“Get away from me!” Cam swung the rickety door open, hard! The loose screen billowed, sifting dust, as he scrambled past, onto the porch. The door bounced shut with a clunk.
Mia looked through the warped mesh of screen regarding Cam like a bloody dot on an egg yolk.
Squinting, disgusted. “Cam, you’re being so pussy-ish,” Mia sighed. Have I ever done anything to make you afraid of me? No, I haven’t. Irritable? Sure. Queasy? Maybe…” But Cam was already down the steps, crunching gravel underfoot. His face yellowed by lamplight from inside the cabin. Bottomless worry lines lacing his forehead, messy silver hair reflecting flame, his back chilled by darkness. There were “yipping” noises somewhere in that darkness. Cam shuffled from side to side nervously, “The things you said, girl. They were more than words. They were like…ugly prayers.”
Mia wrinkled her nose into a tiny red fist, “You’re out of your mind. Really.”
“Forget it.” Then Mia put on an ominous spook-show yodel, “Puh-lease come in from the co-ee-o-ee-o-o-ld”
Cam eyed the girl, maintaining a distance in case he had to run for it. Run? Standing there, his knees felt like the weakest chunks of his body. Held together more tentatively than that old screen door. He pointed a shaky finger at the girl, “Those things you said…”
A breeze blew the screen door open lazily. Its hinges shrieked like a distant squirrel fight. Mia stepped onto the porch and folded her arms, posing, “Look, I know I hurt your feelings…”
“Feelings?” Cam took a small step away, closer to darkness, “You said you were gonna kill me.”
“C’mon, I said I’d “like” to kill you. There’s a difference! Anyway, people say it all the time!” Mia blew wet air and sagged like a punctured wading pool.
Her wilting bolstered Cam a little. “Sure, people say they “wanna” kill you. But you said you were “gonna” kill me. I know you meant it. I know it!”
Mia bit her lower lip and turned away. Cam looked her over carefully. He leaned forward. “Are you…crying?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure. I feel so bad about upsetting you. I…” She lost it with an orchestral snort followed by honking laughter punctuated by another snort. Cam’s eyes widened, sending his worry lines into the depths of oblivion.
“You’re laughing at me!” Cam stomped his foot like a two-year-old in a mud puddle. He waited for the girl to think up an excuse for her outburst, but there was none coming. Just the continued shrill song a balloon makes when you milk air out of the pursing mouth of its stem. Mia doubled over, surrendering to fits. Now actually crying, but with laughter.
“Evil bitch!” Cam’s curse conveyed a mist of spit into the air. A mosquito hummed through the dewy breath. Mia could think of nothing better to do but kneel down in mock contrition. Palms out. Emulating a religious figure in an old oil painting. “Sorry! Really! So sorry!” Still laughing, though.
Cam sputtered now, “I…I’m gonna go. I’m gonna leave here!”
Mia froze in mid-chortle. She perked up and shot Cam a look to shame winter in its deepest chill. The girl’s storm cloud glare spun Cam’s anger back toward fear. He stepped away again, completely into forest shadow. Yipping noises got louder. Closer. Cam recognized those sounds. A language? But he couldn’t remember what it meant. He couldn’t remember what the noisemakers were called, either. One more look at Mia’s hovering menace and Cam leaked his own breathy whine. A desperate simmer that ripened into full-bodied siren as it went along, “Hnnghmee-ee-ee! The noise silenced the entire forest for a moment. The crickets were the first to resume conversation. Next, the…the…yippers? The whine and song filled Mia with a creeping shiver that culminated in glee. She smiled. “Yes. Go! Run quick, Cameron! Get away.”
Before Cam could obey, and he fully intended to, the yipping grew still closer. Cam weeded his way through confusion and emerging panic. What was that damned sound? Why did it put his teeth on edge? Animals. Circling and…and plotting. Like the girl was plotting. To kill him! Coyotes! That’s what they were! Coyotes that would eat him if he strayed into the dinner plate of night forest. Cam hustled back into the light. Mia was visibly disappointed, then livid. Cam ambled toward the cabin and grabbed a rake that was leaning against the porch banister. He skittered back in position to face the girl. “You want me to run out there with those…those…”
Mia rolled her eyes, “Coyotes?”
“Yeah! Coyotes!” Cam turned his back on Mia just long enough to swing the rake wildly in the darkness and holler, “Hi-eeyah! Fuck off, you…uh…uh…”
“Coyotes?” Mia offered, deadpan.
“Coyotes!” Cam stomped and rattled the musical tines of his rake until he was sure any living thing would have run off as far as four legs could take them. Cam impulsively threw the rake into the void of night, foolishly waiting to hear a cartoon yelp or squeal on impact. Empty-handed, he regretted it immediately. He turned back toward the porch, “What are you up to…girl?”
“Mia! Mee-yah, you moron!” She hadn’t budged from kneeling in the doorway. But now she slumped off her haunches to stare intently at Cam. “Gristly ol’ rabbit. Why didn’t you just run for it, huh? You coulda’ got away. Now you’re stuck.” Mia rose up again on her knees. Snarling half-heartedly before sagging back in resigned repose. “Aw, shit.”
Cam straightened up with a jolt of a clue that had been missing until right then. “Are we “together”? I mean, in that way?”
Mia rolled her eyes wider, “As if I’d ever be with someone old enough to be my Grandpa.”
Cam tiptoed to catch a glimpse of himself in a cabin window. Christ, he did look old! He sucked in air at the vision and put his hand to his mouth, changing the shape of his face. Realizing he had an upper denture, he plucked the false teeth out of his mouth to gawk at them in morbid fascination, like a big splinter you dig out of a toe. This was the better part of his grin? When was the last time these choppers saw sunlight? He couldn’t remember the last time he smiled. Long time. He tried to put the plate back, but couldn’t position it. The teeth swam around in his maw until they seated themselves. “Wh…Who am I?”
Mia considered. “A fireman. No, wait! Animal trainer. That’s it. You are an animal trainer in a big zoo, no! Circus! Remember?” Mia nodded adamant confirmation.
Cam was so mixed up. “No, I can’t remember.” He shut his eyes and knocked on his forehead in frustration, dislodging his teeth again and having to make noisy mouth smacking to get them to settle back in. Dribble hung from the corners of his mouth and then floated away around his face. Glistening spider webs sailing on a gust of breeze.
“As a famous animal trainer I’d think you’d want to go out there into the woods and deal with those…”
“That’s right! Good, Cam. Deal with the coyotes.” Mia nodded in the direction of the deep woods.
Cam looked over his shoulder considering it, but he didn’t move. The two stood facing each other for a space unburdened by passing time. It went on and on. Inexplicably, Cam felt a spontaneous rush of sentimentality. He felt dampness in his eyes and a rise in his throat. In that thick moment, and for the first time this night, Cam felt a sweet reminder of some shadow of…love. Not love as a thing, per se. Rather, the foggy shape of a desire and ability to love. He relaxed and smiled at the girl. The girl stood up straight, seething. Balling her fists. Cam’s false-tooth grin seemed to summon an actual demon. She flew down the steps landing eight paces from Cam. Her eyes fell upon a dirty pick-axe resting near a garden hose on a leaky spigot. Cam saw her eyes celebrate that pickaxe. He knew it was bad news. One side step and Mia was hovering over the ugly garden tool.
“Ooh, lookie?” Mia waved both hands over the handle of the pick-axe. “It’s pointy, but not too sharp. It could really hurt somebody.”
Cam was further terrified. “I don’t like what you’re implying, la…lady”.
“Mia! You mindless asshole! “Mia” who is about to vent your empty head!”
Again, Mia gestured mysteriously over the tool. Cam turned to run, but stopped himself. Something “out there” scared him more than the threat of…uh…Mia’s fury.
“Go! I’m gonna count to ten and give you a head start. If you’re still standing here when I’m done counting, I’m gonna chop you. Oh, please, please, please just stand there. One…”
“I…I don’t understand…”
“Mia! God-dammit! Three…”
Something worse than bad knees and a pick-axe wouldn’t let Cam make a run for it. The girl was inching her hands closer and closer to the handle.
“Fi- -six- -sev…”
Cam dropped to his knees (Ow!), “Please, sweetheart. I’ll do anything…
“Sweetheart? Oh, you are really gonna get it. Eight…nine…”
Cam was sobbing now, “God, don’t do this, Min…Min….”
“Mia! Mia! Mia! Get into that forest, animal trainer! Nine and a half…”
Cam prayed the shameless prayer of the doomed. Mia cringed hearing his intimate bargaining. As disconcerting as a burly man hollering, “Mommy!” during sex. But Cam didn’t care who heard him, “Dear lord. Please forgive…who-whoever I am for any…whatchamacallits I may have committed in this life – sins! Yes, any sins.”
“Ten!” Mia made a grab for the pick-axe. Cam couldn’t budge. Even through his horror he lifted his head to see the girl grasp at the pick — her hands…passed through…the wooden handle. Clean through! Like a bored neighbor’s shadow walking through a vacation slide show.
Cam physically shook his head trying to vaporize the mirage. “You’re not…solid!”
“If I was, I’d already have fertilized the forest with your brains.” Mia huffed and stood up, making for the hanging lamp in the doorway, as if to bean Cam with it. Her hand passed through it, too. Cam still ducked. The world didn’t even register displacement of air.
Mia stood above Cam now. Cam peeked through his guard to see the girl shaking with rage. Suddenly a rain of blows came. Mia flailed at Cam as if she had twelve automated arms with meat hammers at the end of each. Cam cowered. Covered up.
That is until he realized that, like the pick-axe handle and lamp, Mia’s fists passed through him like a mosquito through breath. Cam dared to look up at the girl’s barrage as blows melted all about his head. He still cringed with every strike because they should have made contact. Knuckle to eye, then nothing. Mia stopped. Cam noticed she wasn’t winded at all. He was sure she could have continued her windmill assault forever. But she stepped back and leered down at him.“ I…hate…you.”
“I believe you.” Cam unfurled and stood up on creaky legs, not much less afraid, “Are you a…a…”
Mia puffed a blast of air, “Tell you what, I’ll answer your questions if you can say my name once. Just once!”
Cam struggled mightily, “M-m-m…”
“OK, I’ll make it easy for you. Say your own name.”
Cam couldn’t. “Are you a ghost?”
“Oh, you wish.” Mia paused, waiting for the next dumb question.
Cam held his head in his hands as if the girl’s pummeling had gotten to him. “But you’re not…solid.”
Mia walked up the steps of the cabin and nodded at the flimsy door in wordless, impatient invitation. Cam followed tentatively, opened the door and without taking his eyes off the girl, entered. His anxiety gave way to disorientation. He now believed the girl couldn’t hurt him physically. She wasn’t flesh. She was liquid, but not wet.
Mia followed Cam inside. The old man walked straight through the front of the cabin toward the warm light of a fireplace and collapsed into a leather recliner as if he lived there. The seat felt so familiar. It swallowed him up in an overstuffed caress. He checked to see where the girl was before surrendering to the chair. He briefly closed his eyes. Very briefly. “So are you gonna tell me what’s going…”
Mia shooshed him, finger to lips, as she stood against the frame of the glowing fireplace. She eyed the mantle, arching her eyebrows toward the contents, like a mom who can’t help giving clues to her kid at an Easter egg hunt. Cam’s eyes adjusted and he followed the girl’s lead, regarding pictures and knick-knacks above the fireplace: A photo of a happy couple near a beach. Was that the girl? Mena?
A photo of the same couple near this very cabin. That’s gotta be the girl. A large taxidermied salmon occupied a place of pride on the brickwork of the chimney. Pearly silver and blue in stark contrast to the red clay of brick. A photo of the now familiar couple by a river, holding up what must have been that trophy salmon when it was still a fish and not a trophy. A small wooden carving of a grizzly bear that Cam bought from a fake Indian named Rainbow Hawk in Manitoba – wait!
Why did he remember that and little else?! A photo of Cam and Mia in a meadow, lavender petals dotting Mia’s long hair which flowed over Cam’s contented face as he piggybacked her through tall grass collecting foxtail burrs on his cuffs. God! The man in the photo was him. They were together! And in “that way”, no less! “We were a couple!” Cam sputtered.
Mia made a lemon face, pulled herself together and melodramatically swatted at the photos on the mantle. As expected, her hand passed through them without consequence. “Crash! Tinkle! That’s the sound of glass shattering on the ground.” Mia remained unfriendly, but with less of the spite that had rivaled the blazing hearth a minute ago.
Cam rose up, or tried to. His old body, nested in a soufflé of chair. But he struggled and eventually made it to his feet. Cam walked toward the girl and reached for a photo. “What happened to us? We look so happy. And I was as young as you?”
Mia belched for effect, “They were taken nearly forty-five years ago, genius. You were thirty then.” Mia slumped and pretended her tongue couldn’t fit in her mouth and her eyes wouldn’t focus. She blubbered in gibberish, “Bluh-buh-duh. Yoo-bah-do-bah-doo. Duh! Stupid!”
Cam was processing more and more, but not enough. And so slowly. He looked as far into the photo as his mind would reach. “You have to be a ghost. You’re not flesh and bone and you haven’t aged at all.”
“Good try but wro-ong! I’m not a ghost.” Mia performed a goofy, bouncy spazz, hopping up and down with her hands in the air.
“I have to know what’s going on. Please?”
Mia stopped her interpretive dance, “I am not a fucking ghost, OK? Not a ghost. Next!”
Cam was near breaking, “I can’t stand it anymore! I can’t. Why are you torturing me?”
Mia flashed hot again. “Torturing you? Ha!” Mia lifted her blouse revealing a series of red welts up the length of her creamy white torso. “You got any of these to show for your torture?” Cam’s eyes locked onto the brown mole beneath a perfect right breast. It was like a button that activated a flipbook of memories in him. Disjointed, but each one individually potent: the blond wisp of peach fuzz on the nape of her neck. The grimy chipped beef on burnt toast he pretended to love because it was all she could cook. How cool her palm felt against his warm chest. “Mia! Oh, Mia! I remember. I remember you. What happened to you?”
Mia smoldered, “You mean who made these?” She ran her hand up her side. One by one, each red welt opened up as her hand slid past it. The satin of her skin pouting with deep entry wounds. Her fingers obscenely penetrating some of the bigger stabs. A hundred yawning gashes like the gills of a trophy salmon. Rare, bloodless meat. The punctures made smacking sounds like Grandma tasting pudding as each blinked open then snapped shut.
“Holy God!” Cam felt sick all over. “It’s me, isn’t it? I did that to you!” Without recalling the details, Cam was certain this was his handy work. The sight of the girl’s wounds delivered such crushing remorse, he couldn’t stand up anymore. He collapsed to his bad knees and immediately rolled onto his back in excruciating pain. The burning heartache reached past the electric, crushing agony in his legs. Both styles of hurt raged together in his core. Cam knew he deserved to suffer. He wept bitterly. “I can’t remember. I know…I know I loved you. I just know it. How could I do that to you?” Cam tried to right himself, but only made it onto his side where he rested while his knees throbbed in itching pulses.
Mia knelt down in front of Cam. “Who knows why men do the stupid things they do? Who knows what makes their brains work – or, not work?” Mia shook her head sadly but without a drop of pity. “You were jealous. I dunno? Whatever got into you, got on to me. Ain’t that always the way?”
“I’m sorry.” Cam reached out for Mia. She backed away even though Cam’s hand couldn’t have touched her. “Not interested in your apology. Not interested in forgiving you. Nothing in it for me. Don’t care about you.”
Cam felt shock and despair, slipping in and out of comprehension. His emotions were constant and intense but his understanding of what was what, was intermittent. He chanted in his head, “My name is Cam. This girl was my love. I killed her. I feel it”.
“Christ!” Mia yelled in Cam’s face. “Do you know how many times we’ve had this little chat? Yes, you were definitely capable of stabbing me eighty-odd times with a steak knife. Yes, you suffered terribly from your guilt. Boo-hoo! Yes, you lied to my family and told them I’d abandoned you for a transient with drugs and promises of adventure. Yeah, you were remorseful. But you still fed me to the coyotes. They tore into me like a meat piñata. My bones are scattered all over this forest. A collarbone near the dried up well. A femur down by the edge of the wild berry brambles. The better half of my pelvis resting under the lilacs in that meadow we made love in. Is that ironic or morbid? Definitely weird, huh? So yes, you killed me, Cam.”
Cam absorbed the story, incredulous. “Why…why should I believe you? You said you weren’t a ghost and you obviously are.”
“So, if you’re dead and still here to torment me, you’re a ghost!”
“Then what? What?”
Mia stood over Cam and nodded toward the comfy chair, “You wanna know? Get up.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Cam flopped around on the ground, finally struggling to kneel. He winced, sucking air through his teeth but quickly took some of the weight off his knees by throwing his upper body across the overstuffed chair. Groaning, he hauled the rest of himself up and flipped into the seat. He waded in upholstery as he shifted and settled, just as his dentures had puzzle-pieced in his mouth. Mia smiled at every bolt of pain that shot through the old man’s body. But finally he found a semi-comfortable position and looked up miserably, “I’ve done what you told me to…so?”
Mia stood in front of the fireplace. The heat radiated through her to warm Cam’s face. “Story time, bastard.”
Cam concentrated on Mia’s lips. Waiting for her to speak. Mia took a breath, or pretended to. “Let’s get the godammed killing out of the way, shall we?” Mia didn’t wait for Cam to agree, ”When we first got together, I had no idea you were so weak. In fact, only now do I realize the depth of it. Everyone has doubts, Cam. But you had convictions. You were dead sure that every man in the world had more money, charms and a bigger doo-dad. Well, wieners notwithstanding, I picked you, Cam. That insecurity of yours is why you moved us out here to no man’s land.
“No, I wanted us to…”
“I wasn’t really asking. Even out here in bumfuck, you found ways to imagine every man, woman or child was out to screw me. A dumb kid smoking reefer in the meadow. The bible salesman with the comical stutter. The farmer’s teenage daughter who held my hand at a church bake sale. Even the septic tank service guy who smelled like his job. You never missed a chance to do your nut. Who knows what craziness finally drove you to it? I didn’t get an engraved invitation. I was hanging wet laundry in the backyard when you decided to stick me. I dunno why? What I do know is that it hurt like hell until around stab thirty. That’s thirty of eighty-three, bastard! My last sensation? Drifting on a dream. Last smell? Your sour beer-breath and my clean linens. Maybe blood? In the very end, I heard your breathing turn to whimpers. You musta’ woke up from your idiot-trance right before stab number eighty-four, huh? That’s the last time I saw your shitty face. And the last you saw mine, until a few years ago.”
“I’m so sor…!”
“Oh, shut it! That’s the vague and sordid tragedy of my death. Overkill, huh? Asshole!” Mia spat in Cam’s face. As expected, no expectorate. Cam decided against pretending to wipe his cheek, paused out of a too late sense of respect, then asked, “So, what about the “not” a ghost part?”
“First, congratulations! You got away with murder. Clean and clear. Nobody came poking around. My relatives hated you from the get-go. Even more than they hated me. They never batted an eye at the news of me leaving you for a gypsy guitar player. Hell, they would’ve believed I left you for that stinky septic tank guy!”
“Ha! (Oh, shit).” Cam had laughed before he thought better of it. But Mia didn’t seem to care at this point.
Mia shook her head knowingly, “Betcha’ that’s your last laugh of the night.” Mia sat cross-legged practically inside the fireplace. The flames licked through her and continued on their way. “For years you went about your business putting me out of your mind. There was one time when you went out to those berry brambles and stumbled upon my toe bone. You tossed it so hard it hit the rainwater pond across the clearing and skipped four times on the surface before sinking. A salamander tried to swallow that toe, but it was too big. That bone is still there making moss. You went about your lonely life, occasionally going into town for provisions. Soaking up any sympathy you could from the townies that whispered behind your back, “There’s that poor Cameron Fleming, all alone out there in the woods. Better let him be. He’ll let us know if he has use for any of us.’”
“And did I? I mean, have any use for anyone?” Cam asked earnestly. Mia didn’t bother to hear him.
“About five years ago you woke up to the smell of smoke. You hustled to the kitchen to find black clouds billowing from the oven. I’d been dead for forty years but you still hollered my name like it must have been my fault. The minute you pulled that charcoal hunk that used to be a potpie out of that oven, you knew you’d nearly burned the cabin down yourself. You tried to put it out of your head, but it became harder as day by day these little gaps piled up. Kitchen door left open and raccoons ate a month’s worth of food. Not once, but three times! Lost your car keys for ten days. You got by pretending. Fooling yourself and the few townies you came across on rare trips to the store.”
“This went on for three years until you got so bad, you’d sit at the fork in the road up there where Post Road meets Truman for an hour trying to figure which way to drive. And if you remembered, you’d usually forget how to shift into gear. You woulda’ starved then, but for the grocer’s son taking over the store and sending pitying deliveries. That’s about the time you started hollering at me more regularly. You called, I showed up. From then on, I’ve been with you. Waiting to see you die. Trying to help you along.”
“For chrissakes! Are you trying to tell me that you’re in my head?” Cam already knew the answer. He was shaking.
“Yep. Not a ghost.” Mia stretched further back into the mouth of the fireplace.
Cam thought, “If you’re my hallucination, then I can think you away! I can stop you from haunting me.”
“You try every time. Going on six months now. Jeez. If I were alive, I would be so fuckin’ tired of going over this pathetic story, day after day. I think I’d kill myself. You don’t know how many times we’ve been through it. Your conscience tolerates it. Craves it. No other person, living or dead could.
“Go away now!” Cam concentrated on the girl being gone. “Gone!” Mia did flicker intermittently along with the bed of flames she was sitting in. But she didn’t disappear. Cam was weak from trying. “Why?”
“Don’t worry, shit head. You’ll succeed soon. Try again…”
Cam did try. The veins in his neck strained to the surface and oily perspiration beaded on his face. A blood vessel burst behind his eye. It was electric, sharp and painful and sent white stars into the corners of his vision. Cam slumped back into his chair, sputtering.
Mia stood up from the fireplace and approached the exhausted man. “Here’s how it will go. You’re old and tired to begin with. Now you’re completely spent trying to wish me away. Soon you’ll fall asleep. You can’t help it. So old and tired. Tomorrow you’ll wake up, a blank slate, and we’ll start all over again from scratch. At first you won’t remember that I can’t hurt you and I’ll try my damndest to talk you into the forest. By the way, you feeding me to those coyotes gave em’ a taste for people-meat that’ll be the end of you yet.”
Cam could barely muster the energy to speak, “No…”
“Yep. Your mind is already wandering away. Scattering like my bones. All of your memories are leeching out. Soon you’ll be empty. Ooh, I can feel myself going as we speak.” And Mia was indeed fading.
Mia’s transparent image knelt close to Cam, “Your guilt is what summons me. And in the image you think you deserve. Angry, vengeful and righteous, as I would have every right to be.” Then Mia leaned in close. So close that the shell of Cam’s ear penetrated her melting lips. “But if I were the actual ghost of Mia, despite what you did to me, I would forgive you and see you home peacefully, honey. Because I always loved you, Cam. Always. Even in your dimming mind you know it…the girl always loved you…”
Despite his delirium, Cam knew the truth of those words. He knew that the Mia he’d known and loved could never commit cruelty toward him or anyone. The Mia he had fed to those…those…she never could hold a grudge or hurt a fly. She had loved him completely. Cam reached out as far as he could. Through the fading aura.
But she was gone and Cam was going fast. He wept violently then. As if all the answers he had been grasping for were restored. In that moment, Cam took a sobbing breath that seemed to draw in every memory that had been hovering out of reach for so long. He cried and cried…and then stopped abruptly as he forgot why he was crying. He tried to hold on to any grain of information he’d been given. So very much to remember. The girl. His…potpie? Those…things outside. Outside? Would he really have nothing left when he woke up tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow? Salamander. Beer. A girl. Toe bone. So tired…potpie…
Joe Moe writes for Famous Monsters of Filmland mag, edits Mad Monster mag and creates catalogs for Profiles in History; premiere Hollywood memorabilia auction house. Joe hosts Mad Monster horror conventions nationwide and was caretaker for the greatest monster maven of them all – Forrest J Ackerman! www.gojoemoe.com
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