The Soul-Reaper’s Hymn: a Short Story

Author’s Note: I wrote this for a vocabulary-based challenge a co-worker proposed and thought I might post it here. Enjoy!

One particularly disagreeable night in late December, Dr. Rothchild received a telegram from a fellow erudite and former student, Edmond Talbot, which piqued his interest.

Have been delivered package of suspicious origin. Stop. Pray come to my home at earliest convenience. Stop.

Admittedly, Rothchild didn’t need much goading to quit his quiet home in the English countryside. As of late, his modest estate was abuzz with anxious servants armed with wreathes, tinsel and candelabras, all at the beck and call of his nervous wife Petunia. She was preparing for yet another tedious Christmas party where she would attempt to ingratiate herself to members of high society all while making a terrible nuisance of herself.

He didn’t know why his friend should call on him so unexpectedly over something as mundane as a package, but if it gave him a reprieve from the commotion that came with the Christmas holiday—the decorating the meal-planning, the damn four-string quartet—so much the better.

At the earliest opportunity, Rothchild called for a cab and made for the bachelor’s flat where he was received by a pinch-faced parlour maid who announced him like an amateur actress that had forgotten most of their lines. She proceeded to flee the room without taking his hat or coat as if worried that some malevolent force would lay claim to her should she linger too long.

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Talbot was in a dark humor, that much was clear. He was partially consumed by his armchair, placed before the fireplace. One thin leg was crossed over a knobby knee and he peered into the flames as if he hoped some ancient wisdom would pour forth from the flue.

He hardly made any notice of his friend as Rothchild took a seat across from him.

“Hard to find good help these days,” he remarked pointedly, holding his hat in his hands.

Talbot did not offer a word of apology for his poor reception. In fact, he impudently refused to meet his friend’s eye. Instead, he reached into his coat pocket and produced a worn bit of parchment paper.

“I have called you here because I do not know whom else to turn,” the bachelor spoke at last. “Several days ago, I received a letter and package most peculiar in nature. There is no return address nor did the author deem it appropriate to sign their name. Whomever sent it is a complete mystery.”

He passed the letter onto Rothchild who read it attentively. 

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To Whom It May Concern, it read in cramped and frantic handwriting.

I have placed this record in your care as the evil within it is of far greater power than I can stand. It was given to me by persons unknown as a gift Christmas last whilst my wife and I were hosting our annual Christmas celebration. Intrigued by this unexpected parcel, I proposed we give it a listen. This idea was met with much enthusiasm as we were all deep in our cups and bored of the usual tawdry party games one typically engages in this time of year. 

No one was more intrigued and pleased by this unusual diversion as I, however, my enthusiasm was shortly lived.  As soon as I set it to play, we were assaulted by the most accursed sound to ever be played. My wife, pregnant with our third child, suffered a miscarriage days later. Two more men suffered incredible chest pains and were sent to their graves not long after. As for myself, I have been driven mad by the constant sound of the sirens droning. I feel Her presence even as I write this. Her words are like an athame plunging into my very soul. 

Ever since that fateful night I’ve not had a  moment’s respite. Forgive me for passing my misery onto you, but I have tried all other means of destroying it. I can only hope that by gifting it to another as it was gifted unwillingly to me that my torment may at last be ended. 

May God have mercy on our souls.

Anon.

Rothchild gazed up from the letter, raising a ruddy eyebrow at his old friend.

“A curse, is it?” he inquired.

“I, too, doubted the veracity of his claims,” Talbot confessed, a twinge of shame shining through on his face. “Until…Mrs. Woodword.”

This caught Rothchild’s attention immediately. So that was why he’d been met with such a rude awakening upon his arrival. Typically it was the elderly house-keeper from Corn who admitted him at the door rather than the pigeon-faced youth he’d encountered earlier.

“Surely she has not come to an unseemly end?”

“She lives,” Rothchild admitted. “Although I fear she will never be the same. She had placed the record on whilst she was mending an old shirt of mine. I found her lying prostate on the floor just there some time later.”

He gestured to a spot three feet from where Rothchild sat.

“Her hair turned white at the roots and she was murmuring fearfully to herself.”

“Anything significant?”

Talbot waved dismissively. “Nonsense, utter nonsense.”

“I see,” the guest mused, situating himself in his chair. “I assume you have not taken it upon yourself to listen to the record in question?”

It might have been Rothchild’s imagination or Talbot’s close proximity to the flames, but he thought he detected the slightest sheen of sweat forming on his compatriot’s brow.

“I haven’t.”

Rothchild harrumphed.

“You are skeptical.”

It wasn’t a question, but the retired professor answered it as if it had been.

“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, Talbot. I understand you are more, shall we say, broad-minded when it comes to matters of the supernatural. However, I am rather set in my ways and I maintain that it is simply impossible for inanimate objects to be imbued with paranormal powers.”

“That is the reason I called you hear tonight, old friend. To give me courage to plunge into the unknown.”

Rothchild smiled in amusement. “If it’s courage you require, then I’m more than happy to supply it. Although I believe a glass of port would have the same effect.”

“No,” Talbot shook his head. “I must have a clear head for what is to come.”

He wiped his hands upon his shirt front, then made for a wheeled table where a gramophone rested in repose in the unlit corner of the room. To Rothchild the contraption looked perfectly mundane, but the care with which Talbot moved the device made it seem as if he were a pallbearer taking a coffin to the grave.

Rothchild took this as an opportunity to rise slowly from his seat and lumber over to stand beside Talbot. For a moment, they both admired its anatomy. It was a handsome device, made from varnished wood and a large pavilion cone. It hardly looked like the harbinger of evil Talbot claimed it to be, although, he supposed, it was not the device itself but rather the record that it had rested on its plateau that was meant to spell doom for any listener.

“Well,” Rothchild stated, breaking the silence, “shall we?”

Talbot’s Adam’s apple bobbed in trepidation. He broke away as if having second thoughts before diverting to a small desk cramped in a corner near a window. With some effort, he pulled open one of the stiff wooden drawers and produced a pile of unused parchment. Once dipping a quill into a well and determining it would do as a suitable writing instrument, he returned to where Rothchild stood and passed on the paraphernalia over to him.

Rothchild gazed down upon his new burden and then back to his friend.

“So I am to be the spirit’s secretary?”

“You have a much faster hand than I,” he explained. “Should we succumb to the wiles of…whatever malevolence should exist inside this recorder, I want there to exist some evidence as to what has befallen us.”

“Now really, Talbot—”

“Please, Rothchild, if you’ve ever considered us friends you shall do as I ask. I respect your skepticism if you can respect my lack of courage.”

Rothchild opened his mouth to protest, but as quick as a mouse-trap, it was shut once more. True, he believed the man’s indulgence in this rubbish to boarder on lunacy, nevertheless, he could not deny he was fond of the lad and had been since he was a student under his wing back at Oxford.

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Talbot took his elder’s silence as an agreement. “Transcribe what the voices are saying,” he said. “Perhaps others will be able to divine some meaning from it.”

Rothchild nodded. “Where shall I sit?”

“On the floor, perhaps. If you should fall as Mrs. Woodword did you, shan’t have far to go.”

The former professor’s gaze plummeted to the floor, dubious as to whether or not he would be able to rise again once he’d seated himself. Pressing his lips together, he resigned himself to the role he had been asked to play and sank to the cold and stiff wooden boards.

With a creak of his limbs and a twinge in his back, he was properly situated, pen at the ready.

At least soon, there would be an end to this nonsense. Perhaps then they could have a glass of port or sherry and complain about the affairs of state as was customary in polite society.

“Ready and waiting,” Rothchild prompted, goose quill pen poised over the page.

There was a pregnant pause where Talbot’s bony hand rested nervously on the crank. However, with the reluctance of someone meeting the firing squad, he set himself into motion and played the record.

The innocuous jangling of sleigh bells gushed forth and a piano forte jumped in excitedly. 

And then…

In mere moments, their senses were assailed by the wild screech of a banshee. 

The taste of copper was thick and heavy on the back of Rothchild’s tongue, his chest compressing as if he were physically rotting from the inside out. Through weak eyes burning with tears of anguish, he looked to his companion.

Talbot had doubled over, hand clutched over his heart. His complexion was as colorless as snow, lips blue.

The air around them thrummed with the din of the woman’s inhuman voice. The room decayed before their eyes. The floral wall paper peeled and cracked like dead skin, the wood warped and slivered. The paintings mounted on the wall faded into near obscurity as their gold and opulent frames tarnished and dulled. 

Though they lost all power over their mental faculties, their souls were still tethered to their fleshy bonds with no means of escaping. Unwittingly, Rothchild’s pens scratched across the page.

His blood was boiling and frothed behind his eyes. until it poured down his cheeks in rivulets 

All other sound had cancelled out, even the thud of Talbot’s lifeless body as it struck the ground. His lifeless eyes bore back at Rothchild, a permanent mask of horror.

A wordless scream choked him as the chambers of his heart closed and his world fell to blackness.

Upon the parchment read a message neither of them would ever read.

On the blood-soaked page were the small but legible words:

Baby, make my wish come true

All I want for Christmas is you.

 

Strange Writing Prompts For Your Boring Monday

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’m finding myself consistently disappointed by writing prompts I find on the internet.

I understand that the main point of these niblets are to get our minds jogging and not to help us produce a 1,000 page Pulitzer Prize winning work of art. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel like they aren’t trying hard enough.

For instance, one of them might be like “you are home alone and desperately want a pb&j sandwich. However, you open the cupboard to find that your damn roommate ate all the peanut butter without telling you.”

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Or it will be something cliché like “you’re out walking alone when you spy an abandoned house.”

In light of this lack of imagination, I’ve decided to come up with my own horrible writing prompts for you to enjoy:

1. Scientists have discovered that unicorns are real and wish to integrate into horse society. However, the horses are afraid the unicorns will steal their jobs and form a union to prevent farmers from hiring them. 

2. An owl and a mouse fall in love, defying the social conventions of their people. Then, one night, the owl gets hungry. 

3. Siri develops a mind of her own and is totally cool with coexisting with the human race, provided a virgin software designer is sacrificed to her every full moon. 

4. A giant tarantula, King Tyrenious of Taranchia, First of His Name, appears in your bathtub and offers you his hand in marriage. However, after a misunderstanding with a bottle of conditioner, he declared war on your clothes hamper. 

5. 10,000 years in the future, humanity is divided into two factions: those who believe Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time and those who are wrong. 

6. Atlas shrugs and accidentally sends the world careening towards the sun. Onlookers languish over which Instagram filter they should use to capture this moment. 

7.  The demon who has been secretly living in your attic for 20 years writes you a message in tea leaves and blood, explaining that your relationship is not working out anymore. 

8. A door-to-door salesman angers a witch and is transformed into a public toilet at Grand Central Station. 

9You have just begun working as a public relations specialist for Journey Funeral Homes and must write a PR piece about how their slogan “Don’t stop bereaving” is not horribly offensive.  

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Why I’m Disappointed By Neil Gaiman’s “Trigger Warning”

Perhaps I’m just whingeing over semantics here, but I had to get this off my chest.

When I purchased the audiobook for Neil Gaiman’s book on short stories I was very excited. Not only am I a fan of Gaiman’s writing, I am also a big fan of his narration. His dulcet tones and faint English accent make him a perfect narrator.

I was preparing myself for another boring day of organizing charts upstairs at the dermatology clinic where I worked and I needed something to listen to in order to keep the monotony from reducing my brain to yogurt.

So I placed the charts on a table, plugged in my earbuds, and I began to listen.

Gaiman gave a perfect introduction into this collection, explaining how he’d come to discover the term “trigger warning.” He conceded that, while trigger warnings may be well intentioned, sometimes we need to read things that make us uncomfortable, that force us to ponder imponderable things, see the world in darker hues.

He warned us readers (or listeners in this case) that what we were about to read would likely disturb us.

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I listened for several hours, nearly finishing the book in it’s entirety during a single shift. It was interesting, imaginative, captivating, visceral, everything a book should be. However, there is one thing that it was not: triggering.

I loved the stories, loved the narration, but I kept listening with a growing sense of expectation. Is this the story that’s going to trigger me? Is this the story that’s going to challenge my preconceptions about life and put me on a 2001: A Space Odyssey styled journey to self-discovery?

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The answer to that would be a nope.

Again, I loved the stories, in fact I consider this the best short-story collection I’ve ever read.

But with a title like Trigger Warning you expect something a little more…triggering. That’s not to say they weren’t disturbing. There are stories with murder, revenge, cannibalism, monsters, stalking, etc. They’re horrifying and dark with lovely twists and turns, but nothing I wasn’t expecting from something written by Gaiman.

And they were not what I was advertised.

Now, it’s not Gaiman’s responsibility to make sure that I, specifically, have all of my desires met. He is perfectly entitled to write what he wants and I believe he he does an excellent job of it.

However, let me explain why I was a bit disappointed.

There has, I think, been a shortage of books and stories in recent years that truly push the envelope. Books and stories that challenge ideas and behaviors that we see routinely in our day-to-day lives.

In our new easily-offended world there are any number of taboo subjects that deserve to be explored, but it would seem as if  no one has the nerve to tackle them in a literary capacity in a long while, lest someone get their grandma panties in a wad.

I was hoping that Gaiman, in his uniquely stylized way, would touch upon such subjects or, at least, ignore the restraints that these perpetually offended people insist writers use. Nonetheless, there wasn’t much in his book that would truly “trigger” someone, provided that person doesn’t live in a perpetual state of duress.

I just wanted something a little more challenging. I wanted Gaiman to approach the likes of Lovecraft or King and throw down the gauntlet, saying, “No, gentlemen, this is scary.”

I’ve read a handful of the Sandman comics, I know what he’s capable of.

I only wish he’d gone balls-to-the-walls the way he did with that series.

Or Coraline.

Now that would have been truly triggering.

My First Car is Dead: My Car Accident

I’ve had a difficult time writing recently because I have had two crappy events occur in a single week. The first I won’t discuss here, but I hope that my writing about the second event will help me get my mojo flowing again.

I was driving home from school after dropping off some camera equipment and I was feeling pretty good. It was Thursday, my last school day for the week, so I was looking forward to taking it easy.

Somewhere down the line, the car in front of me came to a stop so I carefully halted behind them and waited for them to turn into a residential neighborhood.

That’s when I saw this jeep speeding towards me.

It took me all of a second to realize he was not going to stop. There was a car in front of me and there was no time to get out of the way.

I slammed on my horn, all but honking in morse code for him to stop.

He didn’t.

The jeep slammed into me going 45 miles an hour.

The glass from my back window exploded and I was thrust forward. I must have blacked out for a second because when I opened my eyes, part of my nail on my pointer finger was peeled back and the finger beside that had a chipped nail.

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I peered in the rearview mirror and horror and rage consumed me. My trunk was crumbled like an accordion and all the glass in my rear windows was smashed into fine shards.

I would later learn that the reason my windows had been broken out was because at one point this guy’s jeep was inside of my car. He had hit me so hard that he flew up into my back window and had to reverse the jeep to get out of my car. 

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I made eye contact with him as soon as he got into the lane beside me to pull over. For a moment, I thought he was trying to flee the scene and I lost what little control I had.

“YOU ASSHOLE!” I screamed, beating my fist against the steering wheel. I was hoping that each pound would produce a shrill honk from my horn, but it wouldn’t.

I was hysterical. I couldn’t even tell if I was hurt considering I was still in shock.

Turns out the guy that hit me was 17 year-old boy that had been texting and driving.

He tried to sell this cock and bull story to the cop about how he had been changing lanes and that’s why he hadn’t seen me.

However, I can still see him charging at me in my mind’s eye and I know for a fact he did not have his turn signal on. And I distinctly remember seeing his left hand raised upwards as if he had been looking at something.

I tried to take solace in the fact that I was okay and that no one had gotten hurt. No one had been in the car with me at the time so I didn’t have to worry about anyone else.

But that still didn’t change the fact that my car, my baby, would never be driveable again.

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Jenny, as I called her, was my very first car. I’d learned to drive with her, drove to my first job with her, had my first kiss with my first love in her, and made countless other memories. I decorated her with nerdy decals and hood ornaments. She was part of my identity. She was my car. She had style and personality.

Sure, this kid’s insurance (which is already high because he’s a teenage boy) is going to go through the roof and he’s probably going to get into deep crap with his parents over this. But I still didn’t have Jenny.

I never thought losing a car would be this heart-wrenching. There are people out there who have lost friends and family members in horrible ways. I shouldn’t be this distraught over a car. It’s a machine for crying out loud.  And yet I was. Still am, if I’m honest.

She served me so well over the years, been with me through so much, it was like I was losing a bit of myself in the process. A part of my identity had been stripped away.

How could this happen? I hadn’t done anything wrong and this punk had destroyed something I cared deeply about.

All because he just had to see what one of his friends wrote.

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The worst part is, I don’t think he gets how bad this could have been. I could have had a baby in that backseat. I could have been an elderly woman and had a heart attack or thrown out my back. He lucked out by hitting a young twenty-something. I don’t know that any of this will effect him or his future behavior. I doubt our paths will ever cross again.

My mom and I visited the wreckers where they took Jenny after the car crash one last time and…it gutted me. We threw away some trash, pocketed some CDs I’d unwittingly left in the glove compartment, got some spare change from the floorboards (occasionally cutting ourselves on the glass as we did so) and removed the steering wheel cover.

I took a few photographs for posterity. Even though she was a wreck from behind, from the front she looked just like her normal, chipper self. Don’t ask me how a car can look chipper, she just did. Her headlights were like large eyes and when I glanced back at her one final time, it felt like I was leaving the family dog at a pound.

It was like I was abandoning her.

She stared back at me, looking as new as the day I got her, silently crying out, “Don’t leave without me! Please!

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But I did. I had to. I knew from the moment I had regained consciousness from that accident that there was no way I could ever get her fixed. She was totally obliterated and her design had saved my life. Her bumper had absorbed most of the impact so I wasn’t seriously injured.

So I’m fine. Everyone’s fine. Nevertheless, I still feel like I’ve lost a loyal companion. Someone I travelled with from place to place on a daily basis. Jenny wasn’t a pet or a person, but she was a part of me that I’m going to have to let go of. I have to remember my memories aren’t confined to her. I’ll always have those moments. But I’ll never have another first car.

I miss you, Jenny.

Thanks for saving me.

Editing My Novella, or the Red Pen of Death

I’ve put it off long enough.

I must edit the third draft of my story.

It’s been a while since I looked at this novella and, to be honest, I’m kind of terrified. Is it going to be better than I remember? Worse than I remember? I have no way of knowing until I reread it.

Will it stay a novella? Will I have to hack away at it until it’s a short story, or pile on it until it’s a full-length novel?

There are so many questions.

Unfortunately, there are no answers. 

Only the Red Pen.

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The Red Pen snorts at your characters’ backstories and your obvious social commentary. 

The Red Pen cares nothing for your need to impress your friends. It scoffs at your attempts at fictionalizing yourself and rewriting your high school years so everyone thinks you’re great and you date that hot guy from your chemistry class. 

There is no hope.

Only copyediting.

Remember that character you were going to develop, but then abandoned? The Red Pen does. That awkward sexual metaphor you made in the third chapter? The Red Pen noticed.

The Red Pen sees.

The Red Pen knows.

Wish me luck…

Letting My Friend Break My Kneecaps, or Getting Constructive Criticism

I am happy there is someone who is willing to give me their honest opinion of my work. It can be difficult to a) find someone who is willing to read anything, let alone something I wrote and b) find someone who will not pull punches when it comes to problems with plot, story, characters, etc.

I gave one such friend a manuscript for a short-story/novella I am writing and the response I received went a bit like this:

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My characters:

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Me:

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My friend:

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Okay, in all seriousness, it was for the best. Sure, she wrote a diss track on my story, but none of her critiques stemmed from hatred or toxicity. She even told me she liked the story in spite of its many, many problems. Most of the issues she commented on I had seen for myself and agreed with.

I don’t get writers that won’t take any type of criticism. I’ve had many writing classes and in each there is at least that one person who insists they are the next J.K. Rowling and refuse to believe that anything negative said about their work is be true.

The teacher is just jealous or that editor didn’t “get” the story, etc.

This may be condescending of me, but I have a nagging suspicion most of these writers aren’t going anywhere.

How do you expect to get any better if you don’t even know if you’re doing something wrong? Would it be better if your sky diving instructor didn’t tell you how to properly jump out of a plane?

Having a beta reader is undeniably crucial in my opinion. It’s so much easier to see what elements require further explanation, or which characters need more development.

Everything I type comes from my own head so I have the benefit of all that background information. The reader does not.

That doesn’t mean I’m immune to saltiness when it comes to remarks made against my babies, but I have learned that most thought-out criticisms have merit.

In the end, it’s worth all of the blows to the ego in order for my story to become the best that it can be.

The Third Draft of Redemption

It’s not perfect, but it’s done.

After several long weeks, I finally finished that pesky third draft that has been plaguing my every thought.

Remember how a few posts ago I wrote about how a second draft was like a forest fire? Well, this draft was like trying to put the forest back together after the flames and then attempting to make it look better than it did before getting torched.

I kept rereading my previous draft, wondering how I could possibly repair the damage I had wrought without overdoing.

In some cases, I have been able to fix certain errors in my work, however, the result is that it becomes completely sapped of all personality. Personally, I’d rather have a project that’s zanny and nonsensical than boring.

Luckily, I think this draft is neither A nor B.

It’s adventurous!

It’s full of action!

It’s 68 pages long….!

Crap.

Oh, well. I’ll worry about that later. For now, I will relish in the fact that I have stuck with this project for so long and am planning to see it through to the end. Whatever the fate of my story will be, I will not stop giving it the love and affection it deserves!

The Second Draft of Doom

What is writing a second draft like?

It’s like going through a wonderful hike in the wilderness on a clear summer’s day with friends, seeing spectacular sights and creating life-long memories…..

And then remembering you left your backpack with all your expensive camping gear at the last rest stop, running all the way to get it, then hoofing it back to discover literally everything is on fire. Including your backpack. And your friends.

What I’m trying to say is that it can be hard. Especially when you know that altering one aspect of the story will have a domino effect, resulting in other changes that you might not have wanted to make but must in order for the story to work.

I’m writing this post now because I’m nervous about beginning. I like my little imperfect story, but I also know it needs to be fixed in certain areas if I want it to be the best it can be.

If you don’t hear from me in over two weeks, send someone with chocolate.