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Michael Mayhew works in the television business, primarily as a writer of children's television. His stories have been published in various magazines, including Random Realities, Lost Worlds, and After Hours. Recently, he sold a story to Weird Tales. He lives in Van Nuys, CA.

Michael is also a small-press publisher. Last year, his company (Bald Mountain Books) published a book of Halloween stories for adults entitled Harvest Tales & Midnight Revels, which won two Benjamin Franklin Awards for independent publishing.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Everything You Need to Know About Agatha

by Michael Mayhew

 

     "Do you ever think about death, Cynthia?" Agatha's voice was a raspy wet whisper. By that point death was an obvious topic of conversation.
     "No," I said, trying to sound firm, not wanting to go there with her.
     "I do," she mumbled. "All the time." She paused, taking air in small panting breaths, like an animal run to ground. "You know what I always wanted to try?" The question came out in a tiny hiss.
     I smoothed a curl of black hair out of her eyes. "You should save your strength," I said, although frankly I wasn't sure what good that would do. The pool of blood coagulating where her hips should have been had dried into a tarry oval about the size of a beach towel. I could not understand how she was even alive.
     "Yo, biology babe, you listening to me?" Agatha eyes had a sharp look to them and I wondered if she could see that on some level I was fascinated. Probably. It was so strange; from the waist up she looked the same as always: wry smile, tossled Christopher Robin hair. How could that face be connected to the exposed loop of bowel I had just seen trembling with her weak pulse?
     "I was saying," said Agatha, "That I always wanted to try that fugu fish. You ever hear about fugu, Cynthia? It's poisonous, you know, but they take most of the poison out before they cook it, so you only get a little, and that way you can see what death feels like ...."
     "Agatha, fugu is sushi."
     "What?" She stared up at me dreamily.
     "It's sushi. Raw fish. They don't cook it."
     She made a sour face.
     "Jesus, really?" she whispered. "I think I'm gonna be sick..."

 

     ...the door bangs open...the residents swirl up like tissue in the wind...a sound of coyotes screaming...Amestoy dancing like a marionette....

 

     When she walked into class, every guy in the room turned to look. Not that she was so beautiful, but Agatha had sensuous down. She flowed across the room like kelp in a warm, salty sea, coming to rest in the seat next to mine. Another party girl, I assumed. Santa Cruz was full of them.
     But I admit I was jealous. I've never been very lucky in the guy department. Agatha was smooth. I wondered if she was smart, too. She almost had to be to have gotten into Professor Ling's second semester anatomy class. So after the lecture, when the class was told to pair off for lab, I offered to partner with Agatha. It seemed a small gamble -- at least until the lab assistants started handing out plastic bags full of stiff fur. That's when Agatha turned to me in sudden panic. "Oh my God. What are those?"
     "They're cats, Agatha. They're the lab assignment."
     One of the assistants dropped an ice-cold tabby on our table with a thunk. Half-lidded yellow eyes stared out at us through a fog of condensed formaldehyde.
     Agatha bolted, knocking over chairs as she staggered from the room.
     "Biology is not for the squeamish," Professor Ling announced to the class. I got up and followed Agatha outside. The entire room watched me go.

 

Biology 101a - Midterm Exam
Prof. Ling

Short Answers:

  1. The following are examples of what type of relationship? The yucca and the yucca moth, the harvester ant and the aphid, the shark and the pilot fish....

 

     I found Agatha hunkered over in the quad, hands braced against her knees, tossing her cookies onto a bed of African daisies.
     "You could have warned me that you had problem with dissection before we agreed to be partners," I said. On the word "dissection" Agatha groaned and let fly another baker's dozen.
     "Everyone's partnered up now," I said. "You've really screwed me." Agatha held up her hand in a gesture that said give me a minute. I turned away and let her finish.
     Eventually she straightened up.
     "Can I ask you something?" I said. "How did you even get into an advanced biology class?"
     She smiled wryly, even as she was wiping her mouth. "I wanted to blow through my science G.E.s as fast as possible, so I talked Ling into letting me take biology and anatomy concurrently." Agatha scuffed some dirt onto her mess with the toe of her shoe. "You think I hurt the flowers?"
     "African daisies?" I said. "You couldn't kill them with kerosene."
     "I ate lunch at commons, that may be worse." Agatha chuckled, and we shared a smile. I found myself scrutinizing her, trying to discern who she really was, and wondering if the situation could be salvaged. The wind ruffled her dark bangs, making her look like Christopher Robin.
     I decided. "Tell me you actually do your homework," I said. "Tell me you can read at a college level."
     "I'm not stupid. I just don't like dead cats." Agatha returned my gaze. I noticed that her eyes, which I had thought were hazel, were actually a mixture of deep gold flecked with streaks of jade. Eyes that could change like the weather. We were at a turning point. I knew it even then.
     "I'll make you a deal," I said. "You memorize the book. I'll handle the lab."
     "You sure?"
     "Don't worry," I said. "I'll take care of it. Just relax."

 

Monday: appear before academic probation board to explain why the crystal meth the campus police found in our dorm isn't mine. Tuesday: beg Professor Ling for an another extension of my thesis deadline. Wednesday: clean Agatha's half of the dorm because I simply can't stand the mess anymore. Thursday: call parents in Omaha, lie to them about grades, ask for more money. Friday: while begging chemistry prof for chance to retake midterm exam, I find myself actually crying, either from stress or some primordial feminine wile that I didn't know I had. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be Agatha. Saturday: watch cartoons for five hours straight...

 

     The phone rang a dozen times. No answering machine, apparently. Probably the number had been reassigned to some strawberry farmer. I pictured him slogging in a quarter mile from the fields, and began mentally preparing an apology, hoping I wouldn't have to use my atrocious Spanish.
     Then someone picked up the phone, but did not speak.
     "Hello?" I tried. "Hola. Se habla Inglais?" No answer. "I'm trying to reach the Patterswald Home. Hello?" For several seconds there was no sound but the hiss of the connection. And then, like a harmonic of the line noise, I heard, or thought I heard, voices whispering.
     "Is someone there?" I tried, "I'm having trouble hearing you." The voices whispered again, weak and faint, tickling my consciousness, words I thought I should be able to discern. I strained to listen.
     Abruptly a man spoke. "Patterswald!" I jumped back from the loudness of it.
     "Oh, hi," I said. "Is this the Patterswald Home?"
     "Yes, indeed," said the man. "Sorry if you've been on the line a long time. Damned cat knocked the phone off the hook. I didn't even realize it had rung till one of the residents pointed it out to me. Sorry."
     "That was a cat?"
     "Clovis likes to bat the phone off the hook and sniff at it. Sorry. I'm Nate Amestoy. What can I do for you?"
     I admit I felt a flood of embarrassed relief. The faint noises had been growing in my imagination into a nightmare obscene phone call, despite the fact that I was the caller. I gathered my thoughts and explained to Amestoy that I was doing my thesis on mortality rates in Santa Cruz county, and that, according to the county records, nobody had died at Patterswald in a very long time.
     "Really?" He sounded concerned. "How long do they think it's been?"
     "Thirty-five years."
     Amestoy burst out laughing. "Sloppy records are the bane of science, eh? No, we like to think we take care excellent care of the residents here, but I'm afraid we're not that good."
     "Would you mind if I took a look at your records for my thesis? I'm trying to get complete figures for the entire area..."
     "Um..." said Amestoy. "That's not really..."
     "Please?" I said. "It would be a huge help."
     "I'm sorry," he said. "That's simply not possible."
     "Alright," I said cheerfully. "I understand. I'll just go ahead and return these records to the county clerk. Hopefully they won't notice all the discrepancies."
     Silence. Amestoy could not have missed the implied threat. I could almost hear him thinking. The moment stretched out and I worried that I had gone too far. I could hear him breathing. I could hear the static in the line. For a second, I almost thought I heard that stupid cat whispering again.
     "Alright," he said, "Alright, fine. Why don't you come by next Tuesday?"
     "I'll be in and out in under an hour," I said.

 

     I think about Methuselah.
     How old was he? Nine -hundred? That story has always caught my fancy. Was he really so old, I wonder, or was he more like sixty? The Bible is not the most reliable source for hard facts.
     On the other hand, maybe he really was nine-hundred or whatever. In which case: what happened? A quirk of genetics? A healthy diet? Luck?? Or maybe it was something else. Maybe Methuselah touched some far end of the chain of life, and for want of a better name, they called it God.
     Even in our own time there are occasionally little pockets of people who live to be terribly old. No one can explain it. Usually it turns out that they're not so old after all. Sloppy records are the bane of science.

 

     Patterswald was a soot-grey former military hospital that looked to have been built when Millard Fillmore was president. Surrounding it on all sides were miles of abandoned artichoke fields, crowned with dead thistles. Agatha and I arrived about midday.
     The place was weirdly quiet; no traffic sounds made it out there. Just the rustle of wind through dried thistles, like the whisper of forgotten voices.
     I shivered. I don't like nursing homes.
     Agatha was in better spirits. Her brush with expulsion had been commuted to mandatory drug testing, and, as I had predicted, community service. What I had not predicted was Agatha would volunteer my research trip as her first community service excursion. "An outreach to seniors in need," she called it. Which meant, Agatha explained to me, that she would make small talk with the denizens of Patterswald while I scouted out the records.
     "Hey Cyndi, wanna go dancing after this?" she grinned. "There's a bar kinda near here...."
     "Bad idea, Agatha."
     She frowned, thinking. "How about ice cream? I heard Pistachio shows up as cannabis on a pee test. Can you imagine their faces?" Agatha giggled at the thought.

 

     ...the door bangs open...a flood of green light...the residents swirl up and out like leaves of tissue..the eyes in the walls...a stink of spoiled meat...

 

     We went inside and met Amestoy, who turned out to be a disheveled older guy with teeth the color of Grey Poupon mustard.
     "Good afternoon ladies," he grinned at us. "Thank you for finding time to spend with the residents." They way he said "residents" it sounded like "inmates." He lead us through a foyer into a hallway with vinyl couches and chairs. "So many of the residents have no surviving relatives, I'm sure it will be a great comfort to them to see you."
     "I hope so," said Agatha, brown-nosing, "It's so important to me that the elderly--" We rounded a corner into the main hall and Agatha's mouth snapped shut with a click.
     The room itself might once have been beautiful: high vaulted ceilings, marble floors. Running the length of the space on both sides were eight tall windows that were probably meant to let in a lot of daylight, but which had been curtained over with gray canvas. Brilliant shafts of sunlight speared into the murky room through small tears in the material, glittering in a thick haze of airborne dust. The effect was as though a dozen miniature spotlights had been pointed at random onto the people in the room, so that at first it was difficult to see more than a knee, or a wisp of hair, or an eye.
     I squinted, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the strange lighting. Gradually details began to emerge, like the hidden 3-D picture on the back of a cereal box. Scattered around the room were fifty mummified bodies, positioned stiffly on couches and wheelchairs. Many wore long, old-fashioned hospital gowns, while others were only partially dressed, without pants or underwear. It was as if some naughty child had been playing Nursing Home with the looted corpses from an Egyptian cache.
     Then one of them breathed. An ancient man (woman? they were all so gaunt as to appear sexless) sucked in a dry, shuddering breath. The sound was painful. His emaciated ribcage expanded like a balloon. The air was briefly held, and then gradually came hissing back out. A moment later, another resident drew air in several fast gasps and gradually exhaled. The patterned repeated randomly throughout the room. The residents were like some forgotten species of sea mammal that only came up for air periodically, before submerging again beneath dark waters.
     "Whoa..." said Agatha.
     Our eyes met for a second. "Very whoa," I said. I was in a room full of Methuselahs. It was everything I had hoped for. I felt sick.
     "As you can see," said Amestoy, "the residents are exceptionally well cared for." He grinned at me. "Shall I take you to see the records?"
     I felt like he was messing with me. He hadn't wanted me here, and now he was trying to freak us out, get us to leave. But I needed to graduate, and four years with Agatha had left me difficult to freak. "Sure," I said, "let's go see the records."
     Amestoy shrugged, and turned to Agatha. "Feel free to visit with the residents." he said, and then gestured for me to follow him. "Come this way." I turned to follow.
     "Cyndi?" Agatha hissed at me. "What am I supposed to do?" She stood wringing her hands. Behind her the residents were nearly motionless, watching her with oil slick eyes.
     "I don't know," I said. "You're the one who insisted on coming along. Reach out to seniors in need."
     Agatha glared at me. "You don't have to be like this."
     "Sure I do." I turned to follow Amestoy again, and found him watching us with wry amusement.
     "It's funny how we resent the ones we need the most" he said.

 

     I heard the gasp when I walked through the door. The lights were off, but Agatha was home. I could hear the hurried rustle of sheets. I didn't need to turn on the lights to know that she had a guest.
     "Agatha?" I said. Of course she didn't answer. I could almost hear them holding their breath. I angrily hit the light switch. "Agatha, I thought we had a deal."
     The kid was cute, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with curly red hair and freckled skin, now flushed bright pink with embarrassment. He might even have been handsome, in a more dignified situation.
     I grabbed his jeans off the floor, the grey underwear still nestled in the seat, and tossed them to him. "Time for you to go," I said.
     He awkwardly struggled into his pants, trying to cover himself with the bed sheet at the same time. Agatha sat up, not bothering with the sheets, and glared at me.
     "You don't have to be like this," she said.
     "Oh, I think I do have to be like this. Nothing else works, Agatha. We made a deal. You don't bring anyone in here unless I'm out of town. How hard is that to live by?"
     The kid looked mortified. "I'm really sorry," he stammered.
     "Not your fault," I said. He grabbed his shoes and left, hobbled only slightly by his unsatisfied erection. Agatha and I watched in silence.
     I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. "Agatha, I have to have a quiet place to go at the end of the day. I have to. Don't take that away from me."
     Agatha sniffled. "I'm sorry," she said.
     "Don't be sorry, just stop bringing guys over here in the middle of the day. Jesus, Agatha, even you must study sometimes."
     "I'm sorry!" she repeated, her voice beginning to break. Tears welled in her eyes and Agatha began to sob. I held out for a good thirty seconds before I cracked. "All right, what's really wrong?"
     "They're gonna kick me out of school!" she wailed.
     "Oh, that's great, Agatha. That's classic."
     "What do you care? I'll just transfer out. Then you won't have to think about me any more!" A fresh round of tears streamed down her face, and I felt my throat squeeze. She looked so helpless. I grabbed a wad of tissues from my desk and plunked down beside her.
     "That's not what I meant," I said, handing her the tissues. Agatha honked her nose into Kleenex. "Look there's got to be a way around this. I bet you could do community service or something. We just need to make some phone calls."
     Agatha turned to me with bloodshot eyes, looking like the world's saddest eight year old, "Really..?"
     "Don't worry," I said. "I'll take care of it. Just relax."

 

Biology 101a - Midterm Exam
Prof. Ling

Essay questions:

Compare and contrast the following terms: Parasitism, Symbiosis. Can you make an argument that both terms describe the same relationship? If so, how? If not, why not? Provide at least two examples.

 

     The lights were off in Amestoy's office, and it smelled like stale sweat. He went in, and thrashed about in the darkness, looking for a light switch. Time dragged. I decided to keep things friendly.
     "So, where's the cat?" I said.
     "Who?" said Amestoy in the darkness.
     "Clovis, the cat who answers the phone."
     Amestoy stopped searching. "You know I don't think we need to bother with that story anymore," he said, and turned on the light.
     The office was a ruin. The desks and filing cabinets had been overturned. Lamps were shattered on the floor. Pens and staplers were scattered about. But most impressively, all the files from the empty cabinets had been mounded into a giant paper nest. Sitting in the middle was Amestoy.
     "Well, here are the records," he gestured at the nest. "Come take a look if you like."
     I stood frozen.
     "No need to worry," said Amestoy. "They're all here. Don't you want to study them?" He wriggled in place, sinking deeper into the nest of papers, and flashed me his yellowed grin.
     I simply gaped, wondering what kind of lunatic Amestoy was -- the harmless kind that babbles, or the dangerous kind that rapes and murders. My brain went into overdrive, mentally mapping the route to the exit, guessing how much head start I would have once I began running, calculating whether or not I could talk my way out of this.
     Amestoy watched me with intense curiosity, as if he were reading my thoughts. "I guess we can dispense with the business about the records as well, eh?"
     "Okay," I said, trying to sound non-challenging. Was that the strategy that could save your life when you're talking to a psycho? Or was it the other one where you were as forceful as possible?
     "I really don't know what happens next," said Amestoy. "Do you know what happens next?"
     "I get Agatha and we go away and we never, ever talk about this place to anybody," I suggested.
     Amestoy thought it over. "No. That's not it. You would never have gotten this far if that was it. No, something was meant to happen. I'm just not sure what it is. We're all very concerned here, you know."
     Just then Agatha began to scream.
     "Ah, see, now something's happening." Amestoy began to chuckle.
     I turned and ran.

 


     I think about time.
     I used to imagine time was a line from the past to the future, like a graph of civilization at the museum. Now I wonder if it is something else entirely. A deck of cards perhaps, that can be shuffled in endless combinations.
     My watch still works, but I do not recognize the numerals on its face.

 

     "Cyndiiii!"
     I ran back into the main hall. Agatha stood in a corner, beside one of the windows. The shade had been lifted and the room was flooded with light.
     I ran up beside her. "What?!" Agatha just pointed. At first I didn't see, and then when I did I didn't understand.
     In the brighter light, it was apparent that the floor was covered in dust about a quarter of an inch thick. Two sets of clean footprints lead toward Amestoy's office. Another set marked my return route into the main hall. I looked down at my shoes, they were fuzzy with grey dust. I shivered.
     "It was so dark in here," said Agatha. "I just thought that maybe if I let in some light..."
     It's okay," I said. "This place was a bad idea. We need to go now."
     "But Cyndi, these people, they've never been moved."
     I looked again and suddenly saw it. There were no clean tire marks from the wheelchairs. No tracks or footprints from trips to the bathroom or bed. Nothing. Just an even plain of soft dust, banked against the rims of the wheels like snow. I studied the residents. Their arms, their hair, their faces ... even their eyes were covered in dust. Periodically one of them would exhale a deep, shuddering breath and dust would scatter into the air in scintillating motes.
     How long had they been left there, with the dust accumulating particle by particle? How could they even be alive? I grabbed Agatha and started dragging her towards the door. "Okay, we need to go right now."
     "But those people...."
     "Never mind them. We have to go."
     Agatha was grim. "Okay, I'm down with that." We both turned to split...
     ...and the whispering began.

 

     The waiting room stank of urine. My back was aching from the hard plastic chairs, and still I was starting to nod off. Somewhere down the hall a frail old voice called out for help over and over again, and was universally ignored. It was 3AM on a Thursday night. I had known Agatha on a first-name basis for exactly three weeks.
     Finally, an orderly rolled her out in a wheelchair. Agatha looked exhausted but she managed a goofy grin. The ER doctor, a pinched looking woman in her forties, followed Agatha into the waiting room, and glared at me like I was a crack dealer.
     "You might want to know that your friend overdosed on Esctacy tonight," she said. Agatha smiled sheepishly and scuffed her tows on the floor.
     "She doesn't seem to be taking it all that seriously," said the doctor. "But it is deadly serious. Ecstasy is an amphetamine," she said. "You take enough at one time, you die, it's as simple as that."
     "Hey, I'm just the ride," I said.
     "I'm sure you are," said the doctor.
     Driving back to campus, Agatha tried to make light conversation. "Personally, I think that doctor needs to get laid, " she said. "What do you think?"
     "I wouldn't know." My voice flat, quietly angry.
     "Look, I'm sorry I dragged you into this. I didn't know who else to call."
     "Hey, whatever, Agatha, I just want to get some sleep. I have class in four hours."
     She stared out the window. A brilliant band of clouds glowed golden above the pink horizon line. "Pretty," she said dreamily, and chuckled. "When you're too speedy they give you this gigantic shot of Valium. So I'm wondering, is it really a beautiful sunrise, or is that just the Valium and the X having a three-way with my brain?"
     "It really is a beautiful morning," I said, still angry. Agatha turned in her seat to appraise me.
     "Cynthia..? Do you have a crush on me? I mean, it's cool if you do—"
     "Wrong gender, Agatha."
     Agatha frowned -- disappointed? "Well then how come you act like we're an old married couple?"
     "Would you rather I had left you at the hospital?" Agatha fell silent for a minute, and turned back to watch the sunrise again.
     "You think I'm pretty screwed up, don't you Cyndi?"
     "No, I think you're impulsive."

 

     The whispering came from nowhere, unintelligible, yet very close. Agatha cocked her head, straining to understand the words. It was as if someone had built a parabolic whisper dish in a distant desert, and was speaking to us in Farsi.
     My heart began to hammer. This was the whispering I had heard on the phone.
     My eyes darted about the room. None of the residents were whispering. None of them were even breathing, but all were watching us with a burning intensity, as if, like Amestoy, they were waiting to see what we would do.
     "Who is that?" said Agatha, starting to freak out.
     "That's just Clovis," said Amestoy, suddenly nearby. We whirled to face him. He now stood between us and the front door, tapping the blade of a long, flat-head screwdriver against his thigh.
     "Or at least that's what I call it," he said. "I'm not sure it has an actual name."
     "Mr. Amestoy..." I said. "...Nate, we need to go now. Please get out of the way."
     "I feel so conflicted," said Amestoy, his expression strange and sad. "Nothing feels right anymore. But it's all we have. You understand, don't you? We need Clovis."
     Wordlessly, Agatha and I began edging away, back into the darkness at the heart of Patterswald.
     Amestoy held up the screwdriver with an embarassed shrug. "I'm sorry I couldn't find anything sharper than this," he said. "I'm not a cruel person. But I really can't let you take Clovis away."
     "Run!" I said. We ran.
     We ran into the darkness, into the heart of Patterswald, turning corners at random without thought or plan other than finding a way out. A hallway lead to an abandoned kitchen, the kitchen lead to another hall. We opened every door we came to. A pantry full of exploded cans of food. Orderly bedrooms full of dust. A broom closet. A coffee room. A stairway leading down into darkness.
     "Down the stairs," said Agatha.
     "We'll never get out that way," I said.
     Amestoy's voice echoed from behind us, "Ladies, is this the way you were taught to treat your elders?" We could hear his footsteps coming down the hallway.
     Agatha ran down the stairs. I followed, pulling the door closed behind me.

 

     I dream.
     In my dream I am a styrofoam life preserver on a sinking ocean liner. As the ship's bow dips below the surface, someone tosses me into the water to save the passengers.
     And then I begin to drown.

 

     Darkness. A basement of some sort. The whispering was louder here.
     I strained my eyes to see. The basement ran the entire length of the building. Overhead were pipes and wiring. Pools of water on the floor glistened with faint reflections.
     "Look," said Agatha. "See it?" I strained to see. At the opposite end of the basement there was a glimmer of light. A window or doorway, perhaps to the outside.
     "Go," I said. We ran, splashing through water. It stank of anaerobic rot, like the black muck in a gutter. The light grew brighter.
     We came to a door with a tiny inset window. The light came from inside. Agatha slammed into it first and yanked at the doorknob.
     "It's locked!" she said. She pressed her face against the tiny window to see what sanctuary we had lost, and gasped. "Oh my God..." she said.
     "What?"
     "It's a kid..." She banged against the doorway. "Help! Let us in!"
     "A kid?!" I said.
     Agatha banged on the door again. "Help! Please!"
     "...help...please..." the familiar whisper begged from behind the door. The accent was strange, as if speaking in English were a terrible burden.
     Agatha turned to me with an expression of despair.
     "Is that Clovis?" I asked.
     Agatha nodded. "It's just a little kid."
     I pushed Agatha aside and looked through the window. The room was a ten by ten cell, bare except for a wooden chair, and the girl who sat on it. She looked to be about eleven, naked except for a threadbare blue rag she wore around her waist like a skirt. Who knows how long she had been locked in that room, or where she had come from. She saw me, and whispered again.
     "Help please..."
     It took my breath away. "Oh Jesus..." I felt like I was floating, like every hurt in my life had been reduced to nothing. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the basement brighten.
     "Agatha, did you find the lights?" I said. My own voice sounded distant. I could not pull my eyes away from the little girl.
     "Cyndi?" said Agatha. I turned to face her in slow motion.
     "What...?"
     She didn't need to say more. Amestoy had arrived. He stood, not ten feet away, with a small lantern. In its light it was obvious that we were not alone in the basement.
     The residents were everywhere. Slumped over in rusting wheelchairs. Left to rot on the floor. I realized that several of them wore tattered nursing uniforms. One even had a faded name tag. They watched us with shining eyes.
     Amestoy held out a key tied to a paper-clip chain. "You'll need this if you want to get in," he said. "But I wouldn't advise it." He still had his screwdriver. We were out of options.
     "I'm going to report you," said Agatha. I could hear the adrenaline tightness in her voice. "They'll shut this place down in a second." Agatha always tried tough just before she crumbled.
     "You should report this," said Amestoy. "I kept meaning to. And then I...I forgot I guess. Clovis has a way of doing that." For all his creepiness, he looked sad to me. I wondered if Agatha saw it too. "Yes," said Amestoy, toying with the screwdriver "you definitely should report all this." And then he lunged at her.
     Everything happened at once.
     Amestoy lunged at Agatha, moving past me, the screwdriver raised high overhead. Agatha scrambled to get out of the way, but there was no room. The lantern swung crazily, throwing manic shadows on the walls. The screwdriver started to plunge downward. I pushed Amestoy from behind. He stumbled. The screwdriver came down hard.
     Then everything was still.
     The lantern dropped to the floor with a clatter.
     Amestoy stood doubled over, his arms wrapped around his gut. Agatha and I backed away. He swayed from side to side, and then gradually straightened himself. The screwdriver was buried to the handle in his stomach. A small red spot stained his shirt. He whimpered.
     My hand reached out to him. I couldn't help it. My feet stood rooted, but my hand wanted to take his pain away. "Mr. Amestoy..?"
     He turned his sad eyes to me. "Nobody's happy here any more," he said, and leaned back against the wall for support. Abruptly his feet gave out beneath him and he sat down hard on the floor with a smack.
     Amestoy groaned. He placed one hand over his gut where the screwdriver had gone in and pressed down, slowly withdrawing the blade. Blood welled up from between his fingers in pulses.
     The screwdriver was filmed with blood. Amestoy held it loosely in his left hand. I saw an opportunity and kicked out. The screwdriver clattered to the floor. Agatha snatched it up and held it defensively.
     "Ha!" she shouted. "Give us the keys!" Amestoy ignored her.
     "D'ya ever wonder where crabgrass comes from?" he said.
     I goggled, speechless. Things were changing so fast I couldn't keep up.
     "Every garden gets it eventually," said Amestoy. "Does it just know to come? Or is there something about a garden that calls to it, maybe even needs it."
     "No, I never wondered about any of that," said Agatha, crouching low with the screwdriver. A fighting stance. Agatha was growing excited.
     "You need help," I said. "Let us call an ambulance."
     "I think some things are just drawn together," said Amestoy. "You build a place and you fill it full of old people, more and more over the years, old and sick and failing and terrified of dying, and maybe that need just draws something in."
     Amestoy pushed one hand against the floor for leverage and began to rise.
     "Hey, you stay back," said Agatha, waving the screwdriver.
     Amestoy swayed unsteadily on his feet, babbling. "...and this thing that shows up has needs of its own, and they feed off of each other. And they do it so long they forget why. They get trapped. And one day nobody's happy anymore."
     Agatha exploded into hysterics. "What's wrong with you?! Why are you doing this?!"
     "I really can't let you take Clovis away," said Amestoy, and lurched abruptly towards her. Agatha panicked and lashed out with the screwdriver, jamming it squarely into Amestoy's eye. The blade sank in to the handle. Amestoy dropped like a sack of potatoes.
     Agatha screamed.
     I screamed.
     But the residents were silent–watching, hungry, excited. The tiniest amount of blood pooled out on the floor beneath Amestoy's head, and then suddenly he jerked twice and was still.
     The residents, all at once, as a group, closed their eyes and took a deep shuddering breath, as if they had all just taken a bite of warm chocolate at the exact same moment. It was over. It was time for us to go.
     From inside the locked room came that pathetic whisper. "Help... please... help..."
     "Come on Agatha. We have to leave."
     "Not yet," said Agatha. "We take the kid with us. Help me find the key"
     Agatha stooped to search for the key, but I stood watching. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of movement.
     One of the residents was thrashing in his wheelchair in a series of spastic jerks.
     Another began to thrash. And then another. Their atrophied muscles were useless, but still they tried.
     The first one fell out of his chair. They were trying to reach us.
     "I got it!" said Agatha. She stood triumphantly with the key.
     "Agatha, forget the kid. We need to leave now!"
     "No. This asshole just tried to kill me. If he wanted that little boy locked in, than I want him out. "
     Everything slows down
     The residents spasmed on the floor, watching us with desperate eyes...
     Agatha just said something terribly important
     On the floor at our feet, Amestoy's body twitched...
     Whoever is in that room is not just a kid
     Agatha turned toward the door, fitting the key to the lock...
     This person looks different depending on who is looking in
     Two more residents crashed to the floor...
     I have seen a little girl in rags
     The key did a slow barrel roll in the lock...
     Agatha has seen some other person
     My voice warbled like I was underwater: "No, Agatha wait...!"
     Agatha has seen a "little boy"
     ...the lock snapped open with a click.

 

     I think about misdirection.
     A magician on stage gestures with his right hand to keep you from watching what he is up to with his left. I look back at all the hassles and scrapes and missed deadlines that have happened on account of my friendship with Agatha, and I suspect it is all misdirection. A frenzy so chaotic that it allows me to ignore all the lies in my life.
     I am a good girl. I am a responsible girl.
     I am a straight girl.
     Agatha fills my need for misdirection.

 

     All the lights are out now. Even the light outside the window is a formless, charcoal grey. Perhaps I was knocked unconscious for a few hours, but I really don't think so. Something took the daylight away. Or maybe it is we who have been removed, and the daylight is where we left it. As far as I can tell, Amestoy and the residents are gone.
     I found a lighter and with it I eventually found Agatha at one end of the main hall. Her legs had been torn off at the waist. There wasn't much blood though, at least not at first. That was hours ago.
     Even now Agatha is still alive. I don't know how that's possible, I'm just telling you.
     Whatever was locked in the basement came out so hard it broke Agatha in half. But in doing so, it changed her, at least superficially.
     She whispers to me. "Did...the boy...did I get him out?"
     I don't think she understands what has happened. I smooth a strand of hair from her forehead.
     "Yeah," I say, "You let him out."
     Agatha sniffles. "I guess it's one more mess I made, huh?"
     "Don't worry," I tell her. "I'll take care of it. Just relax."

THE END