Edition 15: It’s Only Going To End Badly by John Claude Smith
To hear violence night after night is a torment, and most neighbours will seek to stop it before someone gets hurt. What if protecting someone else meant you had to put yourself in the direct line of violence? A finalist from the 2013 Story Quest competition, John Claude Smith chilled the judges with this horror piece. SY
Screams crashed the shore of slumber, sonic flotsam that abruptly awakened Jesse for the fourth time in a week. He pressed his palms to his temples, audibly groaning. The screams, originating from the house behind the apartment complex he lived in, had been escalating over the last few months, but in the last week, the needle had been pushed into the red.
It’s only going to end badly, he thought.
He paused to gauge everything, the language not always clear, just the bulldozing audacity of the two voices that ripped him from his sheets. Two voices: Lisa, the wife or girlfriend (he only knew this because her husband’s or boyfriend’s bleats wrapped her name within the delicate embrace of “you fuckin’ whore, Lisa, fuckin’ twat”), and her throat wrenching cries, sounding like a rocket about to lift off; and Mike, the husband or boyfriend (only known because his name was hurled with equal ferocity by the loving wife or girlfriend, Lisa, she of the “fuckin’ whore, fuckin’ twat” designations), growling like the world’s meanest pit bull, slobbering and rabid.
Christ, this was getting ridiculous. He called the police on two of the three previous occasions this week, beaten to the punch once when police sirens derailed his dialing, much to his delight.
He kept thinking: it’s only going to end badly. There is no way these two would make it through the summer as a couple, much less alive, if this continued. They were an embarrassment to humanity, barely human in their miscommunications anyway: it sounded as if a white noise tornado had landed on their house, especially once the breaking of various items—dishes, plates—had commenced.
He heard something shatter. It had commenced.
Jesse glanced at the clock: 2:23 a.m. He slunk toward the phone.
The scream that followed played the xylophone chill along his spine, each vertebrae jostled by the force. And then silence. Moments crawled by. Jesse realized he was holding his breath. He slowly let out a controlled burst of air.
Lisa’s screech was like a vacuum that sucked all thought down its treacherous throat. Mike joined back in, and the game was on.
Enough, thought Jesse. Enough!
He reached for the cordless phone—his old school back-up—his cell a victim of his inherent clumsiness earlier that day, swimming in the toilet; drowning. The instant his fingers touched it, it rang. 2:25 a.m. Who would be calling at this time? The only calls one gets at 2:25 in the morning are of bad news: somebody has died or been in an accident, that kind of stuff. He snatched the phone from its cradle.
“You call the cops again and I’ll kill you,” an unknown voice said, more so barked. Jesse could sense the heat and almost smell the smoke-soot breath. Speechless, he paused when he realized that the arguing out back was still in high gear; there had been no break in their caterwauling. An absurd passing thought that the voice, somehow, belonged to the pit bull, Mike, disintegrated.
“Wh-Who is this?”
“You know it’s only going to end badly, so let it end!” Apparently the barking intonation was a natural state for this person.
“Who is this?” he said again, feigning a little more strength.
“You got two options. Shut the fuck up, hang up, and let them finish this thing once and for all. Or you call the cops and I come over there and kill you.”
Jesse was miffed, pissed and apprehensive, the melting pot of responses causing his head to ache. Out back, the argument raged on.
“This has to stop—”
“It will if you let them end it on their own. Cops won’t do anything. They will stall the inevitable. Let them end it themselves. You know it’s only going to end badly, so let it end.”
Sirens blared from afar, approaching at a rapid pace.
“Damn it! How could I lose track…?” The opposite receiver slammed down with anger-inspired authority. Even a brief spurt of snarled static retreated in fear.
Jesse stared at the phone, shaken by the call. He hung up, listening as the argument was punctuated with more smashing of plates—their weight carrying more resonance than the crisp explosion of glasses—and to the swiftly approaching police sirens.
Silence ensued, an edgy silence, as if activity still struggled for its place amidst the emptiness. Jesse could hear the cops banging on a door, and then more controlled yelling between the couple and the cops.
The phone rang again. He stared at it a beat, two, finally snatching up the receiver.
“Styler’s dead. I warned him. I’m warning everybody not to call next time or I will resort to…something else. Something to really rattle your measly minds.”
Click, and out…and what was that supposed to mean? Something else? What could be worse than death?—and was Styler really dead?
Richard Styler lived in the apartment to the left of Jesse’s. He was a bit of a recluse, but they had a cordial relationship triggered by a mutual love of David Lynch movies, having been discovered one night when they were both watching Blue Velvet. The audio echo bled through the thin wall of their apartments—a slight delay, as Jesse had started his playing of the movie mere seconds after Styler had started his—causing both of them to temporarily vacate their apartments, disorientated. It was an awkward yet appropriate introduction ignited via confusion.
Jesse stepped into his sweat pants and out the only door. Turning toward Styler’s apartment, Jesse noticed the door was ajar. He tapped lightly—no response. He nudged it open and entered.
“Richard…” Hesitant. Again: “Richard.”
As he anxiously ambled past the haphazardly constructed breakfast bar, he turned to see Styler sitting in his leather rocker. Jesse held back the vocalization of shock that scrambled for release from his mouth. It looked as though the bottom half of Styler’s face had been torn off: everything below the nose was gone. A ragged red contortion of bone and flesh took its place. Blood was splashed across a barely legible KISS t-shirt, the crimson bib glistening wetly in the dim television light. Styler’s eyes were still open.
“Fuckfuckfuck!” Jesse said, under his breath.
The phone rang.
He thought about picking it up, but decided he just wanted out of there. It was best for him to leave, calling the police from his own apartment. After all, he wasn’t even sure if whoever had done this was still present, still in Styler’s apartment.
The phone continued to ring as he turned and swiftly left. As he pulled the door almost shut (remembering it was ajar when he had entered), his initial concern was about “corrupting the crime scene” or some such jargon gleaned from watching too many police shows on TV, before he came to his senses, instantly realizing that he would be calling the cops, so he could explain his fingerprints, if necessary.
The ringing stopped.
Jesse paused, listening, as if he was making sure that the ringing had actually ceased.
Turning his doorknob, the cordless phone sprang to life in its cradle: the harsh clang of the ringer battered his eardrums unmercifully. He entered swiftly, taking precious seconds too long to lock the door before succeeding, and propped a chair against it. Secure.
Picking it up, the same gruff voice intoned: “Don’t call the cops. I told you he was dead. I told everybody he was dead. Leave it be. Call the cops and you’ll end up worse.”
Click and gone. Again.
Severely unnerved, Jesse thought to leave it alone, but his fingers had already automatically gone for retrieval, punching up the most recent call in reverse. He’d find out who this was. He had the door locked and blocked. There was no way any assailant could get through there. Up two floors the only window was beyond anybody’s reach.
So why were the blinds rippling?
Jesse felt his abdomen clench.
And then, ringing commenced throughout the apartment complex. Jesse could hear phones ringing all around him. Indecipherable mumblings and nervous sighs seemed on the verge of perception. He stared at the cordless phone, set it on the cradle. Silence, but for the disturbed padding of feet outside and some odd vocalizations. His abdomen clenched tighter.
His phone rang.
Jesse wiped sweat from his brow. “No,” he yelled, easing away from the phone.
The ringing stopped.
Outside, the murmur of agitation and unwanted activity hummed like a muffled beehive, but the screaming stopped. Jesse rubbed his neck, thinking: What’s going on? What’s going on? What the fuck is going on?
A hard knock-knock-knock pummeled his apartment door. Jesse practically leaped out of his skin and into a state of frenzy. His jaw ached; he realized he was grinding his teeth.
Knock-knock-knock again, with even more insistence.
“Go away,” Jesse yelled, all the while skulking toward the door. After a couple minutes silence, he gathered the courage to peek through the peephole. As he leaned in, left eye closed as he focused with the right, another abrupt knock-knock-knock battered his nerves…this time from the closed bathroom door to his right.
“Jesus…fuck…” Jesse swallowed hard; it felt like he was forcing his heart back into his chest…and he wasn’t sure if it was going to stay down. He was propped against the hallway wall, tiptoes aching, hands pressing hard, looking for a non-existent exit.
And then the bathroom doorknob started to turn—
“No! I don’t want…no! Go away! I don’t want…”
As Jesse gripped the doorknob with both hands, dancing nervously on the pea green carpet, he sputtered like a clogged carburetor. His brain whirred with confusion and terror.
Was the phone caller—was Styler’s killer—already in his apartment?
“I didn’t call anybody. I didn’t make any more calls.”
The phone rang, it shrieked, a discordant jangling that seemed much louder than usual as it stretched and clamored for attention in ways that could not be ignored. Jesse danced some more, like a child in need of a bathroom, though he wanted nothing to do with entering this bathroom, or letting whatever was in this bathroom out. He glanced toward the phone. It seemed almost about to leap from the table to track him down, its ringing, relentless.
That’s when he realized there was no effort being given by whoever was in the bathroom, no longer trying to escape.
Had he really felt anything up to now? Had he actually seen it move?
The phone raged on, the ringing seeming to increase in volume even more, about to gobble him up.
Hands still clamped to the bathroom doorknob, Jesse closed his eyes, trying to think amidst the clanging din, amidst his already frazzled nerves.
With a sudden dash, he released his grip on the door and sprinted to the kitchen, grabbing an iron skillet and ready to swing.
All for naught. Nobody ran after him, ready to attack or…whatever they had in mind. Trepidation wiggled in Jesse’s head like a worm, gnawing with the persistence of an overly tongued toothache.
He moved toward the phone, the ringing now reaching for decibel rupturing amplification, staring at the bathroom door all the way. He picked it up.
“Your name is Jesse Karl Greene.” The voice was not the same; it was similar, but watered down, concentrated. “You were born August 8, 1985. Your father’s name is Karl and your mother’s name is Cindy. You have two older sisters, Karin and Courtney. You have lived most of your life in Phoenix, Arizona, only moving to Oakland, California, two years ago, to ‘strike out on your own,’ as you told your mother, not realizing the grim joke that the expression entailed as you had struck out in every endeavor in this dead end life of yours since you had arrived here, and well before this latest failure to ‘do something’ with your life.”
There was a pause, a moment of ill-fitting respite, as if the voice was prospecting, digging for more personal nuggets, probing Jesse’s brain.
“You are 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 135 pounds, too skinny for your height, but you don’t mind because the leanness accentuates a sexual ambiguity that you imagine is there but rarely acknowledge, even to yourself, except when naked in front of a mirror as you masturbate to the fantasy that you keep hidden from everybody else. Pouting your full, red lipstick coated lips, wearing your sisters’ and mothers’ stolen panties and dresses…”
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up! You c-can’t—” his voice cracked, the words clogged his throat, “you can’t know any…anything—”
“And yet it’s really got nothing to do with sexual ambiguity, nothing that flamboyant. It is more a meager response to your inability to talk to others, primarily women—you know, they don’t bite…You’re just a mama’s boy, much to the chagrin of your Air Force daddy, looking for another mama…”
The voice giggled, bubbling like boiling water, then continued down a path a little less unnerving, but no less insidious. “Your hair is naturally brown, though you insist on dying it black, some kind of internal protocol in relation to the music you listen to and the image you like to portray, much like the bogus protocol exhibited by your body piercings and tattoos, testaments of endurance as opposed to enrichment; style without substance. You like to think of yourself as an outsider, but you and I both know this is not the case. You and I know that these feelings are pathetic and unsubstantiated, lies spawned by aspirations to be different, or at least to be seen as different, yet what you really want is to fit in, because there is nothing about you that is special, there is nothing about you that swells with hope. There is only the buried fantasy in the mirror and the undeniable truth that you are so very average—”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Jesse was aware of feeling exposed in ways that he had never felt before. His eyes stung, fear replaced with shame and disgust, or maybe with paranoia at having his moments alone brandished in this manner…or maybe denial, so much denial, blotting it all out as the night erases the day, those moments alone indicative of somebody else’s life, not his life, not his drab, inconsequential existence. These coarse revelations could only be validated if he allowed them validation in his head, in his soul. His strained reaction confirmed it all in his head; and his soul just ached…
Silence hung like dirty laundry on a greasy line.
“Don’t cry, Jesse. Your secrets are safe with me. I won’t tell anybody, won’t tell a soul; won’t even remind your soul of these things ever again, as long as you keep your mouth shut.
“Shall I continue?”
Jesse set the phone in its cradle. He didn’t need to hear any more. Though he felt moistness on his cheeks, the sobbing he heard was not from within. It emanated from the apartment beneath him. From the apartment to his right, words crumbled, devoured by the despair from which they were born.
From his left—Styler’s apartment—he heard nothing, of course.
More sounds circled, auditory vultures awaiting a morbid feast, confirming the disconsolate malaise that surrounded him. Confirming the necessity to keep secret thoughts buried within the bearers, to keep these private thoughts and deeds at bay, like withered egos in unlocked cages, afraid to step out because of the dread possibility that one’s deepest, most personal moments of truth and self-awareness are not one’s own.
A gunshot from within the apartment complex reflected another’s choice. Jesse only wished it was out back, and before the foreboding turn of events.
The world was different now, beyond annoyance and intrigue, beyond breath and hope.
Yet, Jesse thought himself lucky. He was still alive. As he pulled the blankets from his bed and scrunched into an empty corner within the apartment, he knew his secret thoughts—the few prodded by the unknown entity, as well as the many more that jostled for position in his head, some even forming as he pulled the blankets over his head—were forever his own, now, as long as he kept quiet. No one would ever get to know them; no one would ever get to know him.
This was good.
When the screaming out back started again, Jesse thought, it’s only going to end badly…for them.
But…but not for him.
As he stared into the womb of darkness, Jesse knew it would be impossible for anyone to find him here. His shattered interior confidences promoted loneliness to isolation, opposite faces of the same coin. He was safe now, within the black abyss of his mind, of his soul, of his life.
Safe and alone…forever.
John Claude Smith has had over 60 short stories and 15 poems published, as well as a debut collection of “not your average horror”, The Dark Is Light Enough For Me. His second collection, Autumn in the Abyss, was published by Omnium Gatherum in March of 2014, and is garnering much positive response and reviews. He is presently writing his third novel, while shopping around the other two and putting together a follow-up collection. Busy is good. He splits his time between the East Bay of northern California, across from San Francisco, and Rome, Italy, where his heart resides always.
You can find out more about John on his website http://thewildernesswithinbyjohnclaudesmith.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter at @wickdplayground
Also read ‘Ring Finger’ by John Claude Smith in SQ Mag Edition 3