Excerpt: Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig
1 month ago
The Bloom Is Off The Rose
Life, sliced into tiny moments. Cason Cole beneath a shattered door. Smells: eggy gunpowder smoke, rose petals, sweat, sex. Sounds: someone screaming. Another someone gurgling. A high-pitched eeeeeeeeeee in the deep of Cason’s ear.
Pain along his shoulders. Arcing like a lightning whip.
Pain in his nose, too. Mouth full of blood.
Older wounds—the ghosts of injuries from fights long over—stir restless beneath his skin, above his bones, within his joints.
His own breath. Loud against the door above him.
What the fuck just happened?
This is what the fuck just happened:
Cason sits there in the hallway. Flipping through a magazine—Us Weekly, not a magazine he’d ever want to read, but it was there and besides, he’s not reading it anyway.
His eyes hover over a story about some teen pop star sticking it to some other not-so-teen pop star, but he’s not taking in any of the information, not really. He’s thinking that he feels like a rat caught in a chain-link fence, tail lashing and teeth gnashing. He’s thinking how the teenage pop star—a boy with bright eyes and classic dimples—might look like his own son were Barney that age. He’s thinking that he’s a piece of shit, that all his choices aren’t choices at all but really just a pair of mean shackles and they’re holding him here, to this magazine, to this hallway, to E. and the Croskey twins and this Philadelphia brownstone—to this tits-up asshole of a job that he’ll never be able to leave.
An RC car whizzes suddenly past.
It looks like a little remote control dune buggy. Its toy engine goes vvvvzzzz as it bolts down the length of the hallway, over the literally spit-polished heart pine floor.
It’s dragging something.
A small cloth satchel. Cream white. Flap snapped closed.
It heads toward the end of the hall.
Cason stands. Knows that it’s probably just one of the Croskey twins playing around again, those Narcissistic nitwits. They’re twenty-five, but they act half that. This is probably Aiden, if he had to guess—Aiden’s the giddier, bubblier of the two. Ivan, on the other hand, can be sharp and mean like the stinger of a stepped-on scorpion, and he’s less inclined for physical games—his are all in the head.
The car is headed around the hallway toward E.’s door, though, and that’s a no-no. For a half-second Cason entertains the idea of just letting it play out—letting the car thump against the closed door of E.’s chamber, interrupting whatever (or more like whoever) E.’s doing, and that’ll be that. E. will emerge and his wrath will be swift and unparalleled as it always is. And maybe, just maybe, Aiden will learn the nature of cause-and-effect. Things we do in this life have consequence, a fact that seems to have escaped him and his brother so far.
But Cason knows that’s not how it will go. Aiden’s a favorite. A flavor-of-the-month that’s gone on three months too long. E. is, for whatever reason, fascinated with the Croskeys—the Croskeys think it’s wonderful tanning in the warmth spotlight, but they don’t realize that E. is “fascinated” in the way a praying mantis is ‘fascinated’ with a buzzing bee. When E. is done with them, the twins will find what it’s like to be cast out of the firelight, left to wander the darkness feeling a kind of profound, surgical loneliness, as if a sharp knife cut something precious from your insides. Something that doesn’t kill you. But that leaves you dead anyway.
Cason’s seen it before.
E. is cruel, callow, callous. Cason doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of that... malicious whimsy. Or whimsical malice. Whatever. He’s been there before.
Better then to catch the RC car before it gets too far.
Cason jogs after it. Rounds the corner.
His heart catches in his chest like a thread on a splinter—
That little thing is fast. It’s already there. At E.’s closed door.
The RC car pauses. Then backs up a few feet.
The toy surges forward again into the door.
Two more times in quick succession—thump, thump, like it’s knocking to be let in—and then Cason catches it, scooping it up in his arms. Wheels spinning against his forearm, antenna almost jabbing him in the eye. Bag dangling.
Cason shakes his head, starts to walk away.
But then the hallway shimmers. Like it’s not real. Like everything is suddenly a sheet of foil or a sequined dress rippling in a wind. The humidity in the room jacks up by a hundred per cent.
Cason feels dizzy. Sweat in the lines of his palms. Mouth dry.
The door unlocks and opens and Cason feels perfumed breath hit his neck, crawl up his nose—the smell of roses. Apropos, given his boss’ name: E. Rose.
“What’s that?” E. asks.
Cason turns. E.’s naked. Erection standing tall like a toddler’s arm fervently clutching a toy. Everywhere else, he’s not a big man; in fact, he’s fairly small—five-five, thin arms, thin legs, cheekbones like shards of glass, lips sculpted onto his face as if by little scalpel blades. Boyish. E.’s olive skin shines from sweat.
“I...” Cason’s not sure what to say. “I don’t know.”
“You interrupted us.”
A damp chill grips the air.
Behind E., Cason catches sight of another naked someone—no, more than one. Then, the smell: sweat and sex and latex and lubricant. Commingling in their own orgy of odors. From inside the room, one of the somebodies—a man with a high-pitched titter of a voice—says, “Come back inside. We were just about to see if it would fit!”
Then, a woman’s voice, heady, druggy, ecstatic: “I can take anything.”
E. ignores them and holds out a hand to Cason. “I want to see that.”
Cason offers a feeble nod, hands over the car—and there, as E. reaches for it, is that sudden spike of undesired desire: his body tightens as hope surges, hope that E’s finger will touch his own, just a momentary brush, an electric flash of skin-on-skin. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t ask for it, doesn’t swing that way but it’s there just the same—and it’s been there since the day he started working for E. as a bodyguard five years ago.
But no. E. just takes the remote control dune buggy. Holds it up and stares at it, lip in a sneer, brow in a quizzical knit—as if turning it one way makes it junk, and turning it the other way makes it art. He shakes the bag, and what emanates sounds like metal chips or stone pieces rattling together. “I suppose we could use it.”
“What is it?” calls the man from inside the room.
The woman: “Bring it. I want to play.”
E. flicks the antenna. Twonnnng. “Fine. We’ll take it. Go away.”
Then the man-who-is-most-certainly-not-a-man turns and goes back inside, carrying both the RC car and the bag that was attached to it.
The door closes with a pitiless click, and suddenly it’s like—whoosh, the air is gone from the room, the ride is over, the magic is ended and real life will now resume. E. shows his face and everything seems brighter, shinier, stranger. And when he leaves it feels like a bag has been put back over your head, like cataracts have been thumb-pressed upon your eyes.
Inside, Cason hears the rev of the RC engine. Vzz, vzz, vzz.
The woman laughs. Then cries out in some measure of pleasure that turns to pain—and then back to pleasure again.
Cason shakes his head.
And that’s when the bomb goes off.
Cason draws a deep breath. Shoves the half-shattered door off himself.
When he stands, he stands into a miasma of smoke.
He pushes through it. Staggering, dizzy, into E.’s chamber. It’s dark. He takes out his cell, hits a button—the window of light from the phone isn’t much, but it’s something. He shines it back and forth, a lighthouse beacon in the mist.
There—the light causes the man’s naked flesh to glitter, and at first Cason’s not sure why but then he sees: little metal shards, bright and polished, are sticking out of his skin. Arms. Thighs. Face. His body is alive and his eyes turn and wander in the sockets, like he’s looking for something but seeing nothing. His hands are steepled over his cock and a low gurgle comes from the back of his throat. Blood runs to the floor in little black rivulets, pooling under his asscheeks.
The woman sits nearby. Also naked. Pert little wine glass breasts defying gravity, pointing up. The nipples gleam. Not from shards of metal but from alligator clamps chomping down on the nubbins. She’s not as badly hurt—she’s bleeding, too, mostly up her arms. Her head is wobbly; it tilts uncertain upon her neck, gazing up at Cason. Her mouth is a muddy lipstick streak from lips to ears: a clownish grin.
“I don’t understand,” she says, each word a breathless squeak.
“Where is he?” Cason asks.
She mumbles something incomprehensible.
Cason raises his voice. “Where. Is. He?”
She points with trembling finger, and Cason moves through the room. Past an overturned chaise. Over a dead lamp. Hip-bumping a leather horse.
And there he is.
Laying against a lush mahogany desk, body a glittery disco ball of tiny metal shards that sparkle in the light of Cason’s cell phone.
E.’s nose and mouth are bubbles of spit and blood. Inflating and popping.
“Not s-s-supposed to happen,” E. says.
E. tries to blink, but a shrapnel piece juts from his left eye.
“I hate you,” Cason says. Forcing those words out is like making yourself puke. But just like puking, it feels better having let loose.
“You sh... should thank me.”
E. extends a trembling, spasming hand. “Help.”
Cason stands there. He knows he should help. Should reach out and scoop up his boss—and just the thought of that makes his heart flutter in his chest, that uninvited thrill of the promise of skin on skin. “I...”
But then whatever Cason was going to say or do no longer matters. E.’s body suddenly stiffens—one good eye going wide, mouth stretching open far, too far, lips curling back to show the teeth. A gassy hiss from the back of his throat—a hiss that brings words, words that are not English but some foreign, even alien tongue.
Then: an abrupt punch of air, a thunderclap of wind. Cason falls like a marionette whose strings were cut all at once, and it’s like something’s been stolen from him. He feels lighter—empty, somehow, a pitted fruit gnawed from the inside. He starts to lose his grip on consciousness, like it’s an oil-slick cord slipping through his palms. Feelings of shame and guilt war with a woozy, drunken bliss: the feelings of waking up after a one night stand magnified by a hundred, by a thousand.
He wrenches his head from the floor, and then he sees—
E. is like a doll, being pulled apart at the seams by invisible hands.
Rents in flesh. Skin pulled from skin. Bloating then falling—from the open, bloodless wounds, a puff of feathers, both white and gold. Rising on the expulsions of air, then drifting back to the ground.
Raining over Cason.
The skin—really, the skin-suit—deflates.
Two wails rise nearby: the man and the woman, these most recent sexual conquests of E. Rose, sobbing into their hands, pulling at their hair with bloody fingers.
Cason stands. Almost falls.
As he runs to the door, an impossible thought flies into his head and won’t leave, a moth trapped in a lantern glass.
He laughs. He can’t help himself.
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