In lieu of a short story, here’s an experimental, existential short horror film that I shot on a telephone. Happy Halloween!
When it’s time to paint, I paint. Flecks of the barn’s old red come off in chips on the roller and mingle with the new white until I get pink. I climb down the ladder, dip the thing in acetate, help Phil out with his nebulizer. His vapor mixes with the early morning fog till you can’t be sure it isn’t all coming from him. His machine pumps out medicine over hills, across lakes, past the stalks of corn in their ordered lines and rows. To heal him you’ll have to heal the whole world first.
So I paint, and Phil sits, in Grandpa’s old rocker, over the feed. The chickens one-eye him as they scuttle over–pecking once, twice, retreating. Some of them are afraid of the machine’s constant hum, the way it clicks and whirs. Phil says I missed a spot; Darth Vaders it between breaths. I’ve only laid a checkerboard square of white on the great expanse of red. I spin the roller to rain paint on my big brother. It lands in droplets like stars on the sky of his bald head. The cows come in to watch, or else get at the greener grass, depending on your perspective. Phil picks up a cow chip and frisbees it at me. It explodes on the rung under my feet. Tiny, oblong versions of me reflect in racing lines of white paint.
We break at noon, Phil with his arm around my neck. Like a chokehold. Like it’s not to keep him standing. Sandwiches in triangle halves on Mom’s doily plates, her not around to insist they’re for special occasions only. Us eating standing up, or at least Phil doing it till his lungs burn, then sitting. Dad’s voice used to collect gravel when he’d ask where my manners were, till “manners” came out as a growl. Phil would try not to laugh, always did anyway.
So we go to the barn. For old time’s sake. For forgetting tomorrow’s surgery. We find Dad’s chew in an old Altoids tin, the “oids” rusted out so it’s just “Alt.” As if there could be any alternative. The sickly smell of it as we pack boluses to the right cheek, then the left to get the taste away. Spitting it out and running to the pump, spit like mud, and washing our mouths out with water we once lit on fire.
We dig into cobwebbed boxes nailed shut, pull out the snowshoes we used to make the crop circles that summer, corn stalks crunching beneath our feet. Phil disappeared into our maize maze, left me to look over the map: crayon on construction paper. Dad came outside to two stalk clusters rustling on a windless day. Went in with his shotgun. Found me first. Kept it raised even after he knew it was only me. Wondered what in creation I was doing. Our crop circle stayed like that, half-completed, till harvest time. A botched landing we’d be reminded of for the next three months.
We stand in the barn, in isosceles light coming through the door. Phil’s wearing Grandpa’s uniform. The thing is ill-fitting now as then, now for a very different reason. Phil salutes with his bony arms, knocks out cannula from nostrils with a smile. Cough-laughs as I fix it for him. I take a pic and he warns me not to post it, insists he can still kick my ass, you know.
He wants something to break; something to shoot. We go out back with a box of pellets, the doily plates, Dad’s gun. The fresh paint’s at our backs. It leaches fumes into the air, even out here, with endless corn to soak it up. We’re losing daylight, so I paint between his shots. Spin plates into cloudless sky like UFO polaroids we used to fake and send to Dateline, Art Bell, anyone we thought might take them. Plate chips rain over dirt, and Phil’s laughing so hard it sounds like he’s surfacing after a deep dive. Risking the bends but not caring either way.
I finish painting at sundown; hurry back to the barn for what we need. Rip the “for sale” sign out of dirt Grandpa used to till, his grandpa before him. Lodge pellets into it, rapid fire, airborne, spinning fast: sign, post, sign, post.
We lay out the chairs. Set up the projector. Put on the old zombie trilogy, like we’re only kids on Halloween: Night, Dawn, Day.
The thoughts that dominated his mental landscape as he sat out on the football field’s empty lawn at night with the moon above nothing but a sickle and the early Fall breeze nipping at his sweatered self was one of those nameless, shapeless thoughts, the ones that lose all meaning precisely when you begin to describe them.
But he was out on the lawn at midnight, and very thoroughly alone, and he believed he had some time, so he decided he’d name the nameless and give shape to the shapeless.
If he had to give it a shot, he’d begin by classifying it as a thought that entered into The Nostalgic Zone. It was a sweet sorrow, an innocent remembrance tainted by intervening years and perspective. It felt like missing a time that was never yours, remembering good old days that happened years before you were born.
But that wasn’t right either, so he started over. He had time before the arrival, if there would be an arrival at all.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to describe it. Maybe remembering the reason why he was here at all, sitting in this empty football field at midnight on Halloween would classify the thought for him.
As dear as that first memory was to him now, it remained incomplete; frayed at the edges. Her costume was a blank, and so was his. He could only remember the way her face glowed in the night, the way the lamppost light caught her Halloween-shadowed eyes and seemed to stop him in his place every time their eyes met.
How he took her around the old block, showed her the houses you could count on for a good haul, the ones that were prime egging targets for a very different type of trick-or-treater.
How they feasted on sugar and laughed at the moon, the years ahead of them indistinct and so not real, not any more a marker of who they were than the costumes they were wearing.
They made a pact then on that first Halloween, as they sat there beside each other on the ample field, the lights that were usually blinding on gamedays now off, and so looking like mechanical husks of towering monsters that once were. The moon was a sliver on the night that they made the pact.
It was a simple pact, the kind that only the innocent and youthful can make, a promise so seemingly simple and yet so hard to keep. Every Halloween, at midnight, they’d meet right here at this spot. It didn’t matter how old they were or where life had taken them, the pact was binding and final.
And for a few years, that’s exactly what it was. They’d meet right at midfield, their pasts and futures equidistant as they’d sit, and chat, and share candy, and after a few years had passed and pubescence took its toll–kiss.
Junior high came and went, and still they had Halloween night. Districts had them in different high schools and friends kept them busy, but they had their night, and their sliver of a moon, and their nocturnal time kept bubbled and safe from the effects of ordinary passage.
The apology was enough the first time he missed it. Campus was far away from the old hometown, and not just spatially. He’d make it next time for sure and make it up to her.
The year that followed was swift and brutal, without the amniotic bubble of their time together beneath the sickle to give any sense of what had come before and what was yet to be.
In a matter of seconds he’d graduated. Five minutes past that and he was out on the coast, struggling and searching and rarely finding. Ten minutes beyond and he was on the other coast, with no equidistant place to keep it all together. A half hour later and he was on the flight back Home, knowing that if he didn’t find her beneath the sickle now, he never would.
And so here he was, the past as hazy and indistinct as the future once was, checking the hands of the Timex he wore Back Then, a token of a past time where not knowing where to go was exciting and not suffocating.
He didn’t have to figure out the thought that took up so much of his mental landscape then, or didn’t want to. Maybe both. Those hazy remembrances told him more than a nameless, shapeless thought ever could.
He took in the air and the moon, the hulking mechanical wrecks and the distant endzones before and behind. He took one last breath and got up. Turned to where he’d come from.
Way out in the shadow of the night, beneath the sickle of a moon was a shape. A glimmering shape even in all that night, a shape that the years couldn’t hide from him even if they tried. And as the shape approached and the sickle’s glow gave it form, all thoughts of labeling it vanished. He saw, and he knew.
They walked out to midfield together in silence. Took their time with each step, decompressed before they’d come up and out of all the intervening years and reach air. They had no costumes on, but it was still their night. Their time. They sat down in the grass and looked at each other then, both of them captured still and weightless there beneath the sickle.
So I was in the shower. I don’t know what time it was. Maybe two? Two-thirty in the morning? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I was tired, it was Halloween, and I hadn’t been able to do anything fun thanks to my absolute peach of a boss.
I stank like popcorn, and I was nursing a burn from cleaning the popper that night. As the shower’s water cut on, my mind started to wander to all the faces I must’ve seen in the theater that night. It hit me that each face I saw belonged to someone with a life, hopes, and dreams. That seems like common sense to say, I realize, but it all just hit me then. That’s just the way my brain liked to work, okay?
So anyway, I was trying my best to open the shampoo bottle without aggravating the burn when I got to thinking. It was always so damn creepy in my house, empty and bare as it was when I’d get home from work. Anyone could be hiding in the shadows and I wouldn’t even know. Maybe it was childish, like I was scared of the dark or something, but who cares. It’s what I thought.
I started lathering up, it felt good to get rid of all that damned grease. I closed my eyes to the water as the shampoo washed away, remembering childhood days of tear-proof shampoo and bubble baths with rubber duckies. My stomach dropped out all of a sudden. My knees went limp, I felt like I was going to pass out.
I remembered something.
Under that water, beneath the cold chill of the bathroom air, I used to open my eyes and look out at the world. It was like everything was distorted, warped. Like I had my own little kingdom under the water and only I could see things in just that way. Maybe it was silly. It sounds weird recounting it. But it’s how I felt.
I’d lie there, supine in the tub, naked as the day I came into the world, and I’d will myself to keep my eyes open, imagining each patch of bubbles was some sort of weird iceberg or continent.
I cleared the bubbles away one time to look, and there was an old, wasted man standing naked on the other side of the room, smiling as he watched me.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. He didn’t seem like he was really there. To me he seemed like the abstract concept of a man. Like the suggestion of one. To me it was like he had always been there and always would be.
With everything as hazy as it was, he was sharper. Clearer. Like he wasn’t a part of the rest of the world. All of this I thought to myself as I lay perfectly still under the water, holding my breath.
He had great folds of skin that hung down and collected in rolls, like someone had hastily stitched together a body for him. He was sallow, wasted away. But even so, I felt like he could kill me at any moment. Not with his body though. He wouldn’t need that. He could just think it, and I’d be dead. With a single notion he could follow me wherever I went, even after death, and always be there to watch me. Like I would never, could never escape from him. He told me all of this with the look on his withered face.
His eyes were gray, with flecks of blood red. To the average observer he’d seem blind for sure. But they’d be wrong. What he had was a heightened sight, something that went beyond just seeing something. It was like he could be in your skin as he watched you, feel your every organ as it worked its hardest to keep you alive.
There was white foam at the corners of his lips, like he hadn’t had a drink of water in his life. I could tell the foam was fetid just from looking at it. I imagined little fruit flies drowned within it, not even knowing their mistake. Him not even bothering to wipe them away. Maybe he liked them there.
His teeth were pus-stained. Red, but not from blood. I could just tell. He wasn’t smiling so much as baring his teeth like a predator might do. It was all a grand gesture and it was all for me.
There was a moan, low and deep. It was from him, but it felt like it came from everywhere. I could feel its vibration even down there under the tub’s water. Its sound waves rippled the water’s surface.
I don’t remember anything more. The memory just goes blank after that.
I stood there in the shower, propped up against the wall so I wouldn’t fall. I could feel my heartbeat in my skull. Everything was all hazy after that, like the real world was as warped as it looked from under the water all those years ago.
I started to gulp in deep breaths, like I heard you were supposed to when you thought you were having a panic attack. I didn’t know if that was good advice, but I tried it anyway.
It must’ve just been some weird memory I’d made up. Maybe a nightmare I’d had long ago thanks to some horror movie from my childhood. That had to be it.
I turned off the water. The curtain was there, the only thing separating me from my towel.
A low moan slowly built. It felt like it was coming from everywhere. The water at my feet rippled, splashing at my toes like it was boiling. There was a high-pitched whine, and then everything went black.
That’s it. That’s all I remember.