The office was hot and stuffy. It was an unusual business. They did reviews of short stories instead of novels, and published them into one volume entitled Short Stories of Suspense and Wonder.
There would be the usual stack of magazines and literary journals on the long table, and the short story reviewers would grab the choice bits to cover until only the newsprint of local human interest stories and obituaries were left. Suzie waited on the outskirts, smiling at her fiance, Geoffrey. He wasn’t feeling ambitious today, and waited for the men in front of him to stop arguing over a short suspense piece.
Geoffrey wanted something local, something nearby, something that would not require too much real work on his part. They had all ready published a few volumes of this, and the next very well might be their last, because people just didn’t buy review magazines of short stories on a regular basis.
Geoffrey was only here because of a friend himself. That and Suzie had talked him into it. Easy cash, only work a little on the weekends, besides his day job, he might be able to save up for her ring, which he kept putting off, and so on. Suzie fancied herself a writer, but she hadn’t written a story in years.
Finally the others went to their cubbyholes, talking excitedly about this author, or that one, Geoffrey wasn’t really listening. He walked up to the table and glanced over the remains. Pieces of magazines lay everywhere, certain stories had been yanked from them, and now they lay there disemboweled. His eye caught one story, on the inside of one magazine that hadn’t been destroyed yet, but instead lay propped open to some ghastly art done in a seventies pulp mag style around the title. Just my luck to get a horror story, he thought, unimpressed.
He picked it up, and looked in the back where they have the “about the author” stuff, he wasn’t going to go out of state, or even over fifteen miles if he could help it. Alexandra Tarpin, Fir street, building 1001. Hmm.
That wasn’t far. That was just downtown. This was her first published story, and she was eighty years old. There might be something here, Geoffrey smiled to himself, and took the scissors lying carelessly on the table, and cut out the article, writing down the author contact info in a small notepad.
He did find it odd she had her address listed in the magazine. They normally just left it at the city, and he usually had to do a little grunt work to get the actual address. But her address was right there; less work for him. He left the table and approached Suzie who was still waiting.
“Well? Where are we going? What town?”
“Suzie my dear, we are going to Fir Street.” She looked at him a moment, and then grabbed his little notebook to see for herself.
“Well, that is a surprise. Since you waited for everyone to pick first I thought for sure we would be left with Siberia. And, she’s a granny too? Writing horror? This will be interesting.” Maybe to Suzie, as Geoffrey tried to stifle a yawn. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
Geoffrey’s old Chevy truck pulled up and parked at Fir Street, and they both gazed at number 1001. It was a rundown brick building with moss growing between the gaps and a cracked sidewalk that poured directly into the street. Geoffrey shut the car door with Suzie following and approached the an old door. He looked into the window in the center of the door, and saw a small hallway with two additional doors leading further in.
“Come on, we aren’t here to spy on her,” Suzie said testily. Geoffrey didn’t know why she insisted on coming along anyway. This wasn’t the most exciting work.
Geoffrey tested the outer door, and found it unlocked. “A real trusting granny, ” he quietly said under his breath. They both walked into the small hallway, and were faced with the two doors he had noticed from outside. Which one was the correct one, and what kind of crazy house was this?
“We should have knocked. You don’t just waltz into her house like you own the place.” Geoffrey shrugged. Suzie glared at him and knocked quite loudly on the door to the left. They waited a few minutes, Geoffrey glancing at his watch. “Maybe I should have tried to get her phone number.”
“You think?” Suzie rolled her eyes, annoyed. An elderly lady opened the door, and looked at them in surprise.
“Just in time. I am holding a writing seminar upstairs.” She said calmly her voice sounding like a typical granny.
“Mrs. Tarpin? Actually, I was hoping to review your short story,” he paused to glance at the article to remind him of the title, “Zombies and Ghouls.” Suzie gave him a sharp elbow to the side, when he almost laughed saying the title out loud.
“Well, let’s talk upstairs anyway. I often invite guests into my house. it’s so large and lonely here all alone.”
They followed Mrs. Tarpin upstairs and through a door into a long room filled with old school desks. At the front of the room was a large chalk board. Normally, a reviewer would have read the material first, but Geoffrey felt like the title explained all he needed to know of her story.
“So, what inspired you to write this?” he asked first, although Mrs. Tarpin looked distracted. There were about five other people in this room all chatting among themselves.
“I should really get back to my discussion. Perhaps you can study the story more, with your friend here, and see what you can come up with.” Mrs. Tarpin gave him a smile, and went back toward the chalk board. Suzie took a seat at one of the desks, and implored with hand gestures that Geoffrey do likewise.
“Okay, okay. I guess we should actually read this thing. Hopefully, it is better than it sounds.” Geoffrey sounded less than confident about this and had to visibly suppress a grimace. Suzie sighed. He knew she hated his dramatics. As Geoffrey began to read the story, he noticed that it didn’t start out like he thought it would.
A man, a Mr. Fenton who was married with a few kids was unhappy. He had been pining in secret for the girl who lived next door. Their houses shared a wall and he would see her going by with a smile. He was convinced she was teasing him. He became so despondent; he started destroying things in his own house.
One day, his wife and kids were gone, and the man could think of nothing else but this girl. He went into his cellar, which he had discovered while trashing the place; a hidden cellar, of course.
He brought a candle with him. ‘Why not a flashlight?’, thought Geoffrey, annoyed. The man kept going, and it started sloping down, sharply. He kept on until his candle was burning his fingers. He didn’t know where he was going, or why, he was just angry at that girl for teasing him.
Finally, he felt everything was wet around him, and this repulsed him, he groped to find his way back, his candle having gone out, and he found what appeared to be a large round luminous ball of mysterious substance. ‘Oh, come on!, though Geoffrey, incredulous.
This ball was hard for the most part, but when he applied enough pressure, it burst, and showered him with green muck. He had no idea what it could be. He again started to grope the wall, to try and find his way back.
It remained wet and slimy most of the way. He soon felt very tired, and got the strange impression he was dying down here. His skin appeared to be slipping off, and he was all wet from the walls.
He felt so very tired. He had to rest, yet he couldn’t sit down in the muck. He soon realized that he could no longer feel anything; it was as if he was numb all over.
“Why am I reading this? I know what is going to happen.” Suzie glared at him again.
“Just read it, you might find yourself surprised.” He shrugged.
The man continued upward. Soon he heard giggling and laughing, and it made him think of the girl. Instead of looking forward to seeing her, he felt an intense anger. He felt like destroying the world. She was laughing at him, he knew it. He went towards the light. Soon, it was everywhere, and he realized he was in the other house. The girl was louder, and very close.
He could smell her tender young skin. He looked down at himself, wondering about the muck covering him, when he saw that his skin was slipping off. His legs were like one of those wrinkled dogs, and his clothes were slimy and torn.
He looked at his hands, and they had a bluish tinge and looked for from healthy. He had to find the girl. She went hopping and skipping, and stopped when she came within his sight.
She looked at him aghast, but said nothing. She had a look of pity on her face, not the look of horror he had been expecting. He grew intensely angry at this. He came up to her reeking of the muck, and yelled at her, “Why have you changed? Why are you not teasing me?”
She said nothing. He passed her and went further into the house where her family lived, leaving her to wonder.
“That was very stupid. See? I did know where it was going,” Geoffrey added with certainty.
“Don’t you find it odd, that he asked her, why she had changed?” Suzie asked. Now that he stopped to think about it, it was an odd thing for him to say.
Mrs. Tarpin came over, finished with her lecture. The other five people talked excitedly. “Out of curiosity, Mrs. Tarpin, what was your lecture on?” Suzie asked, being nosey as usual.
“Why, dear, it was about relating your life events into your story, you know, to make it seem more real.”
“You may call me, Alexandra, Mr. ?”
“And what is your Christian name?”
“Geoff, Geoffrey Barris.”
“Now, what was it you wished to ask me?”
“Why did you decide to do a story like this, I mean, Zombies and Ghouls?”
“Why do you think, young man, it intrigued me.”
Suzie cut in, “Why does the man after he is changed, ask the girl, why she has changed? It almost seems like something someone might say. But, I am not sure what it means in the story.”
“Well, I did think of it, dear.” She chuckled at this. “He says this, because she no longer mocks him, and he didn’t know why. He had observed that he had changed, but he didn’t know in what way exactly. In fact, to the girl, he looked much the same, except the condition of his clothes, of course.”
“You don’t say that in your story, why not?” Geoffrey suddenly found himself interested in the bizarre old woman.
“Perhaps it was an oversight. Would you like some tea? Or cookies? My other guests are leaving just now, and we can talk more about the story if you wish.” Mrs. Tarpin did seem like a normal granny, other than the fact that most don’t write short stories about zombies.
“Uh…Mrs…Alexandra, where do the Ghouls come in?”
“Well, when he discovers that he doesn’t appear to be rotting, to ordinary people, and has rediscovered his mind, he becomes a ghoul.”
“That’s not in the story either. Do we have a shorter version?”
“No, that is the version that got published. In all truth, I didn’t want that for the name. But the editor thought it sounded catchy for his magazine.” Mrs. Tarpin left the room to get the tea, leaving the kitchen door ajar. They both waited, not saying a word.
The door creaked open all the way, and Suzie turned to address Mrs. Tarpin, when she saw a man in a bathrobe turn toward her and give her an odd grimace. Something made her fearful, and she started to back away. Geoffrey looked at her like she was insane.
“Is that? Are you?” Suzie stammered.
He came at her, with a look of anger and no longer appeared to be human, but a strange bluish creature whose skin had been rotting. She screamed, and Mrs. Tarpin was there , and with in-explainable super human strength, lifted Suzie up and placed her on top of a tall refrigerator. Geoffrey remained below, with speechless mouth agape.
Mrs. Tarpin quickly made some fried eggs, and bacon, and gave them to the man who seemed to be an old man once again.
“Suzie? Are you crazy? Why did you do that? And, Mrs…Alexandra, how did you lift her like that? You made it look easy.”
“Mr. Barris, are you that stupid?” Mrs. Tarpin said with an odd tone of menace. He watched as the old man shoveled the food into his mouth straight off the frying pan, still sizzling.
“I think we would be going, don’t you dear?” He addressed Suzie who was still cringing on top of the fridge.
“I know why he said, why have you changed.” Suzie exclaimed in a daze. “Oh no, we have to leave now.”
Mrs. Tarpin sighed with regret. “If you must leave, let me show him back to his part of the house. He just thought he smelled food cooking. Come, dear.” She led the man creature to another door at the back of the kitchen, and locked it with a click.
“Come, child. Let me get you down from the fridge. It is safe now.” Suzie backed away from her, shaking her head. Mrs. Tarpin’s arms seemed to elongate, and she grabbed the frightened girl anyway, and hauled her down from the fridge.
“Now, dear, listen to me. You can go out this way, and Geoffrey can go out this door.” They could hear the man creature pounding loudly on the other side of the door, and the sound of wood splintering under the impact.
Suzie nodded, and ran out the door not looking behind her, and into the large school like room and then beyond downstairs into the small hallway.
She reached the front door, and opened it, and wasn’t sure whether to close it and lock it, or wait for Geoffrey. She heard the door on the right open, and Geoffrey entered the small hallway, his eyes appeared tired, and had dark circles under them as if he hadn’t slept in days.
Suzie quickly got out of the house, and locked the knob from the inside and ran. It took only an additional second for the door to be unlocked and for the knob to turn, and for it to open. She saw Geoffrey staring after her with his eyes blankly watching.
Mrs. Tarpin entered her bathroom, and noticed that Mr. Fenton was all ready in the tub, the water a dark grey from his rotting flesh. She got rid of her illusion and went to take care of his wounds. If he didn’t get new flesh soon he would die.
Mr. Barris followed her, his eyes beginning to bulge out of his head, his skin starting to decay. She could use some of his skin in the meantime. Before it was all dead.
Alexandra Tarpin still remembered that day a long time ago, when Mr. Fenton had shouted at her, “Why have you changed?” He had only reached out and held her hand but a moment, and didn’t know why she had started to wither.