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Short Fiction by Jay Caselberg — “Early”

Early by Jay Caselberg a short story Death's Realm Anthology blog tour

 

Jay Caselberg Kicks Off ‘Death and Dying’ Tour with
Short Fiction Based on Actual Ghost Encounter

 

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CHICAGO, Apr. 16, 2015—Author Jay Caselberg begins the 16-day DEATH’S REALM  Death and Dying Tour with a very special guest post on the Grey Matter Press website — his short story “Early,” based on a terrifying personal experience with the dead.

Caselberg’s “Early,” while a work of fiction, is based on a real-life encounter with a ghost. We greatly appreciate the fact that Jay was willing to give away this piece and thank him for sharing it with us to begin the tour.

Enjoy “Early” by Jay Caselberg, and make sure to check out his “Penumbra,” a tale of true love gone very, very wrong that is featured in DEATH’S REALM: Where the Here and the Hereafter Collide.

 

“Early” by Jay Caselberg

 

I’d never really thought about it before, but now, looking back on that period where life just turned to crap, I wonder. I didn’t know it was going to happen, didn’t guess that circumstance was going to get all weird on me, but you wouldn’t, would you? Maybe he was trying to warn me. Maybe he was trying to deliver a message out of time, out of phase. Oh, the house had a presence all right. I knew about it almost from the start, but not right at the beginning. No way. And looking back, I wonder if the presence was there before or after the event, or if any of that really matters – matters to them, I mean. Does normal time make sense for someone who isn’t there any more?

I was a poor student then, and the house, well more of a cottage really, seemed ideal. It was stuck out on the end of the town, right at the edge. The last thing you came to before the town just faded away into nothing, replaced by barren ground where nobody wanted to build. All that grew there were wind-whipped clumps of spiny grass and the trails of sand blown over the line of humped dunes leading to the windswept beach. Last house on the street. Last house where anybody lived. Last vestige of the town itself. But then no one lived there really, and it looked like nobody had done so for some time. Pale yellow weatherboard that could almost fade into the beach itself or the yellowing grasses. But it was empty, and it was cheap.

On the opposite side of the house to the wasteland was a golf course. The occasional mis-timed shot would clatter a ball against the roof tiles. Way up there in the rafters was probably a collection of balls, lonely and forgotten in the semi-dark, not the only thing forgotten. A broken tile and one of those balls had let the weather in, scoring a deep crack across one of the plaster ceilings inside, almost letting the elements right inside the house. We saw none of that. The faded brown linoleum, the old green cast-iron stove, the wooden outhouse at the back, the ancient cement laundry tubs in the back room, all were part of something shiny and new, somewhere to share for the first time. That was the vision, until bits and pieces of that vision fell apart.

Late at night, across the waste ground, the steelworks loomed, too-bright lights and the clank of metal against metal. The wind would bring the sounds closer and then fade them into nothing, a hulking industrial presence set off in the back of our minds. But none of that affected us, because this was home, our home, or would be.

It hadn’t taken long for Rosalie and me to decide we were going to live together. A mere two months we’d been going out. We decided between us that we had to get her out from her home, away from her mother. Her mother who used to stand at the end of her bed at night and tell her of the visions of impending doom she’d just had. Maybe the woman was right. Not our doom, but impending all the same. Maybe she had touched something close to what we would find, but just didn’t know the right words or the right time to articulate what she’d felt. Maybe. And maybe it was that time thing all over again.

We’d only been in the house for a couple of weeks before the strangeness started. Just little things at first. Noises in the night. The odd creak of floorboards where there should have been none. The wind came across those dunes and rattled the windowpanes, touched with the tang of brine, the sound of sand hissing across the outside wood. We just snuggled up closer beneath the blankets, tight against the wind in bed, our bed, and I’d run my fingers through her hair and hold her close. Old second-hand furniture in an old second-hand house, and we were part of it now. The first time we heard footsteps and the door open and close, we dismissed it. Imagination. Besides, we were too wrapped up in each other to pay too much attention. Wind does strange things to an old house.

We didn’t expect the blood.

When I stood in the hallway next to the front door, and Rosalie lifted her hand to my face to drag tracks down my cheek with her nails, I didn’t expect the blood, but then you never really expect the blood. It always comes as a shock.

Her eyes were blank that afternoon and she didn’t say a word. There she stood, close, pressed up against me, empty gaze by the front door, standing next to the open door to our bedroom. But by then, things were turning to shit and there was no way to know that was going to happen. Somehow, she was trying to make a point, but she didn’t even know the point she was trying to make. How could she?

But that was later. Much later.

As the weeks wore on, the house sounds intensified, became more regular, more pronounced. We’d lie together in that bed, listening to the movements around us. There was someone walking, someone opening doors. The creak of hinges, the sound of the spring in the handle, muffled, through walls, we listened to them all, barely daring to breathe. We were convinced it was a woman, though there was nothing there to tell us why. It was a strange assumption, when all we had were muffled sounds in the darkness. Perhaps it was the lightness of the tread, the way whoever it was moved, because it was definitely a person. Despite the wind, despite the age of the house, there was no way we could pretend it was anything else. We were fine then, and we convinced ourselves that our presence was benign.

“Sure, we’ve got a ghost. She walks around the house at night. We talk to her. You know, we all share our space with others. All we do is acknowledge her presence and let her know that we’re fine with her sharing space with us.”

“You’re not serious, are you? You’re making it up.” The look of semi-disbelief on the face – not disbelief in the events, but more that we actually believed it, that we were serious about it.

We were deadly serious, but there was nothing to tell us we were wrong except the house itself and that on its own wasn’t enough. At least not then.

The first time I knew there was something wrong, I was standing in the small back room in the late evening. Twin cement washtubs sat against one wall, and the regular drip of water splashed against the smooth, age-worn side. I’d never done anything about the leak, and it dripped slowly, regularly, day after day. Standing there in the empty back room in the fading light, a peculiar sense of something made me look.

There was something strange – a dark stain marring the mottled surface of the base of the tub. I leaned closer and reached out with one finger, dabbing at the strange discoloured pool. My fingertip came away dark. I frowned and moved closer to the cracked back window, toward the last dimming light. Rubbing finger and thumb together sliding slick and dark, I peered closer. Whatever was dripping from the tap wasn’t water, but the light wasn’t good enough to tell. There wasn’t any light bulb in the back room, and I frowned, finally remembering the candles we kept in the kitchen drawer. A quick rummage in the drawer, a rapid glance around the kitchen for the matches, and I had light. I went back into the laundry room for another look.

Blood. I leaned over in the flickering yellow light and dabbed at the dark red viscous pool, hesitantly, barely able to believe what I saw.

“Rosalie, come here,” I called. When there was no response, I went to look for her. I had to have confirmation. I found her in the bed, our bed, fast asleep.

“Rosalie, wake up,” I said, gently shaking her shoulder, my heart pounding. “Come on, Rosie. Wake up.” She groaned and turned over.

“What is it, Hon? I’m tired.”

“You’ve got to look at this.”

I held out my hand, but I’d already rubbed the wetness to a fine brown stain across my thumb and forefinger. “Shit. I need you to get up. I need you to come and look at something.”

She moaned and made to turn over again. “Can’t it wait till later? I’m tired.”

“Rosalie. I need you to come.”

Grumbling, she threw back the covers and stood. “What is it?”

“Just come with me, will you?”

I led her to the back room. The candle stood flickering on one corner of the washtubs where I’d left it.

“What is it?”

I was watching her face, looking for the reaction. When she leaned closer and frowned, then looked up at me, not registering anything, I didn’t know what to do.

“So,” she said. “What is it you want me to see?”

I pushed in beside her to look for myself. The dark liquid pool was gone.

“It was there a moment ago. Why do you think I came to get you? It was blood, Rosalie. Right there. I saw it. I touched it.”

She was still frowning. “If you’re trying to scare me, it’s not very funny.”

“It’s not a joke. It was right there.”

She screwed up her face, pushed past me and left me standing there, staring at the spot where I knew the blood had been. Nothing. There was nothing there.

After standing there for a while, staring at what was no longer there, I blew out the candle and followed her to bed. It was a long time before I slept. The next morning, she wouldn’t even talk about it, though I tried. For the next few days, every time I went into the back room, I glanced at the spot in the tub, but there was nothing there. Well, maybe a slight discoloration or rust mark. Maybe. I began to wonder if I’d imagined it after all.

The house was unusually quiet for the next few weeks, but so were we. Perhaps that was the start of it. Pulling her out of bed and trying to show her some weird vision when there was nothing there to show can’t have helped. She’d moved in with me partly to get away from her mother, away from weird visions in the middle of the night. I should have realized then, perhaps thought before dragging her back to that dim rear room.

One day she turned to me. “I’ve been seeing something,” she said.

“What do you mean seeing?”

“I can’t explain it. It’s like I’m seeing a picture. Somebody’s dead.”

I stared at her, seeing visions of her mother all over again. “What do you mean, somebody’s dead? Are you having bad dreams or something?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said and looked away. She refused to be drawn any further. I tucked it away, a thought in the back of my mind. She was seeing visions now. Great.

The winds grew stronger and the winter tides crashed hard against the beach. The few streetlights that trailed into the beach’s nothingness and the cold expanse of water wore misty coronas in the twilight gloom. A few stray insects, but it was becoming too cold for them, and ultimately too cold for us. The distance between us was growing, stretching, but neither of us was really conscious of it. Something hissed subtly between us, just like the sands blown against the sides of the cottage. Our relationship too was becoming yellow-walled and crumbling and filled with strange cracks. We should have got out of that house when things became too weird, but we didn’t, and maybe the presence was trying to warn us of all sorts of things at the same time.

The noises grew worse, more frequent. Sometimes they even happened in the day. Rosalie told me of things she’d heard when she’d been sitting there alone in the middle of the afternoon, and I experienced it myself. I hadn’t expected that either. Things aren’t supposed to happen in the day. The stain in the washtubs at the back came and went, and sometimes it was clearly red, but I said nothing of it. Perhaps she saw it too, perhaps she didn’t, but she never said a word to indicate she did. It was a new source of tension between us, that silence. You have to feel comfortable in a place to be at ease, both with yourself and each other, and we were neither.

A couple of weeks later, a cold night, the wind stirring grasses around us as we headed up the street. We’d been out somewhere. I can’t remember where, but it was late, and we were tired. As we neared the end of the street, our house, Rosalie reached out and gripped my arm. Something was not quite right.

“What is it?” I said. She’d stopped where she was.

“I’m not sure.”

I could sense it too. Something. I was seeing it, but I couldn’t work out what it was, whatever was out of place. Then I realized.

“Shit.” We’d left the porch light on, I was sure of it. Every light inside the house was on. The porch light was off. “I don’t remember leaving the inside lights on. Rosalie?”

I turned to her but she was staring blankly at the house. We were about four doors down, and now I could feel the wrongness. I didn’t know whether to turn and head back down the street or continue.

“Come on,” I said, reaching for her hand. She stood unmoving, still staring at the illuminated windows. Finally, she took a step, then another. Slowly, reluctantly, we climbed the stairs to the porch and up to the front door. We stood outside the door, listening, barely breathing, but everything seemed quiet. Hesitantly, I reached out and tried the door, but it was locked, just as I had left it. I leaned closer to the frosted pane, trying to see if there was any movement inside. Nothing.

As gently as I could, I pulled out the front door key and slipped it into the lock. Taking my time, I turned the key and pushed the door open.

Nobody expects the blood.

A trail of still-wet spots ran down the hall from the front door, red against the faded brown. They were more than spots, more than a trail, but that was all I could comprehend right then. I glanced through the doorways to either side. Then I saw the finger marks. Trails of bloody smeared handprints slid down the walls on either side. One doorframe bore a clear, defined hand, marked out in shiny red, more vivid against the creamy white of the frame itself.

It couldn’t be blood. It was a trick, some practical joke. Some kids had got into the house and vandalized the place. The mind leaps for explanations when you don’t want to comprehend.

I frowned and went inside, stepping gingerly across the central trail and motioning Rosalie to stay where she was. I took one step inside the bedroom, followed by another, and it was then I knew for sure. This was no practical joke.

In the centre of the bed, our bed, lay a man. A pool of red-black surrounded him, seeping into the mattress. His head was tilted back, wide, open eyes staring at the ceiling. I saw the stubble, the slight Southern European features, the gaping slash that ran from side to side of his exposed throat, grinning red and still gently oozing. His body was angled, lying slightly on his side, legs tucked up. For a minute or more I stood staring, not understanding what I was looking at. Then I realized and the bottom of my stomach dropped away and chill ice seeped into my veins. I backed out of the room a step at a time. As I did, I took in all sorts of details, as if by doing so, I could avoid what I was seeing: the brown corduroy trousers; the tatty beige pullover; the way one cheek was broader than the other; the way one leg angled out crossing over the edge of the bed.

We walked out of the house, into the neighbours’ place. We didn’t have a phone then. The police came and took him away, leaving behind the blood. Our bed, our room, our house. There was nothing there for us then but blood. There was nothing there for us that meant anything good.

We broke up soon after, and maybe we would have anyway, but I’m convinced now that during that time, we were wrong about what we’d heard. It wasn’t a woman walking through the rooms at night. It wasn’t a woman opening doors and passing through each part of the house seeking a final resting place. It was a man, drawn towards our bed, drawn towards the blood. His blood.

See, time doesn’t really matter to them once they’ve gone. How can it? I knew then what had happened — he, the nameless man who walked our rooms at night, he was just early.

 

THE END

 

DEATH’S REALM  Death and Dying Tour Schedule
April 16 – May 1, 2015

Thursday, April 16
JAY CASELBERG
Serves up a terrifying free short story based on a real-life ghost encounter: “Early.”
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Friday, April 17
JOHN F.D. TAFF
Modern horror’s new King of Pain shares some thought-provoking ideas on reincarnation.
Location: JohnFDTaff.com

Saturday, April 18
RHOADS BRAZOS
Adds a special look inside his Lovecraft-inspired “Omniscopic” with a tantalizing alternative scene.
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Sunday, April 19
MATTHEW PEGG
Sits down to have a conversation with the great equalizer himself: Death.
Location: Matthew Pegg UK website

Monday, April 20
JOHN C. FOSTER
Pays homage to his horror fiction mentor in an moving essay on American author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Tuesday, April 21
GREGORY L. NORRIS
With a very dire addition, he reaches deep inside and predicts his own death…
Location: Gregory L. Norris Blog

Wednesday, April 22
BRIAN FATAH STEELE
Reveals the intricacies of death and what the end-of-all-things means to him.
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Thursday, April 23
MARTIN ROSE
Steps into the mind of a character from “Mirrorworld” to share a unique view on death.
Location: MartinRose.org

Friday, April 24
JAY O’SHEA
Reveals everything you ever wanted to know about the spirit world.
Location: Dog-Style World Fu

Saturday, April 25
AARON POLSON
Ponders the concept of immortality in the only way he knows how: from the very ‘edge.’
Location: AaronPolson.net – Notes from the Field

Sunday, April 26
HANK SCHWAEBLE
Offers his thoughts on the enduring influence of Edgar Allan Poe on horror and on his own work.
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Monday, April 27
KAREN RUNGE
Takes a walk on the dangerous side and looks at how NOT to die…
Location: Karen Runge Blog

Tuesday, April 28
JANE BROOKS
Investigates some proverbial sure things: death and taxes.
Location: GreyMatterPress.com

Wednesday, April 29
PAUL MICHAEL ANDERSON
Explores the influence of Richard Matheson on his own wildly entertaining horror fiction.
Location: Paul Michael Anderson Blog – The Nothing-Space

Thursday, April 30
JG FAHERTY
Looks far into the future for answers to the question of how he would prefer to meet his maker.
Location: JGFaherty.com

Friday, May 1
SIMON DEWAR
Shares his thoughts on the concept of death and whether it’s really all that is expected.
Location: Simon Dewar Blog

 

ABOUT GREY MATTER PRESS

Grey Matter Press is a Chicago-based publisher whose mission it is to discover and cultivate the best voices working in the dark fiction genre. The company is committed to producing only the finest quality volumes of literary fiction containing exceptional tales of horror, fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction.

Since the publication of their first volume in late 2013, Grey Matter Press has released a succession of bestselling horror fiction. The company’s catalog includes the Bram Stoker Award-nominated DARK VISIONS: A Collection of Modern Horror – Volume One;  the anthology of personal, intelligent and subversive extreme horror SPLATTERLANDS: Reawakening the Splatterpunk Revolution;  the horror and science fiction crossover OMINOUS REALITIES: The Anthology of Dark Speculative Horrors;  the second installment in the “Dark Visions” franchise DARK VISIONS: A Collection of Modern Horror – Volume Two;  the horror-laced science fiction volume EQUILIBRIUM OVERTURNED: The Heart of Darkness Awaits;  author John F.D. Taff’s second single-author collection of brutally emotional horrors THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS,  which has been hailed as one of the best books of 2014; and the most recent anthology of horror DEATH’S REALM: Where the Here and the Hereafter Collide.

More information about Grey Matter Press is available at http://www.greymatterpress.com.

 

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