“I didn't want to say too much over the phone because I didn't want to jinx this,” Karen said, pulling into the driveway of a small mid-century bungalow. “The moment I saw this house, I thought of you. But it gets better, it was a foreclosure and I know for a fact that the bank is eager to get it off their hands.”
Peter stepped from the car and surveyed the house. It was small, but the architecture was exactly what he was looking for.
“And just look at the neighborhood,” Karen said, “Many of the owners on this street have been here for decades and there's a real pride of ownership.” She was right, the neighboring homes all had manicured lawns and fresh paint. “Honestly,” she continued, “for your budget, this is your one chance to live so close-in.”
They approached the front door and Karen retrieved the key from the lock box. “Before you look inside, you should know that foreclosed homes aren't always in the best condition. My contact at the bank said the previous owners stripped the house down pretty good.”
“That's fine,” Peter responded, “I was planning on doing some work anyways, to really make it mine.” The two entered through the front door which opened to a small living room. The house was dark and Peter could see that all the sockets and light fixtures had been removed. But it still had built-in cabinets with leaded glass and a fine bookshelf.
The hard woods creaked underfoot. The living room opened to a small breakfast nook with a galley kitchen and another narrow hallway led to the two small bedrooms and bath. It was small, what a real estate agent would call cozy, but Peter felt it was perfect. He could look beyond the stripped hardware and dingy paint to what the house could be, if he lived there.
“This is it,” he exclaimed. “Let's put in the offer today and make sure we get it.”
“Don't you want to run this by Annie first?” Karen Inquired.
“No, she'd agree and this is too good of an opportunity to miss out on.” Peter knew Annie would find it equally as perfect and besides, they didn't live together, so it was ultimately his decision to make.
Karen did as he instructed and three weeks later, the deal was sealed. Peter spent that time planning his big move. He threw out the old furniture and futon, planning to start from scratch with the house to ensure every piece of decorum suited the age of the home and reflected his aesthetic. He and Annie had countless conversations about appropriate colors, furniture pieces, and even what size bed to buy. She was just as excited as he was and even though he hadn't brought up the subject of her moving in, she was already treating the home as her own.
Moving in was a breeze as Peter now had very few possessions. He took a week off from work and planned to get the house in a livable condition right away. That first night he and Annie camped out on the floor of the living room. They listened to music and talked long into the night about their new lives. They woke early the next morning, groggy, but eager to get to work.
They had just finished breakfast when Annie stopped: “Did you have strange dreams last night?”
“I don't remember dreaming at all, I guess I was really tired,” Peter answered dismissively.
“I just remembered I had this terrible dream,” she said. “We were sleeping in the living room when suddenly I woke up with this bad feeling. I looked into the nook and there was this shadow, this big black thing. I couldn't make out what it was, but I knew it was watching us and it felt awful. I kept trying to wake you, but you wouldn't budge.” Her memory had made her uneasy- Peter saw her shiver as she recounted what details she could remember.
“It's probably just the side effect of sleeping in a new place. Besides, it's not like the floor was all that comfortable,” Peter responded, wildly stretching his back and groaning.
Peter and Annie worked long into the evening that day painting and replacing the fixtures the prior owners had absconded with. They were in the middle of painting the living room earlier that day when Peter made a discovery.
“Hey Annie, do you remember seeing if the house has a chimney?”
Annie stopped and thought, “Yes, it does, I'm almost positive, why?”
“I didn't notice until just now, but there's a mantle and brickwork, but no fireplace.” They examined the old brick fireplace, having no explanation as to why someone would obscure a feature that increased the home's appeal.
“Weird,” Peter said, “These thin bricks here face vertically, opposite of the rest of the mantle, and form an oval, that must have been its original shape. I'm definitely going to take care of that this week.”
Annie dismissed the curiosity, saying that it was probably just the fashion of a certain day like shag carpeting or wallpaper. They set back to work, but the thought had wedged itself in Peter's mind.
That night, they got take-out and once again spread out the camping mats for another night on the floor. They complimented themselves on a job well done, satisfied that the house was now ready to be furnished.
That night Annie woke from a restless sleep with the same sense of dread as the night before. She tilted her head to see her alarm clock flashing 12:00. The power must have gone out. “Tomorrow's Sunday,” she thought, “we can sleep in.” She rolled to her side, stealing a glance into the breakfast nook. It was watching her. She tried to reach for Peter, but she couldn't move. She squinted, trying to make out what it was, but all she could see was darkness. She steadied her breathing so as not to draw attention to herself while her eyes adjusted to her new surroundings. But still, it was just darkness; a darkness that was without shape- a darkness set curiously out of place against a wall that should have otherwise been illuminated by the moon.
She tried to kick Peter, but she could not move. She to look like she was sleeping. She was overcome with intense feelings of fear and loneliness. Panicked, she clinched her eyes shut and repeated the Lord's Prayer.
She must have fallen asleep because she woke with a start the next morning to the sounds of birds chirping and the sun illuminating the freshly painted room. Despite the apparent cheeriness of her surroundings, Annie could not shake the chill from the night before.
“Did you dream last night?” she asked Peter who thought for a second, but couldn't remember. “You know, I know you don't believe in it, but you could have the house blessed. I know Father Demming would be happy to come over and it only takes a couple of minutes.” She tried to broach the subject gently, but it was obvious Peter was annoyed.
“Why don't we get a shaman to come in and burn some sage while we're at it,” he said. “Then it would be twice as blessed. Throw in a witch doctor and maybe money will rain from the ceiling.” Peter was typically respectful of Annie's beliefs, but the house brought his frustrations with their relationship to the surface. He'd love for her to move in, but she stated that they couldn't live together until they were engaged. He loved her, but didn't feel like he was ready. He said if they lived together, it would be easier to save the money to get married, which brought the two to an impasse.
Annie was tired and annoyed. “I was just trying to help,” she said. “I should go, I have to work tomorrow and I still have laundry and things to do at home.”
Peter didn't try to dissuade her.
He set to work that day unpacking the few possessions he brought with him, but his thoughts soon turned to the fireplace. If he knocked those bricks out now, he reasoned, it would be easier to clean than when he had furniture in that room. Accepting this justification, Peter took a hammer and chisel and set to work. The patch job must have been shoddily done because the bricks came loose with hardly any effort. As Peter removed them, he noticed something rather large in the fireplace. He removed the last brick revealing a piece of furniture with a sheet over it. He thought it was an end table, until he removed the sheet to reveal an old television.
The television was in perfect condition, an old cabinet style set from what he guessed to be the late sixties. It would be the perfect addition to the living room, a real conversation piece.
He strained but was eventually able to shimmy the old set out of the fireplace and into the corner of the room. He dusted the set off. The wood could do with some oil, but other than that, it looked brand new. He plugged the set in and turned it on. At first there was nothing, but then he could make out a high pitch whir as the tubes warmed and the screen slowly illuminated showing a field of static. He couldn't believe it still worked.
Peter adjusted the antenna and ran through the dial, but there was no picture. “Digital transition,” he muttered, recalling all those announcements about updating analog televisions. Absentmindedly, he turned the UHF dial through a series of static when suddenly a picture appeared.
Displayed before him was an image of a heavyset man reading a newspaper at a small kitchen table. Even better, the picture was in color, albeit a bit muted and orange tinted. Peter watched as the man intently read the newspaper. He was wearing a white t-shirt with suspenders and the room hung heavy with cigarette smoke which was tinted orange under the amber lights in the small chandelier which hung above him.
Peter watched, but the man never looked up from the paper. He would extinguish a cigarette and mechanically light another, sometimes turning the page of the paper, but he never looked up. Peter studied the man. He was balding and kept the remainder of his dark hair slicked back, exposing a layer of sweat on his shiny forehead. It looked like a scene from an old movie or TV show, only somehow grittier.
“What kind of show is this?” Peter thought to himself after watching intently for a good ten minutes. He grew edgy, waiting for something to happen, but the man kept reading the paper and smoking. Peter grew distracted by the mess of bricks and dust he'd have to clean up and turned off the set to get back to work.
Peter returned home later that night after meeting a few friends for drinks at their local bar. He told them about the television and they speculated as to the origins of the strange show and, more pointedly, how the set was able to receive the signal. They hypothesized about a pirate TV broadcaster, but more than likely, it was just a hiccup that had gone unnoticed. Peter felt relaxed after a few drinks and settled in for another night on the living room floor. But before he could fall asleep, he was compelled to check the television.
The set again whirred to life and the same orange image illuminated the screen. The same man was there, just as before, reading his paper and smoking cigarettes. “What the hell?” Peter said, not knowing what to make of the image. He studied the scene again, but there was nothing noteworthy. The room was dingy and the wallpaper was painted yellow with nicotine. Other than the wallpaper and the chandelier, there was nothing else in the frame.
He laid on the floor and watched the set, but he must have had more to drink than he realized because he was soon fast asleep. When he woke the next morning, the TV was still on and the image was the same, only now it was just an empty room. Peter put his hand to his head. He had a dull headache from the night before. He studied the image for a second before turning off the set and wandering into the shower.
It struck Peter that the image was odd, but he dismissed it as some sort of art film, something some film student looped together- or perhaps one of those Warhol films where it's nothing but eight hours of someone sleeping. After all, if someone were going to go through the trouble broadcasting themselves, why not show their art? In a city like Portland, a stunt like this was well within reason.
He spent the remaining days of his vacation time putting the house together. He had a bed and sofa delivered to the house and spent his afternoons combing vintage stores for furniture. When he was home, he would turn on the set from time to time to check in on the man. He would see the man playing solitaire, reading the paper, or conversing with some unseen actor. The scenes were all mundane slices of life. But one morning he turned the set on to see the man reading his paper as normal when a woman suddenly walked into the scene. She was small and mousy in a humble dress and apron, only she was carrying a live chicken. The man looked at her soberly, laid his newspaper flat on the table and took the chicken. Then he grabbed it with both hands and, in a single motion, snapped its neck. The chicken fell flat on the newspaper with the man looking down on it for a minute before picking it up and handing it back to the woman.
Peter was speechless. An amateur filmmaker pandering for shock value wasn't anything he hadn't seen before, but what he saw play out before had unnerved him. He turned the set off and tried to busy himself with moving furniture, but the succession of events kept playing in his mind.
Later, he turned on the set to see the man eating dinner by himself. The table was set for four, but he was alone. Peter watched as the man tore at a roasted chicken with his hands, chewing wildly with his mouth open and discarding the bones by tossing them onto the floor. It was grotesque, the scene of a scavenger on fresh carrion. Juices streamed down the man's chin and he'd occasionally pause for a moment to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand then return greedily to his dinner.
Peter had lost his appetite and decided it best to turn in early for the night. His week long vacation was nearing its end and there was still a lot he wanted to accomplish. He showered and performed his nightly routine only to find himself staring at his ceiling. Was it the new bed? No, it was comfortable enough. The noise? There wasn't any discernible noise. It was neither too dark nor too light, the temperature was comfortable and he was definitely tired enough. He checked the clock, it was already eleven, eleven-o-one, eleven-fifteen, eleven-eighteen. It was useless, he knew why he could not sleep, but refused to even think about what he had witnessed earlier. It was just some stupid art film. It wasn't even well made, it was childish. It only got to him because he was under a lot of stress. That was all there was to it.
He woke to a sharp pain on his arm. It was burning. Three-fifty-three. He had fallen asleep, but why was he in such pain? He felt his arm and immediately winced. He got up and turned on the light. He had four freshly painted welts running the length of his left forearm. “What the hell?” he muttered, examining the wound. What would have caused such an injury. Did he scratch himself? An allergy to his new detergent, perhaps? His arm was on fire, his head ached and his throat burned. Flesh eating bacteria? Peter went to the kitchen for a glass of water, but was distracted by a light in the living room.
He must have left the television on. He went to turn it off when he noticed the picture had changed. It was the same room, the same amber glow of the chandelier, only it was the woman who was seated at the table. She was wearing a robe and her hair was in curlers. Her head was bowed in reverence to the small glass of liqueur cupped between her hands. She looked sad, was she crying? Peter was caught off guard at the sight, he approached the television and that's when it happened. The woman looked up, directly at him as though she had sensed his approach. Peter froze, his eyes glued to the screen and that's when he noticed the woman's eye was swollen shut and dyed dark hues of blue and red and purple. The woman stared pathetically at Peter. Peter stared back in shock. He instinctively grabbed his arm, it burned. He felt despair.
The woman broke the gaze and looked off-screen for a moment before scurrying away. That's when the man came back. He sat himself in the chair as usual and lit a cigarette, and looked directly at Peter. Their eyes met. The man was grotesque, sweating and unwashed, but he commanded Peter's full attention. Peter began to tremble and the man's lips cracked forming a wry smile. Peter could not look away, his mind raced, feelings of blind hatred and emptiness coursed through his veins. The man's smile parted wider, revealing uneven rows of stained teeth, agape in the throes of a silent laughter.
Peter woke to a loud banging. His head ached and his mouth was dry. He opened his eyes to find himself pressed against the hardwood floors of his living room. The banging persisted, he could hear Annie's cries coming from the other side of the door. “Peter, Peter, are you there? Peter, open up.” He strained, his muscles ached and he wondered if he had the strength to stand. Slowly, he lifted himself to his feet. He felt woozy. “Peter, open up, Peter!” The banging was relentless. He instinctively looked to the television, it wasn't on. He rubbed his temples and took a step. His pants were stiff. He looked down to see dried urine stains running down the length of his pajamas. He opened the front door.
“Peter, Peter, oh my god, what's wrong?” Peter didn't know how to answer. “Why didn't you answer your phone? I've been calling for days. I thought you were mad at me, but when you didn't show up for work today . . .” the words kept trailing from Annie's mouth. Work? Did he miss work? He wasn't supposed to be at work until Monday and today was . . . Peter stopped. Annie kept talking wildly, but he could not understand her. He tried to piece together what had happened, there was the crown molding, the electrical sockets, the basement, the television; his mind raced trying to piece together his memories, but they were too diffuse. He took a step forward and abruptly vomited all over Annie's sensible pumps.
Annie regained her composure, and seeing the gravity of the situation, promptly bathed Peter and marched him to bed. She was an adept caregiver; both soothing and stern when the need arose. “Now you stay here and I'll get you a glass of milk,” she said, turning once upon leaving the room to make sure he was following her orders. Peter allowed his body to relax, but his mind would not stop racing. He could not explain his absence from work, or even account for what he had been doing the past few days. Was he sick? Was he suffering the ill-effects of a mold or fungus? Carbon monoxide poisoning? That would account for the headaches and the man in the television. Surely none of that was real, how could it be? He wasn't witnessing the paranormal any more than he was tripping balls.
“You're looking better already,” Annie said, returning with a glass of milk. “Now drink this and , if you keep it down, we'll work on getting some food in you.”
Peter gulped the milk and instantly felt his strength returning. It was a bug and nothing more, he thought to himself. He might even be ready for work in the morning. He'd forgotten about that, the real world. Annie smiled, apparently happy he'd so readily downed his milk. “See, your color is coming back already,” she said, “now how about dinner, any requests?”
Peter thought for a moment then answered: “I'd really love some chicken.”
“Okay, any particular requests?” she asked.
“Roasted,” he answered. “I'd like roasted chicken.” He commanded, hardly aware of what he was saying.
“Oh, okay, we can do that,” Annie answered, startled by his tone. “I saw some in the fridge, why don't you rest and I'll make us some roasted chicken.” She took his audible sigh to indicate that he was placated and proceeded to the kitchen.
The moment Annie left, Peter felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. His tone was not warranted and he should apologize. What had come over him just then? He never talked to Annie like that. He must have wrestled with the question longer than he realized because before he could make up his mind as to whether or not to apologize, Annie poked her head in and informed him that his roasted chicken was ready.
Beside himself, Peter rose from bed and nearly knocked Annie over in his race to the kitchen. She attempted to brush aside his behavior, thinking that he really must be hungry, but when she entered the nook to see him sitting at the table, waiting to be served, her indignation set in.
“Do you want me to serve you?,” she asked with more than a note of sarcasm.
“Look,” he said, “I've had a long enough day as it is, are you going to give me my chicken or not?”
“Fine, fine, it's okay,” she said, “I understand, let me get that for you. You must be starving,” she added, “ because I found this chandelier in the oven, so I know you haven't cooked a thing since you moved in.” Peter examined the fixture dangling from her hand. It looked familiar, amber and honey hued, but he could not place it; he was too hungry to think clearly. “Are you going to give me my chicken?” he demanded.
She placed the chicken thighs neatly on a plate and presented it to Peter, who greedily descended on it. The lip smacking, the chewing, the bursts of somatic fluid that escaped his greedy lips and streamed down his chin; it was all too much for her to bear. But the chicken bone, roasted black and gray and reverberating at it bounced on the hardwood, that was the final straw. “You look well enough,” she finally said, “I'm going home, I have things to do.”
She started towards the door, but Peter interjected. “Don't,” he said, “please.” Annie stopped. He was sick, his body chemistry was obviously awry, maybe just a tad off kilter. “Don't go,” he pleaded, “please, take the bed, I'll sleep on the couch, it's just, just that I'm afraid.”
That small admission of defeat was all Annie needed. “Okay, but you stay on the couch and if you get sick or even feel like you might get sick, I'm taking you to emergency.” That was the statement she needed, the statement to bring the stars back into alignment. “Don't give me that look,” she chided, “you can either accept my help or . . . or suffer.” She regretted the choice of words, but that was how she felt. He was in distress, she could help, or he could be an ass about it- it was his choice, but she wasn't going to put up with it.
“I'll take the couch,” he finally muttered in defeat. “Just please don't go. I can't even begin to explain what's happened to me the past few days.”
“Fine, but I'm going to bed, so get your things and make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you, but please set the alarm, I'd like to get to work early tomorrow.”
“I talked to your work, we'll cross that hurdle in the morning.”
Peter gathered his pajamas and a pillow and settled in for an uncomfortable night on the couch. He tried to rationalize his behavior, but found himself at a loss for words. Low blood sugar? A lack of salt? Hunger?
He woke up to the whirring of the television and the unmistakable crackle as it came to life. Static at first, then a pop, and finally an illumination. Too little sugar, he told himself, but it was no use. The set was aglow only dimmer now and the honeyed hues of the previous episodes were replaced by aqua and graphite.
Did he accidentally change the channel? Did Annie? Then all was saved, he was just suffering from a momentary hallucination. But as his eyes focused, Peter's hopes for a misfiring brain were quashed. In the contrast of the moonlight and shadow, he recognized his alarm clock and the bed frame, even the fraction of the nightstand made visible by the angle of the unseen cameraman. The sight of Annie, nestled predictably on her side with her hands cradling her knees was a cause of alarm. Peter gazed intently; mute to the sight displayed before him when he saw the woman looking down upon Annie- she looked up mournfully at Peter then stole herself away through some off-camera exit that he was certain did not exist.
The man wasn't obvious at first. His movements were light and swift considering his size. He looked at Peter through the television and grinned as he averted his gaze down upon Annie who was sleeping soundly.
Peter stared wide eyed, unable to comprehend what exactly was laid out before him. His eyes took in the sight, but it wasn't enough to convince him that the impossible was happening. The man brushed his fat sausage fingers against Annie's hair then looked up and laughed a hearty silent laugh before his expression turned to a mask of sheer malice.
“No!” Peter cried at the top of his lungs as he raced from the couch to the bedroom. He banged on the door, but it would not give. “Annie wake up!” He repeated as he banged the door. He threw his weight against it again and again, but it would not open.
Then the screaming started, high pitched and almost unrecognizable were it not for Annie's pleas interrupting the agonizing and involuntary cries of pain. “Annie! Annie! Annie!,” Peter wailed as he slammed his shoulder into the door. But her cries persisted, rising to a viscerous crescendo both deafening and inhuman.
Peter paused and drew and breath. Still nothing. His hand still gripped firmly on the doorknob, he twisted his wrist and the door gave. Inside, the room was dark. He didn't dare turn on the lights, he didn't need to. He saw Annie's silhouette sat there and the edge of the bed. And he heard the gurgling.
Glug glug glug glug brug
She was slumped slightly at the edge of the bed with her hands clenched together before her eyes. “Oh god,” he exclaimed, trying to process what was laid out before him. He came close to Annie wide eyed. He'd never been in a situation like this before: he'd never experienced trauma. He knelt before her and clutched her hands in his. They were wet.
Gwa gwa gwa gwa gwa
The sounds emanated from her throat. She was slumped forward. Peter put his hand beneath her chin and elevated her head in an attempt to assess her wounds, but was greeted by an absence that should have been the dimple in her neck; the one he had often spent too much attention on with his tongue, according to Annie.
He was still holding her clenched hands, but it was only now that he felt that she was holding something. Fingers groping, he felt it; sinewy, wet and moist. It was part of her, the missing part.
It was the moistness. It was all over him, her, the sheets, everything. He paused, she fell over; wet and pallid. He paused, claustrophobic, there was no escape.
This is real. This is happening.
He must have been contemplating the scene, her hands still clutched between his, for some time; he couldn't be sure. But he was finally roused from his stupor by the raucous.
But what was it?
Trembling and tunnel-visioned, Peter emerged from the bedroom. There was shouting. He made his way into the hallway towards the nook, but the shouting only grew louder. His hands were tense, clenching Annie's final gift.
Porous, mut hure ghands ug!
Again and again.
Porous, mut hure ghands ug!
He felt the moisture emanating from his hands, then looking down, finally focused. It wasn't the blood so much as the tissue. The cells, the mucous, still technically alive and now posthumously Annie's. It was hers but what was it? Why was he holding it. Bewildered, he raised his hands.
Police, put your hands up!
It wouldn't have mattered- the hands, the trachea held firmly in his hands, the blood. The sound was deafening, though he felt the shock first, repeatedly. Each time, the shock, then the sound- gunfire.
“He's down,” a voice said.
“Good, God,” the other replied. “The fucker deserved it!”
It wasn't until the second day that the detective noticed it. The scene being played before his eyes in sepia tone.
“This is perfect,” the detective said.
“What's that?” the recruit asked.
“This set, the wife has been bugging me for something like this ever since we got that jew-priced bungalow. You know, I think this set is important, we're going to need to bring this into evidence.”
“Sure thing, sir,” the recruit said. “But what is this show? There's no sound.”
“Probably just some old sitcom,” the detective responded.
“Not one I've ever seen, it's just two white couples eating.”
“That's probably why you've never seen it,” the detective snorted, wondering who was late to the two unoccupied place settings: “just get it into evidence.”
“Sure thing, boss.”