THERIOPHOBIA: FEAR THE BEAST Part Nine
I’m not going to lose my temper.
Chaney Kidde tried to concentrate on the task at hand, to ignore her mother’s voice like white noise playing in the background.
She loves me. She means well.
Chaney stooped, dipped her paintbrush in the bucket at her feet, tapping it against the side of the can to shake off any excess. The paint looked like Pepto-Bismol.
“Chaney Marie Kidde, are you listening to me?”
Chaney sighed. “Yes, Bernie. Every word.” She began to paint with broad, even strokes.
Bernadette used the narrow brush with which she’d been edging around the windows to gesture, sending tiny pink droplets in all directions. Marley, who had somehow managed already to get paint in her hair and on her face, worked on the wall behind the cash counter, trying to repress a fit of giggles and not being too successful at it.
“I’m not trying to come off holier-than-thou,” Bernadette continued. “This isn’t even about ethics.”
“Then what is it about?” Chaney asked. Don’t egg her on. Just ignore her.
“Your health, baby,” Bernadette said. “Your well being.”
“Mom, we test for STDs all the time.” Chaney couldn’t help herself. Her mouth had a will of its own. “The guys I’m with are safer than any I could meet on the street.”
“I’m not talking about that.” They’d left the front and rear doors of the shop open to allow in some fresh evening air. An older couple passed by on the sidewalk out front, peeking in with a look either of wariness or disapproval. It seemed that Bernadette raised her voice to attract their attention. “Sex is a perfectly natural thing, baby.”
Chaney dipped the brush in the paint, bending at the knees and not at the hips, self-conscious. I’m surprised she’s not bitching about my shorts and tank top.
“God designed us to have sex,” Bernadette continued. “And to want sex. I like it as much as you do.”
“Oh, God!” Marley said. “Bernie, please keep yourself out of this sermon.”
“You just keep painting, you,” Bernadette said, pointing at Marley with her brush. “I’m having a conversation with your sister.”
“Can I record it and listen to it later?” Chaney asked.
“No, you may not.” Bernadette discarded the paintbrush altogether, laying it on the clear plastic sheet they’d spread over the hardwood planking of the floor. “God designed our bodies to want food, too,” Bernadette said. “She gave us that appetite. But what happens when you overindulge that appetite?”
“You get a wide ass?” Marley offered.
“Your health suffers,” Bernadette said. “Just like when you overindulge any appetite. But when we practice healthy moderation we are at our best, whether in regards to health or sex or whatever.”
“I don’t do it all the time,” Chaney said. “Marley has sex as often a I do.”
“Leave me out of this,” Marley said.
“It’s not just how often you engage in sexual activity, honey.” Bernadette went to run a hand through her hair, remembered the bandanna she’d tied around it and put the hand on her hip instead. “You should know the people you share yourself with, care about them.”
“Oh, come on,” Chaney said. “This from an ex-Hippie? I’m friends with almost every guy I’ve ever done a scene with, and every girl, too. I assure you, I know and care about each one of them more than Marley does that pack of old geezers she rotates in and out of her bedroom.”
“Hey!” Marley said.
“Stop trying to get your sister into trouble,” Bernadette admonished. “Just like when you were kids. You can’t stand it in the doghouse alone.”
“Misery loves company,” Chaney said.
“Bitch,” Marley muttered.
“Your body is not for display,” Bernadette said.
“So what if I was a nude model or something?” Chaney stuffed her own brush into the paint bucket, put both hands on her hips. “You’d say that was Art, that it was beautiful. What’s the difference?”
“We’re talking about a vulgar display,” Bernadette said.
“So what makes it vulgar? You said yourself that sex is natural.”
Bernadette started to reply but stopped herself, her attention drawn to the open door. Chaney turned. An old black woman, obese to the point of absurdity, stood in the open doorway, blocking the breeze and the fading light of dusk.
“Sorry, we’re just having a little family argument,” Bernadette said. “Can I help you?”
“Y’all open?” the woman asked, puffing.
“We sure are.” Bernadette smiled. “I apologize for the mess. I’ve been meaning to get the store fixed up for a long time, and with Miner Days coming up…”
“Y’all got Mandrake?”
“Mandrake?” Bernadette repeated. “Oh, yes. Let me get you some.”
They’d cleared everything off the shelves, storing it in boxes in the little side room. Bernadette disappeared inside it. “Be right back,” she announced over the clinking of glass and rustle of cardboard.
The old woman stood with her mouth open, huffing in deep breaths and blowing them out.
“Uh, do you need to sit down?” Chaney asked.
“We could find you a chair if you need to rest,” Marley added.
“No, chile,” the old woman said. “No rest for me. Not no ways soon. But bless you jus’ the same.”
She turned, looking at Chaney. Something about the expression in those old, clear eyes, even diluted by the thick lenses of the woman’s glasses, made Chaney uncomfortable. She faked a smile. The old woman sniffed; her pupils, black as polished coal, expanded.
“You got the taint on you, chile,” she said, trying to whisper. “I can smell it.”
“Evil got its own stink,” she said. She turned to face Marley. “Lord mercy, it’s on both of you! Lord mercy!”
Bernadette came out of the side room with a small jar. She shook it, rattling the tattered brown contents. “This is all I have in stock,” she said.
“Have to do.” The old woman dug in her purse. “How much I owes you?”
“Oh, how about a dollar?”
“Be fine.” She produced a roll of bills held together by a bread tie, began to twist it off. “You both need ta’ wear silver,” she said, not looking up. “An’ get baptized, if’n you never has been. An’ always ‘member to says your prayers.” She looked up, first at Marley, then at Chaney. She didn’t blink. Chaney repressed a shiver.
“Get you some silver. An’ stay on holy ground the night a’ the full Moon. Else stay at home. Holy ground be better.”
She handed the bill to Bernadette, turning to shuffle out the door. She paused, again fixing Chaney with her gaze.
“You is gonna be the one it wants,” she whispered, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. They all watched her walk away.
“What was that all about?” Bernadette asked.
“Crazy old bitch.” Chaney crossed her arms over her chest, resisting the urge to shiver. “Mom?”
Chaney held herself tighter. “Do you think I stink?”
The Beast took his time grooming himself, enjoying a long shower, staying under the spray until the water grew ice cold. He combed his hair, already growing darker and longer, the thinning areas filling in with new growth. He brushed his gleaming white teeth, so lovely, strong, and pointed. He smiled at his reflection in the mirror, blew a kiss with his red ripe lips, smoothed down the eyebrows that had grown thick and bushy, now meeting in a V above his nose.
He put on Lucas Vale’s finest clothes, a navy blue suit with vest and even a matching tie. Something about donning the effects of a man amused him.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The Beast left home without locking the door. The sun had dropped from sight, bathing the world in a soothing gray gloom. A faint, warm breeze stirred the leaves of nearby trees, whispering secrets. Streetlights blinked on, weak at first, as if timid.
Tonight would prove a fine night.
The Beast opted to take a stroll, the novelty of Vale’s automobile having already surrendered its allure. He kept to the sidewalks, treading on pine needles and dead leaves. A few of the lawns had been mowed that day, the wounded grass perfuming the air. An occasional car passed, illuminating him in its low beams, his shadow stretching out far ahead of him. A shadow that did not match, somehow. Did not resemble the man who cast it.
A shadow that walked on four legs, not two.
The Beast turned off Bryant Street onto Magnolia, followed it past a series of apartments and a small hair salon, then turned onto Lafayette. He could see people inside their homes, looking through their windows into living rooms. Families gathered around flashing television sets, women at work in kitchens preparing their families’ dinners. The aromas of a dozen different meals filled his nostrils. His stomach grumbled. But not from the smells of the cooking food.
At the corner of Lafeyette and Bronson stood the Perdue House Bed and Breakfast. The oldest building in the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Ironwood. A concrete birdbath stood ringed by goldenrods in the front yard; a gazebo to the right of the house shaded by a monstrous elm tree; a statue of an armless Greek goddess amidst climbing wisteria to the left. Ivy clung to the posts and rails of the wraparound porch. Down by the curb, to the side of the cobbled walkway, stood a small metallic sign, painted white, suspended by little chains from a small post and yardarm. A Bible verse emblazoned in black letters on the white background, swaying in the faint breeze.
Something about it rubbed the Beast the wrong way. He had not intended to stop here. The sign changed his mind. He walked up to the front porch, shoes clicking on the cobbled stones, and rang the doorbell.
“Yes, sir?” The door swung inward to reveal a small man, older, with thinning white hair and glasses. “May I help you?”
“You rent rooms,” the Beast said.
“Yes, sir. All five rooms available.” The man had a high-pitched voice and a Southern twang.
“And how many people live here?” the Beast asked, tight-lipped.
“Well, right now it’s just my wife an’ me,” the man said. “We don’t have any full-time residents. Most of our business comes from them weekends when the Tide’s playin’ on the home field. We’re cheaper than most hotels up in Tuscaloosa, you know. An’ they don’t offer my wife’s cookin’. She’s the best cook in Alabama, I dare say. We used to own a restaurant down in New Orleans.”
“And she is busy preparing dinner as we speak?” the Beast asked.
“Oh, yes sir. You smell it cookin’, don’t you? Makes your mouth water, don’t it?”
“Yes.” The Beast smiled. The old man’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. The Beast licked his chops. “I’m starving.”
The Beast’s hand, his fingers curled into the effigy of a claw, struck the old man a downward blow to the chest, shattering the breastbone. The old man went down on the foyer floor, flattened on the ornate rug. He tried to get up, coughed blood and wheezed.
“Pete?” A voice called from somewhere else in the house.
The Beast clamped a hand over the old man’s mouth. “Shh. Don’t want to ruin the surprise.” The man’s eyes trembled, pleaded.
“Pete?” The sound of footsteps.
The old man groaned. His eyes wiggled and were silent. The Beast stepped over the body, meeting an older woman as she walked out into the hall.
“Hello,” the Beast said. “What’s for dinner?”
The Beast leapt on her, driving her to the ground. She did not manage a second scream. His teeth were already at her throat.
Outside on the cobbled walkway, a squirrel paused in its bedtime quest for acorns. Its nose twitched, nostrils dilated, testing the air. Its bushy tail bobbed. Then it sprang for the great elm tree and didn’t stop climbing until it had reached the security of the highest branches. The little squirrel knew what the townspeople did not, and responded in accord.
A predator stalked the streets of Ironwood this night.
* * *
WAYNE MILLER is the owner and creative director of EVIL CHEEZ PRODUCTIONS (www.evilcheezproductions.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/evilcheezproductions), specializing in theatrical performances and haunted attractions. He has written, produced and directed (and occasionally acted in) over a dozen plays, most of them in the Horror and Crime genres. His first novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT CHRISTOPHER: WEREWOLF, is available for purchase at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/734763
MORTUI VELOCES SUNT!