Sunday, August 5, 2012

F3 Cycle 91 "The Empty Neighbor"

F3 Prompt: Tell us a tale about a nosy neighbor, and include the outcome of one of their routine snoop sessions. Let’s make this even more fun and include the following words in your story: Cellar, bottle, blinds, suitcase, and freezer.
Genre: Any your secretive little heart desires.
Author's note: Hope this works, and yes, it has some real life overtones.



Gerald Cooper knew he was gravely ill, probably dying, for several reasons but namely because he saw his long deceased grandmother was sitting in the loveseat positioned in front of the bay windows of the bedroom he and his wife shared. With the electricity out and the curtains drawn, the bedroom was as dark as if it was early evening but Grandma Kelly seemed to be illuminated from within making her as plain as day to him. Grandma Kelly rarely spoke to Gerald as she patiently did her cross-stitching while sitting on the loveseat, it was a habit Grandpa Frank said many times she was as addicted to as a drunk is to moonshine. The usual response from Granny after her husband made the crack was a slap on his arm. It was all meant lovingly in a way only a long married couple could understand.

He did not mine her being preoccupied, in fact while the logical part of his sick brain realized she was just a delusion brought on by the flu sweeping around the world bringing both the rich and powerful down he appreciated the company. He realized from countless emergency radio broadcasts from before the situation went from bad, to worse, to apocalyptic that he was in the final stages of the flu and that he would soon die. It would be a relief really, as the fever increased time lost most meaning for Gerald as he tossed and turned in bed alternating between terrible fevers and massive chills. It all made for a preview of hell that had Gerald, a long time agnostic, silently praying to a God he was not sure existed.

“Don’t worry baby boy,” the delusion shaped like his grandmother said. “I have it on good authority that your fever will break in a few hours. You will be weak but I will have to force you to get up and drink some fancy water in bottles and jugs you bought before the government made everything close down. You have an important task in front of you child. Do you remember what I taught you about empty people?”

Given the pandemic and his condition, it was a strange question but since it was asked by what he was certain was a fever induced delusion a small amused part of his mind went along. “Yes ma’am,” he answered respectfully, “we were in the old Piggly Wiggly down on Highmarket Street.”

***

Gerald was able to relax as his memories took him back to a far simpler time. He was five years old accompanying his grandparents to the grand opening of the new Piggly Wiggly grocery store. For a small southern town in the late 1960’s the excitement was comparable to what a more sophisticated people might feel about a Broadway opening in New York City. Local elected officials gathered around the shiny new sliding doors and made perfunctory speeches after kissing numerous babies and groping attractive housewives. Businessmen stood close to the self-aggrandizing politicians broadly smiling feigning solidarity and even interest in the entire affair just wishing it would soon be over so they could escape to the golf course.   

The young Gerald was with his grandparents standing in the eager crowd waiting patiently for the chance to enter the new store. As with all young children, Gerald was bored until he spotted the odd-looking man standing amongst the VIPs at the entrance. There was nothing visible wrong with the gentleman, his suit and tie matched all the others and was groomed with almost meticulous care. It was the strange man’s eyes that bothered Gerald, they were more empty and lifeless than that of a statue’s.

“Granny,” he said pulling on her hand clearly agitated, “look at that man. There is something wrong with him.”

Gerald knew instinctively his grandmother shared a special connection with him and instead of shooing the boy to be quiet; she looked up and spotted the man. Gerald watched as she focused on the gentleman and immediately stiffened, with their special empathy he knew something was wrong but was surprised at her reaction. “Sugar, she said laughing while bending down and guiding his gaze away from the individual, “don’t you worry a thing about him, he is just a funny man.” Only later back at the house did she truly explain what she really felt.

“Sweetie,” she began after guiding Gerald into his bedroom, “what I am about to tell you might be difficult to understand but what you saw at the grocery store was an empty person.” Gerald being a small child was obviously confused, so much that it pained his grandmother to burden the child with the desperately important information with him so young.
  
“It takes a special person like you and me,” she continued, “to be able to see such people, Grandpa doesn’t have the ability but one of the tricks to our gift is to never, ever let the empty people find out we notice them. They are mean spirited and downright evil. This really might confuse you Gerald, but an adult would say they have no human soul, that something else lives inside their bodies. Their sole purpose is to cause as much harm and chaos they can to as many people as possible. In fact, they might hide for decades acting normal but when the time is right, they will always do their worst.  The thing you have to remember most of all is to ignore them. People like us threaten them and they will come after us and try to hurt us to protect themselves.”

Gerald’s grandmother did not bring the subject up for years, in fact when she did it was to show her teenage grandson a newspaper clipping of a local business man who went mad shooting several of his employees. There was some disappointment in Grandma Kelly’s eyes as she realized her grandson barely remembered the incident years before when he pointed out the inhuman nature of the man.

Gerald did remember the event but had long since decided it was the ramblings of a small child. That is until years later he moved into the neighborhood and saw the man living across the street. The minute he pulled into the driveway behind the real estate agent something seemed very wrong. While his wife and children loved the house and the big backyard something felt wrong and it was when he finally looked up and saw the man sitting on his front porch everything his grandmother warned him about came flooding back.

He seemed normal enough in appearance but his eyes were totally devoid of emotion, so much that if the true opposite of love and compassion is cool indifference he was an inhuman freezer. Gerald tried to look away but the reoccurrence of such a strange event for only the second time in his life transfixed him. The damage was soon done, Gerald stared at the man far too long obviously giving away his ability to perceive the true nature of such people. It was clear that was the case when the empty man’s expression briefly mutated into a combination of rage and surprise only to be quickly swept away with a mask of normalcy returning. As much as Gerald wanted to pack his family up and leave, he made the mistake of letting his wife and kids pick out the house while he managed the details of his of his promotion and getting adjusted to a new town. Papers had already been signed and schedules had to be met, plus how would he explain to his wife about his gift of seeing evil empty people.

Despite the fact Gerald had forbidden his family to have any contact with the man across the street, over the course of several years strange incidents happened in the neighborhood. The minor things involved the fact the others neighbors had little to do with Gerald, they were polite to his family but said next to nothing to him. Major incidents flared up with the empty man involving Gerald’s missing dog and his son riding up on the curb and going into his yard a few feet while learning to ride his bike. The empty man even tried to taunt Gerald into confrontations several times. Luckily better judgment on Gerald’s part and the fact his family just assumed the man across the street was a mean kept things under control.

Then came the flu pandemic, Gerald packed suitcase and sent his wife and kids away to stay with her dad while he stayed home. Mainly he stayed because of the important nature of his job as a paramedic, but mostly because he felt deep in his bones a final confrontation with the empty man was coming.

***

Gerald’s fever did break and when it did, Grandma Kelly forced him to get up and stumble to the kitchen. He could feel her gentle hand on his shoulder slowly guide him through the house but it was not the touch of a living flesh, it felt electric and so light he was sure his grandmother would pass through him if she pressed harder. Opening and drinking the containers of water took all his effort and after he swallowed as much a possible he began to feel halfway human again.

“Now sugar,” his grandmother said, “I know this is going to tire you out but you need to walk outside and show yourself to the empty man.”

Not in any mood to argue with what he was quickly growing to believe was not a delusion Gerald did as he was told and stepped outside in the front yard. After his eyes adjusted to bright sunlight, he could tell the pleasant looking neighborhood of obsessively maintained middleclass homes now looked abandoned with mounds of trash forming trails leading from the front porches to the streets. It was easy to conclude that the origins of the trash trails could be traced in reverse, as the inhabitants got sicker they were less able take the refuse to the street and just dropped it as far away from the house as possible before going back inside.  Closer observation revealed that a few neighbors in fact did not make it inside, but collapsed in their yards to die. It was also clear that the wildlife and feral dogs had made meals out of those unlucky souls.

As Gerald walked to the side of the house facing the empty man’s house he was surprised to see him outside calmly sitting on his porch drinking a pitcher of what looked to be lemonade. It chilled Gerald to his bones to realize the empty man was the only other sign of life visible. Still they stared at each other for several minutes without saying any words. The confrontation ended as quietly as it began when Gerald slowly walked back inside his house.

“You need to be ready,” Grandma Kelly said as Gerald sat in his recliner resting from his walk, “he saw your walk as a challenge to what he feels is his new authority. Grab your grandfather’s old double-barreled shotgun, left the blinds, and wait iby your backdoor. I can feel the empty man is already on his way.”

Retrieving the weapon was easy but it took Gerald several minutes to find the shells. With the old shotgun loaded, Gerald sat in his recliner drifting in and out of consciousness. Grandma Kelly sat on the couch still cross-stitching but jabbering away in an attempt to keep her still sick grandson's attention focused. It was early evening when the empty man came calling.

The sound of steps on the wooden deck alerted Gerald to his arrival and he instantly swung the weapon to bear on where he thought his torso would be. The back door suddenly burst open but where the empty man should be was only a vaguely shaped form.

“I have come for you.” the form said still standing on the deck, “You will not be allowed to interrupt the overall plan. Humans have finally created enough chaos to allow us free reign.”

Somehow, Gerald knew not only not to respond but to keep the weapon aimed. After taking a step into the house, the form coalesced into his neighbor. A strange smile flashed on his face the second before Gerald fired off the first barrel, which held a shell containing a slug. A huge hole appeared in the empty man’s chest but he stood there still smiling. “You will have to do much better than that.” It said beginning to walk closer.

He fired off the second barrel straight at his head which blew the body back outside on the deck. Adrenaline flowed in Gerald and he quickly jumped up to see the now headless body laying on his patio deck. Not only did black oil flow out of the remaining stump but both it and the body seemed to be boiling away.

“Shut the door sugar,” his grandmother said from the couch, “you have done everything as you should. He will trouble neither you nor anyone else anymore.” Ever the good grandson he closed the door and then collapsed to the floor. Before he closed his eyes he saw Grandma Kelly blow him a kiss then disappear.

The morning sun brought not only consciousness for Gerald but National Guardsman looking for survivors. They spoke in quick terms about vaccines and the nation and world beginning the task of recovery. Desperately needing to be convinced the entire episode was a dream Gerald broke away from the team trying to load him on a stretcher and looked out on his patio deck. He was stunned to see a huge stained area on his deck as if a bucket of acid had been spilled there. After being wrestled back on the stretcher, they carried him outside to an awaiting humvee ambulance parked on the street.

He heard shouts from another search team leaving empty man’s house saying no one was home. But Gerald did see the pitcher of lemonade and glass sitting on the small porch table. 


15 comments:

Akelamalu said...

Does that mean Gerald has vanquished the foe forever? I hope so.

Great writing Beach.

Pixel Peeper said...

I always love to read the prompts you are given and then find out what you did with it.

It always surprises me, but it's always in a good way!

cloudia charters said...

you are a screenwriter!


Wishing You a Sweet Week
with Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral
<(-'.'-)>

> < } } ( ° >

Windsmoke. said...

This read like an episode from the tv series Fringe, well done.

Beach Bum said...

Akelamalu: Yeah, the empty man is gone, sure wish my own problematic neighbor would disappear as well.

Pixel: I am surprised at some of the insane stuff I write as well. Given the crap on television I have really missed my one true calling.

Cloudia: Thanks!

Windsmoke: Thanks! That's pretty much what I was going for.

Randal Graves said...

BOYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!

Red Nomad OZ said...

Thrillingly chilling!! Well done!!

Ranch Chimp said...

So sad Bum ....

CMStewart said...

Just when I thought my nightmares were fading again, I had to go and read this story. You nailed "spooky." And that photo- WOW.

Glenn Ricafrente said...

A lot of story in such a short space, and the way you place it in the backdrop of an unfolding apocalypse makes it even more desperate and horrifying. Nicely done.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Wow! Great story. Your blog posts haven't been showing up on my reader, and now I know why. Kinda. For whatever reason, Blogger has dropped me as one of your followers. What's up with that? Guess I'll have to sign on all over again, eh?

Mike Williams said...

If you think about the fact that there are more people alive on earth today than in the entire history of mankind you sort of have to think about what happens if we run out of souls for the newborns. Nice twist on an old science fiction concept. I always want to read the next chapter.

Joyce said...

This took my breath away. Talk about creating pictures in the mind... This would make a terrific Tales from the Darkside episode, or some such show--made all in black and white though to make it all the more creepy. Love this!

Ravens said...

So nice that Grandma came back to help. And Gerald is just fine - for now.
I was afraid one of the people picking him up after would look at him with empty eyes and then ...

lime said...

powerfully haunting but with such restraint. it reminded me of the most evil set of eyes i've ever looked into.