|Three guesses about the title . . .|
It is said that smell is the most evocative of senses. Until that afternoon, that had always been a meaningless saying to me. When I came home from work and unlocked the front door--all three locks and the deadbolt--my nostrils were assailed, in order, by the odors of chlorine, board wax and window cleaner, signs that my housekeeper had been in that day. In this nasal cacophony of cleaning, it was all but impossible to smell anything else, but the reptile brain responsible for such associations picked out another subliminal scent when I walked in. Then my subconscious kicked in, and I should have taken heed. A deep chill ran along my spine, one of those prolonged shivers that actually make your arms shake. Unaware of what had set it off, I looked around the hallway, but nothing was out of order; new mail on the little table at the foot of the stairs where my housekeeper was apt to leave it in spite of my instructions about the kitchen table; the staircase to the second floor, remarkably neat with the mess of books and papers stacked on the third and fourth step. The three doors off the hallway were wide open, as I wanted them, and sunlight spilled into the hallway, telling me all the curtains were open as well. The house smelled clean and aired out, and I could still detect underneath the cleaning smells the old wood, the fireplace and the plants I had surrounded myself with. All was as should be. There was nothing wrong. My spine shivered again, as if shrugging off my self-assurance. Maybe I had been living a safe and protected life for too long. Three years earlier, I would never have ignored a warning like that. Man, I must have felt safe to feel such sudden and inexplicable unease and not immediately call Mark. He had made me promise--swear--to call him the moment anything seemed wrong. But there wasn't anything wrong, I told myself. This kind of random unease was to be expected, even now, even four years later. There is no way I would call Mark on the strength of a little random chill. They'd probably have to page him, he'd have to come in off the job, and all just to hold my hand? So, yes, I guess I had become careless over the years, but wasn't there just a bit of pride at work as well? Sure. Sad thing is, the return of my self-esteem was supposed to be a good thing. It was that same pride that stopped me from doing a quick tour of the entire house. But I know now that wouldn't have made a hell of a lot of difference. Walking into the den, I poured myself my customary half-shot of Scotch, then did a quick round of plant watering and settled into my favorite armchair. I glanced around the living room, wallowing in the luxury of coming home to a clean and tidy house. Andrea thought the housekeeper was an unnecessary indulgence. She'd be happy to let herself in every now and then and do the same for free. But I didn't feel safe enough this early in our relationship to accept her offer and kept on paying Marge for my housekeeping. Nipping from my glass of smoky gold, I dipped into my latest reading project. I found my page and entered the grim fictionary world of Iain Banks as the whisky spread its warmth in my belly. The last chilly remnants of my scare at the door dissipated from my neck. I worked through two chapters before I felt myself nodding off. Then, marking my page and putting "Complicity" on the coffee table, I settled comfortably in my chair for my afternoon nap. There was nothing wrong. All was as should be. The subconscious doesn't easily let itself be silenced. That afternoon, for the first time, the nightmare visited me in daytime. The dream, the replay of my darkest moments, had finally been retreating from my nights. Thanks to the move, to a therapist I could finally trust and to Andrea, I had been sleeping fairly well most nights. The haunted look had been receding from my eyes. I fell asleep that afternoon with no sense of apprehension at all. But from the moment I saw the freakish, boiling clouds overhead, I knew with the powerless clarity of the lucid dreamer that my nightmare was upon me. With the same clarity, I knew I had no choice but to follow it through to the end. In my dream, for the thousandth time, the house looms over me. Like an out-of-body experience, I see myself move reluctantly toward it. I see my hand reaching for the screen door, hesitating when I notice the dented frame, the torn mesh. I see the muddy footmark next to the doorknob, the shattered doorframe, and I see my upper body jerk as my heart misses a beat. Then, with no sense of how I got there, I am in the kitchen. Two chairs are toppled over. A shattered milk bottle has made a lake of white and glass under the open refrigerator door; steaming hot water in the sink; soap suds blow in the draft from the open back door. Splashes of red. Deep red. Suddenly, the smell of blood assails me. In reality, I dialed 911. The dream doesn't allow for outside help. Something splashes up above. Running up the stairs, impossibly slow, icily cold, as if wading uphill through four feet of snow. The smell growing stronger. Thick, sweet, metallic. But ever so faintly, like a false note heard in the distance, that perfume. In reality, I never saw what was up there. But the dream provides me with flashed images of crimson devastation in the bedroom, Joan's violated body sprawling, blood leaking off the walls. After an eternity, I reach the top of the stairs. Rhonda appears and my heart stops. Blood matting her blonde hair, blood on her face, blood covering so much of her it takes a moment to see she is naked. The dream gives me an eternity to see her. Eyes wide open and shining, shining. And she grins. That grin has never stopped haunting me. In the dream, I know what she's done in the bedroom. And I've never seen her happier, more exulted. Deep Red envelopes her, emanates from her every visible pore. It's like she has taken a bath in perfume. The scent engulfs me, blurs my mind, until I smell only that and see only her grin. Her lips part, and in the dream, she speaks two words. "Hey, baby . . . " she says, and in the calm and affectionate tone of her words, the horror of the dream reaches an unbearable level. Still, I'm not allowed to wake up. Rhonda carries an axe that looks dipped in deep red paint. She swings it behind her. I am frozen, though I know what happens next. At the trial, Rhonda testified that she only meant to knock me unconscious, to slam me back off the stairs, to have me alive and aware of what I had lost that day. She only meant to butcher the woman who, in her sick mind, had taken her place. As that is exactly what happened, judge and jury believed her. But I know what I saw. I know it isn't a dream fabrication. I saw what happened, and I saw the intention in her eyes, and I saw her grin. In the dream, Rhonda grins her endless horrible grin and she has more words. "Bye, baby." She brings the axe around in a low arc. With impossible clarity, I see individual droplets of Joan's blood fly off the blade and hear it cut a whistling rift through the air. I see the cutting edge of the blade fly toward my head. And then I see her hands slip on the bloody handle, causing the axe to twist in her grip. The flat of the blade hits me between the eyes, and I tumble backwards down the stairs, feeling Joan's sticky blood on my face, tasting her blood on my lips. Even as I tumble, I still, impossibly, see Rhonda's grin. Her horrible grin. Then the back of my head slams against the floor, and my ears are ringing, ringing. . . Ringing! Gasping for air, head hurting from the dream tumble, I half-fell out of my chair and stumbled towards the phone. For a terrifying moment, I seemed to be back in the old house, and the phone was not where it was supposed to be. Then reality snapped into place, and I grabbed the earpiece. "Hello?" "Thomas? What's wrong?" Mark! I must have sounded half-mad and out of breath. Thank God it was Mark. I could have talked to no one else about the nightmare. No one else knew about the nightmares, about Rhonda. Andrea only knew there was a horror in my past, knew none of the details. "Don't worry, Mark," I managed, "everything's fine. I just had a little visit from my favorite dream, is all. Just when I thought I had it licked." Uncharacteristically, Mark said nothing for a moment. Then: "Are you sure you're alright? Are you alone?" And, after another moment's hesitation: "Yes or no is enough." Those five bizarre words of instruction were enough to bring that chill back to my spine. "Yes, I'm alone. Andrea is working, housekeeper's left. I'm by myself, Mark, and I'm fine. What's up? You're kinda worrying me." "We just got a fax. . . Tom, maybe you'd better sit down first." "Don't do this, Mark. Don't do this whole bullshit movie theatre drama bit! What fax?" "I swear to you it came in five minutes ago. I have no idea why they sat on it for so long. I called you the moment I read it, please believe me." "You know I trust you, Mark. Just get to the point!" "It's from. . . Juniper Hill." Juniper Hill. State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Rhonda. "No." The one word was all I could utter. It was all I could think. "Listen to me, Tom. We have no reason to think she knows where you are." "No." A numbness was spreading through my body, from the heart out. "Please don't panic, Tom. She escaped half-naked and in shackles. She can't possibly get more than ten miles from the hospital." "No." The word came out as flat and lifeless as I was feeling. "Tom, listen! She cannot travel across three states. She has absolutely no way to find you. You are perfectly safe." That last absurd statement brought me out of it. I felt the rage boiling up. And the fear. "When, Mark? When? When did they let her escape?" Silence lengthened as Mark didn't answer. "WHEN!" "Four days ago, Tom, but . . . " "FOUR DAYS! What took them so long? Have they any idea, any goddamn idea what they set loose? She's coming for me, Mark, I don't care what you say about impossible, she's a ***devil***! She could take a Greyhound in four days, Mark. She could butcher anyone for their car, she could have hitch-hiked here in four days. Don't tell me what's impossible for her, Mark!" "Calm down, Tom . . . " "Don't tell me to calm down! She could be in my house right now! She . . . " Sudden dread fell upon me. "Tom?" Walking into the house. The smell of wax and chlorine. Old floorboards and fireplace soot. Plants and soil. And a subconscious chill. "Tom? Are you there?" Deep Red. That was the scent underneath the normal smells of homecoming. Now that I was aware of it, it was painfully, horribly obvious. The smell, though faint, was all around me. "Tom?" "She's here, Mark." "Tom, calm down. She can't . . . " "She's here, Mark! I smell her perfume! She's here!" Mark shut up. He knew the whole story. When he spoke again, he was all business. "Grab your shotgun. I'm on my way." He hung up before I could respond. I barely dared to breath as I walked into the kitchen. There, too, everything seemed in order. But there, too, the sickening smell of Deep Red was all around me. Forensics later determined that she must have gone through the whole house and sprayed perfume around. She wanted to let me know she was there - like she was proud. Retrieving the shotgun from the kitchen cabinet, I broke it and saw the reassuring copper circles of two shells. Both barrels loaded. I snapped the gun closed and made a slow, breathless circuit of the kitchen. Back door? Both locks engaged. Windows intact. What's next? Armchair into a corner, shotgun in my lap, wait for Mark. Slowly, cautiously, I made my way into the hallway, intending to move back into the den. Something splashed up above. I whirled toward the staircase. Nothing. But the sound came from above. The house darkened and closed in on me. Somewhere, on a rational level, I knew it was still a sunny day out there, but my subconscious insisted there were clouds boiling overhead. A core-deep cold settled in my legs as I took four steps toward the stairs. I looked up, expecting smears of blood on the walls. Nothing. Silence. But Deep Red still engulfed me, threatening to make me gag. I ascended, my heart hammering in my chest, a death-grip on the gun, finger inside the trigger-guard, thumb acting independently, cocking both barrels. Step by creaking step, I approached the second floor. Breathing shallow. Reliving my nightmare. Top of the stairs. Reality shifted and for a moment I saw Rhonda swing her axe. I blinked and she was gone. On the landing. Bathroom door closed, guest bedroom closed. Master bedroom door . . . ajar. Light flickered inside. I turned right onto the landing, past the bathroom door and the guest bedroom. A dark silhouette startled me, but it was only my reflection in the mirror at the end of the landing. Every step an eternity, I walked toward the master bedroom. Reality shifted again and I knew Joan lay inside, mutilated. I shook my head. Joan died four years ago. This was a different time, a different house. This time, it was just me and her. And this time, I was armed. A click. My heart stopped. I could actually count the seconds before it began beating again. The bathroom door, behind me, opened. I was so scared my vision blurred. Light flooded the landing. The forensic expert explained at the trial that she took a bath and then sprayed herself with Deep Red. They found the half-empty bottle on the tiles by the tub. She didn't towel off before opening the door and stepping naked onto the landing. My eyes focused on the mirror in front of me. I saw her left hand reflected, sticking out from my silhouette, dripping. I saw her right hand holding something with a tall handle and a big head. I smelled Deep Red, stronger than ever. She spoke: "Hey, baby . . . " She didn't know I was armed. Rage reddened my vision. I whirled around, my finger tightening on both triggers. The medical examiner described at the trial, in graphic detail, how both loads of shot impacted with her lower chest and abdomen. He listed damage to lungs, liver, intestines, spleen. He estimated the blood loss. Basically, he explained how the wounds would not have been instantly fatal, but rather would have caused a painful and prolonged death due to blood loss and shock. She was naked and dripping, but even as the shotgun stopped moving, I realized something was wrong. She spoke again, but even as my mind insisted her words were "Bye, baby," they were, "Wanna scrub . . . ", and the rest of the sentence was obliterated because I could not stop my finger from bending, and both barrels spoke flame and ncredible noise, and her body was ripped open and thrown back, and her hair, not blonde but red like Andrea's, blew around her head as she tumbled backward into the bathroom and slid over the wet tiles, and her face, twisted in shock and disbelief, was the face of Andrea, Andrea who knew and loved my acute sense of smell, and wanted me to scrub her back, and to smell her new perfume. It was Andrea, and her blood smelled thick and sweet and metallic. Rhonda is still out there somewhere. I'm not.
X X XEver see "The Cheap Detective"? It has a wonderful parody of the Marsellais scene in "Casablanca." In it, Peter Falk and his co-star (can't remember her name) croak "Deep Purple" while the French and Germans sing their anthems. For some reason, this scene kept running through my head as I read this story. Didn't detract from my enjoyment of teh macabre little slice of horror--just made it a bit more interesting for me. How about for you?