David M. Buhajla
The March "First" Selected Writer is David M. Buhajla
Please feel free to email David at: email@example.com
CIGARETTES AND CICADAS
Steven Milsap reclined on his bed in the dark of his bedroom while he smoked a cigarette and contemplated death. He watched the smoke from the end of his cigarette creep up to the ceiling to gather in a fog and disappear. He was all alone in his small Ozark Mountain house in Northwest Arkansas. He listened to the cicadas and tree frogs chirping and croaking their mating songs.
“If only I had a chance to talk to you one more time,” he said to himself. “There was a lot that I wanted to say to you, Grandpa. I wanted to ask why you had always been such a mean bastard. You always was a sumbitch. Full of nothing but piss and vinegar to anyone who ever wanted to do anything nice for you.”
Taking another drag on his cigarette, he hoped sleep would come. It was 2 AM. He was careful to blow the smoke out of the window, which was cracked open a couple of inches to let in the warm humid nighttime summer air.
The sounds of the deep Ozarks reached through the window. The cicadas called out in their loud buzzing conversations, dying down and then coming back in waves. The tree frogs groaned and croaked out their mating calls and the bustle of small animals scratched and scrambled in the underbrush. A solitary whippoorwill let forth its haunting call in the distance.
Steven finished his smoke, reached down to the floor, and crushed out the butt into a plastic ashtray that he had stolen from a local diner.
“Shit. I gotta get some sleep,” he said.
Reclining back deeper into his pillow, he rubbed his eyes. He thought about how glad he was living in Arkansas again. That last couple of years in that little town in Northern Illinois had been a nightmare. Now, being eighteen, and living alone in the middle of the mountains gave him the freedom from people that he had always wanted in those two years away from home.
Steven couldn't turn his brain off. “Goddamnit. Shut up. Just shut up.”
Groaning, he rubbed his forehead in an attempt to soothe himself. His eyes felt gritty, so he closed them and tried to think of nothing. The yard light bled through the windows and into Steven’s eyelids.
He reached up and tried to adjust the curtains, but they kept slipping open to let the light in. Frustrated, Steven let the fabric of the curtains fall from between his fingers. They swayed for a moment and settled back into place. A narrow beam of light from outside stabbed into the room and hit his face again. He lay back and threw his arm over his eyes, knowing that he couldn’t get to sleep that way.
He cursed his insomnia. He had always had been a light sleeper, even when he was a little kid. And his father had always said that if a mosquito farted across the road then Steven would snap awake at the sound. Most of the time, his light sleeping had been an annoyance, but sometimes it served useful purposes as well. Nobody could sneak up on him when he was asleep, which had screwed up the idea of Santa Clause when he was a child.
Steven angrily realized that his mind had gone off on another tangent again when he should have been trying to think of nothing. Pulling the blanket over his head, he left an air hole by his left shoulder so that he could breathe. He laid there for a few minutes, his mind racing, knowing that it was going to be a long night . . . knowing that he would probably lay there until the sun rose. He sighed at the futility.
Hours passed and he lay, feeling unhappy. After what seemed like an eternity, he began to drift off into a fitful doze.
Suddenly he awoke with a start. His blanket began to slide down off of his forehead, past his nose, and across his lips and chin. It reached his chest and dropped back down onto his body. Adrenaline pumped through him as he sat up and scrambled backwards. His back thumped against the wall and he raised his balled-up fists, ready to lash out. He got his feet under his body and he stood up. His foot slipped on his pillow and he almost lost his balance, but he recovered at the last instant and kicked the pillow onto the floor.
A figure loomed over his bed, hunched over, looking into Steven’s eyes. Steven looked back and saw no features in the figure’s face, because the figure had no face. It was a chunk of night cut out and made into a human silhouette.
Steven gasped. His balls drew up and a deep chill overtook his body. His breath came out in a mist. Its face was only a couple of inches away from his own. He lashed out with his fist, aiming for the thing's head, but it leaned back and Steven's fist caught nothing but air.
The creature snaked out its own hand and grabbed him quicker than anything Steven had ever experienced. Cool fingers wrapped their way around his forearm like the small grass snakes he'd caught as a child. The fingers were gentle but firm. They didn’t pull the skin from his arm or freeze him solid like Steven would have expected.
The ghostly entity spoke. “Steven. It’s okay. It’s just me.” There was no sibilant hiss in its voice. No deep growl like an animal. No mad laughter.
It spoke with the voice of his dead grandfather.
“Who . . . what?” Steven spluttered.
A mental image blasted through his mind of his grandfather’s casket as it was lowered into the ground. That had been three weeks ago.
The hand didn’t move from his forearm. The figure stood over him, unmoving. Waiting. Steven tried to tear his arm free, but the grip was still firm, like he was stuck in cold cement.
And then panic set in.
Turning his body to the right, Steven swung out with his left arm and screamed. He tried to throw something that somehow resembled a punch, but his body refused to obey. His arm flew out limp and weak, the kind of slap that drunks threw with meaty arms at their friends the instant before they passed out.
Steven’s arm crossed his field of vision as he punched out, blocking his view of the figure for an instant. In that split second of blindness, the grip on his arm disappeared. He blinked his eyes and realized that the apparition was gone, as if swinging his arm had somehow banished it from existence. Where had it gone?
Jumping from the bed, he expected the thing to appear behind him and wrap bitter fingers around his throat or drive a fingertip into his eye socket. He stepped toward the light switch by the door and flicked it on, his breath coming out in gasps.
“Son of a bitch. That didn’t happen, did it? I was asleep, right? Now I’m awake.” But Steven couldn’t stop his heart from pounding. He could almost feel those fingers still gripping his arm. He lowered his eyes and lifted his arm to take a look. His skin was pink where the thing’s hands had gripped him, as if he had a mild sunburn where it had touched him. If it was a dream, it had been a seemingly real one.
A chill scampered across Steven’s shoulders and threw him into action. He needed to get the hell away from his house.
He had seen too many horror movies where stupid characters always stayed in places that posed a threat. They had to go investigate creepy noises and moans in dark rooms. When they heard a noise, they always shouted into the dark, asking if anyone was there. They just had to look out windows that had shadows gliding across them.
“No, I’m not gonna be that kind of douche-bag,” he said into the empty room. “Time to jet.”
He threw open the door and jumped across the threshold with a yell. There was nothing but the short hallway leading into the living room.
Heart pounding, chest heaving, Steven hurried down the hall, past the closed door of the spare bedroom on his right and past the bathroom on the left. All he could hear was the smoker’s wheeze of his breath, the patter of his bare feet on the floor tiles, and the rasp of his jean shorts. He glanced at the darkness of the bathroom as he hurried by, paranoid, the tiny voice in his mind telling him that the shadow man was waiting in the gloom, ready to come up behind him and tear both his t-shirt and the flesh of his back into ribbons that would flutter as he fell.
Emerging from the hallway and into the living room, Steven felt as if there were eyes on him. It was the same feeling that he got when someone stood close to him in line, or when the shadow of a flying vulture crossed his own when he was hiking in the far places in the mountains.
And a voice suddenly came from the hallway.
“Steven? I can’t find you. Where are you? I can’t see.”
Now there was no doubt whether it was real or not. Feeling a wet patch growing in the front of his pants, the only thing that he was conscious of was tearing open the front door, grabbing his keys and cell phone, and running outside as fast as he could. The heat and humidity of the Ozark Mountain air hit him like an iron bar. The cacophony of the cicadas and tree frogs assailed his ears, increasing his panic, almost as if they were mocking him; telling him that he wasn't going to make it.
Pain knifed its way into Steven’s foot as he stepped on the first rock. Stumbling forward, he pinwheeled his arms to keep from falling onto his face and he lost his grip on his cell phone. It went tumbling away and he yelped as the next rock bit into the sole of his other foot. He kept his balance as he reached his beat up sedan.
Steven opened the door of his car and got behind the wheel. His hands shook as he started the ignition. A blast of heavy metal music burst forth from the speakers and Steven jumped high enough to bang his head on the ceiling. He saw stars as he bit his tongue from the impact. He tasted blood.
“Ah, God,” Steven moaned.
He glanced back for a moment, just in time to see all of the lights in his house go out. A fresh blast of panic flowered in Steven’s entire being.
Throwing the car into reverse, he started to back out of the driveway, heading for the gravel road at the end of it. He almost hit one of the pine trees that stood at the edges of the driveway. He stepped on the brake pedal a bit so he wouldn’t rear end the trees because he didn’t want to be stuck on the property with that freakish thing in his house.
Steven forced himself to take a deep breath and continue on down the driveway. He was only about ten feet from the road and his eyes narrowed in concentration as he stared into the rear view mirror. He winced at the pain from his sore tongue and bruised feet as he did so and he hit the gas again, harder this time. He turned the wheel and peeled out, kicking up dirt and gravel, leaving his house and the entity behind.
Steven lay on the hotel room bed in Fort Smith and stared at the textured bumps on the ceiling. He lit a cigarette and took a drag from it, watching the tendrils of smoke creep from the burning end.
After a couple of drags, he crushed his smoke out. He didn’t want the rest of it. He took up his ashtray, his cigarettes, and his lighter and set them on the nightstand next to his bed. He watched television for a while, changing channels and looking at infomercials and crappy talk shows, but he couldn’t concentrate on the images that flitted across the screen. They started to morph into a large amorphous blur.
Fifteen minutes later, his eyelids closed and he drifted off to sleep.
Snapping awake from a dark and dreamless sleep, Steven’s body was covered in a cold sweat, as if he had just had a nightmare. Then he realized that his room was dim. The only light was from the parking lot outside; the television was dark and silent.
And his blankets were being pulled down his face.
Body trembling, he tried to say something. Anything. But he was paralyzed and his tongue was numb in the dry, cracked cavern of his mouth. He kept trying to move, kept trying to speak, his mouth gaping open and closed like a suffocating fish as something was standing over him and pulling the blankets from his face.
A voice spoke. “It took me a while, but I finally found you. All I had to do was learn to see. And when I did, I saw you running. Pointless.”
The entity grabbed him by the arm and throat, lifting him off of the bed and holding him up in midair. The pain from the ice-cold grip of the shadow man was horrendous. Steven felt nothing but blind panic. Lifting his free arm, he tried to pry the fingers from his throat but it was like trying to pry apart a crack in a glacier.
Grunting from the pain in his neck and face, Steven kicked his legs forward into the thing’s chest. His grunt turned into a high-pitched squeal as he stubbed the bare toes of both of his feet into the diamond-hard chest of the shadow man. In response, the entity raised Steven up, bringing him to the black plane of its non-face. Steven’s breath turned into mist from the piercing cold that radiated from the thing’s very being.
It studied him, head nodding up and down only once, before letting Steven go. Steven dropped onto the cheap hotel carpet next to the bed with a dull thud, falling on his backside, teeth slamming shut from the impact. He let out a sob of pain and fear in front of the thing that had followed him from his house.
And then the ghostly creature spoke again. “You weren’t there,” it said. “You should have been there.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Steven cried out around the coppery taste of blood.
Steven knew that it was true. He realized that he had known since fleeing his house. He had been in denial. He knew his Grandfather’s voice. He had known that evil bastard’s voice since birth.
But his Grandfather was dead.
Trying to reason with the ghost to save himself, Steven babbled, “Where should I have been?”
“In the car with me, when I went into the darkness.”
“Because you are the only one who would understand. Because you’ve wanted to go there yourself. I’ve seen you with the gun to your temple, with the cigarette burning circles into your flesh. I wanted the darkness, too. All I had to do was turn the steering wheel at the right time on the expressway to get what I wanted. I chose to die. I chose, and you can choose too, with my help.”
Steven’s mind whirled, awash with fright. Still, there was an undercurrent of understanding; the darkness really had been what he had wanted at one time. But not now. Now, when faced with the actual probability of death, now he found he didn’t want it after all.
He hadn’t even known until this moment: he wanted to live.
Standing up, Steven pretended like he needed to use the nightstand to brace himself. As he did, he grabbed the heavy brass lamp that sat on top of it, pivoted his body to the left, and swung the lamp up, aiming for the side of Grandfather’s head. The power cord yanked free from the wall, the lampshade crumpled from the impact, and the bulb shattered as Grandfather’s head was knocked back a fraction of an inch. The lamp bounced back as Grandfather just stood there, staring. Steven knew he couldn’t do any damage to him. It was like hitting a statue. He also knew that he couldn’t get to the door with Grandfather in his way.
Undaunted, unfazed, the apparition asked, “You refuse me?”
“Yeah. I don’t want to turn into a freak like you,” Steven said as he threw the bulky lamp into the window of his hotel room. The window shattered, the lamp hit the sidewalk outside with a clatter, and glass thudded onto the carpeting as he turned and sprinted to the window opening. He wanted to throw himself through it so he could make his escape across the parking lot. And so he jumped.
But he didn’t make it. There was a split second when Steven’s body was in midair before Grandfather smacked him back down into the carpeting. Steven’s face hit the floor, he saw stars, and agony exploded in his nose. The air blasted out of his lungs as his ribcage made full contact with the floor. He rolled onto his back as he spit glass from between cut lips, and he couldn’t breathe or speak, but his mind was racing. How could a ghost have a physical presence? Was everything he had ever been told about ghosts, all the stories…were they completely false?
The entity reached a shadow-shrouded hand up to its non-face and removed the black plate that Steven had thought was Grandfather’s actual visage. The mask came off, revealing a pale corpse-face topped with a glistening red crown where the top of the head used to be. Grandfather’s familiar brown eyes were milky and wept droplets of darkness that turned into a flood that folded Steven up with the absolute gloom of unlight.
Screaming, Steven felt the cold burn into the palm of his hand like the tip of a red-hot knife digging into his skin and making a hole. He had never felt any pain like this before. Then he felt nothing as he fell into the antithesis of light.
Opening his eyes to the sound of the morning news and the glow of the lights in his hotel room, Steven rolled over on broken glass and stood up. His entire body felt as if it was on fire and every movement brought pain. He swayed on his feet and stood there for a moment. His Grandfather was gone and the lights were back on and he was still alive.
He laughed aloud. It was a harsh smoker’s laugh.
Bending at the waist, he checked himself over to see if he was still in one piece. Everything was there, even though his lip was cut, his toes and nose was broken, and his torso was one solid, angry bruise.
Which meant that everything that had happened had been real.
“Is it over?” he asked himself.
He reached his hand up to rub the weariness from his eyes and he paused, looking at it.
A single droplet of darkness sat embedded just under the skin of his palm. Small tendrils of ebony radiated from the center of it, pointing to each of his fingers. It seemed that Grandfather had left a little piece of himself, a little piece of that old piss and vinegar and darkness with his grandson. Flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood. Why? Maybe because Grandfather always had to have the last word. Even in death.
Steven moaned and felt dread—there really had been no choice at all.
And the droplet grew.
David M. Buhajla is a writer and poet whose work has been published in Counterexample Poetics, Sex and Murder, Danse Macabre, and Rose and Thorn Journal.
David lives in the mountainous half of Arkansas with his wife Marci and his daughter Maya. He teaches writing at Arkansas Tech University.
You can find David M. Buhajla in the book Winter Canons HERE.