Sorry for the radio silence. I should have known that with the July 4th holiday I’d miss my self-imposed deadline, especially when I was out of state. I was in Tennessee, visiting my brother. I had a wonderful time and I saw family I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, and even met some family for the very first time.
After being away from home for over a month, I’m finally back and ready to resume a routine and get my life into some semblance of order. With it being summer, this always proves difficult for me. I would much rather be lazy and do nothing, especially when it’s so hot and the slightest movement seems unnecessary. I’m teaching summer school this year – for the first time ever – and I’m hoping it will keep me honest and on a schedule.
So without further ado, I present the conclusion of my short story. I made some revisions to make the language clear and concise, which I think improved the fluidity of the narrative. That being said, I do think the ending is rushed because I just wanted to be done with it. I always feel incredibly guilty when I want to abandon a writing project, and I know that’s silly. Life is too short; I should follow what I’m passionate about and more often than not, that leads to a better story anway. I hope you enjoy it. And if you do read it all the way through, please let me know what you think in the comments. I want it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s only through constructive criticism (and continued practice!) that I can grow as a writer. So thank you in advance and again, I hope you enjoy the short story.
THE WORST BLIND DATE EVER
The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.
The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony Digital Voice Recorder because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette and when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.
In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson. She reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, along with fellow investigator Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places all by himself, kept her coming back for more.
They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, and after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.
The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.
Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.
Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.
“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. He did look familiar, but that did little to lessen the flamboyant hilarity of his presence. He seemed like more of someone’s idea of a psychic medium rather than an actual psychic medium. He was heavy and dressed in a long, dark-colored tunic and linen pants. He looked like some kind of yogi or guru, and he must have been freezing. He had beads all around his neck and bangles encircling both wrists that chimed and clanked softly whenever he moved. Madeleine chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander probably expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.
Zander started talking about the electronics that were neatly displayed on and the folding table he was gesturing towards. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group than anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”
Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. The horror and shock that widened his eyes and mouth seemed completely genuine. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingers had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?”
The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”
Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. Through clenched teeth, she whispered, “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”
Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. He talked too quickly and Madeleine knew he was lying. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group to continue on inside with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.
Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”
“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.
“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.
“I’m so glad this is happening,” Bryan blushed. “If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t think you’d show.”
“I thought the same thing,” Madeleine gushed, nervously pushing her hair back and away from her face. “I thought that even before you were late.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m so sorry.” Bryan rubbed the back of his neck and slid his eyes away from Madeleine. “I got a little turned around on the way here.”
Madeleine thought that was odd. After all, Bryan had chosen the location and gave the impression he knew the area. Shrugging it off because he was good-looking, she said, “No problem. The important thing is that you made it. I mean, it would have been nicer if you got here earlier. Then maybe the fat weirdo at the door wouldn’t have given me a hard time.”
Madeleine slowed her pace so the two would fall behind the group and be out of ear shot of any nosey investigators. “He told me to my face that if I walked in this house, I’d die.”
Bryan threw his head back and laughed. “What an asshole,” he mumbled as his laughter subsided. “He’s just trying to get you good and scared before we go in there. He needs an actress, you know what I’m saying? He’s priming you to get everyone else over-amped and more susceptible to seeing things that aren’t really there.”
Madeleine stopped in her tracks, but it took Bryan a few more paces before he realized. He looked back at the bemused expression on her face. “Weird,” she began and crossed her arms over her chest, “that’s almost exactly what he told me.”
Bryan walked towards her. “What? When a supposed psychic medium puts on a show for beginning paranormal investigators right before the investigation starts, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on.” He winked and then tugged on her shirtsleeve. “Ready now? I won’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.”
Madeleine shoved her misgivings aside for a second time and looped her arm through Bryan’s. Together, they crossed the threshold and joined the others. Zander was glaring at them, but whether it was because they were holding things up and spoiling his theatrics, or because Madeleine ignored his warning, was impossible to tell. But just as before, Zander was able to flawlessly come back to himself and retold the story of the occult origins of the home, and rehashed in gory detail the experiences witnesses claimed to have suffered while being inside. His fleshy, pink face was glistening with sweat and his eyes widened at just the right syllables to emphasize the buzzwords: apparition, demonic, physical touch. “Other investigators and historical tour guides have spoken of a dark, full-figured apparition rounding corners unexpectedly, a presence I most certainly believe to be demonic as its appearance is almost always followed by violent, physical touch.”
The tall, gaunt man pulled his lips tight in what was supposed to be a smile, but it only made Madeleine shiver and move closer to Bryan.
Zander smiled smugly and shoved his hands in his front pockets. “I thought we’d start in this room, the dining room, where it’s believed the patriarch routinely participated in ritual animal sacrifices, mainly goats. It’s said the smell became overpowering, forcing guests to inquire about what exactly was going on. And I guess Old Man Davies wasn’t seeing the kind of results he was hoping for either, so all sacrifice rituals were moved to the basement, which will be the last stop on this tour.” He winked. “Please, feel free to look around and conduct some EVPs. In about ten minutes, we’ll move on.”
The group spread out as much as it could in the small space. The huge circular table in the room’s center dominated all the space, so Madeleine was resigned to side-stepping to follow Bryan along the room. He squatted to examine the carpet for a few moments and then rose slightly so he was eye-level to the table. “What are you looking for?” Madeleine asked.
“Blood stains,” Bryan whispered back. “I don’t see the point of conducting EVPs in here. At least not until I find some real evidence of the occult.”
“Oh. Makes sense,” Madeleine said. She looked around the room like she knew what she was looking for, but she really just felt awkward and stupid. It was an unbearable couple of minutes, but eventually, Bryan shuffled back over to her.
“This room is too crowded, huh?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows. “Let’s go to another room.
Madeleine hesitated. “Can we do that? I mean, Zander said -”
“Fuck that guy,” Bryan said. “Let’s go to the basement where the real activity is.”
Madeleine’s dark eyes scanned the room. No one seemed to be paying them any attention, despite their whispering in the otherwise silent room. For the third time that night, Madeleine ignored the sudden lump in her throat and outbreak of gooseflesh on her arms. Bryan was handsome and seemed confident and sure in everything he did. He even promised not to let anything bad happen to her. She gulped to steady her voice and said, “Okay, sure. Let’s go.”
Bryan took her hand and led her to the kitchen. The sure-footed way in which he traveled about the house surprised and almost alarmed her. It was like he had been there before, which made his earlier lack of direction troubling. She was trying to think and figure it all out, but Bryan tightened his grip and quickened his pace so that before Madeleine knew it, they were standing before a solid, white door. Bryan was breathless when he said, “I think this is it.” He released her hand and stepped back. “Ladies first,” he cooed with a mischievous grin.
Madeleine had absolutely no desire whatsoever to go first. If she was being honest, she was speeding toward being scared shitless. There was still a voice within, rational though small, that advised her to get it together and go first. The bravery might even impress Bryan, and after the investigation, they could have an absurdly early breakfast at an all-night diner. Looking at him, she nodded and squared her shoulders. She gripped the doorknob tight to keep her hand from shaking, turned it and found it was unlocked, and swung the door open.
She was just about to descend the first stair when pain exploded at the back of her skull. The world went gray and she fell down the stairs.
The next thing Madeleine heard was loud, panicked voices. Her lids were heavy and she could barely open them. What she saw was blurred and indecipherable anyway. But she heard Bryan say, “You nearly blew it, you fucking idiot! You scared her so bad she didn’t want to go inside.”
Zander’s voice, high-pitched and almost hysterical, “You were late! Everything has been amiss since then!”
“Shut up,” Bryan ordered and there was scuffling and deep silence. “Make sure she can’t get up.”
It was at that precise moment Madeleine tried to move and found herself securely fastened to the floor. Ropes tied to stakes kept her hands and feet immobile. Her back was slick with some kind of liquid that soaked her shirt. Whether it was sweat or blood she couldn’t tell, but she instinctively knew the liquid belonged to her, that it was pouring from her, and that her situation was becoming more and more dire. Feet shuffled about her and she tried to scream, but fear kept the sound lodged in her throat. She thought if she opened her mouth again she might vomit.
The last thing she heard was “Hail, Satan!”