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Our Quiet Guests

by Thomas Ha

3341 words

The day I was finally visited by those three — their tall rigid silhouettes blotting the afternoon sun from their looming positions on the porch — I remembered my manners, after a momentary catch in my throat, and welcomed them into the foyer, where they filed past me with little to no acknowledgment, perhaps studying the intricate flock wallpaper which my wife and I had specially ordered from overseas, or otherwise appreciating the uninterrupted flow of the entryway into the living room, I couldn’t say.

With some care, and making sure not to touch them unnecessarily, I gestured to the kitchen, where, I explained, we usually entertain. I hoped from that corner of the house there would be less chance of the trio detecting the presence of my son, whom I had locked away upstairs only moments ago. I pictured him crouched safely behind the double-doored closet, with strong walls constructed of red oak, and barred with the most durable tungsten locking mechanism we could afford.

My visitors clearly took great care to put on ordinary appearances. So I did my best not to linger on the skin-holes or missing swathes of hair atop their skulls, and I carefully chose my moments to smile warmly and seated them at our kitchen table, glancing briefly at their wondrously inky eyes, which swallowed the surrounding light just as my grandfather had always described — wells of blackness surrounded by distended facial muscles that rested unevenly on cheekbones but might at any moment cascade from their faces. Each of them chose business attire for this occasion — ill-fitting but expensive suit-clothes, crooked in the shoulders or uneven in the sleeves, all tailored for other bodies. Every feature and characteristic summoned a familiar voice from the depths of my memory — something low and slow, like gravel crushed underfoot.

Never cross Our Quiet Guests, I remembered my grandfather saying in sour breaths that clouded around him near the fireplace. Often the same advice night after night, when he could still speak without slurring.

And, yes, absolutely, cross them I would not.

Because I very well understood the Rules and what was required. I knew, for example, to begin preparing coffee as my token hospitality, without the slightest delay or sign of hesitation, maintaining a steady stream of conversation over my shoulder — although I wasn’t sure it qualified as conversation with every question of mine left to hang in the air, unanswered. The toasted fragrance of freshly-ground Guatemalan coffee scooped into the filter atop the glass carafe, the rush and patter of water into the kettle that I set upon the range, the whoosh of the flame licking from beneath — all allowed me adequate sense of normalcy to pretend these were just passersby.

Nevertheless, a nervous titter escaped me when my hands hovered over the Japanese ceramic cream pitcher and sugar bowl, and I realized how empty we had allowed them to become, what with so few stores carrying the variety to which we’d grown accustomed. My wife, after weeks of my reminders, had gone this morning to shops beyond our suburb to restock the dwindling basement supplies, leaving me here with some embarrassment and in the presence of very significant company, to deal with the results of her irresponsibility, and I suppose, some of my own.

A part of me knew that the sugar, cream, and my petty annoyance were smaller symptoms of something more daunting going on — a disastrous state of the world and its escalating problems — things that I always found too difficult, or perhaps too unpleasant, to grasp.

My grandfather had warned how Our Quiet Guests appeared in his old country too, just as it was on the precipice of a monumental violent failure — not so much harbingers of the fall or the civil war or the famine that followed, as drawn there because of it, he believed.

Like worms breaking from the soil after a storm, the old man would whisper from his chair by the fire.

My three visitors only confirmed the suspicions growing in me for many months, that with every alarming headline, every essential disappearing from the shelves, and every government department becoming more and more difficult to contact, we were all soon headed to a very bad place.

Our Quiet Guests sensed it too.

My hands continued of their own accord across the countertop, doing the preparatory work of a gracious host as best as possible in these circumstances, and I kept watch on the street for cars coming or going, imagining with dread what would happen if my wife were to return. I permitted myself the fantasy, if just for a second, of being the kind of man who might shout or wave my arms at the window, give her a chance of escape. But, knowing my nature, even if I were to see her lovely face, I would undoubtedly remain transfixed, paralyzed by the breath of those three behind me. So I could only pray that she was delayed, and would continue to be so, for her own sake.

“If you wouldn’t mind telling me. How do you prefer to take your coffee, Messieurs?” I turned to my three visitors and saw that things had already gone wrong.

It was their shoes. Each of Our Quiet Guests had removed them without a word. All six Oxfords rested on the kitchen table like loam-crusted bricks to make clear what I now realized: somehow, at some point, I had already committed a critical error.

I saw flashes of my grandfather clutching my forearm with his good hand, pressing into the tender skin with his unkempt nails. If something goes wrong, they’ll make their displeasure known, he muttered, an emphasis on every edge of every consonant. And maybe, just maybe, they will forgive one broken Rule or two. But don’t expect them to remain civil if you continue down an uncouth road. Each time you offend, they will see it as permission to reciprocate, escalate, any and all mistreatment.

So you must never, and I mean never, cross Our Quiet Guests.

Yes. Obviously. I understood his point, as well as what these three were trying to tell me by presenting their footwear so unceremoniously. But for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why now?

What, specifically, had I done to earn their ire, given how little had transpired? 

Did I forget some customary greeting or introductory question in my hurry to usher them into the kitchen? Did I speak incessantly as I prepared at the counter, saying too many things about myself? Or was it more intangible, something in my tone — too sharp and imperative in offering them seats or in describing the coffee? Or was I so pathetic, so subservient and unctuous, that my tenor itself managed to cause offense?

Whatever the case, none of the Guests reacted to my alarm.

They remained in their seats with black eyes wide and mouths agape, in a kind of excitement, a slight whistling through crooked teeth with soft sighs.

“I’ll assume… for the… coffees, that is…” I began to feel unease in my throat. “That black is sufficient… unless you say otherwise.”

Again, their dark eyes and gasping orifices provided no intelligible response.

Despite what I hoped to be my first and only indiscretion, still completely unknown to me, I proceeded to pour and serve as I would any afternoon visitors; and while doing so, I couldn’t help, whether due to curiosity or dread, but to take notice of their feet, now de-shoed and splayed upon the travertine tile.

The appendages were so pale and moist as to be nearly translucent, giving the impression that a dripping sac surrounded their extremities; and each toe, without the cap of a nail, swelled and stretched as it rubbed against floor, like the feelers of an insect sensing every texture and vibration. And the smell. Some god awful and unmistakable chemical odor emanated from those naked feet. Similar to chlorine from the community pool, but so foul that my eyes began to sting. I placed the first cup beside one set of shoes, and then the second beside another.

Unfortunately, in contemplating the strangeness of my visitors’ feet, I was not careful enough with their hands, because the last Guest had extended his, as if to take the final coffee cup from me, courteously. And so I, without much thought, went through the natural motion of giving the desired object.

But, and I swear I did not imagine this — at least, I don’t think it was something I would project under such serious circumstances — rather than grasp the cup as any typical visitor might, the final Guest let his long and pallid fingers open at just the moment of our hand-off, allowing the vessel to fall unceremoniously from my grip.

And what could I do except watch aghast as the full cup splashed and tumbled, like its god-given purpose was to crash into the tile at full force, shattering apart in a detonation of shards and liquid at our ankles?

“My apologies! I’m so sorry! I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I clutched the lower half of my face.

That Quiet Guest who had let the cup plummet between us widened his mouth, the corners curling upward at my distress. The three of them began huffing rapid hisses from their hanging jaws.


Again, I felt a whirlwind of confusion and despair. If I was supposed to treat them with courtesy, to follow the Rules, just as I had been — why would he lure me into such a situation where I’d have no choice but to err?

“Please!” I cried.

Our Quiet Guests tightened their shoulders, their entire bodies grew taut and any moment they would rise from their seats and take hold of me. So I did the only thing I knew to do, what someone of my character does when faced with something too painful to bear: I groveled. Without dithering or qualification or smallest shred of dignity, I groveled.

“I understand!” I held out my arms, like someone trying to placate feral hounds. “I’m from one of the old families, so I know the way these things work. You see? With you. With the Rules. I know. I know!”

Images of my grandfather returned to me, him raising his bad hand in the firelight. The missing and mangled portions of his body like misshapen cobwebs of flesh had frightened me as a child, but not so much as his stories about what had been done, what had to be done, for the Guests with their many ancient Rules of hospitality.

“Look.” I slid the chef’s knife from the nearby block, and, just as my grandfather had shown me, I set its edge across the second knuckle of my pinky. The subsequent pain, though close to unfathomable, was a rushing release, as bone and muscle and tendon separated from my hand.

Their response was immediate: a chorus of clicking feverish delight. Grunts and guttural trills from the three visitors when I, trembling, picked up the bloody offering and placed it on the table where the shattered cup, still at my feet, should have gone.

The Guest who’d betrayed me with his dexterous trick hovered over the ruby-splashed finger, stretching apart his slackened spit-lined mouth, to permit his true body, long and tentacular, to emerge.

The distorted muscles along that fleshy extension of the Guest’s form reminded me of a starfish or maybe a freshwater eel. At the far tip of the frightening form I glimpsed the mouth — a spiraling corkscrew of jagged edges disappearing into the shadowy esophagus.

It felt an eternity, but in truth it was very few seconds from the creature’s emergence to snapping up my severed pinky with a forceful chitter, to retraction entirely back into the spithole where it hid.

More. Always offer more, my grandfather had explained, showing me the scars where he’d pried flesh from himself, along the hand and forearm, parts of his calf, and several toes. Until they calm, you must always plan to give more.

But why? I recalled asking. That just doesn’t seem right.

It had been the only time, I think, that I’d ever questioned my grandfather’s ranting, at least openly and in such a firm manner. Even then it had felt so fundamentally imbalanced, the inherent asymmetry of the Rules.

Those feelings came back as I raised the knife and, fearing the alternative if I did not continue with the Rules, proceeded to lean down with my weight again, again. More fingers rolled off the countertop, landing wet and inert on the floor before I brought them to the table and served. Again, again, those fleshy bulging Guest shapes appeared from those two other mouths, sucking and crunching insatiably.

It’s not fair! I had insisted, and I’ll never forget my grandfather’s face in the shifting shadow and firelight, the lines of aggravation and agony twisting his features, his good hand digging into my arm, that sour breath.

Only an idiot child would expect such a thing. Fair… It doesn’t matter what seems fair. You never cross Our Quiet Guests. Do you understand me, stupid child? You never cross them. Never!

The torrent of my blood, even staunched with a darkening dishcloth, began to make me dizzy, and I slid down the cabinet to the tile in a mess of ceramic shards, while the Guests enjoyed themselves noisily.

None of it, fair. None of it, of course.

Yes, Grandfather, I understood.

But I did my part. Despite my stupidity and hope, I thought he would agree. I did what was warranted to satisfy their needs, and we had reached a point of equilibrium that would bring mercy, and departing my home in peace, as they did in all of the family stories I’d been told.

Then came the noise. The thump. And with it a feeling of strange finality, like a gate shutting off a path.

Our Quiet Guests looked, pooled ink eyes drawn to the ceiling, and their gelatinous toes rubbed vigorously against the floor, following the sound to where I already feared it would take them — up the stairs, down the hall, into the far bedroom and behind thick red oak doors bound with tungsten locks.

“No,” I think I said aloud, soft and insubstantial, my bloody fist wrapped in dishcloth raised to plea. “No. I have more here to give.”

But they didn’t care for anything I had to say.

I watched two of them depart the table and make way to the stairs, while the third Guest, the fellow with the trouble holding cups, leaned over me with visible anticipation. As his true self surfaced again from the false mouth and began to chew at what was left of my injured hand, crunching to the bone while I sobbed in his shadow, it occurred to me that the Rules did not apply anymore, here in my home, no. If they even applied at all.

The ominous sound of soggy feet pressing onto each stair tread seemed impossibly loud to me. Another, then another, then another in turn. As I lay shivering in sweat, my body entering shock and my wrist disappearing into the writhing Guest, I saw my grandfather’s face; not that angry deformed shape by the fireplace, but cold and still, sallow and caked with powder, set in a dark silent box.

These Rules, these ideas about how we ought to be, maybe they helped that old man live a little longer when Guests visited him, but not without cost, and still with the same inescapable end descending upon me.

The sound of wet footsteps echoed through our home, and things grew darker when I felt the Guest burrowing its spiral teeth into my eye, my face hot and wet. But I listened for the noises upstairs: the creaking of a bedroom door preceded by cries, shouts for help, screams for father.

All I could think, with each second in roiling waves of pain, was the meaninglessness of all that had come to pass.

The Rules had served no purpose that I could understand, other than to hinder the will of these beings and their hunger, which I finally understood could never be sated.

I was sure that no matter what I did now, no matter how I begged or pleaded or paid with politeness, I was already a dead man, what with the rending of my body. Just a transitioning corpse, set for the same kind of box as my grandfather before me.

My thoughts drifted back to my wife, her lovely face somewhere out there, bargaining for supplies as the world came undone, things crumbling everywhere we turned — the terrible conditions that drew Our Quiet Guests to us in the first place. Oddly separated from what I was enduring, I was forced to consider the greater ruin coming, that would encroach no matter how many trinkets and fineries and comforts we surrounded ourselves with in this little home.

And as I considered the truth of where it was all undoubtedly going, something peculiar occurred while I lay there with my face being chewed away. In my fading belief that I and my family and the world would continue — it felt Our Quiet Guests had given me a gift, one last thing to appreciate before the end that I saw so clearly.

If I was certain to die, no matter what I said or did, no matter what Rule I followed or disregarded, then I was now finally unburdened by hope, and free of the fear, so familiar and close, that constantly followed in its wake.

These half-reasoned notions spun messily in my mind while my blood spattered across my face and the cabinets and the flock wallpaper. It all spun and spun, this way and that, as I reached delicately to a shard of broken coffee cup on the tile.

For once, there was no thought, no plan, no preconceived ideas of my actions or the outcome.

I drove the sharp ceramic fragment deeply into the soft moist matter of the creature’s sensitive foot.

The Guest detached and his dripping self flopped and trilled wildly in the air, but not too fast for me to grab his true throat and lock him close between bicep and maimed forearm. My good hand spidered aside to pick up the chef’s knife from the bloodied tile, and I plunged the point into him. Mucoid fluids rained down as I sawed fervently, separating the soft snail Guest from its man-shell, and when the snaking creature was eviscerated, the suited body fell against my chest, with the unmistakable flaccidity of the newly dead.

The other Guests upstairs did not react. They battered against those red oak doors. I listened carefully to each thud as I dragged myself upright and pulled my soon-to-be-carcass up the stairs with the last of my strength, step by step.

It all seemed so comprehensible for once, the commands and etiquette I’d been taught all fallen away, and my knife still slick from blood that did, and did not, belong to me.

I was never going to survive to see a better end, with the Guests or with this world. I accepted and understood that. Whether my boy would be fortunate enough to live through the horrors to come, or especially if he would not — all that I could do for him, all that I could show him, was that I did not collapse inwardly without struggle in those final moments, that I did not leave him crying out for me in the darkness, all alone.

The afternoon light from the bedroom window warmed my bloodied cheek for a moment as I watched the blurred hungry shapes crash against the splintering red oak doors. I gathered what remained of me and raised the dripping knife, so that my son would know.

I tried something, in the end.

I tried something.

I tried.

Thomas Ha is a former attorney turned stay-at-home father who enjoys writing speculative fiction during the rare moments when all of his kids are napping at the same time. Thomas grew up in Honolulu and, after a decade plus of living in the northeast, now resides in Los Angeles. You can find the latest about his work at thomashawrites.com, on Twitter @ThomasHaWrites, and Mastodon @ThomasHa@wandering.shop.

Issue 37

November 2022

3LBE 37

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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