Halloween I

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Halloween I: The Comfort of Fear
There was the one in her closet, which she never heard, nor saw, nor smelt, yet knew was there. The others, if there were others, did not disturb him, for he was immense and probably furry. Tabitha was almost convinced at times, when the yellow street lamps were brightest in the night, that he was a protector and not a frighten-er, except he lived so deep in the shadows. He never left the closet, and so he was always “The Potentially Hungry one in the Dark,” and as long as she never crossed the threshold of the door, she felt safe enough. He was a maybe, a might be.

It was the Faceless One she feared at night. He was not tethered to the dark of a spot, but drifted like a low fog about her bedroom, sometimes black, sometimes electric white, his outline like the effect of blinking too much. He had no real face, but he did have a slack-jawed maw of a mouth. He would wake her with darts of sound, with softly exclaimed “hmms?” or “huhs!” Tabitha’s only recourse at these times was to make sure the walls of stuffed animals on either side of her were still vertical, and then tuck herself tightly between them. She regretted she could not hide under the covers, but she disliked the hot, recycled air that accompanied her breathing. Better, she reasoned, to live in a breathable fortress made of animals. There were no closet doors to close to the Faceless One. Not that she would dream of touching feet to floor at night, but still. He was anywhere he wanted, a pale outline that would too seldom become a familiar pile of clothes or toys in the daytime. As though he thought she wouldn’t know the difference.

The worst, however, were the demons in the basement. They never left, not even when Tabitha moved to a new home. They were the worst because of their bony joints and never ending smiles. In the dark they danced on unopened moving boxes, on piles of junk, discarded and forgotten furniture. They were as thin as stick figures, black as crows, and had wings which did not work. And their smiles – no clown smiles, or mime smiles, but hyena smiles. Smiles too wide for their faces, full of small teeth, unending smiles. When Tabitha turned on a light they would hide, but she sensed them picking up things, watching, waiting for the darkness again. Should they catch her, they would eat the nondescript part of her legs, between the heel and the calf, and watch her fall over.

Tabitha had her ways of keeping them away, for they hated to be discovered. She would walk of the stairs backwards, turning off one light at the bottom of the stairs, then the second at the top, before turning her back for the briefest of moments to shut and lock the basement door. It was in this moment she heard them cackle at her, before she was back in the light.

Then there were the rhymes she would sing. If her parents told her to fetch something from the basement at night – her Mother kept all her homemade sauces in the cool basement – it was especially difficult to go down the stairs. So Tabitha wrote a song, a spell to keep the dancing, smiling ones at bay. Shewould whisper sing it, each step a new couplet:

One step down, demons frown
Here’s step two, demons shoo
Now step three, don’t get me
I will make it down the stair
And the devils will not care.

She imagined her voice could frighten the dark, smiling monsters, or at least keep them hiding. She’d repeat it, since there were so many stairs, and noise was important. If she stayed silent, there was the possibility they would peek out at her while she fetched. And she hated the thought of seeing them.
So it went for many years.
Tabitha had a normal life, save for going down into basements. All her homes had one, for safety said her parents, for storage said her husband. The dark, furry, fat one in her closet shambled on, and she feared him no more (if she ever did). She had more or less reached an agreement with the Faceless One. He frightened her regularly, and she in turn allowed it. That was all he seemed to require – fear of him. He never hurt hear, but he scared her all the time with his menacing shadows. The dancing ones still needed charms. As she aged, Tabitha grew better with her chanting, sometimes relying on other songs written by famous people when she could not remember her own. But she could still whisper soft, singing chants as he climbed upstairs backwards.

I will make it up this stair
Since I know that nothing’s there
Let you silly demons prance
Do your wicked little dance
While I go back to the light
Leave you here to dance all night

Then, quick as age allowed, she’d spin on her heel, shut off the lights, and close the door. Even to old age, when by all accounts others considered her a little “off,” she would not go down into basements without hesitation. It was because she knew in some deep, ancient part of her, that unlike the fat, shambling one, or even the faceless, oozing one, these demons wanted something from her. More than her fear, more than her unease, more even than the nondescript flesh on the back of her legs. They wanted all of her.
And so it was, in older age but not yet oldest age, that Tabitha awoke in the dark, convinced she’d heard a voice say “Heh!” It had been a long time since the Faceless One had gone so far as to wake her up. She shivered at the shape of a shadow on the back of her bedroom door, so like a cloaked figure, squat with no hands, staring at her with no eyes. She forced her eyes to try and stare through him, wiling him to become a carelessly thrown shawl on the back of an armless chair. He did so, begrudgingly, but the cost was her newly alerted senses. Creaks, shuffles, new sounds from new sources around her. And a faint, rhythmic scrabbling sound from beneath her.

We have watched you all your life
Become a child, woman, wife
We have heard you moan in bed
We have watched you mourn your dead

They were singing, spell-like songs. She could not pull the covers over her head – she hated the stifling heat.
“Nothing is there. Nothing is there,” she said, adding reflexively. “My mind is putting noise to air.”
A cackle. A pulling fear in her bones. She took off the covers, and set her feet to the floor, into her slippers. All the nameless shadows immediately turned into objects, the Faceless One retreating unexpectedly from all corners of her room. She heard her own words now, tittered quietly from under her feet, and a low, rhythmic reply:

Oh, we are most certainly here
Here and there as well, our dear
Subconscious no, we are substance
Now come and join our little dance.

Tabitha felt her arms in her robe sleeves, the light quilted weight on her shoulders. This was the inevitable, what she had known since childhood. Walking to the basement door, she hesitated at the light switch. She could not see them. It would be too much for her. Hesitantly she found the first step.
“One step down. Demon frown. Here step two, demon shoo…” her voice sounded high and young. From below, voices chorused.
“Now step three, come to me. Here step four, we want more. Then step five, still alive. Will you go to Hell or Heaven, as you pass by six and seven? Pretty little human girl, with her precious fearful will, now at last comes down the stair, now at last is full aware.”
It was darker than she could have imagined. Her eyes, desperate, flashed purple streaks and golden stars across her eyes, but found nothing, no light to which they could adjust. Something brushed, then jabbed into her arm. She yelped, sheepishly wondering if it were an imp’s elbow or a pointy broom handle. She closed her eyes in the dark, her old mind racing, recovering lines from old couplets she had made in younger times, tempered with her more grow-up vocabulary:

You do not frighten me
For I have grown to sixty-three
I tell you all to leave this place
Stop your dancing in my space
Back to wherever you reside
By my words you will abide
Silence in the absolute darkness.

Tabitha wasn’t sure where her basement ended anymore. In this void, it could have been infinite. That was what made the dark so awful – there was no telling where it ended, no telling if it was growing or shrinking. The dark had that power. She hoped her bravado made an impact on the unseen creatures, but then she heard the rhythmic scrabbling start again, now behind her and also above her.

Time has passed for you, it’s true
And we have watched the under view
But now it’s time for time to end
Soul and flesh and time we rend!

The words struck coldness into her heart. For sixty-three years they had waited for her, and now.
“My legs,” she breathed, unable to rhyme. She could see them now, even in the abysmal dark, could see the clacking teeth, the useless wings sticking out like broken umbrella tops, the too many angles. And fear, so heavy and straight-edged, gripped her in every joint, so that her terror brought a cheer, followed by a stark, searing pain to the bit of her legs between the calf and heel, the part that had no real name.
In her pain, Tabitha blinked furiously, begging for tears. None came, but in the electric white of her blinking she saw, suddenly, a shape outlined in the dark, though the shape had no light of its own. Like the dancing ones, it was only visible to her mind, though like the dancing ones, it existed, tangible, in the dark.
“Huh,” it seemed to spit out of its slack-jawed maw. And then it sucked, soundlessly, each and every demon into that same gaping hole of a mouth. The demons screamed, clawed, failed to fly away, but the Faceless One was everywhere, for it was in every shadow, and there was no light to turn him to objects. No sound emitted from the mouth that swallowed, but Tabitha was buffeted by the fears of the consumed demons, the death she imagined waited for her from him when she was a child.
There was one left, seeming to shine like volcanic glass in the dark. It peeked from around something; Tabitha could hear claws gripping a cushion. It pointed at the Faceless thing all about them.
“No fair! No fair! You may not travel down the stairs!” It hissed out angrily. The Faceless One, now close to Tabitha, stared with no eyes at nothing. Tabitha couldn’t move, though she was deathly afraid of him. She could only see him in the blinks of her eyes.
“Hih! It said abruptly, like the soft bark of a ghost. Out of the black a new voice spoke, bland and infinite, spilling through the air.
“My meal, my friend, my decision. She has kept me sated for sixty-three years. What have you to offer?!” As the last words settled without echoes in the space, there was a new sound, a sound of crunching and crying, of bones being rolled around in a mouth, of a great appetite.
Tabitha could no longer stand. She stumbled. Instead of landing on the cold concrete floor, she fell into a mass of fur and fat. This must be how bears feel, she thought. To large hands, like paws with long fingers – cradled her as though she were a child.
“Sleep, Fearful. The great goodness of sleep,” murmured a voice, dark as the basement. He was the Potentially Hungry one in the Dark. She saw nothing.
“Yes,” was all she mumbled, and closed her now ancient eyes against the black, secure and comforted in her fears.

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Plane and Simple

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I have a horrible idea for a reality TV show. Put a bunch of people on a plane, then delay that plane so that everyone is about to miss their connecting flight. The only way to make the flight is to have enough people missing it that they hold the plane. So everyone has a limited amount of time to convince others to switch their flights (it’s TV – no one actually has to go to the new place in the end).

I’d call it “Plane and Simple.” Here’s a short story I wrote which illustrates how I got to have this horrible idea:

—-

Plane and Simple

15 minutes
“We’ll let you know as soon as we know.” The first officer’s voice is calm, perhaps mildly annoyed. The plane was a little late in boarding. We all cast about at our new seatmates, our thirteen hour friends, and give small smiles. The price of flying.

45 minutes
“They’re not telling us anything. Once we have any sort of answer we will let you know. We apologize for the delay.” By now people are standing, despite the seatbelt light still being on. Some mill about the cabin, taking little walks. Nerves are starting to show. We have a late arrival – the connecting times have been trimmed so much that any delay can cost a person their next flight, perhaps the last flight home. I’m calm – I have a three hour cushion. The girl sitting next to me has twisted a napkin into a caterpillar. Wearing a raincoat and stowing a guitar, she’s returning to America for the first time. She had a thirty minute connection. Her brown eyes are forlorn and full of polite concern. She does not want to be a bother, but she is bothered.
The man in front of me, a young businessman with heavy plastic tortoiseshell glasses, gets drawn into conversation with a stately Chinese woman sitting next to him. This woman grabbed my attention as well, for she managed to get both the businessman and the heavyset industrial type sitting next to me to both volunteer to help her with her bags with minimal effort. She radiates confidence and dependency. Clearly she could do it if required, but surely someone will help her, correct? She had a permed head of graying hair, and wore a brocade jacket of purple and red flowers. With a knowing nod, she listens to the pilot.

“Can’t control them,” she says to no one and her immediate listeners.
“Who?”
“Oh, that’s all code for the Government.” She says it as a proper noun, as someone who’s lived her whole life under the watch of an official eye. “They’re keeping us here.”
“Well, I’m about to miss my flight,” says the heavyset man next to me. He’s in business too, though he’s wearing a Mustang shirt and board shorts. “Hope it gets fixed soon.”

1 hour 15 minutes
The flight attendants are floating around the aviary, soothing ruffled feathers and being rational. International crews don’t have to maintain the forced chipper attitude of domestic crews. They can speak it plainly – it’s rough, they’re sorry. We are in a foreign land, and we’ll move at the pleasure of the country’s government. Here’s five thousand bonus miles. Have a glass of complementary red wine.

The stately dame won’t take the miles. The flight attendant, a tall man with a genial attitude, offers twice and is rebuffed. The dame talks to him like he is a well-meaning but ignorant son. No, she won’t take those miles. Have him mess with her boarding pass? They’ll never let her through immigration – how could he suggest something so clearly foolish? My seat mate takes the red wine, though she sloshes it on the bulkhead in purple drops.

The level of patience in the airplane fluctuates now. We’re all being patient, worldly travelers. No one wants to be the one to snap. More flights are being lost. Tension rises under the jokes. The price of flying.
1 hour 30 minutes
This is when it all changed. The first officer, who keeps us up to date on how little everyone knows, comes over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your First Officer speaking. Still nothing to report – the air traffic tower is not giving us any information, and so we are going to have to stay parked for the time being. We regret having to keep you all waiting. We know many of you have connecting flights, and we have no new information to report from Detroit. One of the nice things about being on a big plane like this is if enough people will miss a flight, they’ll be more likely to hold it. Once again as soon as we have clearance we’ll be pushing back, and again thank you for your patience.”
A ripple, discernible only as a collective shift in the flotation capable seats, suggests a unified mental realization. The only reason I don’t join in the thought process is that I still have two hours of wiggle room.
The raincoat girl next to me shifts, however. She gets up and walks slowly to the back of the plane. I throw a casual glance over my shoulder, and see her showing her boarding pass to another person  in the back.
The tortoise glasses man is no longer typing on his computer. His fingers are poised over the keys, but his head is cocked to one side, listening to the murmurs of conversation.
The grand dame nods knowingly.
Then I hear it.
Destinations.
All through the cabin, I can hear where everyone is going. New York, Atlanta. People are looking at their boarding passes like they’re trading cards. Cincinnati, Miami. The plane, not being full, is getting reshuffled. Washington DC, Omaha. People are tallying, passengers are making alliances and camps. The flight attendants don’t stop them.

 

2 hours
The New York camp is very persuasive. They ought to be, as they have representatives from the business class section moving through the rows with the oiled precision of prosperity.
“You know, you can switch connecting flights before we leave,” a grey-haired man is chatting up the grand dame. She looks at him, dark eyes full of mirth, but says nothing. “We get enough people to go to New York, they’ll hold the flight. Switch back when we land.”

“And what would I do in New York when I’m headed to DC?” She asks, voice direct and sweet.
“I can make it worth your while.” The man says, letting a hand linger on his breast pocket knowingly. The woman shakes her head with a chuckle.

“I’ve seen this before. And I’ll keep what I have. Have you tried going through immigration with mixed cards? They’ll never let me through.” The man, recognizing an immoveable object, keeps walking. He stops at me, contemplative.

“Where’s your connection going?”

“Indianapolis. I have plenty of time though.” I say it light-heartedly, but inside I’m starting to cringe at each passing minute. I’m an anomaly. I have a long layover in Detroit, and I am also alone. No one is going to Indiana. Should I need allies, I’ve already lost them all because I didn’t need them to begin with. The man moves on, clearly disgusted by my good-natured attitude.

He’s wasting his time in the back. The Omaha basketball team has the sympathy vote going strong for them. They’ve gotten people to switch tickets with swishes of blond hair and the youthful pleadings of needing to be back in time for finals. This is a lie. I know this because I listened to them chatting loudly from the carpet of their enclave in the terminal. Finals are done. This is just a last hurrah of the basketball team, one final bit of official campus business.
But they’re all leggy and pretty and it’s hard to say no when a team of leggy, pretty, giggling women put on the pressure to perhaps change destinations just to help them out. And they are smart – they’re targeting the businessmen who don’t have families.

That Omaha camp is the black horse of the race to stall future departures.

 

2 hours 30 minutes
It would be incorrect to say that the tension continued mounting. When flying, there is always tension. Even easy fliers have the presence of mind to feel a little pressure. If it’s not a second flight, it’s a family member waiting to pick them up, or a morning meeting, or a decent night’s sleep. Delays simply serve to magnify all those tiny gears in a plan which can break. The longer the delay, the more cracks form in the gears.
The crew turned on the entertainment system, placating those of us who could be bought by movies not yet sold in stores and HBO specials. Like me. The tension did not mount. The tension simply magnified. From my aisle seat, I saw all the camps.

The New York camp was sitting pretty with the bulk of the wealthy seats. They might save their more immediate flights. They had the platinum cards and could bring a great deal of customer service weight to bear. And some of them were. If their numbers wouldn’t save them, the cost would be great to their loyalty. That’s the word they keep using – loyalty. They’ve been loyal customers. And if that loyalty doesn’t get them anything, then perhaps they should take their loyalty elsewhere. Might as well start smacking people with billfolds.
I was right about Omaha being the dark horse. The Omaha girls acquired temporary allies from around the globe, and their numbers were now impressive enough to perhaps get that connecting flight to wait for them as well. Well done, college students.
DC was not so fortunate in numbers, but they have a weight of their own. They had claimed the economy comfort section, and were employing technology to negotiate their way to other flights, or to powerful friends on the ground who could save them. They had the longest reach. Sure, they could wait to get another flight, spend the night in Detroit. The repercussions for the good of the country were at stake, but oh well. They are clearly the tensest, as their means and pressure all are done through favors and political string plucking.
The Atlanta camp was strong, but they weren’t actually trying to save themselves. They were headed to a hub, after all, and there were always more flights to the main hub. Miss one, and another was leaving in an hour. They clumped together in the center aisles, and discussed the offers they’d received. They knew they were prized commodities for other cities. For the right price they’d say they were headed to Omaha, or Dallas, or Cincinnati. What did it matter, as they had the most options to get to their real destination? Oh yes, for a little grease those Atlanta flyers would say they were headed anywhere.
The rest of us – those of us going places with no weight – were a little like those from Atlanta. We could be bought, in theory, since we had no camps to speak of. But we were a hard sell because we weren’t going to hubs. Ours were the last flights to small places in unattractive locations. I might love Indiana, but I wasn’t going to convince a single soul to try and help me stop my flight from leaving without me. Sure, I could claim Omaha, but if I switched I could not switch back.
The man in the Mustang shirt looked at his watch, and did some mental math. “My flight’s going to be landing by the time we arrive.” He says it with finality, a man who knows there is no hope. The stately woman nods in sympathy. The tortoiseshell businessman has disappeared to the back of the plane, replaced by a Chinese man in a windbreaker who pushes his seat all the way back.
Looking around, I’m thankful that we’re in an airplane. Anywhere else and the camps would be at each other’s throats, like a collection of medieval provinces. Planes force civility. You can’t go anywhere, so if you lose your temper there’s nowhere to go. You don’t get to storm off – first class is off limits to the rest of us, anyway. So the camps glower and make catty remarks at each other. Stereotypes abound. The non-English speaking passengers eye us all warily.

The truly calm are those precious few who are actually stopping in Michigan. This is their last connection – so apart from the annoyance of spending a few extra hours on a parked airplane in China, life is good.
“If we hit four hours, they’ll make us leave the plane,” the gray-haired woman says to me. Unlike most of the plane, neither she nor I have left our original seats. I nod, feeling half my mouth quirk up in a smile.
“Heaven forbid. All these machinations.” I nod in the directions of the camps.
“They’ll never get through immigration,” the woman agrees. I go back to being entertained by movies.
3 hours
There’s a different hum.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been given clearance to push back. We are no longer first for take-off, but we should be in the air shortly. Flight time estimated at thirteen hours and twenty-seven minutes…” He continues, but I can’t hear over the muffled clapping.
Almost everyone reshuffled in the great grab for connection allies, and no one feels like going moving back to their old seats. So people bundle in their chairs, setting up tray tables and fastening seat belts and going through the motions of pretending as though they still care about procedure.
The tension dissipates out of necessity. There is no internet over the Pacific. There is no way to know, and not knowing means not controlling. Thus movies, and snacks, and sleeping – the hallmarks of the long trip – take precedent over worrying, negotiating, and demanding. Also prayer. Prayer lives in both worlds, within and beyond tension. I would bet my connection boarding pass that there was a lot of prayer as we broke through the dimming cloud bank and into the darkening sky.
In those thirteen hours, I bet there was a lot of prayer.