Gone

“You’ll miss me when I am gone.” It wasn’t a question. She knew he would, and that is why she had lingered. “You shouldn’t be alone. You aren’t healthy when you are alone. You need me here!”

She had been pleading with him for days, as he packed up her things. She cried and wailed, following him room to room. He ignored her, until she threw the lamp across the room, shattering it on the wall. He screamed at her to stop, and she slammed the door shut, trapping him in the house.

He howled, “I can’t take it anymore! You have to go! You are not welcome in this house! The person I loved is gone, you are not her! Get out!” He struggled with the doorknob.

“Why are you doing this to me? I thought you loved me! Don’t do this to me, to us!” she sobbed, but she couldn’t resist any longer. The door was open, and he forced her through.

She turned and looked back, hoping for one last glimpse of him, one last chance for him to change his mind.

He stood in the doorway, the light from the house creating a golden halo around him, illuminating the darkness. The bitter smoke of burning sage drifted into the night.

He shut the door, but she could hear him talking to the medium. “Do you think it worked? Is it gone?”

After a few moments the medium said, “It isn’t in the house. Now you can mourn your wife in peace.”

Threshold

It was an ordinary day. A typical Tuesday morning. I woke to the alarm, showered, dressed. Off to work. I arrived at my desk right on schedule. I hung my hat and coat, and headed to the break room for my coffee.

Generally, I keep to myself at work. I prefer not to draw attention, so I usually hurry down the hall early, before the rush, eyes on my feet to avoid any conversation. The long hallway is always buzzing with activity, but this morning it was surprisingly quiet, which caused me to look up. And I saw the door.

It was at the end of the hall, tall and skinny, painted pale yellow. I had never seen this door before. I was certain that it had not been there yesterday; I have worked in this office for seven years, and I had never seen this door.

I looked around; still no one. I continued down the hallway, staring intently at the door. It was a strange yellow, almost a sickly yellow. Why did the door seem too thin, too tall? Why hadn’t I noticed it before?

I passed the break room. Usually a small crowd gathered by the water cooler or the coffee maker, but I saw no one. It was quiet. Too quiet.

Starting to sweat, I loosened my tie, cleared my throat, never taking my eyes off the door. I was still walking slowly, but steadily towards it. For some reason, it didn’t appear to be getting any closer. The end of the hall was still a ways off. I tried to walk faster, lengthen my stride, but my shuffling feet wouldn’t cooperate.

Maybe this was a bad idea. The door was unnerving, seeming to pulsate and throb with a strange energy.  I should turn back.

My reluctant feet kept moving. I tried to turn around, to look away, but it was too late. I was reaching for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I felt dizzy as I turned the handle.

The door swung open on silent hinges.

I saw only darkness.

Heart pounding, I tried to look away, to shut the door, turn around, anything, but I was trapped, gazing helplessly into the void.

I don’t know how long I stood there, resisting the urge to step over the threshold, fighting with every ounce of my being to avoid taking that step. Sweat was trickling down my face, my breath was coming in fast, harsh gasps.

A sudden flash of light blinded me, and I shielded my eyes, unsure of what to expect. As my vision cleared, I saw what lay beyond the door.

A mop. A bucket. A rickety shelf stacked with toilet paper, cleaning supplies.

I had discovered the janitor’s closet.

“Sir? Are you okay?” A man pushing a trashcan on wheels stood a few feet away, hand still on the light switch. “Did you need help finding something?”

I took a shaky breath. “Just a cup of coffee.”  I shut the door. The knob seemed to tremble… or was it just my hands shaking?

The Circus

The circus was coming to town. Fliers had been tucked into mailboxes and slid under doors some time in the night, though no one had heard or seen anyone do it.

The carnival last fall had been the highlight of the small town. The flashing lights, tall striped tents and glittering sequins were mesmerizing. Men on stilts, candied apples, exotic animals, the smell of hot, buttered popcorn, magicians, clowns, music! The delighted shouts and laughter of young and old filled the air.

Everyone loved the circus. Anticipation rolled through the town like the clouds of dust that blew in from the dry fields.

The children raced outside at recess, their round faces pressed closely to the chain link fence surrounding the schoolyard. They jostled for the best view of the road, looking for the haze of dust that hailed the arrival of anyone coming to town. They would be here soon.

Within a few minutes, a strange melody could be heard, clinking and metallic. The timing was off, as if the song were playing at half-speed.

“Their stereo is broken!“ someone in the back of the gang shrilled loudly. Laughter broke out in the bunch, followed by more pushing and shoving for space at the fence.

The first truck came into view, the windshield nearly obscured with dirt and grime. The children waved and hollered as it passed, expecting the honk of a horn and a smile at least (last year the driver in the lead truck had tossed hard candies wrapped in colorful cellophane!) but this driver looked straight ahead, mouth set firm in a grim line.

“What’s his deal?” squawked a voice from the back of the group. A chorus of nervous giggles from the children.

The next truck rolled by, creaking in time to the plodding beat of the too-slow music. A faded wooden sign hung from the side, “CIRCUS” painted in peeling block letters. It was crooked.

There were two people; a man with his cap pulled low, and a pale woman. His eyes never left the road, but the dark haired woman stared intently at the children. She smiled without warmth, and blew a kiss. Her teeth were sharply white against her red lips.

“Who does she think she is?” screeched the voice from the rear of the crowd. A few children snickered uneasily, and the crowd shifted a few steps back.

Trucks and trailers rumbled by, dusty grey. More sullen stares and unsettling smiles. The circus last year had trailers with open windows, so they could see the elephants and horses, but every shutter was closed. Some were nailed shut.

The sluggish music clanked and sputtered on.

A girl backed away from the fence, tears in her eyes. “I don’t think this is a normal circus. I don’t like this circus.”

The last pickup rolled slowly by, with a lone passenger in the back. A sad clown.

His thick makeup was crusty and dry, and his wrinkles showed through. The clown pointed past the children, his tired eyes dark and lonely.

The children turned, and the familiar scratchy voice in the back shrieked, “Finally, you see me!”

It was another clown, but his eyes weren’t sad. His eyes looked mean.

Hive

Sometimes, when it was really quiet, she could hear a soft buzzing in her head.

It wasn’t always in the same spot; usually at the base of her skull, sometimes closer to the front, near her nose.

“Sinus pressure.” She dismissed her worries. “It is allergy season, after all.”

But the humming was getting louder. She could feel a vibration in her skull. She was beginning to get worried, jumpy. When her hair touched her face or her neck, it felt like the many legs of an insect, insidiously creeping over her skin.

The twitchy feelings were maddening, and the thrumming was getting stronger, more insistent.

She decided to get a haircut. A short one. She walked into the first place she saw, an old-fashioned barber shop with a striped pole in front.

“We don’t do women’s cuts.” The barber informed her.

“Buzz it.” She demanded.

The sound of the shaver was a roaring hum, the vibration over her scalp felt glorious. It drowned out the sizzling drone inside her head.

As he unclipped her smock, the humming returned.

The barber handed her a mirror, and asked, “That is quite the scar you’ve got there. Where’d you come by that?”

“On my head? I don’t have any scars on my head.”

“Sure enough you do, right above your neck.” He spun her chair so she could see for herself. He pointed, “Just there.”

An angry, purple-red mark was etched into her skin. “I don’t know where it came from…” She murmured. She reached to touch it, and it pulsed against her fingers. She felt it hum and throb.

The buzzing in her head resumed at full force, even louder than before. And now it hurt.

“Are you alright?” Asked the barber, folding the smock. “I would get that checked out.”

“I-I’m fine. Just a headache. I must have whacked my head on something… thanks.”

The pain was getting worse, she could feel it creeping behind her eyes. She hurried home, trying to ignore the thrum of activity in her head. It was in her neck, too. She could feel the vibrations shudder through her shoulders.

Her fingertips felt numb, as if she had been shocked. She collapsed on the couch, breathing heavily. Her skin was crawling, the buzzing had become a roar.

I should go to the hospital. She thought before losing consciousness.

*****

When she woke up, it was dark. It was silent. She sat up slowly, and gingerly touched the back of her neck; the wound was still there. It hadn’t been a dream.

She stood up and stepped on something with a sickening crunch. She choked back a scream and stood still. The buzzing started again, but this time it was not in her head. It was in the room. A hissing, throbbing hum that made her hair stand on end. There was no mistaking it.

The buzzing in her head was the same noise that filled the room.

She carefully reached out and turned on the light.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Every Tuesday at sunset, the clockwork monkeys gathered on the street outside my window. Clicking and chattering. Gears grinding and wheels whirling. Red glass eyes winking, copper tails twitching and sparking on the cobblestones.

I was getting damn tired of these monkeys.

The first time they appeared, the monkeys stayed on the street. Passersby stopped to laugh and point at the creatures, waiting for some sort of show to begin. But there was no magician or tinker to entertain. Just the flash of scarlet eyes as the last rays of daylight splashed across the alley. As the sun went down, the clatter of tiny metal paws and empty stares were more ominous than humorous, and the bystanders quickly departed.

The clockwork monkeys turned to face my window, one by one. They waited.

As the first stars started to twinkle in the sky, the monkeys began to disperse. Gone as quickly as they had appeared, they skittered into the night with soft clicks and clacks.

I shook it off as some sort of practical joke gone awry.

The following Tuesday, as the sun went down, they were back. This time no passersby paused to point. Eyes averted, vendors went about closing up shop, their patrons hastily withdrawing as soon as the first monkey made an appearance. Even the always crowded café across the way was empty. A few monkeys rattled amongst the tables, others crowded in front.

There were more this time. I lost count at twenty, as they continued to click-clack and tick-tock into the usually bustling alley. The only noise was the chatter and clatter of the clockworks twisting movements. The monkeys turned to stare, one by one, tails a-twitch-twitch. Then stillness.

Week after week, the mechanical monkeys stared into my window, each week edging a little closer.
As the weeks went by, I noticed something even more worrisome than the ever-encroaching metal creatures.

I saw my neighbors were no longer watching the monkeys. They were watching me.

My street had never been so quiet.

So I did the only thing I could.

I shut the blinds.

The Changeling

Changeling

 This is not my brother.

 My brother has eyes that smile. His grin is wide, his laugh contagious.

 The stranger looks at me from my brother’s eyes. His mouth smiles, but his eyes are dark and empty.

 There is something missing.

 He has been replaced by something inhuman, invasion of the body snatchers.

 This is not my brother.

My older brother Deshi has always been my idol. My earliest memories are all related to Deshi; toddling after him as he ran in the grass outside our house, sharing a slice of birthday cake, Deshi teaching me to tie my shoes.

“C’mon, Hy-eeeeee!” laughing, he would drag out the vowel to make it sound like he was calling for a pig. Sooooo weeeee. It alternately made me cringe and laugh throughout our childhood. Deshi was three years my senior, and I was the dedicated little brother who clung to his coattails. He was never the type to get annoyed with my clingy nature, he was patient and kind. His teasing was gentle, loving. Even if his pig-call caused my cheeks to redden, it never caused me to pause when I ran to him.

School was easy for Deshi. He made friends effortlessly, excelled in sports and academics. Deshi breezed through life, and I was happy for him. I was pulled along in the wake of his popularity; if people knew Deshi, they knew his little brother Hyun, too. I was far more reserved, but the general admiration of Deshi seemed to spill over to me by proxy. Desh and Hy Su. We were a social unit until Deshi had to leave for college.

He chose a college far enough away to drive home for holidays, but not close enough to pop in easily for the weekend. I saw him less and less over the first few months of his college education, and my senior year of high school. When he did make it home, his smile seemed a little less wide. His eyes were losing their sparkle.

When I said as much to our mother, she softly ruffled my hair and said calmly, “College life is not so easy. He is probably just stressed by his courses. Don’t worry.”

So, I listened to my mom. I ignored the warning signs, and went about my daily life.

When Deshi came home that summer, things were different. Even my parents voiced their concerns over his changed demeanor. He was still excelling; in fact, even more so than before. He had already been approached by an accomplished law firm to join their practice when he completed his time at the university. Every move he made was calculated for success. Something was missing, though.

His eyes were now cold, flat… dark. Deshi the Shark.

He no longer had time for family; we were not part of his calculations.

A few years passed. Deshi was a corporate lawyer, receiving promotion after promotion. He was ruthless in his endeavors to make it to the top, to be the best.

We saw him less and less, and every time we saw him, a little more of Deshi was gone. The smile on his face was not the smile I remembered anymore.

The last time I saw Deshi, was at my college graduation. We posed for pictures. Smiling hugely, the stranger that Deshi had become put his arm over my shoulders, and said, “Hyun, do well.”

Startled, I turned to face him as the camera flashed. For an instant, I saw my brother again. Really saw my brother. He had tears in his eyes, his smile was sad, but genuine. Deshi, my brother.

Then he was gone again, back to the emotionless, empty shell. Deshi the Robot.

He did not attend the graduation party. No one expected him to. The ambitious lawyer was too busy for parties, for family.

I thought about the camera flash, seeing my real brother hidden away behind the eyes of a stranger. He was still there. Could I help him? What was wrong with him? I was soon distracted by my mother excitedly pulling on my arm to meet more family friends gathering to celebrate my graduation.

Later that night, after the festivities had ended, I lay on my childhood bed, feet almost hanging over the end. My head was buzzing from the party, the alcohol, from seeing my real brother… I took a deep breath, put one foot on the floor. Suddenly I felt the world drop out beneath me, like I was falling from a great height. I gasped and sat up, heart lurching in my chest. I had experienced the sensation of falling when almost asleep before, but never had it felt so real. It took me a long time to relax enough to attempt to go back to bed.

In the early morning hours, we got the call from the police. Deshi had taken his own life. My parents were a mess, inconsolable. I took the phone from my father as he supported my sobbing mother, and I walked to the kitchen in a daze.

“How did he do it?” I whispered hoarsely. “How did Deshi die?” I didn’t really need to ask. I already knew, but I had to confirm my suspicion.

The policewoman on the phone hesitated for a moment. “It was a few hours ago. He walked to the roof of his office building… he took the stairs, all 27 floors.” She paused again. “I am so sorry. He jumped.”

Days later, and still no questions answered. Deshi was dead. Deshi had killed himself. On paper, his life looked amazing; success, money, attractive, popular. We grieved, and struggled to understand the change that had come over Deshi in recent years, and what would cause him to end his own life.

I asked to see the security footage from his office. The police had stated that there was no evidence of foul play, and that cameras had caught almost every image of the last hours of Deshi’s life. The officers had tried to talk me out of watching, telling me that the footage was deeply disturbing.

I was lead to an interrogation room, where a laptop was set up with the film ready to go. I just had to push play. The officer who had been helping me gently squeezed my shoulder. “Are you sure you want to see this?”

I nodded mutely.

She sighed. “Okay. Be prepared, it is pretty jarring. We have already spliced together the footage, so it goes from one camera to the next, with brief pauses in between. Do you want something to drink? Coffee?” I shook my head, staring at the laptop as I sat down slowly. She nodded again. “Okay, let me know if you need anything.” She quietly shut the door behind her.

Closing my eyes for a moment, I took a deep breath, and pressed play.

The security footage was crystal clear. In movies and on the news, clips are always so blurry and grainey, it is hard to make out details. This was a mega-money corporation, who employed mega-lawyers that charged by the hour, and they paid mega-bucks for crystal-clear surveillance of their skyscraper.

I saw my brother enter the building. Close ups of his unsmiling face as he swiped his badge. He climbed 27 sets of stairs. Slowly, deliberately, his expression impassive; he looked mechanical.

Deshi the Automaton.

Each stairwell contained a camera, not even a full second passed that was not on film. Deshi was alone in the last minutes of his life. He reached the last floor, and paused. He stood before the door that led to the roof, perfectly still, for 1 minute and 17 seconds. If the time stamp was not still running, I would have thought the frame was frozen. Then he turned to face the camera. He smiled, his eyes open, serene. He opened the door and stepped out.

The camera on the roof was directly above the door, facing outward. I watched my brother walk to the edge of the roof. Then he stepped off, and was gone. No hesitation. Just gone.