Warning: This is a psychological-suspense horror story. It contains strong mental images.
She found her breath, and in it, relief. A nightmare. It was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.
And it was vibrant. As she left the IGA, she looked over her shoulder. She smiled and said “I will” to Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.
There were only the two registers out front, but Mr. Minister, the new manager, called the paper-fed calculator in his office Register 1. An odd man, Mr. Minister, at least according to whispered gossip from Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.
“Transferred in three weeks ago,” she said, “from somewhere down south. Omaha maybe, or Oskalusa—something like that. I seem to be here all the time,” she said, and laughed. Then she said, “But I’ve seen him only once myself.” She shook her head. “Very odd.”
Mrs. Johnson was sweet, everybody’s mother. With her husband “lifted up by God” a year ago and her own kids grown and gone long before—a daughter to New York and a son to LA—she adopted everyone in town who was younger than she.
At the register, she scooped up the box of ice cream the way she scooped up everything and peered at it over her reading glasses. Then she looked at Susan. “Y’know, they say this stuff is bad for you, but I just don’t believe it. Anything this good for your soul has to be good for your body.” She laughed, rang it up and bagged it, then spun the carousel of plastic bags so Susan’s was right up front.
Susan smiled and nodded. To make conversation, she said, “That’s how I figure it.”
But it wasn’t how she figured it. Not really.
She was tired after a full day of work, and she was just a bit on the grouchy side. She only wanted to get home and put her feet up for awhile.
She’d been home once already. She put together a quick supper, then served Stanley in his usual position on the couch. But afterward, as she reached to mute one of the seemingly endless streams of “side effects” that contraindicated whatever drug they were selling on TV at the time, Stanley went into the kitchen.
A moment later the freezer door slammed. “Well damn,” he said and stomped back into the living room. “We don’t have any ice cream? Are we out?”
Susan didn’t bother saying yes. He had eaten the last of it two days earlier. He even put the container in the trash afterward instead of leaving it on the counter as usual.
She also didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t stopped at the IGA on his way home from work. He would mutter something about that being her responsibility. Only one thing mattered. He wanted ice cream, and they were out.
So Susan glanced at him as he slumped back into his place on the couch. She patted his thigh and said, “I’ll go.”
Then she got up, donned her warm slippers and her heavy coat and drove to the IGA. It was better than listening to his snide comments or putting up with his pouting and icy silences the rest of the evening.
But Mrs. Johnson liked to gossip, especially in the evening when few people came into the store. So after the ice cream passed Mrs. Johnson’s inspection and she bagged it, Susan turned away before she could get started.
Still, Mrs. Johnson always had a kind word for everyone, even if they didn’t hang around to chat. She watched silently as Susan quickly gathered her bag. But as she approached the door, Mrs. Johnson raised one hand. “Now you say hello to Stanley for me,” she said.
And Susan looked back, smiled and said, “I will,” then pushed the door open.
It was dark outside already, and mid-November chilly. The smell of ice was on the air and the wind was just that cold. But no matter. She’d be home in fifteen minutes. Ten or twelve if she hit all the lights. And tomorrow was Saturday. Stanley would be up and off to the golf course early, and she could sleep in. Still, she relished the thought of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, letting brain-dead sitcoms and forced laugh tracks wash away the day.
As she crossed the parking lot, she wasn’t paying attention.
She opened her car door and leaned in to set the bag in the passenger seat.
And something hit her from behind.
How she got home, through an evening of TV and into bed, she had no idea.
But here she was. Her mind was cloudy but otherwise she was fine. Too much ice cream, maybe. Sometimes it had that effect if she overdid it. Had she eaten ice cream?
She closed her eyes, opened them, tried to see. But everything was black.
She was still locked in the nightmare outside the store. It was dark in the parking lot. Something hit her from behind.
She closed her eyes, drew a long breath through her nose, tried to scream herself awake.
But only a muffled sound came out. Her lips were thick. Or something.
She instantly regretted making the noise. It might wake up Stanley.
She lay very still, waiting. But he didn’t wake up. The bed didn’t move.
Well, that proved it. It was only a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.
Maybe she was dreaming of dreaming of waking up from a nightmare.
She rocked her head side to side, tried to wake herself up.
It didn’t work. Maybe she should wake up Stanley. Then he would wake her up. In her dream she grinned.
She tried to fling her mouth open, draw a breath, scream louder.
But something stretchy-sticky sealed her lips, muffled the sound again. She frowned. Something warm—snot? blood?—leaked from her nose and down across her lip.
As her nostrils flared, she found her nose was sore. When had that happened? And there was something crusty on her upper right cheek. Dried blood?
Was she in the hospital? Had she been in an accident or something? Maybe she was in the hospital and they’d put something in her mouth to help her breathe.
And both her hands were numb too. Somewhere. Like they were disconnected.
She tugged to find them and fire raced through her shoulders.
What was that?
Panic began to well up inside her.
But it’s a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. Isn’t it? Or I’m in a hospital. Yes. A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second. The clouds will clear and I’ll wake up. Probably it’s time to get up anyway.
She smirked. This is ridiculous.
She tried to sit up, reach for the edge of the bed. She would sit up and reach for the chest of drawers. That would steady her even if she was dizzy. She’d grab the chest of drawers and—
But where were her hands?
She was dizzier than she thought.
Her shoulders burned. But why?
She nudged hard right, tried to nudge Stanley. If she could touch him, wake him up—
But he wouldn’t be in her nightmare. Would he?
Okay. I have to find my hands. She followed her chest to her shoulders. They were aching. Check. Good. So she was waking up. Aches don’t happen in nightmares, do they?
She followed her arms down along her sides to where her elbows were bent. They were aching a bit too. Well good. Serves them right. Then along her forearms, wedged behind her back and—
Behind her back? Her hands were behind her back?
She checked. They were tingling. Her hands? Something was tingling. They were there, maybe, lumped behind her back. That would explain them being asleep.
But how are they behind my back? How in the world did I manage that?
She tried to move them, but something tugged, pulled at the fine hair above her wrists.
Taped. They were taped. Are they taped? That doesn’t make sense.
And my eyes. She shook her head. I thought my eyes were open but they must still be closed. Probably. Everything is black. There would be some light, at least, if I wasn’t still in the nightmare. But why are my wrists taped in the nightmare? Unless I’m in the hospital. Maybe they’re actually beside me. Maybe they had to restrain me.
Either way, it’s a nightmare.
Breathe. I have to breathe. Wherever I am, I have to wake up.
She closed her eyes, calmed herself with thoughts of waking up, and opened them.
Still nothing but black.
She wanted to reach up with her fingers, make sure her eyelids were open. But she couldn’t find them.
Okay. Okay. There has to be light here somewhere.
She took another breath, then another. Turned her head left. Still black.
Turned her head right. Still black. But closer? Stanley?
No. It didn’t feel like Stanley in her mind.
Maybe he already got up. A wall?
But the wall wasn’t that close in the bedroom. There was Stanley, then the wall. Not close enough to sense it in the dark. Wow. A really bizarre dream.
I need something real. She looked back to the left. The chest of drawers. Right over there. The light—moonlight, starlight—would show her the edges of the chest of drawers. She polished it only a few days ago.
But there was nothing.
Her perfume. The bottle leaked a little around the spritzer. She hadn’t mentioned it to Stanley. He’d want to fix it or throw it out. She liked the smell of it when she first woke up. It set on the chest of drawers next to the eyeglass cleaner and the microfiber cloths.
She took another breath. The scent of the perfume would direct her. It would bring her out.
She breathed deeply.
Onions. Old onions.
She took another breath, deep, searching for the perfume. It had to be there.
No perfume. Old onions. And damp-earth. Muggy.
She frowned. Where am I?
The basement? With onions? Why are there onions in my nightmare? What am I doing in a basement with onions?
Okay. Okay. Breathe.
She could turn. Roll onto her left side and turn. Put her feet on the cold tile floor. The cold tile would wake her up.
She twisted, tried to reach for the edge of the bed with her left ankle, but the right one came with it.
Her ankles were bound.
Panic rose again. No! That can’t be!
She calmed herself.
No. No, it’s only in the nightmare. I’ll wake up.
She reached again, this time with both feet together.
The sharp grating of the links of a chain fired fear up along her spine and cleared away some of the confusion in her mind.
She was awake. She was awake the whole time.
But she couldn’t be awake. What happened at the store. What happened in the parking lot. It’s a nightmare! It has to be a nightmare! I’m home in bed! Or I’m in the hospital. I have to be!
But grating? Chains wouldn’t grate against the soft edge of the mattress, would they? Her mind was making up the chains, that’s all. After all, chains wouldn’t grate against the covers and—
Only she was bare. There were no covers.
And there was no mattress beneath her.
No! She rolled her head hard left, pushed down, and her cheek contacted cold steel.
Hospital steel. A gurney? A gurney. I’m in a hospital. But with onions?
I must be in a hospital. That’s it. The icy roads. Black ice. I was in an accident and I’m on a gurney in a hospital. And they taped something to my mouth. Something to help me breathe or something. The onions are my mind playing tricks with scents.
But they put a mattress on a gurney, don’t they? Or some sort of a pad? Or a sheet? Or something.
She pushed her cheek against the surface again. Still cold. Still steel. But maybe a gurney.
She listened. The wheels would turn against the floor. They’d clack. And the nurses would talk, but quietly.
Listen. Listen closely.
But there was only the sound of empty black.
She closed her eyes again, hard, then opened them wide. Wake up!
Still black. Still black.
A sharp click, and light flooded over her.
She slapped her eyes closed against the light. Stanley playing a trick. She should have known. Her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up.
The chains grated.
A man’s voice, husky, jovial. “Ah, I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”
Not Stanley! She tensed, naked, no covers. She opened her eyes, tried to lean up to cover herself.
“No. Lie back.”
She lay back, closed her eyes, opened them. The light illuminated a dirt and timber ceiling.
In a hospital?
A face came into view above her face, but upside down. Probably the gas passer. She was in the OR. Had to be.
The face was round, almost a unibrow. Close-cropped hair. No white paper hat? Jowls, pink, smooth round cheeks.
She frowned. He shaved too close. But who is he?
Small black, close-set eyes, a pug nose, hair in his nostrils. A slight smile.
“I’m Jonah. It’s good to meet you. And you are—” He held her clutch purse up where she could see it. He took out a card. Her driver’s license. He looked at it, flipped it away and it slapped lightly to the floor. “Ah, Susan.” He drew out the first syllable as if it had three U’s in it. “Yes, Susan.” He clapped his hands lightly beneath his double chin and turned away. “Just relax, Susan, all right? And probably I’ll let you go.” He turned away, moved off toward the other side of the room.
She wanted to ask who he was, why she was there, but the thing was still on her mouth.
The nightmare continues. She frowned, rolled her head left, followed his progress.
A table. A bench. A stool. In front of a dirt wall. That can’t be right.
She strained her neck, pressed her cheek against the cold steel to bring her back to the hospital.
Up close, inches away, the raised rounded edge of a steel table. Farther, the dull silver of a concrete floor. A red onion net bag on the floor near the table. Onions!
She remembered what he said, frowned at his back. Let me go? Home? Is he a doctor? Maybe she’d already been through the surgery. Maybe he was talking about discharging her and—
Finally her mind released the nightmare defense.
Her eyes grew wide and she stared at him. Oh god. Oh god! It’s not a nightmare! I’m awake! And I’m naked! But it made no sense. Am I in hell? But what did I do? What did I do?
He turned around and smiled, a small half-moon blade in one hand at the end of a short silver handle. Calmly, he said, “You aren’t trained in medicine, are you?”
She frowned, trembled, and shook her head. Why would he ask me that?
He held the tool up near his smile. “This, my dear, is a scalpel. It’s good to learn new things, isn’t it? Of course it is.”
He started toward her, still smiling, his elbow bent, the scalpel raised to shoulder height. “For instance, I feel a particular bent to learn human anatomy.”
Again she frowned. Why is he telling me?
He gestured toward her with the scalpel. “Your anatomy, specifically. So I’m going to have to cut you a bit, you see.”
Her eyes wide, she rocked her head hard, side to side, tried to say No. But only the same muffled sound came out.
He stopped next to her. “I wish I had some sort of anesthesia. I used to be quite fond of whiskey, but the doctors finally convinced me it was bad for my health.” He laughed and shrugged. “And it’s difficult to get the real stuff without a license. The anesthesia, I mean. If I were you, I would prefer ropivacaine. But you know how the government is with their regulations.”
He leaned forward, looked at her closely. “But we’ll get along without it. We’re going to have a good time, you and I.”
Outside the IGA, she’d opened her car door and leaned in to put the bag with the ice cream in the passenger seat. And something hit her from behind.
He did it. He hit her from behind. He shoved her hard across the car. She hit her nose on the inside of the passenger door just below the window. Her eyes watered and she was dizzy.
He lifted her legs and dropped them in the passenger side floorboard. There were a few goat heads in the floorboard. Stanley never scraped his shoes on the driveway before he got into her car. And a few of them stuck in her left knee.
Then someone—this man—grabbed the back of her hair, tugged hard on her head and slammed her face against the door again. And everything went dark.
That’s what was wrong with her nose. That’s what was wrong.
It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened.
He studied her eyes, watched as the fear crept into them, and smiled. “Ah, you remember something. Was it good for you? I do hope it was good for you, Susan.”
She forgot about the tape on her mouth, tried to ask, “Where am I?” but again only the muffled sound came out.
He held up one hand, his index finger to his mouth. “Shh. Shh. I thought you might be a talker, you see.” He gestured toward her mouth with the scalpel. “Hence the tape.” His voice quieted to a sinister whisper. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? The sooner we begin, and all that.”
He leaned forward and reached with the fingers of his left hand, smoothed some hair from her forehead and wrapped it behind her left ear, then looked at her eyes. “I only want to make one incision, Susan. Just one.” He held up his left index finger. Then he touched the base of the scalpel to the front of her left underarm. “I’ll start here, you see.” He traced the path as he said, “And I’ll draw a little red line back up over your shoulder.” He smiled again. “Okay?”
She shook her head vehemently.
“Tut tut, none of that. As we’ve already established, it’s important to learn new things. Now, if you don’t move during the procedure, we’ll call it done and I’ll let you go. All right?”
She stared at him.
He frowned. “You aren’t being very polite, Susan. I said all right?”
A hesitation, then she nodded quickly.
“That’s better. There’s a good girl. It’s like a little game. You don’t move, you don’t attempt to say anything, and I’ll let you go. And you’ll have a nice scar from the bad man to show your grandchildren someday.”
Grandchildren? She didn’t even have children yet. Stanley hadn’t decided they were ready. And at 24, she still had plenty of time. At 24 she was still a young—
He pressed the tip of the scalpel into the soft flesh of her underarm.
He jerked the scalpel back. Straightened. Looked at her. His lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line.
After a moment, during which he took three long breaths and seemed to be trying to decide something, he said, “All right. Well, that was probably the first time you’ve been touched with a scalpel, eh Susan? So we’ll let that one go, all right? We won’t count that one.”
He wagged his left forefinger at her and canted his head. “But any more like that, young lady, and— Well, I might not be able to let you go.” He laughed lightly, then leaned over her again. “Now, are you ready?”
She nodded frantically and pressed her teeth and her eyelids tight together.
He inserted the tip of the scalpel again.
She remained rigid against the searing pain as it sliced upward through the muscle of her left shoulder.
But when he’d moved it a little less than an inch, she had a mental image of herself walking into a hospital with her left arm in her right hand. The image caused her to shudder.
Again he straightened, but quickly, angrily. His voice was controlled, but only barely. “You just don’t listen, do you, Susan? Like all the rest, you never—you never listen!”
“Mmmfff!” she said, her eyes pleading. In that sound she tried to transmit that she would be good. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t do anything. She swore she wouldn’t. Just please let her go. Please.
But he was beyond listening for intent. “Oh, I see. Talking is what’s important to you. More important than anything, eh Susan? You want to talk?” He quickly raised the scalpel as he yelled, “Here! Let me remove the tape!”
He slashed down with the scalpel from near her nose to her jawline on the left side, slicing cleanly through her cheek and the tape.
She jerked her head to one side, and as he slashed again the scalpel hit just below her right nostril and sliced cleanly through the tape and both lips on right side.
She screamed, and this time the sound came out through her left cheek and through her gashed lips. Blood flowed in two streams down past her ear on the left and her jawline on the right and onto the table.
“And now you want to scream? Susan, you are untenable! But if you don’t want to play fair, here! Scream!”
He raised the scalpel, brought it down, slashed her left breast from the top to the areola. “Scream, Susan!”
She screamed and arched her back against the agonizing pain. More blood spattered out from her cheek and lips. Blood from her left breast ran down over her abdomen and side.
He held the scalpel aloft. “Be still!”
But she screamed again, then twisted hard to the left.
He slashed her right breast. “I said be still!”
She screamed and struggled hard to the right.
He slashed at her chest below her breasts repeatedly, but missed as she moved, laying bare her rib cage with three or four gashes on either side. The flesh hung in quivering red strips. “Be still, Susan! You’re spoiling it! You’re spoiling it!”
He stopped for a moment, and she looked at him, her eyes wide, pleading. She shook her head hard side to side, then nodded. She tried her best to lie still beneath the fire running all over her body.
He sighed and leaned over her. He gazed closely into her eyes, then smiled. Without warning he brought the scalpel forward and plunged it hard into her abdomen, then twisted it and held it tightly as she squirmed. “Do you understand, Susan? I wanted you to lie still!”
Still looking at him, she tried to draw her legs up, but the chains tugged at her ankles. Blood gushed from the rips in her cheeks and lips and torso.
Could she still escape? Maybe she could still escape. Slowly, she released the muscles in her thighs, allowed her legs to settle gently to the table again.
He raised the scalpel and glared at her.
She lay still, staring at him. At his eyes. Hatred. Such hatred. What did I do?
Again without warning, the scalpel descended and he slashed wildly at her hips and her thighs.
But she didn’t move other than with the force of the blade.
She kept her eyes trained on him.
It was too late. It wasn’t a nightmare. It had never been a nightmare.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die. But what did I do? What did I do?
Something about the fetal position. Shouldn’t she be in the fetal position?
He stopped for a moment, the scalpel hanging at his side as if he was tired.
The fetal position. She tried to tense her muscles and they all screamed. She tried to roll onto her left side quietly, without upsetting him further.
But the chains tugged at her again.
Oh. Oh yes. The chains. He put the chains on me. They must be necessary. But what did I do?
She relaxed in her original position, stared up at him, her eyes glassed over with acceptance.
Quietly, he said, “I only wanted you to lie still, Susan. That’s all I wanted, you see.” He took a heavy breath, hesitated, then said, “So shall I end it?”
Her cheeks, her face, her breasts were on fire. Her hips, her thighs, her abdomen. I’m going to die. Please, no more. No more. Yes. Yes sir, you should end it. Please. Please end it.
But if she told him, if she even nodded, he would torture her further.
He raised his voice slightly. “I said should I end it, Susan? I think you have learned your lesson, so you may answer.”
She stared at him.
I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.
Gently, she shook her head side to side. For added defiance, she risked a sound, tried to say No.
His face wrinkled into a rage. “Well it isn’t up to you, is it, Susan? It isn’t up to you! Understand?”
Behind the tape, she managed a slight smile.
In a single motion he stepped forward and plunged the scalpel between her ribs just to the left of her sternum.
Her body lurched. “Unh!”
He glared at the wound, the blood pumping out in a pulsing stream, then stabbed her again. Then again. Then again.
When he finally looked up, Susan Jordan’s eyes were vacant.
A broad grin burst across his lips and he began swinging the scalpel side to side, in rhythm, as if conducting an unseen choir. Quietly, as if taking care not to wake his victim, he sang, “And on into the ground we go, as into the town we go.”
He dropped the scalpel on the table next to her left calf, turned and walked toward the exit.
* * * * * * *
Note: This story is also the first chapter of my new psychological suspense crime thriller novel, Jonah.