One Long Night

by Daniel Dean

 

1.

The smooth voice of an alto sax drifted over and around the people milling about on the River Walk, the easy flowing sound which had become the theme for sunset in New Orleans.

John stood with Nell, his thirteen-year-old daughter, her long brown hair twisted in a pony tail, the few wisps that had escaped being tugged playfully by the evening breeze off the river, and watched the water turn purple, then slowly deepen to red, as it reflected the light above in brilliant contrast to the darkening world around them.

Nell was crying softly, the tears running down her face were as red as the river, giving them the disturbing semblance of blood.

Nell buried her face in John’s shirt, her arms wrapped around his waist, her hitching sobs against his stomach seeming in tune with the fear which had settled there.

He knelt and wrapped his arms around her comfortingly, but only part of his mind remained to perform the task, the rest, back in February of 1998, was watching his wife as she paced angrily at the foot of their bed, purposefully not looking at him in the way she always did when trying to control her temper…

* * * * *

“I thought we were happy where we are. What on earth makes you think we should even consider moving after all the work I put into this house?” she said, still not looking at him.

“I’m not happy here. It’s an hour and a half commute to the hotel each way, and with the schedule I have to keep; I never even get to see Nell anymore.”

“Don’t you make this about Nell, don’t you dare.”

She turned her blazing eyes on him and he took a couple of steps back involuntarily.

“But I have always—”

She cut him off before he could finish, but not with words. Her right hand rose almost of its own accord, grasped the front of his shirt, and pulled him forward while the other cocked back to the side of her head.

He realized suddenly in a blaze of realization what she meant to do an instant before the back of her hand exploded against the side of his face, his left eyeball feeling as if it had been jellied by her wedding ring.

She let go of his shirt and quickly supported him in her arms, the look of anger disappearing from her face.

“John, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Oh gosh, you’re bleeding. Let me get you a towel.”

She sat him down on the edge of the bed and went into the bathroom to get a towel off the rack near the door.

He picked up the little mirror sitting on the side table. The eye she had hit was not popped or jellied, but it was swimming in blood, the lid split open by the stone in her ring.

She came out of the bathroom and held the towel out to him, the back of her hand smeared with his blood. He took the towel and pressed it over his eye.

“You should go wash your hand before we go to the hospital.”

“Why should we go to the hospital?” she asked sharply.

He almost gasped, but he controlled it and attempted to make himself sound unconcerned. She had been close to him, her eyes staring right into his, and when he had mentioned the hospital her pupils had changed for a second, expanding and elongating slightly then returning to normal.

“I am going to have to get this gash stitched up, but we can tell the doctor that I fell in the shower and cut myself on the faucet,” he said, hoping she might be assuaged.

She was.

Jane called the babysitter and, after agreeing that an extra ten dollars was in order because of the late hour, Jane loaded him into the car and they made the two hour drive to the hospital in relative silence.

After that night Jane ended all of their fights in the same way, by slapping him in the face, and later by kicking or punching him in the balls, but after that first night she never hit with her left hand, always with her right, which was unadorned by rings which might require another visit to the hospital.

John hid his bruises pretty well, claiming that a drinking problem caused most of them, and no one questioned the claim.

It just goes to show the mentality of the time we live in, he thought more than once. When a man can fall down the stairs drunk three times a month and no one questions, but a woman falls down the stairs once and her husband is automatically a suspect.

He preferred the story, would rather have people think him a lush than know that he was being beaten by his wife, a woman who weighed forty pounds less than he did and stood five inches shorter.

It was something he couldn’t let people know, especially Nell.

After awhile John stopped fighting with Jane in hopes that without an argument she would have no reason to become angry, but without the direct stimulus from John she began finding things to become angry about. Every time Nell fell down, or Jane had a bad day in her little basement studio and a picture she had been trying to develop went bad, she would accuse John of being unfaithful, or claim that he didn’t spend enough time with her and Nell, and once had not said a word, just walked into their bedroom and hit him across the face as hard as she could as he lay in bed reading, then calmly went into the bathroom to take a shower.

While the changes in Jane’s temper were disturbing the changes in her physically were even more so.

These did not show when she was calm, but each time she became enraged her face would change, taking on an elongated appearance, the skin going white, as if bleached, and the pupil’s of her eyes would become either vertical or horizontal slits.

At first John thought the changes were only some strange mental image he imposed on his wife when she boiled over, but as they became more pronounced with each successive change he realized that what he was seeing was no illusion, but a real change.

The breaking point had come in mid-March, and John had just gotten home from work.

His key clicked as he inserted it into the deadbolt, but the sound was hollow this evening, and though his intuition told him to turn around and leave, he turned the key and opened the door.

The only light in the main hall came from upstairs, through the open door of the room he and Jane shared on the third floor.

He sloughed the jacket off his back letting it drop down his arms, catching it in his hands before it could drop to the floor. He tossed it over the seat of the old rocking chair near the door and started up the stairs, tucking his keys into his pocket.

He stopped on the second floor landing, the light from the bedroom door cloaking half of his face with yellow, and leaving the other half in a strange mask of shadows that moved slightly even though the light was steady.

Jane’s form had appeared in the lighted doorway.

She was completely nude except for the long brown hair hanging around her shoulders and covering most of the firm curves of her breasts.

She still has the breasts of a teenager, he couldn’t help thinking to himself, even while staring into the black holes where her eyes were hidden by shadows and knowing that the pupils would be slits, either vertical or horizontal; it didn’t really matter which.

She took a step forward, most of her features hidden in shadows, only the curve of her buttocks and the shiny skin of her legs showing in the light from their bedroom.

“Do I frighten you, John?” she asked in a low seductive voice with a shivery undertone John knew to be both anger and mocking cynicism.

“Yes,” she said, then paused, looking not just at him, but into him in some unfathomable way that felt like a slime-covered worm crawling inside his skull.

She had come to the top of the stairs now, and was looking down at him. At this distance he could see that more changes had occurred; these even more disturbing than her eyes.

Her skin had become a milky white, and he could see a pattern beneath moving as if her skin was just a piece of tight-fitting clothing worn over something more substantial.

She continued after giving him a moment to inspect her.

“I can smell the fear wafting off of you like the smell of shit stuck to the bottom of a shoe.”

“You aren’t my wife,” he said, his voice unsteady and unsure.

“Oh, but I am.”

She spun around, showing off her lithe form, her breasts bobbing up and down slightly as she did.

“I am Jane Talibith.”

She smiled, flashing pointed glittering teeth.

“Your wife.”

John felt a chill move up his spine, and when he spoke next his voice was not quite steady.

“You might have been Jane once, but you’re not anymore.”

Without another word she flew at him, leaping down the short flight of stairs that separated them.

He was frozen in place as she came, her hair fluttering out behind her like a banner, then she was on him.

Her right hand wrapped around his neck like a vice and he thought, she is going to strangle me on the stairs and leave my corpse here to rot.

It was the last thought he could remember having before the pain, which filled his whole world for…

…well, he didn’t know just how long, but he could remember the ambulance, the sound of the sirens, the voices almost shouting but the words still unclear, and the endless hum of honking horns and running engines overlaying it all.

These snatches of memory recurred to him later, but he wished they wouldn’t, wished it could be like it was in television shows like Criminal Justice and NYPD, where getting attacked made the screen go black for a few seconds before depositing you in a hospital bed.

His first real memory after the attack was waking to find a doctor standing beside his bed shining a penlight into his left eye.

“Welcome back, John,” the doctor said, clicking off the penlight and dropping it into the pocket of his white lab coat.

“Do you know where you are?”

“The hospital?”

His voice was weak and his throat felt like it was coated with a layer of coarse sand.

The doctor nodded, taking the chart from the end of the bed and folding back some of the sheets to make a small note on one of the lower pages.

“Yes, Mr. Talibith, you are in the hospital.”

He read something off the chart and grimaced as if in pain himself.

“My name is Doctor Hutton. You suffered a severe trauma to your testes, which caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage in your brain.”

“What is a subarcnoid hemorrhage?” he asked.

“It is the rupture of one or more blood vessels in your brain. The effect is bleeding inside your skull which puts pressure on the brain, causing—in your case—respiratory failure.”

He paused, searching the chart for something.

“We removed a small section of your skull and drained the blood to relieve the pressure and repaired the vessels which were causing the bleeding, but you may experience continued symptoms due to minor brain damage.”

“We were able to save your right testicle, but the left was too severely damaged and had to be removed.”

John looked up as the doctor finished and grimaced slightly.

“That’s strange, doc.”

“What’s strange?” Doctor Hutton asked.

“I don’t feel like a man with one ball.”

 

2.

John shook off the remnants of the memory and saw that the sunset was over. The sax player was gone, likely moved to Bourbon Street for big tips from the drunks who wandered from bar to bar all night.

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said, out loud but to himself, and lifted Nell into his arms.

She had stopped sobbing, but it was his first day back after being in the hospital and he had just picked her up from the foster family she had been staying with for the past two months, and she clung to him like a barnacle to the face of a sea cliff.

She was heavy, and he was still weak from his ordeal despite the physical therapy, and though he was able to carry her a few feet, he was forced to put her down long before they reached the edge of the River Walk.

“You will have to walk on your own. Daddy just can’t carry you right now.”

She continued to cling to him, her arms around his neck.

“No.”

“I can’t carry you Nell, you are just too heavy. But I will hold your hand while we walk if you want.”

He pulled her arms from around his neck and took her hand, then started down the road to the Grand Plaza Hotel.

It was a fairly large hotel near Bourbon Street, just far enough away that the crowds weren’t a bother, and had been one of the few holdings of John Talibith Jr., John’s father.

He had died when John was seventeen, and had left him a legacy consisting of three broken down cars, fourteen dollars in change, and this hotel.

The suite he had procured was not lavish, only serviceable. The main room was large, with a cabinet in the corner which John assumed housed a television and perhaps a VCR, a couch the color of egg yolks, a round table, and three chairs.

Also in the main room was a small kitchenette equipped with a stove, oven, microwave, and mini-fridge that he could stock with whatever he wanted.

The walls of the room were, he was sure, once white, but had been stained a sickly orange-yellow from cigarette smoke accumulated over the years.

“Well, here we are.”

He flicked on the lights in the main room and led her inside.

“It isn’t much, but it will do until we can find a place in town.”

“Are you hungry, honey?” John asked as he led Nell to the table and pulled out a chair for her.

“I could eat,” she responded, her voice still choked with tears.

“There isn’t much here, but I can always call downstairs for whatever you would like and have it brought up.”

“How ’bout some ice cream?” she asked.

She still loved ice cream, and she always wanted some after her feelings had been hurt by a boy at school, or if she had a fight with a friend, and had even once eaten almost an entire half gallon by herself when her pet goldfish, Goldy, had died and she had caught her mother about to flush the unfortunate creature down the toilet.

“Sure,” he said, removing the carton of chocolate-covered cherries ice cream from the small freezer.

“Want some whipped cream with that?” he asked, removing the can of spray whipped topping from the door of the fridge.

She nodded.

Taking a spoon out of the drawer he opened the carton, jabbed the spoon in and handed the entire thing to her.

He sprayed a mountain of whipped cream onto the top of the ice cream in the carton then went back to the fridge and opened the door.

After a seconds hesitation he closed the door again, and set the can of whipped cream next to the carton of ice cream.

He knelt down beside her and pointed to the door across the room.

“That will be your room. When you get done wash up and get on to bed. It has its own bathroom, so you won’t have to share one with me.”

He smiled, straining against his mood to hold it while he spoke.

“Things will be strange for awhile, but we will make it.”

He hugged her and she hugged him back, her mouth full of ice cream, and the spoon dripping both ice cream and whipped topping down the back of his shirt, but he ignored it.

“I promise.”

He pulled away and stood.

“I’m going to take a shower. If you get scared or you need something just knock.”

He looked down at her questioningly.

“Alright?”

She nodded and scooped another huge spoonful of ice cream into her already overstuffed mouth.

* * * * *

John took a hot shower then dressed, and though his aches and pains felt much improved, his nerves were on edge; a strange feeling settling over him like a shroud.

The little apartment was quiet when he came out of the bathroom, the empty carton of ice cream sitting on the table, the spoon next to it, and the can of whipped cream sitting on its side near to where he had left it.

The strange feeling magnified.

He rushed to the door of the bedroom and opened it slightly to peek through the crack.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

After a moment of fruitless searching he looked up and saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

He pushed the power button, and the television made a small popping sound as the power kicked in and the picture began to light up the screen.

For just a moment he could see a picture filling the screen behind the remaining blackness, but he couldn’t make out who the photo might be, then before the black could fade away enough for him to make out the picture it was replaced with a picture of a large sign reading, “The Dallas-Fort Worth Psychiatric Institute for the Mentally Disturbed.”

He sat forward, suddenly recognizing the name, and turned up the sound slightly so he could better hear the anchor talking in the background.

“Three prisoners escaped from the Institute this morning after a guard, identified as Kate Benigan, 32, entered the ward where the three women were being held…”

He stopped listening as understanding dropped down on him like a half-ton weight.

The feeling he had been having since he got out of the shower came back, but now it was accompanied by a splinter of fear sinking deep into his gut.

He rushed to the bedroom where he had peeked in to see Nell sleeping soundly, the smell of Jane’s perfume becoming stronger with each step he took towards the door.

The smells of shampoo and soap had covered it before. The scent was light and fruity, much like that of his favorite shampoos, but now he could almost feel its presence in the air as he flung the door open, no longer worried about waking Nell, and tore the covers off the bed to reveal the rubber sex doll, its partially deflated body posed to look like a sleeping child, its rubber arm bent up to cover its gaping horrible hole of a mouth.

Seemingly without thought he hurried from the room, and turning left he pushed through the door at the end of the hall marked DO NOT USE, EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY, in large red letters on the door, and in smaller more polite looking letters on the unlocking bar was printed, Warning Alarm Will Sound.

The alarm blared out as he pushed through the door and into the dimly lit street.

People turned to look in his direction, but he paid no attention, just ran around to the front of the building where the baggage carts stood.

A Toyota Corolla was the only car parked at the curb, the trunk open; a man standing behind the car with two bags in his hands staring at John as he brushed past heading for the driver’s door.

The man dropped the two bags and raised his right hand to point at John, waggling his finger impotently.

John dropped into the driver’s seat with a plop and slammed the already running car into drive.

The front wheels spun for a moment sending billows of white smoke from the tires, then caught, the car jerking into motion, its front swerving back and forth as he raced away from the hotel in the direction of the house he had so wanted to leave behind.

Of course she would take Nell to the house, there wasn’t much logic to this he knew, but somehow he knew it was true, she would take Nell to the house and would do something to her.

She might not kill her, but as most people knew, there were worse things than death.

He drove without being reckless, trying to avoid the time delay of being pulled over for speeding or reckless driving.

Once he was out of the most populated section of the city however, he floored the accelerator and the little Toyota’s engine whined almost pitifully as the odometer needle jumped to around ninety and hovered there.

It was dangerous to go so fast along the dark country road, a twisting one lane blacktop that ran west through the swamps and bayous, but the faster his heart beat the more his foot seemed to want to press down on the accelerator.

The house he and Jane had shared for most of the years of their marriage was an old plantation house built sometime after the Civil War, though he wasn’t sure of the date since he had never really been interested in the history.

At some point most of the land around the large house had been sold off to other farms or was given to children and grandchildren of the original owners, and by the twentieth century a small town had sprung up around the place.

Witchinia was what the locals had named the town, though in truth there wasn’t all that much to name, just a small filling station, a pool hall and bar, and one stoplight which stood at the corner between Evans and Albertson Streets and blinked yellow most of the time.

He had only been driving for ten minutes when the car began to decelerate rapidly, not screeching to a halt, but seeming to lose power.

He raised one hand and looked down at the panel of electronic instruments behind the steering wheel and saw that the gas gauge read zero miles.

That’s a new feature, he thought with a touch of irony and cursed himself for a fool.

He had just passed a small gas station a couple of miles back, but it had been closed, and he had not thought to check how much gas was in his stolen ride.

He cursed again and banged his left hand on the steering wheel while using his right to guide the car to a slow stop on what passed for the shoulder but was really just a few inches off the road and as close to leaving the embankment as he ever wanted to get.

He looked in the rearview mirror to see if the gas station was still within sight, but found his view blocked by the raised trunk. Hope surged through him for a moment as he flung the door open and stepped out, his sneakers crunching the small bits of loose gravel dotting the road.

He knew that many people carried a gas can on long car trips just in case.

He rounded to the back of the car and peered in the trunk but found no can lying there in red aluminum splendor as he had hoped.

Instead he saw the staring eyes of his wife, unchanged, nothing about her was any more or less than human now, but she was dead, her mouth twisted in a half grimace, half scream, showing her jagged and broken teeth.

The eyes were glazed, and the murder weapon, what appeared to be a normal everyday claw hammer, was still buried in her skull. Her right hand still grasped the handle of the hammer, and a clear mental picture of Jane smashing out her own teeth with the thing flashed through his mind.

The form of his dead wife sat up, her glazed eyes turning to look at him, his hand rose to cover his mouth, the expression there feeling like a grin beneath his fingers.

The apparition raised its mangled and broken left hand, the fingers twisted unnaturally as if someone had repeatedly smashed it with the claw hammer.

Her wedding ring, crushed and buried into the flesh was just visible as she pointed the nub of one twisted finger in the direction he had come.

She spoke silently, her lips forming out words that they did not seem able to speak, but John could understand them anyway.

“Go back. She is mine now. You are already too late.”

He backed away in horror, the blood seeming to rush into his head with a roaring sound he could hear in his ears and feel in the back of his eyes.

His sneaker scuffed the ground harder than he had expected and he fell, his arms pinwheeling as he tried, too late, to recover his balance.

He heard the crack as his head hit the pavement, but did not feel any pain, only saw many pinpoints of light form in his vision, and the floating image of his wife’s face above him, almost transparent in the moonlight, her mouth now twisted into a horrible sneering smile.

Then the darkness closed in.

 

3.

John woke to the sound of running water, his head pounding like a hammer on an anvil, the spray of water cold on his naked back. He rolled over and raised himself to his knees in front of the toilet.

A shadow of memory flitted in his head for a moment, then was gone, something insubstantial and odd, but after a bump like that, he could feel a throbbing on the back of his head that he knew would be a large purple knot before long. You couldn’t expect all your mental faculties to be working perfectly right away, he thought.

He took a washrag from the rack next to the toilet and, pressing it to his head, he got to his feet a little unsteadily and got dressed.

He opened the bathroom door, intending to get some ice on the back of his head before the knot got too large, and stopped, his nerves firing up and making him want to jitter.

The carton of ice cream he had given Nell sat empty on the table, the spoon on the floor beneath the chair, and the can of whipped cream turned on its side near where he had left it.

A strange feeling came over him, and though he could not identify its cause, he looked from the table to the bedroom door, which stood slightly ajar.

He walked quickly across to the door and pushed it open just a little more, enough for him to look at the bed inside.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

Looking up after a moment of fruitless searching, he saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

A thought so powerful and disturbing that he could not ignore it went through his mind.

This has happened before! You have done this before!

He sat forward, his mind suddenly on alert, and the first thing he noticed was the light fruity scent of Jane’s favorite perfume lingering in the air.

 

4.

Jane stood at the bedside, the doctor beside her holding a clipboard, his frazzled red hair standing on end, giving him the look of a mad scientist.

“Your husband suffered a severe rupture of blood vessels in the brain during the psychotic episode and he has shown no brain activity since.”

The doctor ran one hand through his tousled hair before continuing.

“He is living without the help of machines, but it is not likely that he will ever recover from his condition.”

She took the clipboard without him first offering it and flipped back the first few pages.

“What are these again?”

“They are just legal forms concerning your understanding that your husband’s condition is not the fault of this hospital or any of its personnel.”

Jane nodded and took the pen from the doctor when he held it out for her. She signed each of the forms then gave the clipboard and pen back to the doctor.

“I can’t afford to pay for long-term treatment or hospitalization,” Jane said.

The doctor took the chart from the end of the bed and flipped through it to the insurance information page, then shrugged.

“The health insurance will cover it for a short time, after that he becomes a ward of the state and will be transferred to a state mental facility.”

She nodded.

“Doctor, could I have a few minutes alone with him just to say goodbye?”

The doctor looked from Jane to John then back, nodded, and left the room, the clipboard tucked under one arm, leaving Jane standing at the side of John’s bed, her hand slightly touching his, her red painted nails looking like blood against his pale skin.

She waited until the doctor’s footsteps had disappeared, then turned to the head of the bed and smiled, her pupils becoming vertical slits, and her face seeming to drain of color and elongate, the nose melting away, leaving only smooth reptilian features.

“Pleasant dreams, John,” she said, then turned to leave.

“You will be having them for a very long time.”

She left his room smiling, her face now just like any other person’s.

In his bed, John did not move, and but for a single tear running from the corner of his eye, he might have been taken for a corpse.

 

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