Wednesday, July 6, 2022


Al Bruno III

Derek looked through the front window of his home for a long, confused moment, looked away, and then looked back again. There was a man dressed as a bear standing on the street corner. He was wearing an old- style children’s Halloween costume—just a vinyl smock and a plastic mask. On the tall, bulky man, the smock was like an oversized bib, and the edges of the wearer’s face oozed out from the edges of the crinkled, cheery mask. He had a book tucked under one arm, something with a colorful, shiny cover. It was a library book, Derek was sure of it. He could almost read the title, and the near familiarity of it disturbed him.

The morning sun was bright, the sky cloudless. It made the sight seem all the more incongruous. Derek backed away from the front window and sat down heavily in his recliner.

“My recliner," he said aloud, trying to take comfort in the words, “In my house.”

He closed his eyes tightly, took several deep breaths, then opened them again. Years ago, a coworker had suggested he join his class in transcendental meditation. Derek had gone once for the sake of appearances. Now he tried to use the breathing exercises and techniques he had learned. If someone else had lived here, they might have thought he was hyperventilating. But Derek lived alone. He always had.

Working as a vendor representative for Gilitta Imports had left him no time for familial and financial entanglements. To some, it might have seemed lonely , but it was the kind of life Derek had always wanted. A life with money, privacy, and pleasant distractions. One of those distractions had been his late Saturday morning walk—six miles to the edge of town and back —but there was no way he was going to step outside with that costumed man standing on the corner.

Derek thought of retreating to his spare bedroom, the place where he kept his stamp collection. He could busy himself there, but that would throw his entire Saturday schedule into disarray. He knew people were used to seeing him out and about at this hour. It was important for a man living alone to be seen regularly by his neighbors. That was why Derek always accepted invitations to mixers and cookouts. If he kept completely to himself, the gossip would begin. People would begin to wonder about him and ask questions.

“What am I afraid of?” he asked himself and got back to his feet with a renewed sense of purpose. He would take that walk. He would stroll right past the odd stranger and make his way out of the development, through downtown, and all the way to the sign that told him he was approaching River City. Then he would turn back, perhaps pausing for a while to linger at the shops of Pickman’s Grove or enjoy a light meal at Karl’s Diner. Derek was grinning from ear to ear when he opened the front door.

Now the man in the bear costume was on the sidewalk directly in front of the house. His masked face was staring off into the middle distance, but he turned slowly to observe Derek as he stood there, sputtering. Derek slammed the door and retreated back to the living room.

Fear began to claw at his gut. People in masks had that effect on him. They always had. Despite him putting up a neighborly front every year on Halloween, Derek hated the holiday. He hated the possibilities those hidden faces and hidden motives stirred up. They made him start to remember the most unpleasant things. Things he preferred to put far out of his mind.

Derek turned on the TV and switched to a sports channel. He didn’t care what the game was or who was playing. After a moment's thought, he got back up again and went to the bar for something smoky and sour.

Hours passed. He didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke up on the recliner with a sore back and a throbbing head. He stumbled to the bathroom and relieved himself. Sunlight was streaming through the bathroom window. Late afternoon already? Derek ran the sink and splashed cold water on his face.

A quick glance in the mirror revealed a man with a thin face, small eyes, and a wide mouth. His blond hair was receding, and he had a meticulously trimmed mustache. All familiar enough, but there was no mistaking how pale he looked right now, and the dark circles that rimmed his eyes.

Worry was doing its ugly work. Derek found a bottle of Tylenol in the medicine cabinet and swallowed two tablets. A sudden and unpleasant suspicion took hold. “It couldn’t be,” he said. “It’s been hours.”

He made his way to the door and looked into the peephole. The costumed man was on the porch now, feet planted firmly on the welcome mat. Derek’s knees threatened to give out. Every crinkle in the plastic mask drew into sharper focus as the costumed man leaned in towards the peephole.

Derek grabbed for the phone.

Calling the authorities was the last thing Derek had wanted to do. Police cars in the driveway were the kind of thing that could get tongues wagging. Not to mention the kind of chaos a court date could wreak on his schedule.

But what choice did he have? He dialed 911 and retreated to the kitchen to wait. Of all the rooms in the house, he liked this one the best. There was just something about the way the earthy-scented draft from the unfinished basement mixed with the warmth of the kitchen that made him happy.

As he waited, Derek wondered to himself where he had packed away the revolver his coworker Gordon had given him all those years ago.

The police arrived with the promptness he would expect from an affluent community like this. In fact, it was two squad cars that showed up, not just one. When the knock on the door came, he answered it calmly, praying that he would open the door to see the costumed man off to one side in cuffs, but no. It was just two uniformed officers. When they asked him what seemed to be the problem, he calmly told them his story.

To their credit, they took it all seriously; they didn’t crack a smile when they read back the description of the trespasser. One of them even complimented him on the framed Penny Black stamp hanging on the wall above the fireplace. Neither of them mentioned the alcohol on his breath.

The officers left about half an hour after they had arrived, leaving him with a promise that they would keep a close watch on the neighborhood in case there were further sightings or complaints. Derek closed and locked the door. He peeked out each window, looking for some sign of the costumed man, but all he saw were bland shadows and the neighbors’ houselights flickering on as the evening deepened.

Nighttime already. His entire Saturday had been ruined. Derek headed up to the spare bedroom where the latest issue of Modern International Stamp Collector Quarterly was waiting for him. The thought of settling down to read cheered him a little. Had they published his letter?

But before that, he decided to find that revolver.

It was easier said than done. His bedroom closet was a chaos of clothes, shoes, and the remnants of long-abandoned hobbies. Finally, he found it under a pile of old linens. Derek picked the revolver up. It was lighter than he remembered and coated with dust. He remembered Gordon, the coworker that had given it to him. He had been a man living in anticipation of the apocalypse and had collected a truckload of weapons before finally succumbing to cancer. Derek could have told him it was a mistake to worry about a world-shattering catastrophe. Not when over a hundred thousand people were dying natural deaths every day. A hundred thousand ordinary apocalypses.

Derek read the magazine cover to cover, luxuriating in it. He even took a few notes for his next letter. Over the years, he had seen the quality of the magazine’s writing decline, the language used in the articles becoming almost conversational in tone.

A clattering sound startled him. “No,” he whispered to himself.

More sounds followed—footsteps, then the sound of a chair being moved. Derek’s heart began to race. He considered barricading himself in the room and wondered how long it would take to move the bureau in front of the door and how long it would take the police to arrive.

Frowning, he got to his feet. The revolver felt grimy in his hand. Derek waited, paralyzed until he heard the sound of the teakettle whistling.

That was too much; this was breaking and entering. This was an invasion. A violation! He threw open the door to the guest bedroom. “Who’s there?” he shouted. “I’m armed!”

There was no reply except for another gentle clinking.
Slowly, he walked down the stairs. The front door was closed and locked. How had the man gotten in?

The TV was on, but nothing was playing. Blue light from the screen washed over the empty living room. Derek’s framed stamp had fallen from its spot above the fireplace and was lying face down on the floor. Derek wanted to run, but he was sure that when he came back with help, they would find nothing. Shooting the man dead wasn’t much of better option. A dead body and an unlicensed revolver would bring scrutiny and background checks. Things that would chip away at Derek’s carefully crafted life.

He had to hope threats might be enough; if he could just scare the costumed man away. Make him find someone else to prey on.

Derek stepped into the kitchen, where he found the intruder was waiting for him. The costumed man’s posture was casual. He held a teacup in one hand, and rivulets of chamomile tea dribbled from the mouth hole of the plastic mask and pooled on the table. In his other hand, he held the library book, which had a picture of a castle on the cover. The title read, 'La Bête De Septembre.' He had set a place for Derek beside him.

“Who are you?” Derek raised the revolver.

The costumed man regarded him knowingly.

Tears prickled at the edges of Derek’s eyes. “I don’t deserve this! Why can’t you bother someone else?”

The costumed man set down his teacup and book and slowly stood. When he spoke, his voice was full of pity: “I know what you are.”

Then, he took off the plastic bear mask.

The face beneath it was thin with small eyes and a wide mouth. His blond hair was receding, and he had a meticulously trimmed mustache. His expression was so very eager.

Derek pulled the trigger of the revolver.

There was nothing but a dull click. The costumed man took a step towards him. Derek pulled the trigger again.

The weapon detonated in his hand. It had been too old, too neglected. Hot splinters of metal raked his face. He gaped at the ruined stump where his hand had been, which was jetting blood.

Shock weakened him. He stared at the costumed man, at his unmasked face. Why was there something so familiar about all this? Derek fell to his knees and then smacked face first onto the floor. His last words were, “My stamps...” His last breath sent a ripple through the pool of blood that haloed him.

The man crumpled the plastic mask and threw it into the kitchen trash. He did the same with the costume. He bent down, grabbed hold of the corpse’s legs, and dragged it across the kitchen floor. The body was heavier than the man had expected, and he was starting to feel tired from the long day. When this was over, he would treat himself to a hot shower and a good stiff drink. Something sour and smoky.

The cellar door opened with a nudge, and the earthy smell of the unfinished basement filled the man’s nose. He made his way down the steps. The corpse’s head lolling and smacking hollowly on each stair on the way down. Then, the man dragged the body to the center of the basement, the trail of gore making mud of the dirt floor.

The basement light was easy to find, and the shovel was right in the corner where he had expected to find it.

The man took hold of it and paused thoughtfully before beginning to dig. It took several times before he could really get started; there were so many other bodies buried down here.


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