Home » Time by John Andreini. Short story. January 2019

Horla Fiction (January 2019)

 

TIME  

by JOHN ANDREINI

“Time… ”

“Four twenty five,” called out a nurse, pulling down her mask.

Surgeon Jon Harvey looked down at the dead man on his operating table as the team shut off equipment around him. His name was Julius, an addict and dealer who’d been beaten to death by an unsatisfied customer. There was no one in the waiting room to notify, no grieving relatives to deal with.

Another surgeon had stood over Jon’s wife Gina three weeks earlier as life slipped from her body, on a table just like this one. We’re not gods, he thought, rehashing a phrase that had lost its meaning for him long ago.

“Dr. Harvey? You okay?”

“Sorry,” he muttered as he slid by the busy nurses and pushed open the operating room doors.

In the small locker room, Jon sat on a wood bench hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, thinking dangerous thoughts.

If he could have saved Julius’s life, would that have been in the kid’s best interest? Is life everyone’s best option?

“Jon.”

The hand of George Estrada, Jon’s favourite anesthesiologist, rested on his shoulder. “Sorry about the kid. You doing okay?”

“That’s a question impossible to answer honestly.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no.’” George sat next to Jon. “Shit, I feel responsible.”

“For what?”

“I was the one who said getting back to work quickly would help you focus on something other than…Gina, but I think I was wrong about that. You should take some time off. Grieve. Drink. Run. Not necessarily in that order.”

Jon sat up, a smile forming and evaporating quickly. “I can’t argue with you, George. I shouldn’t be in the operating room.”

 Jon rubbed the stubble on his shallow cheeks, and George noticed the tan line from his wedding ring.

“Go see the Chief of Staff. Take a few weeks off.”

The sabbatical began only days later, and Jon christened his first free morning with a long run in the hills around his Big Sur home Gina had nicknamed ‘Mount Olympus.’ The last quarter of a mile uphill was the test, always that last stretch, and his leg muscles complained as he finally stopped to open the security gate.

Lifting the cover of the keypad, Jon was about to punch in the number when his attention was drawn to a man standing in front of the steps to the porch. He was an older gentleman with wavy wisps of silver hair and a drawn, weary face, but there was nothing familiar about him. And how had he gotten on the property?

“Can I help you?” called out Jon as he walked warily up the driveway.

The old man exposed rows of stained teeth and extended a thin, white hand. “Dr. Harvey. So sorry for coming by unannounced.”

Jon stopped several feet away from the man, creating an awkward space. “You seem to know me, but I can’t say the same. What are you doing here?”

The man lowered his hand. His small eyes seemed unusually red, as if he’d been crying. “James Baxtrom. I knew your wife.”

Jon wiped sweat from his forehead and studied the man in the shabby black overcoat, trying to digest the odd bit of information he’d just offered.

“My wife never mentioned you.”

“I’m sure she didn’t,” said Baxtrom just above a whisper.   

Jon reached into the small pouch he carried and pulled out his phone. ”So could you please tell me why you’re on my property? I have a locked gate for a reason.”

The man put up his hands. “I’m sorry. I just felt I should talk to you in person.”

“About what?”

“Gina. There are some things about her you might not be aware of.”

“What? Were you two having an affair?” asked Jon, a grin spreading.

“No, nothing like that, but I do have something important to discuss with you regarding your wife. Could we go inside and talk?”

Jon stood perplexed, looking at the man, then at his phone, then back at the old man, trying to put pieces together that didn’t fit. It was too much.

“What the hell. Come on,” he said, turning toward the front porch.

James sat stiffly on the couch, wearing his buttoned coat.

“Beer?”

“No thank you,” said James.

Jon sat down with his bottle. “I don’t have any idea what you really want, but I do know this will make a great story to tell. So go ahead. How did you know Gina?”

“Right.” James looked down and picked at a thread. “Have you been to your wife’s grave since the funeral?”

Jon’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I knew Gina. Bright, like you, but also adventurous…curious. She led a life over the years that I can only assume she kept secret from you, a life devoted to the occult.”

As the word “occult” crashed against the armour of scientific rationality usually protecting Jon, he set down his beer, grabbed the arms of his chair and started laughing. He tried to contain the loudest bursts by leaning forward and covering his face with his hands, but it took an embarrassingly long time to gain control of himself.

“I’m sorry. The occult? Gina was a psychologist. She had a Master’s degree from Berkeley. She published in professional journals…”

“I know, Jon. I was one of her professors.”

“What?”

“It was an upper level seminar called, “The Mind, Mystics and Madness.” We looked at the effects of non-traditional forces on the functionality of the brain and perceived reality, such as drugs, religion, trauma and the occult. I’m afraid my own passion for the paranormal and things metaphysical rubbed off and she became enthralled with occult rituals and practices, and wrote quite a fascinating paper at the end of the term on the zombie mythology in Haiti.

“After the class, she kept in touch, asking me my opinion on certain practices. I don’t need to tell you this, but she travelled extensively, always under the guise of some professional purpose, but the trips were often taken to experience the occult first hand, séances, satanic rituals, black magic and such.”

“This is a bunch of bullshit,” growled Jon. “She never said a goddamn word about it.”

“You worked long, difficult hours. You’re a man of science. It doesn’t surprise me she didn’t say anything. But she knew she was going to die.”

A late afternoon fog began filling-in the valleys. A trick of light and clouds passed by the windows and darkened the man’s face.

“How did you know that? Her sister Chelsea and I told family and friends it was an accident. Chelsea wanted it that way. No one knew it was suicide but the police and the two of us.”

“Because she told me in a text. But she said I shouldn’t worry.”

“I’m losing my patience, Braxton, if that’s really your name.”

“She said not to worry, because it wouldn’t be the end. You see, a Brazilian shaman I know gave her a potion, a very powerful concoction, that could…I know how this sounds…raise the dead. Please, it sounds preposterous, but I personally witnessed this elixir bring two people back to life who were clearly dead.”

(Cont next column)

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How did they drink this potion if they were dead?”

“They took it before they died.”

“And how did they know when they were going to die?”

The man averted Jon’s gaze. “That’s not important. I videotaped it. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Get out.”

“Yes, it is difficult to—“

“That’s far enough. You understand? I have no reason to believe a single word you’ve said. My wife suffered from depression and it got the best of her. The police ruled it suicide. And there is no fucking way she would be involved in a bunch of mumbo jumbo zombie shit that I wouldn’t know about.” Jon stood up and pointed a shaking finger at the door. “Now get out.”

“Please, go to her grave. I would, but I don’t know where—“

“Get the fuck out of my house,” screamed Jon, flecks of spit flying.

James rose and walked stiffly to the door, shoulders low in defeat. He turned as he rested his hand on the handle. “Go to her grave. Make sure.”

The thud of the door closing felt like waking from a nightmare for Jon, the kind you instantly want to forget, but he couldn’t simply dismiss the old man’s bizarre story as much as he wanted to. It clung to him like smoke as he got another beer and opened his laptop. After a few minutes searching he found the bio of James Baxtrom among the faculty at UC Berkley, a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology. At least one part of his story was true, but was that all?

After dinner and dishes that night, Jon went down to the den, then into the unfinished section of the basement with the washer and dryer, cleaning supplies and boxes stacked on top of boxes, many of them filled with Gina’s belongings that he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out. How could he not have known? How could they have had thousands of conversations and arguments over the years without the subject of the occult ever being mentioned?

He was trying to talk himself out of tearing open the slowly healing wound that was Gina’s death, but he failed and pulled down a random box with ‘Gina’ scribbled on the side and began poking through his wife’s past.

Two hours later, there was one last box to go through, and nothing found yet to even hint that his wife was dabbling in the paranormal, no voodoo dolls or sage bundles or Ouija boards. Nothing but the trinkets and small shards of life that she treasured.

Tired and yearning for a drink, Jon rummaged hastily through the last box until his fingers picked out a small black booklet, the kind used for jotting down notes and phone numbers in the pre-cell phone era.

Jon flipped through the pages, but stopped when a few strange images jumped out at him.

The first was a pen drawing of a single eye staring, another a human heart with what looked like a bite taken out of it.

His skin warmed as he realised the text below the images was written in Latin, the dead language now only used by priests and physicians. There were some words he recognised.

Life. Nature. Heart. Dead, or death.

He repacked the boxes and took the book with him upstairs, brooding now that there was in fact some tangible link between Gina and this occult nonsense. It wasn’t as if this would be very high on the list of problems with their relationship, considering the affairs and drunken arguments. She had everything yet was still unhappy. Toward the end they were barely on speaking terms. What would be so important about keeping this a secret?

The large west-facing windows were tinted orange with the last dying hint of the sun. Fog crept up the valleys toward the summits, long grey fingers inching forward as the air cooled and shadows deepened around the hilltop neighbourhood.

Jon took his glass of wine to the back deck and watched the sun sink below the horizon, the tide rolling in and taking back its land for one more cycle. Leaning against the railing and into a breeze, the old man’s revelations about his wife chilled him far deeper than the dropping temperature.

He drained his glass and threw it down into a ravine, wanting to hear it shatter on the rocks below, to know that one thing in his life was truly gone, its function ended, like his last patient.

Pine branches swept back and forth over the house, ushering Jon back inside for a new glass and new bottle.

“Go to her grave.”

The old man was crazy, and his words were like a taunt, a dare, but one that would only make Jon feel foolish in the end. He would take flowers to Gina’s grave one of these days because it was the right thing to do, not to see if she had clawed her way through six feet of earth and risen from the dead. Tired and woozy, Jon turned off the TV and the downstairs lights, double-checking door locks, and trudged up the stairs to his bedroom.

A door shut somewhere in the house, and it jolted Jon awake.

It was 2:40 in the morning, and he flung back his covers and sat on the edge of the bed, trying to think rationally about the noise and how he should respond.

He turned toward the door. Was he hearing footsteps on the stairs?

“Who’s there?” he called out.

The slow footfalls became louder and his heart started racing. “I’ve got a gun,” he shouted, wishing he actually did.

The door handle jiggled and Jon stood up, now panicking. “There’s no money in the house. I swear.”

The door slowly swung in and he could make out the silhouette of a woman standing in the threshold, her body blacker than the darkness surrounding her. The air in the room turned frigid as Jon backed up, knocking over a table lamp behind him.

“You’re supposed to save lives, Jon.”

The voice was Gina’s, but it sounded like it was coming from the back of a cave.

“Not take them.”

“No. This is impossible,” shouted Jon. “What do you want?”

“I want what all murder victims want, justice.”

The woman took a step into the room and Jon’s back was now against the cold glass of a sliding door to the deck. “Are you serious…murder?”

“I don’t have to tell you what you did, Jon.” She floated forward.

“No, please. Stop.”

“Stop? After conquering death? No, I don’t think so.”

Jon fumbled with the handle and slid the door open, stumbling out onto the deck, stopped by the railing. Ocean waves roiled and crashed against the shore far below. “I’m sorry. We cheated on each other. You said you hated me. Please stop. I’ll turn myself in. I promise. Tomorrow…tonight.”

The shadowy woman kept advancing until the moonlight spilling into the room fell blue on the disfigured death mask that was her face. Jon screamed and threw himself backwards, choosing a fatal fall to death at the hands of his revenge-driven wife.

“Time,” whispered Gina.

The yellow glow of dawn nudged darkness from the empty bedroom. The phone on Jon’s bedside table rang then went to voicemail.

“Jon, it’s James Baxtrom. Sorry to call so early in the morning, but I wanted you to know that I did locate Gina’s gravesite and everything is as it should be. I hope you’ll forgive a foolish old man who should know better for peddling such nonsense. Have a good day.”

John Andreini is based in Portland, Oregon, USA. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in/at Oregon’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction(2018), Indiana Horror Review 2018Hello Horror AnthologyDrunken Pen WritingDark Dossier, Dollars & Donuts Productions (San Francisco), Tim Clark Productions (Los Angeles); Creepy Ghost Stories (YouTube); Chilling Tales for Dark Nights; Horror d’Oeuvres – Bite-Sized Tales of Terror (anthology); and numerous YouTube creepypasta channels (under “minnboy”).

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