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Portrait of a Horror Writer
by Tim Waggoner

You stare at the laptop screen, trying to come up with a good opening line, one that's suggestive without being obvious; atmospheric without being vague. No It was a dark and stygian night.

Slow minutes pass, but nothing comes, and now even dark and stygian night is starting to look good.

You decide to try beginning with an image - it's worked for you in the past - so instead of focusing on words, you now sift through pictures in your mind, odd snatches of daily life that impressed themselves upon you over the years: a single bloody sock you found at the end of your driveway one afternoon (perhaps thrown out of the window by someone in a passing car?), a purple rubber dildo attachment for a vibrator you almost ran over with the mower one spring (though how it got there, and what happened to the vibrator itself, you haven't a clue), a replica of an electric chair bolted to the roof of a frat house down by the university. You read about it in the paper, clipped out the picture that accompanied the article and stuck it in your idea folder, though you've long since lost track of it. It's probably packed away in one of the boxes stored in the attic after you moved a few months ago, along with dozens of old computer disks and print-outs containing the text of far too many stories and novels that will never be published but which you can't bear to dispose of. Too bad. That folder sure would come in handy today.

You glance at the clock on the dining room wall behind you (you know better than to set up your laptop where you can see the clock while you write - or in this case, try to write). 10:48. It won't be long before your wife and three-year-old daughter get home from Tuesday morning playgroup. Have you really been sitting here struggling to get something down since they left at nine? It seems hard to believe, but clocks don't lie.

Wait, maybe they do! There's an idea that just might . . . the initial rush of enthusiasm is gone before it has a chance to build. Stupid thought, not even worth jotting down and sticking in the idea folder - that is, if you knew where the damn folder was to stick anything into.

Maybe another cup of coffee. You lift your hands away from the computer and notice how they tremble and decide that you've had enough coffee for now. How about a walk, then? A little exercise to get the old creative juices flowing. Besides, you've been meaning to do something about the spare tire around your middle. No time like the present, right?

You leave the laptop on - it's not like you're going to be gone that long - get up from the dining table and walk through the living room, glancing out the picture window on your way to the hall closet. It's been snowing on and off the last few days, and the ground is covered by white. Some flakes are drifting down, but the snowfall is light and will probably taper off to nothing soon. Good. You've never much liked snow.

You put on boots and your winter coat (you decide to do without a hat, you hate the way your hair gets all matted down when you wear one), open the door and step outside. The air is cold and crisp, and when you inhale your sinuses throb. You figure they'll adjust to the temperature soon enough, and you take your keys out of the pocket of your jeans, lock the door (this is a safe suburban neighborhood, but still you never know), put the keys away, turn and start down the terraced front walk. You shoveled it off yesterday evening, but enough snow fell during the night that it's covered again. You know you should probably clear the new stuff away, but you don't want to put off your writing. Yes, you know that going for a walk is an excuse for not working, but at least there's a chance you might really come up with an idea while you're out. If you stop to shovel snow, you won't even have the illusion that you're still working.

You make your way down the walk carefully, the corrugated tread of your boots giving you plenty of traction. Snowflakes descend lazily around you, and as they fall, you fancy you hear tiny shrill screams. A flake lands on your cheek, an instant of cold on your skin and then it starts to melt. You imagine the snowflake isn't really a snowflake, that it's some small creature that's only masquerading as snow - one of hundreds, perhaps thousands that are falling from the sky - and now that it's made contact, it's not melting but rather seeping into your flesh, entering your bloodstream, riding the surging tides of your circulatory system toward your heart, or perhaps your brain.

You smile. Not bad. You might be able to work with it.

Feeling vindicated in your choice to go for a walk, you continue, dozens of tiny screams echoing in your ears as the "snow" keeps falling. You slip your hands into your coat pockets (you hate wearing gloves) and step off the curb and into the street. Your house is on the end of a cul-de-sac which borders a small park - open fields, a half dozen picnic tables, a swingset and slide. Sometimes in the morning, looking out the window and sipping coffee as you try to wake up, you see people walking their dogs in the park. One woman always brings three small white poodles, sometimes dressed in matching green and blue sweaters. You hate poodles . . . yappy little things with rheumy eyes that shiver and squirt pee when they get excited.

No Poodle-Woman today, though. Probably too cold out for her precious darlings. Maybe . . . maybe the poodles are really the masters, and they're taking their human for a walk? You grimace and shake your head. Been done a billion times. Keep walking, keep thinking.

As you head across the cul-de-sac toward the park, you glance at the house across the street - a ranch like yours, with only minor variations in color and design to mark it as any different - and you see a SALE PENDING sign. You stop and look at it, thinking that this is the fifth time the sign has gone up. Four times before FOR SALE has been replaced by SALE PENDING, and four times the latter has come down and the former returned. You don't know the owners well, an old couple whose kids are grown and long moved away, but you guess that there's something wrong with their house that's revealed when potential buyers have an inspection done. Maybe the basement leaks and there's water damage . . . something like that. Still, these flip-flopping signs seem vaguely sinister. Maybe there's another reason why SALE PENDING never lasts long. Maybe the owners aren't so much interested in selling their house as they are in attracting people to come look at it. And once these folks are inside . . .

A sigh escapes your lips, expelled breath turning to curls of white steam in the frigid air. The idea's nothing but a variation on the "Venus flytrap" scenario, a story structure so old it was probably a cliché back when primitive tellers of tales squatted around campfires and told their stories with grunts and gestures.

In the house, a window curtain that was held open a few inches is released, and the fabric falls back into place, concealing whoever - or whatever - was watching you. You look at the window a moment longer before shrugging and continuing toward the park. You step off the asphalt of the cul-de-sac, which has been plowed clean by city workers, and onto the snow-covered field of the park, snowflakes still drifting down around you, screaming in their faint, high voices.

The top coating of snow is hard, and it resists your weight for a second before collapsing under your boot with a satisfying crunch. Before you the spread of white is unbroken, save for a single line of tracks left by something with long, thin toes that end in claw-points. Raccoon, you guess. You don't even bother to imagine what else might have made the tracks; it's not worth the effort. A line of trees, branches bare save for a dusting of snow clinging to the topside of the wood, begins a dozen yards off to your right. You remember how excited your wife was when you first looked at your house - back when it had a FOR SALE sign in front.

"It'd be so great living next to a park. Jenny would have so much fun - running through the field, swinging, sliding, exploring the woods . . ."

"It's not that big of a park," you said, knowing that it didn't matter what you thought, that she'd fallen in love with the house and the park and you were going to buy it. Despite the fact that there were no streetlights here and no lights in the park, either. Anyone could approach from the dark woods, make their way across the unlit field and the empty cul-de-sac, up the driveway (which is illuminated at night, if poorly by a low-wattage fluorescent bulb), around the back of the house where the bedroom windows were - where Jenny's window was.

The thought of anyone trying to get into your daughter's room makes you shudder, but you don't even consider using it for your story. Unfortunately, it's a news item that's all too common. Besides, some things hit too close to home to write about.

Coward. That's exactly what you should be writing about.

"Fuck off," you mutter and keep walking. You notice the raccoon tracks veer off toward the woods, and that their shapes change the closer they come to the treeline, becoming larger, gaining extra toes and longer claws. Something rustles among the trees, something big, and do you hear heavy, labored breathing? You're tempted to look more closely, maybe even walk over to investigate, but why bother? Whatever you'd find probably wouldn't be worth writing about.

You can see the next street over from here, which ends in a cul-de-sac just like yours, and you decide to head for it. No particular reason; it's just someplace to go. You keep crunching across the field, leaving a line of tracks behind you. You imagine the tracks filling in until the snow is smooth and unbroken once more, imagine another pair of tracks appearing next to yours, even though you're alone. The images drift away as easily as they came, no more substantial or significant than a solitary flake of melting snow.

You reach the other side of the park and step over the curb and onto asphalt. The home before you, while in the same basic position relative to its cul-de-sac as yours (facing your house, like a mirror image) is yet another ranch, but it's smaller than most around here, the brick painted white, the roof and shutters black. And the front door's open - not wide open, less than a foot probably, but it strikes you as odd. It's far too cold to leave a door open for any length of time. You've only been outside for a few minutes, but already your ears are numb and your nose is running.

It's nothing, you tell yourself, trying to ignore the crawling sensation on the back of your neck that has nothing to do with the temperature. Whoever lives there just left the door open while they bring in groceries from the car, that's all.

No car in the driveway, though, and none in front of the house.

The crawling sensation is getting worse.

You hesitate for a moment, two, and then start walking toward the house. You tell yourself that you shouldn't be doing this, that you should call the police and let them check it out, but you left your cell phone charging on the kitchen counter. If this were one of your stories . . .

But it's not, so you keep going. You don't know who lives here - you haven't been in the neighborhood that long, and truth to tell, you're not the most sociable person in the world - and you feel like an intruder as you start up the driveway. It hasn't been shoveled and your prints are the first since the snow fell. You start across the yard toward the open door, and you notice a set of tracks coming from the next house over. They're clear and crisp, which means they're recent . . . and they lead up to the front door, but there are none coming out. Which means whoever made them is still inside.

Don't be so sinister, you tell yourself. Someone could've just come over for a visit, and after they went in, the owner didn't shut the door tight and the wind blew it open. Except there is no wind. The air is still (you resist thinking it's dead), snow drifting slowly, if not silently, down around you.

Now that you're close to the house, you see that the paint on the brick and shutters is old and flaking. The curtains are drawn, so you can't see inside, but you can tell that the glass is coated a dingy yellow. Whoever lives here definitely hasn't earned the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. You reach the porch, careful not to step on the tracks that are already there, just in case.

Just in case what? That they might be evidence?

Maybe.

You stand there, hesitating, trying to decide what to do next. Do you just pull the door closed and leave? Do you knock and wait to see if someone answers? Do you push the door open a little wider, lean your head in and call out "Hello? Anyone here? Your door is open!"

While you're trying to decide, you hear something. A voice mumbling words you can't make out, and the shhkkt-shhkkt-shhkkt of scissors cutting. The sounds are coming from somewhere in the house, of course. Where else?

An alarm goes off in your hindbrain, telling you Something is Wrong and that now would be an excellent opportunity to prove that discretion really is the better part of valor. But your hand reaches for the door knob of its own accord (you've written about this, people watching as their bodies do things - walk forward, peer around a corner, grip a door knob - as if they were no more than puppets and someone else was working the strings, but this is the first time you've experienced it). You push the door open, and by Christ if you don't step inside, just like one of those moronic characters in cheap-ass horror movies who, as a friend of yours once put it, exist only to get "slurped by the glop." You've never had any sympathy for those sacrificial lambs, figuring that anyone who's dumb enough to walk into the house of horror deserves whatever grisly fate awaits them, but now you wonder if they (thinking about them as if they truly existed) are gripped by the same fascination you are, a compulsion, really, almost hypnotic in its power, to keep going despite the fact that all your instincts are screaming (much louder than the snowflakes) to get-the-hell-out-of-here-NOW! But you don't because, even though you know you shouldn't, like Lot's wife, you have to see.

But you smell first, a stink so thick you could take a bite out of it. Once when you were a teenager, you were mowing the field - you grew up in the country, on six-and-a-half acres, which meant a lot of mowing every spring and summer - and you ran over the flattened, yellowed desiccated carcass of a groundhog. You were on a riding mower, and you jammed your foot on the brake, but not in time. Bits of leathery skin and broken bone shot out the mower's side, and a truly hellacious stench filled the air, greasy and rank.

This smell is worse.

John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer . . . bodies buried in the basement, sealed in plastic barrels . . .

You're in the foyer, and a glance to your right show you the living room. Aside from the curtains, which you now see are nothing more than tattered gray sheets hung over the window with nails, the room is bare. No furniture, no carpet . . . even the walls are unpainted. The "curtains" are thin enough to allow some light in; otherwise, the house is dark.

The mumbling is louder now, the shhkkt-shhkkt of the scissors faster. And you become aware of a new sound: the soft mewing of cats.

The marionette strings tug at your limbs and you continue down the foyer to a hallway, turn right and walk toward the sounds. The rooms have no doors, and the first two you pass are empty, completely so save for more curtain-sheets, but the third bedroom (the master, you guess, from the size) is not. The floor is littered with debris: scattered newspapers, soiled fast-food wrappers, and empty styrofoam cups. Tiny black shapes skitter among the trash, and you shudder with revulsion. But the insects are far from the worst. Cats - a dozen at least, maybe more - are gathered around the still form of a man in a mail carrier uniform. He's lying face-up on the floor, coat open, his chest and belly covered with wet crimson. There's blood on the floor around him, splattered onto bits of trash, and the cats are lapping it up eagerly, as if they're starving.

The mail carrier can't be more than thirty, you guess, though it's hard to say, what with all the blood covering his face and the cats clustered around and on top of him. You've read numerous stories and novels where a character, confronted by something awful beyond imagining, loses control over his bodily functions and warm urine runs down his legs, soaking his socks and shoes before dribbling onto the floor. You've never used that tired old gag in your own writing, always figured that it was a cheap way to indicate overwhelming fear. But now, even though you don't piss yourself, you understand why someone in this situation might. Oh, yes you do.

Sitting on a simple wooden stool in the middle of the room is a grossly overweight man wearing only a muscle T-shirt (spattered with blood, of course) and dingy boxer shorts. On his lap is the mail carrier's bag, and he's holding a letter with one sticky-wet hand and cutting it in half with a pair of gore-slick scissors. The two halves of the letter fall to the floor, to join a pile of other halves.

You can make out what the fat man is mumbling now.

"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was awful and the Word was wonderful and the Word was death and the Word must die must stop the Word must cut-cut-cut the Word cut all the Words. . ."

The man suddenly notices you and looks up. He frowns for a moment, clearly puzzled, but then recognition fills his eyes and he scowls.

"Say, aren't you that fellow who just moved in over by the park? The one who makes Words?"

The most awful thing about his voice is that it sounds so normal: no guttural tones or demonic echoes. In a way, this is worse than the empty house, the dead mail carrier, even the ravenous cats, for the fat man doesn't sound like a monster . . . he could be any man, in any house, in any neighborhood, anywhere. The sheer horror of this realization (and now the word horror means so much more to you than it did only a few moments ago, more than just a descriptor in a market listing or label on the spine of a paperback) breaks your trance, and you turn and flee the room.

The man bellows and you hear the mail bag drop as he stands, hear thrashing as he kicks his way through the debris, hear the protesting reeeeee-ows! of cats getting out of the way. Hear the slap-slap-slap of bare feet on uncarpeted floor, and you know he's coming after you, scissors in hand. Of course he is, you think, an edge of hysteria to your thought-voice. It wouldn't be much of a story if he didn't.

Down the hallway and the foyer, through the front door, onto the porch, leaping over the steps, landing in the snow and almost slipping, managing to stay on your feet, then running toward the park. Heart pounding in your ears, lungs heaving, breath fogging the air like white smoke. He won't come after you, you tell yourself, not in his underwear and bare-footed, not in this cold and not with snow on the ground.

You almost make the mistake of slowing down, but then you hear feet smacking the front porch, hear a bestial growl (which strikes you as more appropriate, and somehow more comforting, than his "normal" voice) and you know that the fat man doesn't give a good goddamn about the cold. You run into the park, tromping across the tracks you made during your previous crossing, obliterating the raccoon-thing's, too. (And do you see, out of the corner of your vision, a feral-eyed, fur-covered face staring at you from between a pair of trees? Maybe).

You're halfway across now, and although you feel an almost irresistible urge to look behind you and see how close your pursuer is, you don't. The sounds are more than enough to indicate his progress - pounding feet, harsh breath, his half-growl, half-whine a mix of anger and frustration. You almost slip as you leap over the curb onto the asphalt of your cul-de-sac, and you imagine that he's so close he takes a swipe at you with bloody scissors, blade raking the back of your jacket but sliding off without cutting, thank Jesus. At least you hope you imagine it.

You make it to your front walk and begin bounding up the terraced stone steps. Snowflakes are still falling, but they aren't screaming anymore; they're laughing, laughing their cold, crystalline asses off.

You reach the door, grip the knob, start to turn it -

It's locked.

Of course it is, you always lock the door when you leave. Ironic that a basic safety precaution is going to spell your D-O-O-M. You jam your hand into the front pocket of your jeans, but you know you're not going to get your keys out in time, let alone unlock the fucking door. You can't resist any longer, and really, what's the point? You turn around and look.

If this were one of your stories, you'd see a flash of wild eyes just before sharp scissors plunged into the too-soft flesh of your neck. But it's not. The fat man is standing at the edge of the cul-de-sac, scissors gripped in a tight fist, bare feet in the snow, unmoving, as if he's encountered an invisible barrier that he cannot cross. His head's cocked to the side, and you realize he's listening to something. The snowflakes fall silently now, and you can hear it, too, barely: a high-pitched, plaintive mewing. His little ones are calling.

He looks back toward his house, then he turns to give you a final glare before starting back across the park, muttering to himself as he goes.

You don't wait around to watch; you pull out your keys and gripping them in a trembling hand, unlock the door, practically fall inside, and slam it closed behind you. And yes, you lock it.

You slide to the floor and sit there, your back against the door, until your breathing slows to something approaching normal. You stand up, those marionette strings at work again, take off your coat and hang it in the closet. Then you walk into the living room and look at the phone sitting on a stand by the entertainment center. You should call the police and tell them what you've seen. You really should. But instead you walk across the carpet into the dining room, sit down at the table in front of your laptop, and start to type.

* * * *

"So, how did you kill us this time?"

Startled, you look up from the computer screen. You hadn't realized your wife had come home. You glance over and see your three-year-old daughter sitting on the floor in front of the entertainment center watching a cartoon. You have no memory of them coming inside the house, or of the TV being turned on. You're used to getting lost in your work, but not quite this lost.

Your wife goes on. "Are we eaten by rotting zombies? Gutted by a deranged killer? Devoured from the inside out by alien parasites?" She's smiling, but there's a coldness in her voice. Your endings - often featuring the deaths of a mother and child - have become an issue between the two of you over the years. You've told her you don't know why you do it, that maybe it's because their deaths are the worst thing you can think of, and that's what horror should be about, right? But she's never bought it, and truth to tell, neither have you.

You try to smile. "You'll be happy to know that you and Jenny aren't even in this one."

"Oh?" A hint of curiosity in her voice, and she leans over your shoulder to peer at the screen.

You're always uncomfortable with people reading your work before it's finished, but all you say is "It's not done yet. I still need to think of an ending."

She finishes reading the text on the screen and looks at you, a skeptical eyebrow raised. "A crazy shut-in and cats?"

You sigh. "You're right. It's stupid." Your fingers move across the keyboard and you delete the file without saving it. Before your wife can protest, you say, "It's no big deal. It was just something I was playing around with."

Your wife leans over, gives you a kiss on the top of your head and disappears into the kitchen. Your daughter giggles at something on the TV. You don't look up to see what it is.

Instead, you stare at the blank-white on the laptop's display - as stark and barren as an arctic snowfield - and you reach out and press your fingertips to the screen.

"Please," you whisper, "let me in."

For an instant, you feel the plastic begin to yield, grow soft and welcoming, but then it becomes firm once more. Impenetrable, in the truest, most awful sense of the word.

Your wife calls from the kitchen. "Hey, hon! Would you like to see what I picked up at the hardware store on my way home?"

Tears well from your eyes, slide down your cheeks, become snowflakes as they fall to the keyboard and melt.

You sense movement behind you, and the side of your head explodes with pain and a surprised chuff of air escapes your lips. Though you can barely think through the agony blazing in your skull, you realize that something has hit you on the head, something hard, and you turn to see what it is, too dazed to think of doing anything else.

You see your wife holding a hammer, eyes wild, teeth bared in a cruel grin.

"How's this for an ending to your piece of shit story?" She screams and swings the hammer at your forehead, far too fast for you to even think about ducking.

A bright flash erupts behind your eyes. The blow is so hard that it spins your head back around and you slump forward onto the laptop's keyboard. You hear your daughter laughing in delight and clapping her hands.

"Hit him again, Mommy! Hit him again!"

The computer screen is splattered with red and you can hardly see the line of letters on the display - letters created when your cheek hit the keys. It's difficult to focus your eyes so close to the screen, especially with the gray haze nibbling at the edge of your vision, but you read the text, some of it obscured by blood.

ANFORKOMYUHVVBXUHJNCKOP

"Well?" your wife says with satisfaction. "What do you think of my ending?"

Darkness rushes in like an ebon wave and you answer her with your final thought.

It's been done.

As the black closes in, you reach over with trembling fingers, turn off the laptop, and the Word goes . . .