Second Round Submission: NYC Midnight Short Story Competition (Parameters: Horror, Door-to-Door Sales, an Unemployed Man)
As a teenager I promised myself that if, on my fortieth birthday, I was still single, and happened to be without a job, I’d buy a plane ticket to my hometown, Greyton, to revisit a memory I can’t get right with in my head. It has followed me for over two decades, through two failed marriages—both because I refused to have children, even if I did want them—and a string of unfulfilling jobs.
Yesterday I quit my job marketing cat food to human beings (who don’t understand cats at all). Today I answer a calling that first reached me twenty-five years ago.
Everyone knew there was something strange about our neighbors, the Savages. They weren’t exactly neighbors—I mean, we didn’t think of them as neighbors—because we could hardly see their home, it sat so far back on the property, which was also where our street dead-ended. Between that and the overgrown shrubbery, ancient trees, and curtains of moss that crowded the property, the Savage’s home might as well have been its own island.
The Savages kept to themselves. We only knew their family name because we sometimes got their mail and I’d walk it over to their mailbox and slide it in—illegal, I know, but I was just a kid at the time. The Savages only ever got junk mail, for what it’s worth. It was as if they didn’t exist in the real world. So we—I mean, the neighborhood kids and I—built a mythology around the Savages.
My school was hosting a fundraiser—the kind where you go door-to-door selling cheap stuff for way more than it’s worth—and because so many kids from my school lived in the neighborhood, us kids were dividing up the houses so we’d know which we could target and which were taken by other kids. By luck (or un-luck) of the draw I ended up with the Savages’ property. They weren’t supposed to be on the list—theirs was the house you knew not to visit when trick-or-treating—but Joanie had added it for laughs.
Have you ever heard a catfight? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, what you need to know is that there’s no other sound quite like it. It’s intent stripped of affect. There’s something so primal in those cat sounds that if you close your eyes and listen—really listen—you’ll start to question what it means to be human.
Anyhow, I heard a catfight the day I approached the Savage house for the first time. At first I thought it was women screaming, or babies crying—I couldn’t quite tell what it was—but once I steadied by mind (and my heartbeat) enough to really listen, I knew the sounds came from intelligent beings, even if I couldn’t understand what they meant.
Then the sounds stopped and I realized I’d heard a woman’s voice.
It came from behind a cluster of flowering brushes in front of me, where I’d assumed the front door of the house might be. “Is somebody there?” it said.
“Hello! I’m Tim!” I was surprised at the shakiness in my voice. And why had I told my name? “I’m your neighbor!”
To this day I believe that at that moment something behind me moved very quickly, because I remember the gush of air, and the eerie feeling of having been watched, and a glimpse of something dark in the corner of my eye. Then Mrs. Savage appeared before me, from out of the brush at her home’s front entrance, her complexion glowing in the sunlight and her eyes glinting an indiscernible color. Although she refused to make eye contact, she was kind—I’d even say warm—and I knew she meant me no harm.
Mrs. Savage ordered three buckets of white cheddar popcorn and an oversized tin bucket of Milk-Duds. I explained to her that she could sign now and pay later, but she didn’t seem to understand. “Sign here,” I said, putting a pen in her hand and pointing to the line on the paper. Her hand was curled into a ball—at least, that’s the best way I have of describing it—and she took a long time printing her name, even illegibly. I could hardly watch her try, out of embarrassment for her.
I explained that it would take about three weeks for the goods to come in, and that I’d deliver them to her house when they did. Mrs. Savage didn’t say much, and I didn’t want to pressure her to say much because overall the situation had a nervous energy to it that made me want to get out of there as fast as I possibly could.
I was in no hurry to get back to the Savage’s. The popcorn tins sat on our kitchen island for weeks before my parents insisted I unload them.
On the way to their place I heard the screaming and had to follow it, leaving two trash bags of popcorn and candy as I hurried through the overgrown brush, past curtains of Spanish moss, with my heart thudding in my chest, following . . . it. What was it? An infant? Yes. But two? Three? Or more? Or was it one voice in harmony with itself? It was impossible to know for sure.
The screaming was so urgent that I had no choice but to race toward it. As I approached the house the screaming seemed to dissipate. By instinct I moved closer toward the home as I approached the garage entrance. The garage was the most private area of the property, shaded by trees and with a clearing of mostly grass and pine needles that made for quiet footing. I was aware of the possible danger of getting caught, but I was curious more than I was afraid.
The screaming came from behind the garage. There was a room back there—an in-law suite, it appeared to be. A light came through the windows, outlining the various shapes moving inside, but draperies concealed the details. My stomach dropped into that place that tells you your life is about to change. I moved in, closer.
Now I was under the room’s picture window, through which I could hear all the screaming—the human/inhuman, primal screaming that I’ll never forget—and I knew I had to look, even as I knew I didn’t want to.
My gut told me that I was safe to look. In the middle of the window, where two curtains met, there was a gap through which I could peek in. I knew it’d be enough of a peephole to see whatever it was that I needed to see. My god, what was it?
I’ll explain the best I can: The living room was your typical, late 1970’s shag carpet in the orange—cheap carpet worn for at least a decade—the dark wood paneling, and opalescent, vertically-striped wallpaper. Nothing out of the ordinary for the time, really. But there was no furniture in the room. Just a bunch of blankets strewn about, and piles of pillows—no pillowcases, just giant, stained pillows. And the place smelled, of bile and blood, so strongly that I gagged.
And the screaming!
In the far corner of the room, there was an arrangement of pillow and blankets—like a sectional sofa—and the place was crawling with . . . babies! They were screaming, little newborn cries, and it was loud and jarring but definitely not the same screaming I’d heard just moments before. I ducked underneath the window and crept around the room’s outside perimeter until I could hear that I was directly next to the nest of babies.
Then, I peeked again.
And—What were they? I don’t know. They were horrible. Were they deformed? Covered in hair? What was it? What was I looking at?
Still, I wasn’t scared. These creatures were small and weak. I felt tenderness for them. I dared climb over the windowsill to have a closer look.
They were just like human babies, but with elongated facial features. And they all had cleft palates. And they had hair—some of them more than others—all over their bodies. And tails! The tails made me jump. I couldn’t see them at first because the animals were covered in bloody slime. I’d never seen such a thing, but I knew the substance to be afterbirth.
And those little animals. The creatures. The babies. They were cute. And so soft. One of them was not squealing like all the others, but crying. I came closer and and stared into its defiant little face. It had short, white whiskers, a stubby button nose—much like a human’s—fuzzy round cheeks, with dimples, and a hungry round mouth.
I don’t know what I was thinking, and I’ve still never forgiven myself for this, but I picked the baby up. I wanted to protect it—to comfort it. It felt so familiar to me, as if I’d done it countless times before, to cradle that baby into my chest and rock it back and forth. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhh,” I said, “shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
But then something was coming! It moved swiftly—I could hear its body brushing through the narrow hallway as it closed in on us—and I somehow put the baby back into place and jumped out the window before this thing could see me. Even then, I knew I’d be safe looking in. Call it intuition. I resumed my spot in the draperies just in time to see—IT—swooping in on the baby I’d just put down. How do I describe this? This—THING—was human! It was! But something about it wasn’t right. It moved on all fours, and altogether used its body differently than any human would. And had much more hair than any normal human would. And was that a tail? It moved so quickly!
And this creature was wearing clothes! Not an entire outfit—or not in the way any normal human would wear clothes—but pieces of human affect, in this case socks, a bracelet, and a bra. The bra hung loosely around the creature’s neck. Its three sets of breasts were red and swollen, and dragged on the floor as the creature navigated the room, its pointed nose assessing the environment.
And its face, I can’t forget it. I’d seen this face . . . only, not in this way. This was Mrs. Savage’s face! It was her face, but elongated, and with whiskers.
This thing—Mrs. Savage—pulled its baby out of the nest and dragged it to the other corner of the room. It sniffed and sniffed at the baby, and licked its tender little newborn head. It seemed to be comforting, or even doctoring, the baby, who’d by then stopped crying and was trying to nurse. Then the Mrs. Savage creature opened its mouth wide—its teeth pointed and sharp—and took its baby’s entire head into its mouth before crunching down. Crunch! I’ll never get the sound out of my head. I might have even screamed, because the creature leapt onto its hind legs and hissed in my direction. I ran from that house without looking back, even as I felt the hissing down my neck.
I didn’t talk for a month. But my family moved from Greyton just weeks after the incident, so no one seemed to notice that my behavior had changed. Today there is no home where the Savage’s place once was—just a foundation deep in the woods, over a basement filled with dirt. My hair stands on end, all of my senses aroused. Instinctively, I call her name: “Mrs. Savage?”
And then there’s the smell. And the crack of a twig as something shifts its weight behind me. Warm breath on my neck. And then a meow, to tell me I’m not alone.