Monday, April 04, 2016

"A Last, Longing Look"

Here's a story I wrote a long time ago and sold a long time ago and saw published a long time ago in an anthology edited by Whitley Strieber (and several assistants including the Marty Greenberg team). A slightly edited version appears in my short story collection A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS which came out last year and which you can pick up in paperback format or as an ebook.

James Robert Smith

     In the little washroom down the road from the diner, he had stopped, washing and looking down at the hands.
     They seemed to be good hands. The fingers were long and fine and one could imagine them holding a camel hair paintbrush, or playing a piano, perhaps. Grime filled the creases and lines in the joints and on the palms, so he had scrubbed and scrubbed with the small bar of yellow soap he had found on the edge of the sink. As he washed them, the thoughts began to collect, the old ones shedding like so much dead skin from a molting snake. Yes, these fingers had played the piano often enough in days long gone.
     After the hands were clean he had peeled off his shirt and his tattered pants and he had washed the pits of his arms and his crotch, drying himself with wads of rough paper in the dispenser.
     Looking at the face in the mirror, he had wanted to shave, although the face looked to have been shaved the day before, likely. It could use another shave, but he couldn't find a razor or even a knife in the pockets of those tattered black pants or in the breast of the thin coat he had. He had looked at the face, a plain, mild face; it was his face, now.
     There was some money in the pocket, nine one dollar bills, and there had been two twenties under the lining of the left shoe. So he wasn't without money. He would need a little bit of money when he went to the diner to look at her this one, final time. Oh, he wished he were human.
     He felt human, sometimes. The moments were fleeting, then lost. When he was feeling human, he thought that maybe he was cursed, some cursed soul moving from point to point. But, really, he knew better. He just wasn't human. Merely something wishing to be so.
     The last time he had felt like a human had been three days before. He had been in the body of a man named Ned Waters. He'd been in Ned's body for months, four long months during which he had used that body and his thirst for humanity to court Ellen Hughes, who he had thought the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Ned had known Ellen for years, and had never given her much thought until he'd been shunted aside by the new inhabitant of his flesh. After that, it had become Ned's goal to marry Ellen. It had taken long weeks to convince her of that love, as genuine as it had been; Ellen was not a shallow creature. The last time he'd felt like a man was when he had finally gone to bed with Ellen, and she had shared herself with him and they had made love.
     In all his years he had found that there were few things so human as love, and the closeness he felt at such moments were among the ultimate human experiences. It was these moments he worked toward. And it was after these moments he was expelled, finding himself outside human walls, drifting again. Drifting until.
     Until he would find himself peering through different eyes, reaching out with different hands, speaking through a different
 mouth. This was the way it was. And now, having lost Ellen, having been forced out of his cloak of Ned, he would have a last, longing look at her. He had to. His love for her had made him human, for an instant.
      Intentionally, despite the damp night, he had waited in the cover of a long line of shrubs between the road and the peach orchards until the last stragglers at the diner began to vanish one by one. There in the darkness he was invisible to anyone not specifically looking for him, and no one had seen him go to crouch there in the honeysuckle and blackberry tangles. He bided his time and waited, absently picking beggars lice from his pants, pressing out the wrinkles in the dark fabric as the hours ticked by. And he plucked odd leaves and sticks from what he had carefully picked from the wildflower garden untilled by men there on the verge of those tangled shrubs. He plucked and cradled them in his arms.
     At last, near midnight, he stood up from his hiding place and peered out. There didn't seem to be anyone in the diner. There was a window of opportunity, he knew, when Victor, who did most of the cooking, would shove off to get home to his wife who he suspected of cheating on him. There was always about twenty to thirty minutes between the time Victor left and the diner officially closed. Ned usually spent those minutes with Ellen, but Ned had to work late this night and would not arrive until after midnight. This much, he knew, for he had heard the instructions with Ned's own ears. So. He had half an hour, at most.
     Avoiding the high weeds that grasped at his shins, he jumped up and bounded out of the bushes and hopped the narrow ditch that held pools of dark, stinking water. He went up the slope to the road and crossed it, seeing Ellen in the diner, seeing her as she rubbed down the counters and peered out from the brightness within. She was looking for the headlights of Ned's pickup truck, and she would not see his form moving through the night, until he approached the front door.
     The road was silent and black, blending with the night and the flat sameness of the surrounding country and only the twinkling stars let you know where the horizon lay. He stood there, on the edge of those shadows and waited until Ellen had finished mopping the counter and had retreated into the back of the diner, into the kitchen to begin locking the place down.
      Light from the diner fell on him, revealing him as he went to the door and pushed it open, jingling the bell. Going to the counter, he uncradled his arm where he held the bunch of daisies he had plucked from the edge of the orchard, and he placed the carefully groomed stems there on the white surface. And then he quickly took a seat near the big plate glass window, his back to the night so that he could see her face when she saw the daisies.
     He sat in the booth that he always used while waiting for Ellen to finish her chores. Most nights, as Ned, he had been right in the same spot, patient as she tidied up and locked down. Right now, he knew, she was latching the single back door that led out to the garbage cans. She had probably put some chicken in a big can for the stray cats that hovered about. Ellen would smell like bacon and her skin feel a bit slick to the touch, a thin sheen of grease from the cooling griddles, but he didn't mind; he never minded.
     Ellen appeared from the back and the first thing she saw were the daisies sitting neatly arranged in a fanlike pattern on the white-yellowing-to-brown countertop. Her face broke into a smile, her white teeth revealed, her blue eyes glinting, her light brown hair curly beneath her waitress cap. "Ned?" She started to say his name again and looked around, seeing...him. Her smile faded quickly.
     He sat, looking at her, his own smile of pain melting at her reaction to his new face. Still, he couldn't blame her. Despite having washed he still looked like the bum he was.
     "Oh," she said. "I thought someone else was here. I thought my boyfriend put these here for me."
     "No," he said. "Just me."
     Ellen put the daisies down, leaving them on the counter and she fidgeted, trying to decide if she wanted to step out from behind the wood and formica barrier. She fingered her hair and glanced to the window, looking for headlights. Nothing.
     "Do you want somethign to eat? The grills are off, but we still have sandwiches and pie and coffee." She touched the receipt pad in her apron with her fine hands.
     "Some coffee, please," he said.
     She went around the counter and got the coffee pot; then he saw her hesitate, as if thinking better of it, and instead she brought him a full carafe' and poured him a cup, setting the container on the table for him. "There's cream and sweetener on the table," she told him, nodding at it.
     He sat there and looked up at her. He could smell her, now: that familiar smell. The scent aroused him, in every way. "He'll probably just bring you a rose tonight," he said.
     "What?" Ellen took a step back.
     "He'll probably just bring you a rose. A salmon rose, or just a plain red one if the store was out of salmon."
     She backed up a little more. "What do you mean?"
     "Ned," he told her. "Ned will just bring you a salmon rose. He's really not all that thoughtful. He doesn't take into account how you might feel on a particular day. So what he'll do is bring you the same flower he gave you on Friday." His hands were busy all the while with the coffee, putting in two sugars and lots of cream. It had been a while since this body had taken in food.
     "What are you talking about?" She was all the way to the counter, now. But she had not turned her back on him.
     "Well...on Friday morning, Ned brought you a salmon rose, and he brought it to your apartment and left it on the table in your breakfast nook because...well because the sun was getting ready to come up and the light was going to turn the sky a light pink outside your bedroom window, and the first thing you'd see is that color as you opened your eyes. And you'd given Ned a key the week before, but he hadn't used it but when you woke up you heard him humming there in the kitchen, you recognized his voice, and when you came out you saw the rose, about the same color as that morning sky. And there was Ned.
     "And it was then and there that you decided that you loved him."
     Ellen brushed her skirt with her left hand. She often did things like that when she was nervous. She'd done something like it the first time he'd wanted to kiss her. "Who are you," she asked. "What...what are you saying?"
     "And then the two of you made love. You made love in your bed in your apartment. Ned loved you." He sat there in his booth and he sipped the coffee, his eyes slitting with pleasure.
     "Listen, Mister. You're scaring me and I want you to stop it. I want you to leave." She edged close to the telephone near the register, but still would not turn her back.
     "But ever since that morning, Ned really hasn't seemed quite the same man, has he? Admit it. How many flowers has he brought you?" He held up his left hand. "Wait. Don't tell me. It's been three days, so he's brought you three flowers...and they've all been salmon roses, haven't they?"
     " don't know me," she said. "You have no business coming in here and talking to me. How do you know my name? How do you know Ned?"
     "I was Ned." He said it. "I was the one who courted you and made you fall in love. It was me, Ellen. It wasn't Ned. Not the Ned who's going through the motions now. It was me," he all but screamed the last.
     And then Ellen lost what remained of her courage. She spun and her hands went for the phone. And then he stood, she heard his legs hit the tabletop of the booth as often happened with people in a hurry; she heard the cup and saucer clatter against the spoon.
     But the silence of the diner was broken by the sound of tires cracking loose gravel onto the blacktop outside, the mutter of a big V-8 bringing a pickup into the parking lot. It was Ned, they both thought.
     There was a metal creaking as the truck's front door opened, then slammed shut. The front door jingled open and Ned came in. He had a salmon rose in his big right fist and he did not seem to notice that Ellen was upset. She'd have to tell the oaf.
     Ned went toward her, and she rushed to meet her and it took him a moment to realize she was sobbing. "What's wrong, Ellen? What's wrong," he asked.
    Ellen gasped and tried to catch her breath and, finally, she just pointed at him sitting there in the booth where he has sat back once Ned had entered the diner. Ned was a big man. Bigger than most. And he was strong and fast and quick. Any man would think twice before crossing such a man.
     Ned's big features turned in the direction of the man sitting in the booth; the dirty bum sitting there and staring blankly at the two of them. He shooed Ellen away, pushed her back with his thick right arm, and he came over to the dirty bum, looming over him. "What's your problem, pal?" He would never have said that.
     The bum looked up at her lover. Ned's face was big and broad and usually friendly; the kind of face you couldn't hate, not really. The lover's body was strong and quick and younger than the other's. The other knew its strength, that those arms could lift great weights, could hold Ellen's body so easily, as if it were but a feather. And its reflexes were quick: he would see a punch coming from a mile away (he might say later, bragging to his pals about the weird guy he decked). So, knowing that body, knowing its strengths and wonderful quickness, he tricked it.
     His elbow bumped the coffee pot. It looked just like an accident, the kind of thing a weird little guy nervous in the face of an impending butt-kicking might do. His thin arm jerked up and that elbow bumped that coffee pot. And the lover, his reflexes so quick and his demeanor always on the lookout for friends, reached out, as fast as a cat on a mouse that has finally fled, and he caught that pot that his lover had placed on that table and which the weird guy had just nervously bumped off the table: he doesn't want her to have to clean up the mess.
     But the thing is this. While the lover is bent over, catching that double handful of warmth full of good, black coffee, the weird guy does something. The weird guy reaches over, just an inch or two, really, and he grabs up the great, big, full bottle of ketchup on the table and he brings it down on the head of the fellow with the double handful of coffee pot. There is an awkward silence broken by the big guy grunting, kind of small from so big and graceful a man. The woman gasps. The weird guy jumps up from the table, right up on his chair, and he kicks her lover in the side of the face with his right leg and the power of that kick is spelled out in the way her lover's body goes crashing to the floor like a heavy sack of wet sand.
     She can't tell if all the redness is ketchup or blood.
     Her lover says nothing, merely lays there heavy and silent with the bright lights overhead glaring down for all to see. But there's really only two of them looking. There's just her. And there's the weird guy.
     So she tears her eyes away from the sight of her lover lying there so big and so heavy and so awfully still. And she looks into the eyes of the wiry little man who had come into the diner to stare at her and make her nervous; the strange man who has hurt Ned. She looks at him and sees his eyes. And she screams.
     And he knows what she has seen. She has seen the truth. She has seen that look in his eyes, that look that her lover once gave her and which he now does not, although everything else is the same about him. This weird little man is looking at her with that look and that is what made her scream. That must be what it is, he concludes as she turns to run. Standing on the chair, thinking about what she has seen in his eyes--all that love glowing out at her--he lets her get to the door and through it, opening it on all of that darkness out there before he jumps off of the chair and begins to chase her.
     "Ellen," he yells as he chases her. She is already across the almost empty parking lot. Beyond that there is only the peach orchard and a farmhouse about a mile distant, the lights in its windows glinting in a mocking way through the darkness. The road is cruelly empty of traffic. Ellen has left her purse and the keys to Ned's truck in the diner, and she knows this and hopes only that she can outrun the strange, terrible man.
     But he is on her heels, faster and fitter than he looks. Of course he is a vagrant, used to walking. He has a good wind and she doesn't really have a chance. He has not caught her only because even now, even chasing her down in this orchard, in the night, in the dimness lit only by a crescent moon and the bright stars, even now he enjoys watching her, seeing her move, seeing the way her legs push, the way her hips sway. "Ellen," he says through gnashing jaws.
     And then he has his thin fingers in her hair and he is not gentle as he clenches down on a great handful of those long, brown, silky strands. "Stop!"
     They go down in a tangle. His fingers are still gripping her hair and through her panic she feels that pain, feels her hair almost tearing free of her scalp. Her back is to the damp earth, the scent of fallen, rotting peaches all around. He is on top of her, his weight firmly upon her ribcage, one hand in her hair and the other touching her face. She tries to scream and he jams the heel of his hand into her mouth, way back so that she cannot bite down and she cannot scream, can only gurgle. "Shut up, Ellen. Please, please don't scream. Listen to me."
     There is the sound of them. Both of them panting.
     "It's me, Ellen. I know you understand. You have to. I'm the one who made you fall in love. It wasn't him. I only used his body and now he's going through the motions I set in place. He doesn't even know why. I'm the one who loves you." He has to make her see. He has to make her understand so that she will give him that thing that makes him feel like the others, that makes him feel human. His free hand caresses her face, touches her chin the way he had the nights he made her love him.
     "Remember, Ellen? Remember the way I stroked your face? He doesn't do it like that, does he? Not anymore. And." He looks to the sky, then back at the face of this woman he loves so much, who let him feel so wonderful for just that moment before he had been forced out of that body. "And the way I touched you." He lifts himself partially, freeing one knee so that he can reach. "The way I touched you here."
     And now, her mouth free, Ellen screams as loud as she can. Even in that house a mile away they will have heard her.
     "Leave me alone you freak. Let me go. You freak."
     He snaps then. It is almost like that moment when he takes love to that ultimate peak. When he has courted and wooed and won that shared moment, when the two join as only true lovers can join. This, then, is the other half, the other way that joins him to them, that makes him feel human.
     The rage builds in his head and flows out of it in an electric charge that blossoms in his breast and fires down his arms and into his legs and his hands are like claws, like clubs, like knives. Ah. For this moment, for this brief, wonderful moment he is not this alien thing, this being apart from all others. In this moment he shares that brutality with them, that red hunger that only they have. For just this instant, as he beats the life out of this woman whom he had loved so grandly, this woman without whom he could not live. He could never continue knowing she was the lover of another. Rage and hatred: nothing else was so human. For an instant he is human.
     Then, it is over.
     Her body is lifeless, that one last breath going out of it, that spark gone. With it, he is forced out of this body. He is flung out of it. He is ripped out of mortal flesh and he sees everything around them: the trees, the sky, the air, the grass, the dew upon it, the peaches lying rotting in the loam, the bacteria feasting on ripe flesh, the light glittering in the sky. He sees the heavens and wonders for a moment from whence he came, from whence the threat to peace as he leaves behind Ellen's body and her lover lying prone in that diner; leaves behind the derelict man who finds himself crouched over the dead woman he cannot understand killing. In one last glance, he sees police arriving, lights piercing the night. He wonders if the derelict will escape. He thinks (or hopes) that sometimes they do.
     Then. He must go. He is being led by a process not completely understood by him. But he is familiar with it. He is tossed far, his self coming down to rest. He opens his eyes and sees himself staring back at his new reflection in the mirror, his hand paused with a razor to shave his handsome face. This time his name is Rick--Rick Collins. Linda, he thinks. You know: Linda is beautiful. I realize that now. I think I'll tell her. Today.
     What a human thought. Love is human.

This, and many other stories, can be found within the covers of A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS by James Robert Smith. From Hippocampus Press and wherever fine books are sold.

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