The May Featured Story is by Eric LaRocca
Please feel free to email Eric at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Walter Page found another splinter.
This was the second one he had uncovered below the bed of his nail since his breakfast of coffee with cognac and burnt white toast. The small, pointed head of the broken sliver of wood crowned near the top fold of the nail, but was hardly removable. It had forced a narrow passage beneath the nail’s plate where the flesh had swollen a dark purple.
He carefully gripped the cap of the long, thin strand of wood with the nub of his short, fat fingers, and with one swift strain, he yanked the unwanted visitor from his nail. A small bubble of blood formed, but Walter was quick to dab it with a white washcloth he recovered near the sink.
This was the fifth splinter in as many days, each buried deep beneath the tip of his fingers. Different lengths, different widths, but each one seemed to share amusement in settling down into the bed of his nails. Walter was at a loss for where these torn bits of wood were coming from seeing as his daily routine never wandered too far from his couch or his small cubicle at the insurance firm. Of course he carefully reconsidered his movements of the previous day. But, he always reached the obvious conclusion that his daily activity was extremely prosaic. And, for the most part, it was.
However, Walter’s monotonous daily lifestyle left him blind to one important aspect of his day. Of course it was long after he punched the time-clock of his firm and ate his lukewarm microwaved dinner, but still, his unusual habit became so routine that it, too, grew insignificant.
But after work came the visits to the graveyards.
For the past month he had become very acquainted with many of those resting in the county’s cemeteries. The obituary section in the daily newspaper would be the first page he’d turn his fingers to every morning. Young females were his preferred selection, but he soon realized that beggars couldn’t be choosers. And sometimes the collection was thin that he had to deal with what he was handed.
Despite his careful precision when it came to carrying out his daylight tasks, he preferred being as inattentive as possible with his nighttime activities. During his first after-dark tryst with a lifeless companion, he left his shovel near the opened grave. Whether he did it on purpose to enjoy the thrill of being caught or whether it was clearly an oversight, he wasn’t certain.
Granted, Walter’s daytime employment drained all energy from him and snuffed out all potential excitement, so perhaps it was intentional. Perhaps it brought exciting refreshment to his otherwise pointless existence. Though after a while, the routine nocturnal transactions began to wane in appeal. In fact exhumations that had been made in neighboring counties he didn’t even remember performing. He figured it would be far too contrived for two necromancers to dwell in such close proximity. Eager to dismiss the guessing, he estimated his brief memory lapse to be a mental hiccup and nothing more.
Sometimes he wondered why he did these things. He realized that his nightfall habits began soon after his wife passed from kidney failure. Of course he considered exhuming her and simply utilizing her to the best of his ability, but Walter’s urges proved too great, so instead he enjoyed a new companion every time. There was also the fact that Walter never cared deeply for his wife. He blamed her for his growing obesity and dependency of alcohol. And then he knew that exhuming her body result in the police asking him questions. Therefore, he carefully avoided his wife’s graveyard as he sought out the many others in the area.
On this morning, Walter picked at the new splinter that had somehow embedded under his fingernail. He figured that the splinters became present after his first nighttime exhumation. However, he was always careful to wear a pair of black leather gloves—even during his necromantic relations. So the source of the splinters was elusive, though they grew in numbers every day.
A visit to the doctor didn’t help. “And you’re sure you’re not leaving anything out?” Dr. Goldman challenged, pressing his horn-rim glasses to the tip of his nose.
Walter cast his eyes down at his patent leather shoes like a child avoiding the disapproving scowl of a school official. “No. I don’t think so.” He hoped Dr. Goldman didn’t see the bead of sweat forming on his sunken eyebrow. He cleared his throat and forced his eyes to return back to the doctor.
“Maybe it has something to do with somnambulism. That’s just a fancy word for ‘sleepwalking.’ But those who suffer from this sleep disorder carry out certain activities and have no recollection of them when they wake,” Dr. Goldman said as he removed his glasses and cautiously wiped them with a checkered handkerchief.
Walter was dismissive of the idea. “I’ve never had a problem with sleep before.”
“No. Maybe not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you developed one. Trauma, such as losing a loved one, can inspire new sorts of habits and disorders in the subconscious.”
Walter was unimpressed. “I haven’t lost any sleep.”
He soon regretted what he had said. Dr. Goldman’s furrowed brow wrinkled in confusion.
Walter grew more unsteady. “The only worry I’ve got is that nut-case digging up graves and fucking corpses,” he blurted out.
The last word fell out of his mouth and as it did he wished he could simply yank it up and shove it back down his throat. His face reddened. His words hung in the air. He could see the words swaying in front of his glasses, steaming a dark gray mist from every letter.
But the doctor had no accusation in his eyes. “Yes. There was another one the other night, I gather, over in Salisbury.”
Finally, Walter’s words cleared from the air in front of him. “What kind of a man would do horrible things like that?”
“Well, not one so dissimilar from you or me most likely. It’s not entirely a mental illness. It’s simply a sexual fetish. A sexual attraction toward the dead. It’s sometimes triggered by a desire for an unresisting partner or expressing power over a more submissive object.”
Walter didn’t need to hear Dr. Goldman’s theories. He felt impatient. “Certainly is unusual for these parts,” he said, forcing a pathetic smile. He was holding back a question. He finally forced it out. “Do you think they’ll catch this guy?”
“That certainly would be a pity. Wouldn’t it, Walter?” Dr. Goldman shrugged, locking eyes on Walter and contemptuously scanning his bloated form.
What! Walter choked a bubble of dread as he stammered, “What—I don’t know—what could you possibly mean?”
Dr. Goldman oozed with careless confidence as he rose and set his folded glasses down on the bureau, “Come now, Walter. Don’t insult me. I’ve been working with you long enough to understand.”
Walter could scarcely speak. He struggled to force out a word but all he could clear was a burp of empty air.
“Now, don’t worry yourself,” Dr. Goldman said. “I’m not saying this to alarm you. In fact, I was hoping to reach an agreement so that both of us could benefit.”
Dr. Goldman circled him like a shark surrounding a lump of bait bobbing in a cloud of its own blood. Although Walter could hardly move, he began to tic with nervous anticipation. He carefully surveyed himself, wondering what gave him away. He studied his hands folded in his lap and wondered if the lines of dirt underneath the bed of his nails were the tell-tale. But before he allowed his mind to dawdle with the trivial, Dr. Goldman caught his attention once more.
“I think this proposition will realize payment for the both of us,” the doctor said, taking a handful of cashews from the small bowl resting on his desk. “You see, you are not the only one who has lost a wife. Mine passed on last year and was interred with a very valuable emerald broche. It was a gift I had procured from a market on a trip to Cairo.”
The cashews that cracked between the doctor’s teeth seemed to mock Walter with a rhythmic cackle as they cheerfully bounced from point to point.
Between chewing, the doctor continued. “I regret my light wallet doesn’t inspire me to be the romantic I once was. And while I would love my wife to rest easy with her gift for eternity, I can’t help but realize how beneficial that piece of jewelry would be in my hands.”
Walter’s splinter itched furiously. “What does this have to do with me?”
“Oh come now, Walter, I already told you that I’m on to you. Although you probably prefer fresher companions than my wife—perhaps accompanied with the prospect of a substantial financial reward, you’ll make an exception. In today’s market, that broche could net a substantial amount of cash. Gold prices are really high and then of course there’s the emerald.”
The doctor beamed a smirk so wide that it appeared to Walter as though his face had been slit open from ear to ear.
“You want me to exhume your wife’s body?”
The doctor didn’t even hesitate for a moment, “And when you’ve finished, return the broche to me.”
Without warning, Walter felt a new pain at the tip of one of his fingers. He carefully brought his index finger closer to his eyes. He didn’t even need to examine it. He already knew what it was.
“Okay,” he relented. “Let me know what you want. In detail.”
For the rest of the morning, Walter judiciously scoured the doctor’s. His extensive note-taking proved that the doctor had considered this plan for quite a long time. Although Walter preferred most of his transactions to be unpremeditated and impulsive, the new careful precision of the plan seemed to arouse and even prove intimidating.
As was his custom, he waited until precisely 11:28 PM, when the landlady, Mrs. Sellner, made her last rounds and retired. He slipped down the fire stairwell, which took him to the South end of the parking garage. His car was a clunker. He glided at 10 mph before rounding the bend and disappearing out of sight of the apartment complex. He was careful to keep his headlights off until he hit the road to keep them from shining into Mrs. Sellner’s first floor windows.
This particular cemetery was in the neighboring county, but merely a twenty minute drive, just long enough for Walter to imagine scenarios of how things would transpire. He felt a stiffness in his pants. He quickly grabbed the seam of his trousers and firmly pressed down aiming to persuade some limpness. Walter hadn’t even noticed that it had been a day since he yanked his last splinter out of a fingernail. Perhaps it would end now.
Parking and saddling a shovel over his shoulders, Walter trekked over the railroad tracks that wound along the ridge, separating the churchyard from the graves. With his flashlight, he squinted at the directions he held in his fist.
With one swift motion, his shovel dug in the grass and pulled up a collection of dirt and weeds. Every dig seemed to flourish in strength as he neared his target. It wasn’t long before the crown of the shovel struck the casket lid. Bending down, Walter uncovered the dirt and exposed the head of the casket.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t a fancy casket at all, but a plain pine coffin; a small box and hardly anything ornate or even modern. He wondered if he had laid his shovel in the wrong place, but the writing on the headstone (now at eye level) confirmed the wife’s name.
Walter wasn’t one to wait too long before taking action. He beamed with anticipation. He spit in the palm of his hand and slicked back the few remaining tufts of hair sparingly maturing from each darkened liver-spot garnished with fur. Of course he knew Lydia wouldn’t oppose to his appearance. And she probably wouldn’t complain as Judith so often did. With one swift motion, he unzipped his trousers and kicked his loafers off.
The casket lid creaked open. Walter was not greeted with the somber, pale face he had expected. Instead he was met with a vacant coffin.
His heart lurched in his chest as a shadow grew in the frame of the casket and he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. He turned and suddenly found the doctor resting on the headstone.
Walter gagged on bewilderment. “She’s not here!”
The doctor was so matter-of-fact, when he said, “I keep her at home, Walter.”
Without warning, Dr. Goldman brought out the shovel had been concealing behind his back and slammed its face against the side of Walter’s temple. The swift blow knocked Walter to the dirt. As his vision blurred, he caught a sharp prick at the tip of his fingers. But, the pain seemed to fade to numbness. It wasn’t long before he felt nothing.
Walter knew his eyes were open and yet he couldn’t see. His arms were pinned to his sides by what felt like wooden boards that ran the length of his body. He pressed outward but the wood kept him prisoner. He tried to lift his head up but was met with another board above. Walter caught a rapid succession of thuds around the corners of the casket. Nails were being driven into the wood.
Walter struggled to bring his eye up to the crack and found the doctor gleefully driving small nails in the corners of the casket. He called out, praying someone would hear. He was met with silence.
He called out again, screaming this time. All Walter could see was the doctor pressing his lips against the wood of an open crack in the coffin. The doctor’s tongue lolled out like a needle-felt rug.
“There wasn’t room for the two of us, Mr. Page,” the doctor hissed. “But, not to worry. I’ll come back for you.” The hope swelling in Walter’s eyes was quickly flattened as the doctor finished, “When you’re dead.”
“But why?” Walter screamed.
“I cure people,” the doctor said. “Some people can’t be cured, though. Like you.”
And the last nail was hammered in.
Walter pressed his fingers against the wood and clawed desperately. He began to feel his nails snapping backward and gently loosening from the plates of flesh. He fumbled nervously within the narrow grooves his nails had forged. Walter brought his hands close to his face and found merely swollen stumps dripping wet with red.
And from the bed of the only nail that remained on any of his fingers, he pulled out one last splinter.
Eric LaRocca is a playwright and author from Kent, Connecticut. Many of his plays have seen productions in his native state, most notably at the Hartford Stage Company. His latest play, Parasite, received a workshop reading at Western Connecticut State University. He is a student member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and some of his prose has seen online publication through TeenInk.
When he’s not watching Tales from the Crypt or Dario Argento flicks, Eric can be found at the University of Connecticut, where he is currently an Undergraduate English major.
He is at work on completing an anthology of short horror stories that concentrate on the sub genre of “body-horror,” titled Body Shock.