the cluttered furniture.  Cute place though.  Cozy.  Six days remaining, pre-paid, but he still felt the money draining minute-to-minute.  At least he’d gotten up early, after leaving the bedroom curtains open so the sun could wake him.  The kind host had made good use of the cleaning fees: the carpets shampooed, the upholstery Febreze’d.  Even left a stack of board games and puzzles by the sofa.  But who’d drive two hours into the countryside to assemble a thousand-piece patchwork of kitten parts?  That wasn’t what he was here for.  His eyes wandered to the easel set up in the living room.  It waited with a blank canvas pre-toned in rusty burnt sienna, ready to receive his vision.  Not yet, not yet.  The mantra of his life.  Morning light streamed through the sliding glass door: a white overcast sky, warmth already hanging in the air.  Gonna be a real scorcher, he thought in his dad’s voice.

He broke out the loaf of bread he’d packed, made a PBJ with the complimentary jelly packets the host had left on the kitchenette counter.  A salad bowl-full, so deep he could bury his hand like he was fishing around in a trick or treat basket.  How much did they think he needed?  The Jelly-du-Jour was classic grape, squirted over his sandwich with a humorous squelch.  It’d be good to get outside early before locking himself indoors with the A/C blasting.  He took his breakfast out to the patio table to admire the view.  That’s what you paid for, the pics that enticed you to impulse-book a week.  A pond with croaking frogs, a patch of dense forest.  No neighbors to rev lawnmowers or kids tearing around on dirt bikes.  The sandwich gummed up his mouth, and he choked it down with a glass of tap water.  The modern monk, fueling himself for a day of illuminating manuscripts.  More like daubing around paint for twenty minutes then wiping it all off.  But you could hope.

He stood, stuffing the bread crust into his pocket.  Almost tossed it in the pond, but that’d give the ducks a stomach ache as bad as his own.  A nature walk sounded nice.  Clear his mind, be a chance to think.  He’d follow that rasping bird call, see what little weirdo was making it.  He set out, passing the pond, the frogs sleeping off last night’s concert.  The woods were cooler, made him glad he bothered with the flannel shirt.  He hiked over lumpy ground, still achy and groggy from poor sleep.  Chopping up a body, for fuck’s sake.  Sawing at an ankle, dead foot clammy under his palm.  Passive, emotionless.  He shuddered, shaking his head to knock the thought free.

Leaves rustled, branches creaked, and that distant bird-call rang out.  Squeaky, manic laughter: more birds chattering over each other, having a little shindig.  A streak of scarlet flitted through the boughs, a latecomer to the party.  Weep-weep, one of them bleated like a depressed dog toy.  He followed, taking a deep breath of fresh air.  A woody scent, that Christmas smell.  Expensive turpentine, not the cheap turps he bulked out his brush washer with.  He leaned against a trunk, closing his eyes to feel the peace.  Turning into a real Bob Ross out there, just needed a squirrel in his pocket.  Bob probably never got much into abstract expressionism though.

A tapping sound emerged—tonk-tonk-tonk, like tiny wooden mallets.  Woodpeckers?  Pockmarks studded nearby trunks, holes seeping gooey sap.  Looked like they’d been mowed down by gnomes with tommy guns.  There—more red, a riot of woodpeckers swarming an old stump.  Ten of them maybe, all crowding in.  He watched them and laughed.  Too bad he left his phone on the nightstand; Dad would love this.  But you couldn’t pack that shit around if you really wanted to unplug.  The birds went to town on that stump, hammering away, cramming their beaks into the gnarled wood and gulping tree blood.  A new scent—something sweet, maybe whatever got those little guys so amped up.  Apples… baked apples, fresh out of the oven.  And an animal musk, like a fox marked its territory.  Wasn’t the birds.  Birds didn’t smell, did they?  They were so absorbed in their meal, you could reach out and grab one.  He crept forward.  How close would they let him get?  Closer, though he couldn’t move like a ninja.  Leaves crunched under his boot, but the birds didn’t flinch.  Another woodpecker arrived, fighting for space at the buffet.  The bird it displaced squawked and waggled its long, creepy tongue.

He was right on them, ready to live that childhood dream of sneaking up and petting a seagull.  Did he dare?  He reached for one, its back turned.  Close enough to see the stark mosaic of its wings, the crimson head, total Woody Woodpecker style.  Inches away, his hand poised, wavering.  He went for it, biting back a smile.  The bird’s feathers were silky smooth, its skin warm beneath.  Man, what Snow White shit was this?  He stifled a childish giggle.  Another one, feathery soft.  It vibrated, boring a hole into the wood.  The scent—stronger now—apple cinnamon Pop-Tart, like when he was a kid.  They didn’t even make those anymore.

A flow of sap trickled down the knotted bark.  The stump stood hip-height, roughly torn, the wood crackled and grey.  A dead tree, rotted apart.  Why was it dripping sap then?  Had to be something alive in there.  He reached for a rivulet, and a bird shrieked and flapped at him.  He jerked back, not wanting a hole in his painting hand.  The animal smell grew stronger, like sweat?  Fresh sweat, not rank B.O.  Apples and sweat, a little vanilla.

A ray of sunlight peeked through the canopy, lighting the sap a brilliant crimson, candy-red.  His stomach ache vanished, and now he only wanted a taste of that stuff.  The woodpeckers wouldn’t clear space, crowding every inch.  An impulse struck him, tingling down his arms.  He lunged forward, kicked the stump, waved his hands and shouted.  But why?  What an asshole move, scaring off some creatures enjoying their breakfast.  They stayed rooted longer than he expected, but flapped off in time, trilling and screeching.

All for him now.  He knelt, eyes tracing over the twisted wood.  This was what got them so hot and bothered?  A pool of the sap glistened translucent scarlet, and he dipped his finger in.  He thought it’d feel like stand oil—sticky as honey.  But it was slick, and he dove to lick it off before it dripped down his shirt cuff.  You’d imagine maple syrup, the expensive stuff, but it wasn’t sweet really, almost savory.  Apples cooked in salted butter?  The taste changed in his mouth, even with one drop.  Apples, to a salty, musky taste on the afterburn.  He dipped into the pool again.  Wouldn’t drown your pancakes with it, but there was something compelling there.  He sucked on his fingers, rolling his eyes around like an amateur sommelier, considering the flavor.  No, it was sweet now, more cinnamon sugar.  He took another sample, laughing: pretty Winnie the Pooh of him.  He had to pull himself away, wipe his hand off on his pant leg.  Maybe he’d find a jar and get a souvenir to take home.

Back to the cabin, and the color of that sap stuck in his mind.  It’d look good on the sienna.  Just add some black and white streaks like those crazy birds.  He slid onto the stool, picturing the composition already.  Yeah, a dark rectangular frame, then red in concentric circles.  The colors were barely on the palette before he was laying them on the canvas.  He worked steadily, only stopping to switch brushes, dab more medium.  Didn’t even need music to get in the zone.  He stretched back, and sweat trickled down his spine.  Christ— he was still in his flannel, and the sun was blasting through the window.  The thermostat read 89F.

He tore off his shirt, set the A/C to full bore.  No way it was that hot already at…  The wall clock read ten till noon.  Hours had passed like nothing.  He stuck his head under the kitchen faucet and let cold water run down his neck.  Felt great with the A/C rushing on his wet skin, but how’d he let it get this bad?  Was the work really so absorbing?  He turned back to the easel, staring in amazement.  Halfway done, maybe more.  Remarkable headway for a canvas that size.  Looking sharp too, that black, white, and red so striking with the sienna peeking through.

He slumped onto the leather sofa, eyes drawn to the painting, itching to return to it.  How long had it been since he was this focused?  The next move was obvious: get the palette knife in there and make some vertical streaks like the birds’ feathers.  He forced himself to choke down another PBJ before returning to work.  Nobody back home would’ve dreamed he’d make good on his talk of getting away and finally finishing something.  Probably thought he’d be jacking off 24/7 and crying about the Wi-Fi.  But it didn’t matter what they thought.  This was what he paid for, what he took time off for.

The day drained by, and he was still focused enough to swap that finished canvas for another.  Cobalt and Hansa yellow now, in overlapping triangles like the gleams in the starlit sky outside the window.  Night already!  The frogs had been singing for hours, and his back screamed at him for spending all day on that awful stool.  He hobbled to the living room couch and refueled himself with a bag of gummy worms.  Gelatin wasn’t vegetarian, but they were sitting on the counter and he couldn’t be fucked to make another PBJ.  Sorry horses, or whoever’s bones got boiled.  He looked back at his work, shaking his head.  Now this canvas was almost done too.  Crazy, absolutely crazy.  The creative bug got him again, like the old days of studio all-nighters, only stopping when campus security came around to kick him out.  Maybe it was as simple as getting out of the house.

The painting still called to him, but he’d be crippled tomorrow if he didn’t rest his spine.  He scraped layers of paint from his forearms and flopped on the stiff bed, mind buzzing.  Corny decorations clustered the room: wooden unicorn, a framed bible quote.  That lame print of a pink sailboat on a purple ocean—you could do something with those pastel colors.  Break out the silver paint and palette knife, scrape it on thick for texture.  Let some black streak through: the shadows beneath those mellow waves.  Exhaustion overtook him, and his plans interspersed with dreams.

Carving pumpkins at the kitchen table, scooping out their slimy guts, seeds raining on the newspaper Dad had laid out.  Smelled like sour tomatoes, but he’d imagined pumpkin pie or Mom’s nice autumn candles.  Back in the old house, but he wasn’t a kid.  Orange goo clung to his hands, strings of slime hanging down.  The dream changed and Dad became someone else, watching him with an unkind presence.  Maybe Kyle; he didn’t get it.  Ab-ex is for boomers, he’d say as a joke.  That’s art, huh?  Splashing paint around like a 1950s alcoholic?  Rothko wanted to do realism.  Kind of sad, yeah?  And then he couldn’t change.  Everyone wants color fields forever.  What if you got stuck that way?  Couldn’t make anything real, just blobs until you die.

Wasn’t Kyle though, with his lip-ring accenting that permanent smirk.  It was a stranger.  How’d they get in the cabin?  The doors were locked.  No one should be there.  Yet, there they sat in the old IKEA chair, just out of sight, just on his periphery.  Their presence was overwhelming, vibrating, like fingers working into the whorls of his brain.

A song—he didn’t recognize it, but it fluttered in and out on a fuzzy connection, playing on a decrepit, tinny speaker—Got to get to you, baby—the pumpkin vanished, the table vanished—Honey, come set me free—nothing in the dining room but a face it hurt to look at, like peering at the sun…


Or purchase the whole Midnight Collection e-book through Ko-fi or Amazon.  A physical copy in paperback is available through Lulu.  You may be able to purchase it through other sites soon, but it’s nice to not give Bezuggs a cut, and purchase on Lulu gives more money to the cause.  And lastly, you can just read the collection for free at the Collection’s website.

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