Another Night on Earth
~ J. A. W. McCarthy
The thing that gets me is the silence. No owl calls or cricket chirps puncturing the folds of night draped loosely overhead. No rustle of small creatures in the bushes, scattering from the vibrations of my footsteps. Not even an abrupt breath of wind to rattle the air around me.
And certainly no cars. Though paved, I get the feeling this narrow road has been unkind to many vehicles before mine.
I adjust the leather strap of my bag where it cuts across my chest and glance back at my car. My eighteen year old Volvo looks like an injured mare that’s stumbled into the dirt where a sidewalk should be, one end of its bumper dangling as loose as a busted jaw. Though it’s looked this miserable for quite some time, in the darkness my car seems to plead for my return.
Up ahead a house sits tucked into the land like a fat, squat ogre, invisible behind the trees if it wasn’t for the yellow porch light and the hazy white glow of the two windows on either side of the front door. I squint into the distance, trying to focus past the lone streetlight on the other side of the house, past the black ribbon of road that’s lost all of its texture in the dark, past the leaves overhead that have turned from grainy to flat against the bruised velvet of the endless night sky. Though it isn’t far, all that’s beyond this single structure smears together into a slick trash-bag black. If there are other houses they have been devoured by the same earth that cradles them.
As I continue to walk, the still air is cold but not quite icy, and strangely thick; when I open my mouth it rolls onto my tongue and pushes against my teeth, as acrid as late summer city heat. I look over my shoulder at my car again, now shrunk to something I can pinch between my fingers like I used to do to my brother’s head when we were little. You’re mine now, I would say, and he would either giggle or punch at me depending on his mood. I can do anything I want with you. I adjust my bag again, let the weight of it bounce against my hip with every step. My boot snags on a fissure in the road, and I’m grateful for the scrape of rubber against pavement, a small, predictable sound that makes a crack in the night.
I know I’ve reached the house’s driveway when the pavement turns to gravel beneath my feet. The little rocks crunch loudly with even my smallest movements, jagged teeth that push through the rubber soles of my boots until they’re chewing up the soft palate of my foot. Every step is suddenly too loud, too stark, too much. The people in the house will hear me coming, and I can imagine how people who live out in the middle of the woods might greet a stranger at their door this close to midnight. I pull my phone from my jacket pocket and turn on its flashlight, the only thing it’s good for out here.
My mother comes to mind as I crunch my way up the length of the driveway to the porch. Not that this house with its sagging roof and splintered white shingles resembles the sterile tract home I grew up in. The things she’s said so many times before echo inside my head: You should know better than to be out here at this time of night, and I don’t know why you insist on doing this, and Everyone knows what happens to girls like you. I creep from window to window, but the white curtains covering each one are just thick enough to reveal nothing more than the blurred movements of indiscernible shapes within. At this hour, my mother would’ve had the blinds sealed, sheers and curtains drawn, not even a soft frame of light promising life inside. What are you thinking, Judith? One of these days your luck is going to run out. Taking a deep breath I knock on the heavy front door, then slide my hand into my bag until my fingers hook the reassuring heft of my knife’s steel handle.
“Can I help you?”
The man who answers the door is old but tall and solid, his body filling most of the doorway. His long face shines waxy and jaundiced under the porch light, dragged down by the shadow-filled hollows beneath his eyes and cheekbones. I’m amazed by how quickly he’s come to the door—no shuffling on the other side as he studies me through the peephole, no sleep-leaden movements pricked by the acute anxiety of an unexpected stranger in the middle of the night—then I notice that he’s not in a bathrobe and slippers but a dark suit, the fuzz of wool standing out against what little flickering light seeps out from behind him. Regarding me with narrowed eyes, he asks the question again. I note with relief that his hands are empty.
“Oh, yes, sorry to bother you so late,” I stammer, forcing the friendly smile I practiced on the drive. “My car broke down a little ways down the road and I can’t get a signal out here, so I was hoping . . .” I wiggle my phone to give credence to my story before putting it back in my pocket. “I was hoping I could use your phone to call for help.”
The man doesn’t say anything for a long moment while the corners of my mouth twitch and I try to restrain myself from craning my neck to get a peek at who or what is in the room behind him. When he finally does move aside, a thick cloud of sweet and earthy smoke barrels out and into me, the same incense my mother used to burn on fish dinner Fridays.
The entire room behind him is hung with smoke, each slender wisp from the tens of incense sticks suspended along the walls pooling into one great swarm in the center of the room. As I step over the threshold, I bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from coughing, fearful that any minor offense may produce more imposing men, and guns, and my mother’s I told you . . . as my last dying thought. White pillar candles burn on every surface in the small living room, all in various states of dissolution atop the fireplace mantle, the coffee table, a hutch, the TV, even along the sloping back of the weathered plaid couch. Greasy stains dot the yellowing walls where the melted wax touches. The scent of spicy incense mixed with the artificial vanilla of the candles is overwhelming; even with my lips pressed shut, I taste an oily film forming on the roof of my mouth, the phantom of a perfect lozenge of wax cooling on my tongue.
Behind me there’s the heavy whoosh of the front door sliding shut, its corner nicking the wall of smoke. I unclench my jaw and let out a cough.
“Phone’s this way,” the old man says.
I follow him through a doorway at the end of the living room, apologizing again as we move into a narrow hallway lit only by more wall-mounted candles. I try to remember the details of the man’s wool suit as he shuffles along in front of me. Is there a matching vest? Does his white shirt have buttons? If he had looked like an Amish person, wouldn’t I have immediately thought that when he opened the front door?
We approach the entrance to what looks like a dining room. I pause here for a moment, hoping my host doesn’t notice.
A thick cloak of incense and candle smoke shrouds this room too, the tight space ablaze with tiny pinpoints of light poking through the white haze. A small circle of people—I count six—are gathered inside, their backs to me. They are all dressed in black, the men in suits and the women in long-sleeved dresses. A low murmur rises from their bowed heads, but I can’t decipher what they are saying. A prayer, I think, normal people in mourning, and though it makes sense, I am still not consoled by the absence of pentagrams and vivisected goats.
“Here.” The old man stands at the end of the hall, pointing into another open doorway.
“Yes, sorry,” I say, hurrying towards him. I try to parse what he might be thinking, but his sharply etched face is unreadable even when I am close enough to stand between him and the smoke that seeps out into the hallway.
After showing me the phone mounted to the wall, the man leaves me alone in the kitchen. The only light comes from yet another row of pillar candles on the small dining table. I listen to the shuffle of leather against wood as his footsteps retreat down the hall then stop at what I presume is the dining room with the others. My palm folds around the phone’s cool plastic handset, but I don’t lift it. Behind me is the backdoor, its uncovered window reflecting my face and neck glowing orange, subtly vibrating, another flame in the dark. I remember autumn nights in the backyard with my brother, our bodies trembling with giggles as we told scary stories with flashlights clutched under our chins. My stories were always scarier, though sometimes his stories made me cry. I remember feigning offense when he made me promise that I would call him if I ever got into trouble.You’re my little brother, I said. I should be rescuing you.
My hand flies from the phone and plants on the counter. I dare a brief glance at what’s nearby: a wooden cutting board, a pie tin, a rolling pin—things that are closer to me than to the voice in the hallway.
“Yes,” I answer.
I force another confident smile as a young man emerges from the smoke. I’d noticed him with the others in the dining room, the back of his head the only one not peppered with grey. Unlike the old man who answered the door, this man’s dark suit looks modern with a subtle sheen skimming his lapels. Like the old man, thick shadows pool under his eyes and cheekbones.
“My car,” I lie again. “It broke down and I—”
“Everyone’s in the other room.”
He’s right in front of me now, his head tipped against the doorframe so that I am boxed in between him and the end of the counter. All I can do is step back, and he steps forward, towards me with each subsequent step I take. It isn’t long before my ass bumps the kitchen table, making the candlelight blur in waves on the wall behind him.
I repeat my brother’s phone number inside my head, a calming mechanism that I’ve been leaning on all too frequently lately. I still remember it, even though his phone was disconnected long ago.
The young man’s eyes are solid black, a speckle of orange dancing behind each glassy dome. “Give me a minute, then we’ll be ready,” he says.
I hold his gaze. I straighten my stance, picture the knife inside my bag gliding in one smooth movement into my hand, how the blade will scatter all of the tiny flames when I raise it above my head.
“Okay,” I say.
Once the young man leaves the room, I rush back to the phone and pull the handset from the wall. No dial tone; only silence. I tap the buttons that make up my brother’s number just for the satisfying click of plastic sinking into plastic. On the last number I hold my finger there, not wanting to release the button. I’m not ready. I’m turning towards the back door when the young man reappears.
He touches my arm. “Ready?”
The smoke in the hallway swirls around the people exiting the dining room, trailing them as they drift into the living room. The last person in the group, a small, brittle-looking woman, turns around as the young man is guiding me out of the kitchen. Her nose is a bruised red, her eyes swollen between the deep creases that encircle them.
“Were you able to reach a tow truck, dear?”
The young man tightens his grip on my arm. I want to shake him off, but not in front of her. “They’re on their way,” he says.
The old woman offers me a sad smile before the old man who answered the door turns back and leads her forward into the living room with the others.
“Her parents,” the young man explains once we push through the lingering smoke into the dining room. “I wish I could tell them so they didn’t have to suffer like this, but their beliefs . . . They wouldn’t allow it.” He stands in front of me, frantically waving his arms until the smoke clears a frame around him. “Sorry for the inconvenience—I know it was pretty elaborate. I’m Jacob, by the way.”
In the center of the room, where a dining table should be, is an open casket on a stand, its brass handles and glossy white surface sparking under the candlelight. As I approach, the young woman inside surfaces through the thick haze. Her skin is sunken and grey but not as bad as I anticipated, only ashen in contrast to her lacy white dress. Underneath the artificial vanilla and spice that’s clotted throughout the house, the treacly odor of decay rises, a feral animal surrounding the woman in its warm, wet fur.
The odors gather in my mouth, forming a coppery-tasting grit that settles in the crevices of my molars. I let loose a long string of coughs. Jacob’s eyes widen and jump, and he holds an index finger in front of his lips.
“I told the funeral home not to embalm her,” he says. “Everyone’s been complaining about all the candles and incense, but what else was I supposed to do?”
I nod. I’m thinking about my car a quarter mile down the road, the cool leather seat against my back, the gas pedal yielding so easily under my foot. How surprisingly smoothly it runs despite its age and condition. I imagine racing to my brother’s house to tell him about tonight, the way his voice would spike as he calls me crazy, if he was still alive to call me crazy.
My hand finds the bottom of my bag, squeezing through the pebbly leather until the knife’s handle is defined against my palm.
“Funny about the phone,” I say.
“I didn’t want any interruptions.”
Jacob joins me in front of the coffin. We both stare down at the young woman inside. Her dark hair is a stark contrast against the white silk pillowing her head. Her hands are folded atop her stomach, and a blue-black stain creeps over the edges of her fingers, pooling like the start of a bruise.
“She’s still lovely,” he says, taking his fiancee’s right hand into his. The disruption causes her other hand to slide from her stomach and land awkwardly, palm folded in half, at her side. Jacob adjusts it so that her palm is down and her arm is straight, then places her other hand gently back in the coffin. Tears bully the shadowy hollows under his eyes.
Slow, deep piano notes drift in from the living room. The low murmur of voices blends with the static of the recording, as beautiful and heavy as the smoke-bloated air around us. For a moment the room vibrates, every beating heart in the house collected under my feet.
Like in the kitchen Jacob shadows my movements, sliding closer to me with each increment that I move away. His hip bumps against mine, and I feel his entire body tighten inside his suit, a tremor hurtling through his limbs and into me. I step back, yank the knife from inside my bag, and raise it just as I imagined.
Jacob reaches into his suit jacket and produces a thick white envelope, its seal misaligned by its bulging contents. I lower the knife and take the envelope from him. Though I don’t yet have a solid grasp of how much it should weigh, I slip the envelope into my bag without opening it. I will do that in the car, far away from here, counting the bills under my cell phone’s flashlight.
“Ready?” I ask.
This time Jacob gives me space when I raise the knife. I cut open the woman’s white dress and use the tip of the blade to sever each crude stitch holding closed the Y-shaped incision that splits her chest. Though heavy, the flaps of skin fold back easily like pages in a well-loved book. Jacob looks on from a few feet back as I spread the already bisected ribcage. He winces, though I don’t know if it’s from the sight of his beloved cleft before him, or from the cold mineral stench that is rising in front of us. My ears catch the sharp intake of his breath as my hand slides into the woman’s chest cavity.
Blood as dark as wet earth oozes over my hands; my fingers puncture a film like the skin on chilled gravy. I think of my brother again, how much warmer he had been—how he still smelled like something that breathes and beats and bleeds—then the look of disappointment that dragged down my mother’s face when he failed to rouse at my touch. After that, she chose not to see what I can do; she’s never witnessed the sunken faces lifting with joy, the grateful embraces thrown around her only daughter. My mother has never seen the admiration of strangers—more than I ever wanted from her—in that one crystalline moment that I give to them, but couldn’t give to her. Hands cupping the young woman’s heart, I look over my shoulder at Jacob and attempt a reassuring smile. He smiles back through tears that now flow freely. I gently squeeze the small, firm muscle in my palms. I do it again. I watch the woman’s face. I wait for her heart to punch to life in my grip.
J.A.W. McCarthy’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien,LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, andThe Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). Her debut collection Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories will be published by Cemetery Gates Media in August 2021. She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, where she gets most of her ideas late at night, while she’s trying to sleep.