3LBE #11
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The Excelsior

by Kevin Oatley

 

Among the sludge of the gypsies’ refuse strewn across the knotted floor boards of the stage, was a token of such interest to Jodie, that he spent no time in thinking twice about dropping his mop and diving in with his bare hands to retrieve it.

It dripped of wet slime. Gypsy slime of the very richest kind, a lukewarm homogenous solution of urine, reams of yellow fat and snake skin. The foul-smelling puddled gatherings of the tepid muck reminded him of that fateful supper in the village in Rock Port, where he had chanced fate and ordered the haggis — more out of morbid curiosity than for his adventurous taste buds. The toilet, up the unfortunate distance of a flight of stairs from the eatery, was given a good breaking-in that evening, and the very regurgitated sheep stomach lining washed up from his guts (of which he was then as sure it was own innards as he was sure he would not tip the waiter later from not bracing him for such culinary barbarity) bore such striking resemblance to this sopping animal hide he distantly brandished that he laughed in spite of himself.

The Excelsior theatre was a haven for freak shows, for the drifting hordes and circuses that came and went with the seasons. Some in search of a warm bed in the icy grips of winter, and some devoted exclusively to the craft of creative stage drama. These folk would migrate humbly across the countryside looking for work, their caravans of prop-laden carriages and costume-stuffed trunks, their staff mainly comprised of cheap addicts and street performers, generating an aura of distrust and caution as they moved from city to city. The Excelsior had open doors, making it the most sought-after drop-in for travelling show-boats and wanna-be actors in all of the western seaboard. And following the sudden downturn of the owner’s health, the theatre had grown so less governing in its admission regulations within the last months, that its usually sombre evenings and placid midnights had become exposed to the often violent underground of the country’s most shocking of travelling caravans. The profane, the explicit, the gruesome and horrifying, the masochistic; all the diversity of sinful drama was inevitably destined for the Excelsior. In the last month, the arthouse had been visited upon by a new order cult who seemed determined to stay, and the remaining staff of the theatre was ill-equipped — without the unfledged confidence and officialism of the diligent owner, Mr. Edward Gloddin — they had no choice but to accommodate the hooded guests.

The massive unfiltered welcome the theatre had grown notorious for, meant an increase in workload, not to mention tolerance, of the custodial staff, which Jodie Small noticed had been rapidly thinning out.

The theatre’s appearance, from the both feared and admired corner of Queen and Bradley streets, was deathly menacing: soot-blackened stone, steep buttresses and daunting widow’s walks, sporadically constructed about its façades in a nuthouse of architectural chaos. In contrast, subtler furnishings decorated the interior, as if politely saying “piano bar” — something for even the Victorian eye. In fact, its walls held a sampling of every taste, every smidgen of vintage underground culture from medieval ages to 19th century Gothic. Its sprawling serpentine trestles of wrought-iron artwork and cryptic revelations of stained glass windows shafted the sweetest colors of sunlight in hot afternoons, with the air of the ancient Gothic era as well as the new-age Cabal. Its cult history did nothing to dissuade the fervently wildest of performers either, for after several generations of completely uncensored orgies of dramatic expression (including the multiple on-stage suicides of actresses Shoran Trent and Margie Roosevelt), it was no wonder it attracted such vice and unorthodox crowds.

The building, which loomed in the shadow of poverty in the Haven district, was quite possibly the most characteristic establishment on the face of the earth.

The stage-detritus, however, which had Jodie’s name stamped all over it, did not immediately reflect such endurable qualities.

He carefully wiped the oatmeal of Havana’s waste off the doll and examined it, entranced enough to ignore all the other profane distracting treasures she had left when the curtain fell. It wasn’t exactly a doll, he realized, not at all… but a human, dressed up as one. A synthetic mannequin of cheap plastic or material it was not, but an organic item that had the heavy leaden weight of a once-functioning anatomy of innards. A dead midget, Jodie gathered as he examined the expired little body.

“Sharon Tate would be laughing in her grave if she knew the kind of props left on the stage a decade later.”

He almost dropped the thing off the stage at the sound of Lois’ deep and ear-wrenching grunts. “Ohhh, you’re sick,” she spat. “Yerrr sick.”

“You could be a little kinder to someone with a landfill of gypsy shit to dispose of, you know.” She ignored him and strode regally to the wash basin.

“That Gerard?” she asked. He eyed the dummy hide from head to toe, and yes, stitched beneath the cummerbund of his child-sized gown was a name tag that said in small print, as if it didn’t want to be seen: “Gerard, the Seer.” The soft wet pockets of his eyes, already beginning to blacken with decay, lolled chillingly in the sockets, the near silent clicking of wet tendons a ghostly sound inside his skull. How could she pass by him without even a second glance at the body, as if it wasn’t more than a storefront display?

“It’s a harbinger puppet, supposed to be able to conjure things up when invoked by magic,” she explained. “I saw Havana using it tonight. Quite an impressive performance, actually.”

Puppet? Jodie thought. “Does it…” Jodie began, but was distracted by the sudden thump of items to the floor in sickening flatness. He looked as they rolled lazily toward Jodie’s feet, and saw them to be severed penises.

“Does it what?” she said with a faceful of water. Wiping her hands clean on a towel, she noticed the rolling appendages idling at her feet. “Oh, god,” she whispered, “I must have missed that part of the show.

“We’re going to have more police investigations around here before New Year’s if Gloddin keeps letting these kinds of performances run rampant.” Jodie kicked the little warriors, sending them flying half-way across the room. She couldn’t quite stifle a giggle as they smacked the walls across the room.

For that evening’s performance, the poor midget had been dressed up in a fine Sunday dress, and raped to death on stage, while the spells woven by Havana claimed the prizes of souvenir genitals from the unfortunate volunteers from the enthralled audience. Jodie didn’t know how she consummated such criminal acts, but he had long since decided that his imagination feared to explore her kind of rationale. The gypsy woman was clearly insane, bent on shock and glamor to the point of murder and torture. She had awed and sickened the crowd, no doubt enjoying the spontaneous side-effect of the post-show lynch mob. Another one of her “most deep and shocking moral messages to humanity,” she would say. What witchery, thought Jodie, horror etched upon his face as he stared at the dead midget, not knowing why he clutched it so, or how deep his fascination burrowed. Gerrard looked already fit for the funeral, mess aside.

“It’s all yours,” Lois said, always comforting, “I wouldn’t touch that thing in a million years.” And she left the theatre to Jodie and the twisted apparition in his hands, and a sudden inclination to shake the corpse and stamp its brains out like a wild fire. He dropped it with a sneer of disgust and stood in the empty, mouldering performance hall of the Excelsior. The building seemed to cower in shadowy gloom as the wind shrieked past the slitted windows and the oaks shivered against the brick from outside.

Jodie regarded the stillness and silence of the hall, thinking it more like a slaughterhouse in the ruddy gleam from lamp-lit fixtures, and a growing fear in him caused him to snap back to the crumpled corpse he'd deposited on the stage behind him. His laboring breath grew increasingly heavier as the drips of blood sluiced like slime from the theatre’s eaves. What did he expect of it? Since his time at this horrendous theatre, nearly anything seemed possible. The corpse was magical, he assured himself, indeed capable of a few tricks anyway, being part of Havana’s toy-chest. Of course, it was as dead as Sharon or Marge Roosevelt, now at rest in the pits of Birchwood cemetery. But as he puttered along with his cleaning, he felt his mind returning to the ragged corpse, stifling an urge to nudge the thing with his foot like a curious child who has encountered a specimen of roadkill. Before sweeping the thing up with the other puddled on-stage messes, and dumping them, forgotten, into the cart-bin, his interest was drawn to the curious graffiti-like tattoos written across the midget’s torso in wild frenzied patterns. The inked wordings were cleverly done, each letter of the phrase carefully stencilled onto the skin at slightly askew angles. The words were childishly haunting, the kind that badgers the mind long after it is discarded from view.

Force-fed. A toy with no conscience.

How could Havana turn the awful display of massacre this night into a playground? Her tirades belonged in an asylum, he thought, suddenly lucid, not in a house of drama. She called what she did expression and the honest communication, but it was murder at every turn. Then, as so often before in his clean-up duties and the history of the Excelsior’s performances, he buried the attempt at reason.

Switching on his Walkman, he decided it was off to the incinerator, off behind the stage where he had spent so many nights wheeling the plastic bin down the deep corridors that led to the rehearsing rooms and studios. The guest rooms and suites for the travelling performers were housed above the main stage, often alive with the cracks and shufflings of a party, or rowdy celebrations of good-humored and successful post-gala actors. Now it was quiet and placid, for the gypsies were known to be sombre and reserved. The stillness haunted him, and he turned up the volume dial.

He descended into the basement, beads of sweat collecting on his ashen face, while the painted brick walls devolved slowly into great slabs of rock and granite, the light bulbs glared through iron caging. The hallway to the incinerator was little more appealing than a mine shaft, the ripe stench of mildew and damp garbage wafting in from the furnace room at the tunnel’s end greeted him with no less revulsion than the refuse he pushed.

He spent no time unloading the bags, and the flames gobbled up the heaps with a satisfying flare as they leapt and danced with the fresh food. But he left the corpse out. Indeed, he imagined the hide’s curling skin and collapsing face and eyes under the heat, only imagined it as he stared at Gerard again, holding it, and then cast it aside to the cool corner of the floor. A shiver rippled through him as he climbed the gradual ascent through the dungeons of the basement and up to the Mr. Gloddin’s room to wish the owner the best.

• • •

The week passed grudgingly. With each new performance — whether it was an afternoon matinee, an evening sex soiree or a midnight bondage abattoir — the demands on Jodie’s stomach grew more and more cumbersome. He regularly disposed of the leftovers from the show with hurried trips down to the incinerator, where the thought of the midget’s corpse haunted him every time. It lay rejected in the corner of the room, beginning to give off quite a stench and collecting the diversity of basement-dwelling critters the theatre evidently accommodated (specifically the insect guests, not two-legged variety). These became simple reasons for Jodie to flee the furnace room all the quicker. Still he could not muster the courage to burn Gerard. Intriguing changes began to appear on the corpse, the likes of which Jodie could not explain nor understand. The heavily graffitied body art revealed subtle transformations, as Gerard’s tattoos shifted and changed in both shape and wording. The magical midget, which he was convinced was dead and had been for half a week (it didn’t take a forensic scientist to diagnose his half-eaten abdomen and frozen stiff posture), was calling out for its master from beyond the grave. Jodie crouched down within kissing distance, next to the very object of his ugly and shame-ridden terror that had plagued him these last days and sleepless nights, and read the green-laced tattoo scrawled across the breastbone, now entirely different from the last time he saw it.

Lost loved one. I bleed

Jodie snorted at first. He could hardly be sympathetic to this pitiful disembodied plea. The logic of the thought escaped him, and he postulated simply, as though conversing with the midget, although severely subjected for the sole dramatic purposes of Miss Havana, Gerard had surely been a murderer himself in his once lively and anguished past. If his numerous adornments of blood-encrusted pentacles were of any indication.

Jodie was exhausted. He couldn’t keep food down (it all tasted like soylent and sour milk to his distressed tastebuds). He couldn’t phone his parents without lying through his teeth about his job or hanging up the phone all together. And if these weren’t problem enough, his erectile difficulties stabbed the final thorn in his side. No, he would not — could not — endure such gore from the performances any longer.

Upon applying for this position six years ago (the theatre institution completely unknown to him at the time), Jodie had never dreamed of such nightmarish possibilities; that there were undergrounds so vast and criminal at work beneath the society of New England cities, that there were devils indeed alive and thriving within the nomads of the region. Likewise, had he ever suspected he would be in the thick of the most disturbing cult activities the country had ever seen, he would have resigned those years ago… or perhaps come to Haven with a film crew. Tapes of this place would be worth more than twice that of the Berkowitz murders, he thought.

Jodie rose from the floor tediously. With a new stitch in his side, he sauntered out of the furnace room and up to the stage level to continue his other duties. Mr. Gloddin was Jodie’s only chance of relieving the stress and the sickness these last days had caused — hell, these last years — and sickness or no sickness, the owner had to be informed — by him preferably, not by the authorities. Gloddin was certainly no grunt; he didn’t clean up the carnal carnage that ensued beneath his flat every night, he didn’t wash the semen and the blood off his hands when it was time to punch out, and he never made it his business to routinely visit the ghost of a rotting midget every gut-wrenching trashload to the furnaces. So Jodie didn’t expect the ailing man to understand. But the last straw had been met, as far as Jodie was concerned. In the end, it was their own theatre (as much his own, he now realized), and he would let none of the gypsies or any other filthy mongrels deface the essence of Haven’s Excelsior. At least not any further.

• • •

“Mr. Gloddin. Is he in?”

The owner’s flat on the top floor of the theatre was an extension of the small stone turreted room that overlooked the bruised district of Haven. Peter, the caretaker (a gaunt, quiet elder, and the snotty kind of butler who wriggled his nose at every tea cup without a saucer), peered up the spiral staircase ascending the turret. Seeing no light or sound from the depths of the room above, he obviously decided that his master was unable to come down.

“he’s very sick, you know,” he replied to Jodie. “I believe he would be overcome by embarrassment right now if anyone was to see him in his current condition.”

“It is important,” Jodie pleaded, “and I'm sure his condition is no worse than mine.” He displayed his filthy coveralls and sooted face that smelled of the dungeons of the furnace.

The caretaker cleared his throat and nodded saying, “Can it not wait until tomorrow?”

Jodie thought about it a moment. “Perhaps you’ll allow me into his study? I can write him a note about my concerns and leave it for you to give to him when he is fit.”

After the caretaker wiped a gleam of sweat from his feverish forehead and honked into a lathered handkerchief, he agreed, ushering Jodie through a small oaken door hidden in the shadows beside the stair, and into the fire-lit glow of Mr. Gloddin’s study.

“Nursing a little sickness yourself?” Jodie asked. He began searching for a quill and paper and came across a news clipping concealed beneath an untidy ream of desk papers. It was concerning the Excelsior.

“… following the recent lack of funding for Haven’s arts and drama programs, many establishments will suffer the effects within weeks or even months, including the controversial theatre house in Haven’s lower west-end, the Excelsior. The theatre, residing amidst the poverted rubble and grunge of the Haven District, is largely responsible for many of the seasonal and cyclical immigration throngs recently coursing through the District. Owner Edward Gloddin is widely reputed to be contending with existing financial woes of his own, and, in the unfortunate throes of sickness as well, risks turning the two-hundred and seventy-year-old cult theatre into a full-time hostel for the surrounding poor…”

None of it came as news to Jodie.

“I’ve just come down with it, something dreadful I fear,” said the caretaker. “But relating to Mr. Gloddin’s bizarre affliction, I can comfortably not say.”

“It’s those gypsies, Peter. They’re disease carriers and they don’t give a second thought about giving it to others, I might add.”

“Is that what concerns your note, Jodie?”

Jodie gathered up the note, replaced the quill, and handed the letter to the caretaker.

“They’re blackmailers, murders and fiends. And if the owner had been well enough these last few days to put a stop to what’s transpired here, I'm sure he would have done so without a flinch. All Mr. Gloddin has to do is say the word, Peter, and they’re out of Haven. I’ll see to it.”

“Mr. Gloddin is in dire-straits these days, Jodie,” he said, frowning at the letter. “I hope this won’t disturb him too much.”

“You want disturbing? Peek in tomorrow night at the gorefest they’re rehearsing. I’ll need another paint scraper to clean the blood off the panelling after the bloodbath that they’re no doubt intent on.”

Peter looked upset, bent over the note in a furrowed and concentrated expression. Such a fragile little man, it pitied Jodie to see.

“I hope you’re feeling better, Peter.” And they left each other.

• • •

Scrawled almost illegibly by hands noticeably unaccustomed to the English language were the following week’s events, posted on the board in the main hall:

THE “EXCELSIOR” THEATRE AND INN HOUSE

SCHEDULE FOR THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 14TH

Day 1 The Melancholy Prophecies of Gerard (Starring William Denson)

Day 2 The Anitpathy of a Love Fiend (Starring Havana)

Day 3 The Stench of Groping Sorrow and Other Skits (marrionettes by Wilma Valkyire)

Day 4 Ancient Misgivings (Starring Havana)

Day 5 The Three Suppers (Starring Melanie Manson Briggs)

Admission is five dollars. Adults only

• • •

The very idea of those five days gave Jodie such a disgust he nearly tore the schedule off the wall. He vowed silently to do everything within his power to prevent those performances. But until the Mr. Gloddin was conscious and about, the poor theatre would have to endure the morbidity of those awful gypsies’ screenplays.

• • •

That night, Jodie climbed up to the flat above the stage and visited Mr. Gloddin.

The old man looked ghastly, ashen and diseased, his dark button eyes frantic and delirious in his wan face. Jodie asked him what was troubling him.

“What is troubling me? They spend their nights — all night — in these upper rooms, reckless and feral, doing whatever they please.” Jodie was pleased the owner was as fraught with disgust as he was. “Havana came to my flat two nights ago,” Mr. Gloddin continued, “and dreading this, I pretended to be deathly ill and unable to speak. But the witch — oh that intuitive crone! — my diaphanous efforts were in vain, she pitied not my attempts to stall.

“We have poured our hearts out to you, Mr. Gloddin,’ she said. “Your crowd has screamed with delight, pleaded for more, and moved in ways I don’t expect you to understand. And never, I might reckon, a crowd of such size have you housed before.’

“I rose from my stupor and regarded the witch with horror, for she was mutilated beyond clear recognition. It was only because I had thought she was still in costume that I had endured the conversation so far. Then I began to wonder what acts these monsters had been performing under my flat. What had been done to make her look so deathly disfigured? I could not fathom the depths of masochistic tolerance and discipline required, and I must have all but shrank away from her, for she was the epitome of witchcraft, black magic, pain, suffering… I could go on. And her rasp of a throat, I can’t quickly forget the menacing sounds emanating from her.

“Hungry and tired are my group of performers,’ she said, “faced with the wretched sanitation of this decaying old theatre. We are used to such conditions — but for the pay, we rebel in anger.’ And then, in as calm and as reasonable a manner as I could dish out in my livid fright, I told her I was awaiting a check from an outside source by the end of the week, that she would receive full compensation at that time. I added hastily that her rent would be overlooked for her remaining stay. To this she replied, “But we will be gone in less than four days, Mr. Gloddin. I'm afraid that is unacceptable.’ I admitted to her I was penniless, and her anger turned to wrath, she threatened me with far worse things that you or I could imagine, and all throughout her deeply restrained composure: spells, witchery, torture, the very worst without meeting death itself. She then stormed out of the room, smoking from every orifice. My fears,” sighed Mr. Gloddin, “have since escalated.”

“What should we do? We must do something about this before it escalates further.”

“I see no solution but to pay the old crone what she fancies. And it wounds me to say that. It conflicts with every bone in body, being brought up to honor your life and your life’s work at the expense of nothing, or no one.”

For a moment, Jodie was sullen in thought. He knew not where his resolve came. For the theatre, for his job… for Gerard? “We will not subject ourselves to such treatment, Mr. Gloddin. How dare she demand such while she receives free room and board, and a spellbound throng of an audience at her very feet each night!”

“Should it come to unlawful sources of money, I fear the future of the theatre will be threatened even more, Jodie.”

“We simply shut the doors tomorrow night, and the next night.”

“No, it won’t do. She’ll be furious beyond imaginings, and most of her coven will still be staying in the theatre anyway — which begs the question: what will her rage do if inflicted upon my beloved theatre? We daren’t take the risk.”

“We could always phone the police, I suppose.”

“Impossible.” The owner shook his head. “For one, she would censor her performance with police among the audience, and my reputation would be shattered again. And I cannot bear the presence of any more law enforcement in this house. It is hopeless, Jodie.”

Jodie again felt heavy and tired and defeated.

“You’re looking worse, sir. Anything I can get you?”

Mr. Gloddin took a deep sigh.

“It was after the witch’s visit that I realized this hideous ague you see in front of you had since worsened. I am now convinced my poor malady — of which I can pin down to no known disease — was the gypsy Havana’s very doing!”

Jodie looked with sympathy at the haggard face of his boss. The old man was trapped in a corner, penniless, and at the mercy of the Drama of Arts program threatening him with closure. There was very little else they could do. And as they bid each other goodnight, their spirits had sunk much lower, into a gloom that could only be lifted after the departure of the coven.

“Take care, Mr. Gloddin. I hope the gypsies’ finale doesn’t make us wish we didn’t simply drive them out before. With shotguns, no less.”

But the owner had passed back into labored rest in his bed, and these last spoken words were the last he would ever give to the old man.

• • •

As Jodie and Edward Gloddin plotted to rid the theatre of the gypsies, new weavings began to spin on Gerard’s skin, crawling and slipping along the corpse’s skin like curious eels. New words formed, as if depressed by an invisible force from within the rotting cavity. The black charcoal letters crept into view in the dancing fires of the furnace five stories below the loft of Mr. Gloddin and their six words told all the tale, in that same gruesome simplicity.

No rest for the wicked. Join me soon.

• • •

“Where is he?” demanded Jodie. The caretaker looked flustered, never before in so much distress as this, scampering around the owner’s room looking for him.

“he’s disappeared. Oh, dear. I hadn’t been gone fifteen minutes.”

They scoured the flat and found no trace of him. With hideous thoughts, they opened the westward French windows to gaze at the ground below… but to their relief, found no body in the cold snow below.

“I have an inclination,” Jodie said, “that he was taken by Havana late last night. The woman is clearly enraged and I fear she intends the worst for him in her lunacy.”

“That woman is in no state to deal with, Jodie. I would be afraid to go near her with such accusations at a time like this.”

“I'm shocked at your lack of interest in Mr. Gloddin’s well-being, Peter. She’ll get a visit from me tonight regardless of her state of mind, or my own.”

“She’s performing tonight — in fact, as we speak!” Peter indicated the commotion downstairs.

An awful thought then came to Jodie, and he rushed past Peter to the stairway that led to the theatre below. “I fear we may be too late!”

Smoke from the hundreds of cigars and cigarettes on the lips of a thousand manic audience members wafted up the stairwell as he made his way down. The stench of blood and sour sweat filled the auditorium. The theatre was packed over its full capacity, crazed drunks and freaks fresh off the streets dangled ghoulishly from the rafters and balconies around him. The maniacal and fevered pipings playing toyishly from the pit below the stage were alternately overwhelmed and accompanied by the deafening noise of hollerings, screams, shrieks, and wailful singing from the crowd. Out of the drunken cacophony of sound and flailing rowdiness, Jodie entered the theatre and his eyes set upon the horrific sight on the front stage.

The stage was adorned with sacrificial and ritual decorations. Human skins flapped like rice paper, while shrunken cow muzzles and other hideous appendages were impaled on hundreds of wooden spears. And there, in the centre of the stage, hysterically chanting and screaming with such violent expression he expected she would bring the walls down, Havana gripped the helpless body of the Excelsior’s owner by the ankles, in front of the audience who were positively enraptured.

Then Jodie saw, emerging out of the curtain from stage left, a great steel gurney on which sprawled a gigantic ogre of a woman, the berth of which surpassed that of the largest sumo wrestlers of Asia and easily, Jodie guessed, weighing over nine-hundred pounds. Another chilling bellow erupted from the crowd, and Jodie watched in horror, the mammoth being wheeled over to Mr. Gloddin — the poor man now frightened not quite to death — all the while drooling and licking her lips. The crowd screamed with delight and horror. Some watched lavishly, while others hollered. Some fled through the crowd to the exits, while others vomited upon their neighbor. Jodie could not watch any more of the spectacle, but before he escaped down the stairs from the theatre, he heard, despite the audience’s din, the gruesome pop and crunch of Gloddin’s ribcage.

Through the intestinal dungeons of the theatre basement, rumbling with the sound of the audience above, Jodie fled, tears coursing down his constricted face, his screams of horror echoing off the walls and through the empty corridors. He stumbled his way down the descending tunnels, with no thoughts scoring through his wrought mind other than those of malice and curdling revenge. He burst into the furnace room, panting like a hyena.

The furnace jittered and creaked, littering the dim room with sickly dancing light. And there, in the shadowy corner of the furnace room, the decaying body of Gerard, the voodoo midget, seemed to look back at him. He hadn’t disposed of it before, and now it was too late. Now he understood what a mistake that had been, for the body in the corner was visibly twitching in the flickering light.

Jodie’s heart leaped as the midget’s leg spasmed and the throat of the corpse worked away. Gerard was doing exactly what the magic induced into it weeks ago was supposed to do: rise it up on invisible strings and live its prophecies. The eyelids fluttered, and opened with a horrid unsticking sound, revealing glutinous masses of eyes trying desperately to focus. They churned helplessly in their sockets.

Jodie, frozen with fear, stood across the room from it, rooted in horror, his mind pleading with his own limbs to work. But he was immobile, unable to shift or escape, he could only watch with horror as the thing worked its way up the wall to a standing position. Then it ambled drunkenly toward Jodie, as though it could smell him.

Then a peal, chillingly shrill, erupted from the dead lungs. A guttural scream as the small, dead limbs snapped. It was these sounds that sent through Jodie a galvanic shiver, and awoke him to his senses. He finally wrenched his self from the grips of panic and started — not in flight toward the exit — but toward the ungodly midget corpse with its uncanny eyes and cruel tattoo messages. The thing shrank away from the advance in a stumbling fear, and Jodie’s confidence broke way for the revenge he craved.

Above the furnace dungeons, the beat of drums pulsed soft and steady as Havana’s show ensued. Jodie swept Gerard into his arms, felt him wrestle weakly beneath the throes of Jodie’s forearms, and threw the abomination into the fire.

No sooner had the body been engulfed in flames than the entire iron structure of the furnace bellowed and lurched, sending sparks across the room. A great blaze of smoke burst from the top of the furnace, as the agonized hellish screams of Gerard pierced through the caverns below the Excelsior.

Jodie stumbled back from the furnace, watching the green and purple flames lash out of the furnace door, dancing wildly out of control. Flames leapt up to the ceiling, blackening it, making the room into a hazy cell of black poison.

Jodie dashed from the room not a moment too soon, for the great iron furnace rent itself apart, sending hot pieces of iron exploding careening from the walls. He was up and out into the corridor in a flash, and soon, racing through the cavernous cellars of the theatre, escaping the ever-increasing flames whipping from the furnace room.

He fled to the theatre, where there was a frenzy of commotion. Not the gleeful, bawling voices and dances of a wondered audience, but the panic-stricken shrieks of escaping show-seekers fleeing the flames that roared through the ancient vents of the old theatre like angry birds of prey.

The gypsy performers on stage darted back and forth in fear, watching the blazing fire encroach on their playground. Havana was nowhere to be seen, but the half-devoured remains of Mr. Gloddin lay spread across the stage in ribbons and streams of his own blood.

The snowdrifts had blocked most of the exits, and people were trampled in the aisles as the crowd surged to the main doors, where they rammed and piled upon the resilient oak blockade, crushing those at the front. Jodie watched them scream and fight, before he slipped out the door by the caretaker’s quarters.

He spilled out into the cold December night, his sweat already beginning to freeze on his face, and bolted the door with a swift latch, imprisoning those unfortunate souls inside. Damn them all, for there was no better way of disposing of the coven and the awful midget.

He waded through the snow of Queen Street, head swimming in a delirium. The blizzard had fully arrived, and he could not see even the other side of the street, but he ran with all his might. He ran from the theatre, gulping frigid air, ran from the howling cries of the trapped and burning, the damned and the devilish, and never looked back.

• • •

It was not two weeks later that the newspaper featured the obituary of the old theatre on Queen and Lisbon streets in the seedy district of Haven, and much to Jodie’s astonishment, was reported as destroyed neither by arson nor devious intent, but of faulty infrastructure in the building’s basement furnaces. “… most probable explanation for such a tragedy lies in the guts of the duct work and furnace system of the antique place, claimed Mike Langley, Deputy Fire Chief of Haven…”

The full report was released of the tragedy on December 24th, and Jodie Small drove slowly through the icy country roads to visit his family in Rock Port, past the frozen stubble of hay fields and frosted barns.

About twenty miles from Haven, he caught out of the corner of his eye a sight which caused him to pull the truck into the ditch and step out into the night air. There, on the dark eve of Christmas in the New England countryside, he saw, the crawling string of a dark caravan crossing the expanses of corn field in the east, pulled by blind horses and bobbing with lamps and little fires.

Although it crawled silently through the snow-gleaming fields, sullen and sombre in the direction of the northern woods, Jodie could still hear the whispers of a thousand dead victims and the cackle of an old gypsy woman drift across the plains like a dead wind.

 

 

Kevin Oatley finds time to write fiction between work and school. He is an avid reader of science fiction and horror, especially the works of Pohl, Niven, Lovecraft, Simmons, and McCammon.


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ISSUE #11

September 2002

FICTION

ART