The Dark Stranger

I entered the bar and its tender turned from beneath the neon glow of beer signs above his domain to face me. The place was dank and cold, open and empty; it was just him, his grizzled face and balding head reflecting the amber light toward me, and only few others dotting the tables here and there in the place. Besides them there was only one lone man sat at the bar, drinking beer from a glass. He wore a dark overcoat and had not turned to face me when I entered as the other patrons had.

The bartender walked over toward my end and looked me in the eye: “What’ll it be?” he said, his stubbled-covered jowls flapping as he spoke.

“Whiskey,” I said. “On ice.” “You got it,” he said, and disappeared back toward the bottles of precious spirit, lining the shelf behind the bar like soldiers standing at attention.

I watched him pour a glass of the amber liquid and cubes embrace it as they shifted in the glass. He replaced the bottle and returned to me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a first sip of the warm liquid. It burned in my mouth pleasantly. “No problem, bud.” He wiped his hairy arm against his sweaty forehead and grunted.

As I drank the warm spirit from the tumbler, I took in my surroundings and looked longer at the other patrons. There was a couple in the back corner, huddled deep down into a booth of red leather, arms around each other and eyes locked together, oblivious to everything, save for each other and their glasses of poison.

A large biker sat a table in the center of the place. He drank a cheap beer – a PBR it looked like – in long, slow drags, and laughed occasionally at the commercials on the TV. His giant gut shook when he did so, beneath a filthy shirt and a vest made of leather.

Finally my eyes turned toward the man sitting at the bar alone. There was something strange about him, something not quite right, that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it, even from far away. He didn’t look up to watch the televisions right in front of him. He didn’t look up at the bartender when the man walked by. He just sat there with his head down into his drink, black shoulder-length hair hiding his face, and this strange darkness, this strange atmosphere, seeming to exude from him and cut him off from everything around.

The bar felt colder as I watched the strange pale man sip his beer.

“Shitty night they’re having, ain’t it?” The bartender was back in front of me again. “Yeah, real shame it is,” I said. I drained the last of my drink. “Another?” “Yeah, please.” He disappeared to the rows of soliders standing at attention again.

The stranger rose from his seat, and still I could not see his face. I watched him reach deep into the dark folds of his overcoat, reaching for something, and I saw the expressions of the other patrons in the bar begin to match my own: falling, long and languid, into shock, terror, uncertainty, as if in slow motion.

From the dark folds of his coat, the man pulled something, something shiny and silver. A butterknife. No, that wasn’t it. It was hard to see in the dimness of the place. I watched him bring it to his throat and it was then I realized what it was.

A straight razor.

The bartender made as if to speak, but the stranger beat him to it.

He turned to face me and looked me square in the eyes and his eyes were blacker than midnight, blacker than the burned flesh of all the souls suffering in Hell, and he spoke:

“We all die alone,” he said coldly. “And you will too.”

And then in an instant he sliced the blade across his throat in one sudden jerk, and the other patrons in the bar screamed and I felt my blood grow cold and my legs turn to jelly, and my eyes suddenly feel like they were one too many sizes big enough for their sockets. The blood spurted everywhere, shooting out in long red geysers, painting the black overcoat of the dying man, painting in red the bar and all the bottles behind it, and all I could see was the blood, the blood and the darkness and the sweat on the bartender’s cue-ball forehead glistening beneath the amber radiance of the Amstel Light sign above him.

The man collapsed to his knees and the woman in the booth screamed. Blood pooled around his crumpled body and finally I found myself and stood, but no words came. I acted as if a man possessed. I ran over to the body, not thinking, moving without a mind, and took his blood-soaked form into my arms. His head lolled back on his neck sickeningly and his eyes were blank and empty and face smeared with blood.

“Call 9-11!” I heard the girl scream.

In one hand I held him, and the other escaped from beneath the weight of his body. That hand shook above the pool of blood I knelt in, and found its way down to the filthy hardwood of the floor. To the handle of the implement that had fallen from the stranger’s hand once it had finished its dirty work. Mother of Pearl.

I held up the blade before my face and it shook in my hand, and as I read the words engraved into the luminescent handle I felt every hair on my body rise:

YOU’RE NEXT

When the AC came on

I live in a condo
a big box of concrete
and glass
in the sky

Every year, summer’s begin
there’s the time
in-between
when the heat is off
and the AC too

too hot

Yesterday I stood
in the kitchen
alone
felt finally the coolness overtake me
with relief

then realization
there was no sound
realization

10 years to the day
He’d thrown himself from our balcony
34th floor
I found his note in the bedroom
“Julia, there’s nothing for me
in this world
anymore

i’m sorry”

I stood
in the kitchen
alone
and heard his scream
behind the glass of the door
to the world outside
and our potted plants on concrete

the coolness passed
but my chill’s remained
today the AC came on
already my coldness

Nothing to Lose

The engine revs and I feel the blood race in my veins. I will hold nothing back; I have nothing to hold back anymore. Full throttle. Let’s drive this hunk of metal full-tilt into a brick wall. I don’t give a shit. Nothing to lose.

I push my foot to the floor and the engine roars and we peel off down the dark, secluded highway amongst the rocky hills. nothing to lose Nothing to lose NOTHING TO LOSE NOTHING TO LOSE the slowly rising needle of the speedometer screams at me.

I reach over to the passenger seat and pull the strip of duct tape back. She screams. The lights of the night fly by with incredible speed, and the terror in her eyes only make the blood in my veins race faster.

As we cross the bridge, 600ft above the freezing waters of the cove, I pull the handle on the passenger side door and kick it open, nearly losing control and sending the us plummeting into the rail and over the side of the bridge but I don’t care.

“GOODBYE BEAUTIFUL!” I laugh. I kick her hard with my boot and she flies out the door and hits the steel of the guardrail like a ragdoll, flipping over it, up into the air and then out over the waters of the bay where she’ll fall to her death. I laugh.

I grab the gun from the glovebox and hold it up to my face and push my foot down on the accelerator hard. In my mind I see the house burning, the kids inside; her running out back door screaming, sweater alight; and the wispy black oaks of the neighborhood awash in lights of red and blue.

Nothing to lose, the speedometer coos from the dashboard. I turn the wheel, and pull the trigger.

Dove Lake

I always loved going up to the cottage. It had been passed down in my family for generations. A rustic little box of stone and red wood, it sat in the middle of clearing down by the waters of Dove Lake, a stalwart little guardian of the serene wilderness around it.

I remember packing up all our things every summer with my Dad – fishing rods, propane grill, pots and pans, citronella candles, the whole kit and caboodle – into the back of our tiny dark green station wagon and heading up there for a week every July.

I loved those times in my childhood. My father was a stern man, but that tough armor he wore, that look he had like the world owed something and he was going to fight damn hard to get it, seemed to fall by the wayside as soon as we made our way up north. The beautiful trees and rocky hills of the Canadian Shield just brought out the good in him and let him leave all his worries behind.

My old man passed away many years ago, God bless him, and so the cottage belongs to me now. Kate and I had been loading up our own little car and heading up there every summer just as I’d done in my childhood. But that all came to a stop that one summer. I could never look at the cottage the same way after that, or think of it only in the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

It was two years ago that it happened. Kate had just had the baby not too long ago, and we’d decided after all the stress of becoming new parents to head up to the cottage for some time just for us. We deserved it. We left the baby with Kate’s parents, packed up the car, and headed up the highway to Dove Lake.

“I just want to sit out on the dock and read my book,” Kate had said.

That was the other thing. We weren’t just heading up there and leaving our newborn son behind just because we wanted some time for ourselves. Kate hadn’t been doing so well after the delivery. She’d still been in a lot of pain (which the doctors said was not normal, but did occur) and more troubling, had been very down since.

I talked with our doctor about what to do. Medication wasn’t necessary, he’d said. This happens after a baby sometimes and it eventually goes away. If things worsened or Kate’s mood didn’t lift we could look at other options. He agreed that heading up to the cottage to relax and take our minds off things would be a good way for Kate to feel better.

It was great to get up there. The sun was beautiful on the rippling dark waters of Dove Lake and our little rustic getaway (humble though it was) brought joy to my heart when we pulled into the property’s gravel drive. I thought of my youth, of sitting out in the little tin tippy and fishing with my Dad, and him telling me stories about the men at the factory, and how he’d travelled across Europe by train when had graduated from college, and how Grandpa used to sit out and fish on the lake with him just as we were.

I squeezed Kate’s hand. She was staring out the passenger window.

“Honey, we’re here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied heavily, and sighed. She frowned and I kissed her on the cheek.

It was always cold in the cottage. Though it was the middle of July, Dove Lake was far enough north that the temperature really dropped in the early morning and in the evening. You could see your breath in those early hours, those mornings we’d sit out on the dock and drink strong black coffee from tin mugs, and watch the mist rise from the still waters of the lake.

This year was different somehow. I was excited and happy to be away and escape up to the family retreat, but everything carried this dreary heaviness that emanated from Kate. Nothing seemed to break up the dark clouds that surrounded her; there was an impenetrable wall, a filter where all the sunshine and beauty passed in dull and gray to her, and all the beauty I knew she had inside couldn’t get out.

I tried to help. I tried to cheer her up, but I just couldn’t. Things got worse, and we argued at night, though she had even little energy to put into that. In those nights we huddled under the sheets close but were a thousand miles apart; the air in the cottage was cold but her next to me was colder still.

By the fourth day we weren’t talking much. There was just this uncomfortable silence between us, and the dark gloom enveloping her. I began to wonder what to do. I just wanted us to be happy. I suggested that perhaps we should just go home, that it wasn’t right to do it that year, what with the new baby, and how she was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

“We came for the week,” she said, sad but resolute. “We’ll stay for the week.” She sighed again.

On the fifth day Kate wouldn’t come outside. I went for a hike. I came back to the cottage and she was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Honey,” I said, “Let’s go out in the boat. Come on, let’s go fishing.” Anything.
“No,” she sighed, and rolled over. “You go.”

I should never have gone.

The waters of Dove Lake were dark that day, dark and still and quiet; the air was cold and damp. I rowed out and there was no sound at all, except the metal oarlocks creaking in protest and the water splashing from their cyclic motion. I stopped when I reached the center of the lake and dropped my line. I felt alone. I worried about my wife, and about our new son. I looked over the side of the boat at my reflection in the glassy water. It was like a mirror. My face stared back up at me, tired and sad, with the dark gray clouds over that overcast day as my backdrop.

Far off near the shore, I saw mist rising from the shallows. I didn’t catch anything in those lonely hours. I felt as the last man in all the world, sitting completely alone and isolated, in the center of purgatory. No one could reach me. No one knew I was here. Nothing could lift the gloom of the mists of the lake.

I paddled back to shore, and turned to see the cottage dock coming into view, coalescing out of the mist. I pulled the oars again and their metal shackles squealed. Splash. Squeal. Splash. Squeal. I stopped again and turned to toward the cottage.

Peering through the mist, I saw a ghostly spectre emerging from the far end of the dock. It was a pale, thin form, naked, slowly treading along the boards toward the cold black waters at the end.

It was Kate.

I screamed her name and my cry echoed out against the gray sky. She didn’t slow. I began to panic and started rowing with all my strength. The oarlocks groaned and complained louder than before and I felt like I was going to tear them from the gunwales of the boat. I’d never get there in time. I called her name again and again and my distraught cries echoed out into the nothingness, into the watching trees of the North.

Again I turned and looked over my shoulder. I was too late. I watched my wife reach the end of the dock. Even from the distance I could see her standing there, starkly contrasted against the rising mist. Slowly, she looked down. She raised her eyes straight up, to the lake, to me, and then her arm in one long, fluid, languorous motion. One finale wave goodbye.

Kate stepped from the dock and disappeared into the waters of Dove Lake.

I screamed and screamed and pulled the oars with all my strength. I paddled faster and faster, faster than I ever had before, until my arms burned and every fiber of my being begged me to stop. Still I rowed, until my arms felt like they would be pulled from their sockets. It didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do.

By the time I reached the dock, Kate was already dead. Her body floated cold and lifeless in the water. Sobbing, I pulled it into the boat with me. I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed and sobbed and called for her to come back, to live, not to go.

But she was already gone.

Last year the anniversary of Kate’s death came around. Her parents and my family offered their condolences. We had a nice dinner at her folks’ place, and visited the cemetery to honor her memory. But I wanted to do so in my own way. I wanted to go back to Dove Lake and have some time alone just as I’d done every year.

When I got up there after the long drive, everything was eerily still and all the memories came flooding in a rush, like a dam breaking. It was just as it had all been the year before. On the coarse wood of the table made of logs, still folded, sat the quilt Kate had lain under the day she died.

I’m selling the cottage this year, because like I said, I can never go back up there again. I can never feel the same way about the cottage as I did before. And maybe you think that’s because of what happened, because of Kate dying, and because of all the bad feelings I now have associated with that place, overpowering all the memories of my youth.

But that’s not it. I can never go back because last year I rowed out to the center of the lake again, and in the mists of the far shore I saw Kate walking out into the water; and when I looked down into it I saw not my own reflection, but her sad face, begging me why I’d done nothing to stop her.

Spiral Notebook

I hate you all, the message read. It was written in adolescent angst with simple blue pen, on a lined page torn from her spiral notebook.

No one will ever know truly I feel, how it feels to never fit in, not matter how hard I try, no matter what I do or say, the next lines down read.

To feel like everything good is happening somewhere else, and all the girls are pretty except me, and they’re talking to the good-looking guys, smiling and laughing, and having fun. They’re laughing because they’re pretty, and all the boys love them, and are fighting for their attention. They’re laughing because their lives will be easy, because they’re skinny, and because of their beautiful long blond hair and shapely bodies. They’re laughing because they’ve won and it was so easy for them but everything will always be hard for me.

And I know that somewhere underneath in that laughter they’re also laughing at me.

Because I can never be like them, no matter how hard I try.
Because I can never look like them, no matter what I do.
Because no one will ever want me the way they want them, even if I were beautiful inside, and even though they’re beautiful on the outside but inside they’re horrible, self-absorbed narcissistic bitches. Fuck them.

I hate you, the message read. Go to hell and burn and suffer. I hate you all.

I love you all, and I’m sorry, the message said. I love you Dad, even though you yelled at me, and I love you Mom, even though you drank so much. I love you brother and I’m sorry that it’s only going to be harder for you growing up now. I hope you never have to feel the way I do.

I love you for wanting the best for me. I love you for providing as best you could, even though the family is poor and times are tough. I love you for making me dinner and giving me a place to lay my head.

I’m sorry, the message said, and I love you all. I just wish it felt like someone loved me back.

The message was found on her locker first thing Monday morning, but her body not until the end of the week, when it washed up onshore, far downstream from the old suspension bridge.

Went the Chainsaw

ruhn ruhnnnnn went the chainsaw
out of its cardboard box brand new
with a wicked smile I made it roar
and cut my dog in two

reeean reeeeeeean went the chainsaw
said the girl, “I’m young to die”
“so unfair,” I laughed, in streams of blood
as i carved into her side

raaaawr rawwwr went the chainsaw
“I have a family!” the man begged
“I know,” I screamed maniacally
“and you’ll join them when you’re dead!”

reeeee reeeeeee went the chainsaw
in the mirror all alone
“why?” I asked my reflection
he said “you’ve always known”

ruuhn ruhhhnnnnn went the chainsaw
and I…. reeeeeee raaaarrrr ruuuuuuuu
RAAAOAORRRRR REEEEEEEEEEE
tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-

I’ll Be Dead Soon

When I came home, there was blood on the sheets.

Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit. Not again. No, not again.

But the bed was empty. Emily wasn’t there. I ran back out of the bedroom and saw that the sliding glass door to the balcony hung open – the curtains around it were slowly swaying in the wind. I hurried out into the blinding light of day.

Emily sat on the concrete of the balcony floor, her back leaned against the grey brick of the wall. Her legs were pulled up against her in the fetal position and her face was pressed into her knees, buried beneath her disheveled black locks. She was crying.

“Honey….” I said, softly, and crouched down.

She looked up at me. Her pale skin was reddened and her cheeks were coated with streaks of hot tears running her black mascara. There was sadness in her eyes, and shame.

“I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry,” she started to say, but her words quickly rose and turned into crying again.

I slid down against the wall next to her and put my arm around her. She buried her face in my shoulder, and wept. Over and over again she kept repeating: I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry…

I tried to comfort her, knowing that it would do little. It would be a long night.

I gazed out from our balcony on the 23rd floor, into the rows of cold uncaring skyscrapers of downtown. As Emily wept, I felt her slowly rubbing her hand against her forearm, over and over. I looked down at her long fingers as they smeared her blood back and forth, the same blood that was on the bedsheets, the same that covered her fingers, and had flowed from the shallow cuts she made.

She’d said before it would be the last time.


“Come on honey,” I said the next day. “Let’s go get a hot chocolate.”

In all the chaos and emotion that was living with Emily, I tried very hard to find the few things – those precious few, bright things – that stood out for her, that I could do to try to lift her spirits. There weren’t many. There wasn’t much that could bring her from her low, dark place closer to what could be considered to feeling normal, or even just sad. The white hot chocolate at the cafe down the street was one of those few things. Sometimes. “Come on babe, it’ll be fun.”

I heard her stir in the other room, and throw the duvet from the bed. Then the sound of her slowly pulling on clothes.

“Yeah, fun….” Her distant words were hollow, slow and empty.

Em came out of the bedroom. She had thrown on her black tank top and jeans, the only clothes she’d worn these past few weeks. She stared down at the floor outside the doorway. “Baby, I just don’t feel like it. What’s the point?”

The last couple months had been especially bad. I’d never seen her like this before in all the years that we’d been through. And she hadn’t cut herself before, not since she was in high school.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” I said again. Sometimes it required a lot of effort. A lot of gentle but persistent encouragement to get her going. But it was worth it. Those times I could lift her spirits just a little, it was worth it.

“Alright,” she said, listless.

The barista at the cafe was cheerfully oblivious to the cloud of despair around the love of my life. All smiles and happy words and can I help you? and the contrast between her cheeriness and Em’s gloom couldn’t have been starker.

We sat at one of the little red circular tables. Emily set her hot chocolate down in front her and stared into its steaming depths. She was silent. I sipped my coffee and felt like screaming. I felt like flipping the table and spilling our hot drinks all over the floor of the cafe. I felt like getting up from the chair and taking her in my arms and shaking her back and forth and shouting I love you and you’re beautiful and smart and funny. I know you are. I know you can be, because I’ve seen you be. You know me better than anyone ever will and I love you more than anything in the universe and that’s all that really matters. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just snap out of this? I love you! I love you and I just want you to be happy but I don’t KNOW WHAT TO DO!

Emily sipped her white hot chocolate silently. She didn’t look up.


That was a week ago, when she cut herself again. After that, things only worsened. She just lay in bed in the apartment all day, most days she didn’t even bother getting up or getting dressed. I tried to talk to her but she was just so withdrawn.

When I came home from work this evening the sliding door to the balcony was open again. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I stepped outside but Em wasn’t out there. I went into the bedroom but she wasn’t there either – the bed was bare, the duvet thrown in a heap on the floor, and her clothes weren’t in a pile on the floor next to it like they normally were. As I went back out into the kitchen, I began to think that perhaps she was feeling better and had just gone out and left the door open – she had always been very forgetful.

It was then I found her note on the counter, and as I read it, I began to cry.

My Dearest Michael,

I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for all of this. For all the tears, all the pain, all the drama, all the blood. I love you so very much and I know that you never deserved any of it. It’s all my fault. I fucked everything up. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, but I know now that I’ll never be able to make you happy if can never be happy myself.

Life is just so hard. It’s so hard to get up in the morning and face another day when deep down I know that everything is pointless. It’s so hard to pull myself from bed and go outside when I’m always so tired. It’s impossible for me to keep going on when I feel so dead and empty inside and I can never do anything right.

I’m so glad we spent this time together. Even though I know this life is just a meaningless dream, I’m glad I shared this dream with someone like you. I know that you were always just trying to help. But there are some things in life that can never be fixed, and I’m one of them. I am, and always have been, broken.

I’m ready to wake up. I’m tired of this rotting feeling inside and this empty hole in my chest that only grows larger with each passing day. I’m ready to wake up from this dark dream.

I’ll be dead soon. Maybe one day you’ll learn the truth of it all and follow me. But until then I just want you to know this is not your fault. It’s no one’s fault but my own.

I’ve always been a fuck-up. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,
Em

Beside the sliding door to the balcony, the curtains fluttered softly in the cool summer breeze, and danced in gentle beams of warm sunlight.

I knew where Emily was.

Christmas Lights

It had always bothered me that we’d got those Christmas lights from our neighbour, Mr. Dupont, after he died. He’d taken the passing of his wife hard – it’s tragic to lose a loved one, especially during the holidays. But that still didn’t make it any less shocking that Christmas when he was found hanging from the ceiling fan in the den, a tangle of those lights around his neck his festive executioner.

Some next of kin came over in the New Year, grandchildren, I think, and cleared all the things out of the house. They left a lot out on the curb for passerby to take away, including all the decorations. After all, how could anyone who knew use them after what happened, with the thought of his dead body hanging from those coloured lights?

Didn’t bother my husband though. He’d take the clothes off a dead man before seeing them go to waste. But I’ve got to say that when the rest of the family came to visit they were never quite comfortable, knowing about Mr. Dupont and having those lights hung outside, given that they had choked the last life out of another human being.

When they took my husband’s charred body down from where it hung, the coroner said the electrocution hadn’t killed him. He’d snapped his neck when he fell and became tangled up in the strands of lights. When I ran outside that was how I found him, swinging back and forth like a pendulum against the siding of the house, much like how Mr. Dupont must have looked those years ago.

Up the Hill

jack and jill
went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water
jack said “hey jill,
would you like a thrill?”
and then he tried to grab her

jill got mad
she knew that was bad
and hit jack with the pail
jack fell down
and broke his crown
and jill begain to wail

“jack is dead,”
through tears jill said
“but I didn’t mean to murder.
curse this hill,
and jack’s seeking thrills”
and the darkness of the well heard her

jack and jill
went up a hill
to fetch a pail of water
now jack lays slain
jill cured her pain
in the depths of the dark well after

Wrists

I dreamt of wrists.

Giant, hulking and pale, white wrists with dark veins swollen with blood floated up above me.

The sense of terror was palpable, the kind of visceral knowing you can only have in dreams, when your surroundings don’t make sense but you know something terrible is going to happen. I knew something terrible was coming, something which would hurt me, and I was afraid.

Then above me amongst those monstrous appendages, those prescient spectres looming over me, was a blade.

I dreamt of wrists, a rusty chipped blade slashing them, slicing their thin white skins deep in long horrible jagged paths.

Thick blood gushed out like the sea, and poured down upon me. It coated me and was cold as ice, and I knew that it was death. I could feel it pooling and its level slowly rising. It sloshed back and forth around my feet. My ankles, then my knees, then my waist. The blood rose ever higher and filled my tiny cage.

As the icy liquid slowly rose above my neck and reached my mouth, I knew I was going to die. I looked up and let out one final horrified sound as the blood covered my open eyes.

The sound of my scream melded with that of my wife, the scream which awoke me. It echoed down the hallway from the bathroom, from her final resting place in the bathtub. The sound mixed with that of water, overflowing and splashing onto the floor, itself mixed with the blood from her wrists.