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The Mourning House

Ronald Malfi

  The Mourning House

  Ronald Malfi

  First Edition

  The Mourning House © 2014, 2012 by Ronald Malfi

  All Rights Reserved.

  A DarkFuse Release

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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  Blessedly, the details of the accident were mostly lost to him now.

  There was Geoffrey and Mary’s party—over a hundred people crammed into their two-bedroom brick-fronted townhouse in the Philadelphia suburb of Chestnut Hill. Garland had been strung up in loops from the high ceiling, there was spiced rum punch in a giant crystal bowl and, in the living room, a Christmas tree drooped under the weight of Mary’s hand-blown glass ornaments. Trays of food had been strategically placed along the kitchen table and counters, wedges of indistinct hors d’oeuvres speared with toothpicks that resembled tiny cavalry sabers. There was a conversation with some writers and musicians by the hearth; Sam grinned as Geoffrey (who fancied himself a musician) occasionally nodded in agreement with their stories of struggle and strife as if he understood their musical plight. Sam, a doctor in a roomful of artists, was amused.

  Ghostlike, Annie floated by with the baby, smiling at Sam through the crowd, the air underscored by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album on the stereo. She was light-skinned, beautiful. He returned each smile with the dry humility he always managed to summon when hanging out with Annie’s artistic friends. He didn’t mind her friends—they were good people, even if their liberalism tended to make them a bit wonky at times—and, for the most part, he enjoyed himself. It was a good party.

  At one point in the evening, a young woman in a headscarf performed an impromptu séance, having all the willing participants gather around a small table in the middle of the living room on which she had arranged various candles and scented oils. The music was turned off and the lights were dimmed. Someone made a catcall from the back of the crowd but was immediately hushed by some of the more spiritual guests. Those at the table joined hands—Sam was not among them, though he watched from across the room, a glass of port wine to keep him company—and the woman began her sonorous monologue. Her face was pale, her cheeks sunken and her eyes recessed too far into her skull. Even with the headscarf on, he could tell she had no hair. Sam knew right away that this was not part of the act. He had been a general practitioner for seven years now and had little difficulty recognizing cancer in all its hideous forms.

  Though much of the séance was underscored by laughter and good cheer, the woman in the headscarf did claim at one point to glimpse a deceased male form flickering in the periphery of her mind’s eye. “He died here, in this house, a horrible criminal’s death.”

  From across the room, Geoffrey laughed and said, “A criminal? In my house?”

  “He was a murderer and a rapist,” said the woman, “who was eventually put down by another murderer.”

  Then someone shouted, “That’s Johnny!” and everyone laughed.

  At midnight, they rang in the New Year with horns and streamers and thingamajigs that crooned loudly (and startled the baby) and, through the wall of windows that faced the beating heart of the city, they watched as fireworks lit up the night sky. He kissed Annie, kissed the baby, whispered, “Happy New Year” into the pink shells of their ears. The baby spit raspberries and drooled down the front of her bib. Annie laughed. She looked elegant in a slim-fitting black velvet dress, her long hair pulled back in a single braid that fell all the way to her buttocks. They had been married just a short time but they had wanted children right away. Besides, neither of them was getting any younger…and what if it took forever to get pregnant? Yet it didn’t—just a month after trying, which did not seem like trying at all, cells multiplied and divided and soon there was this microscopic little thing that would soon become their little Marley.

  “You are a handsome man in that shirt and tie, Doc,” Annie said, leaning her head on his shoulder. In her arms, the baby fussed. “She’s getting tired.”

  “It’s been a long night,” Sam agreed.

  Gathering their coats from the master bedroom just before leaving, Sam heard someone clear their throat behind him. He turned to see Geoffrey standing there, his necktie undone, his shirt partially unbuttoned. His eyes looked like martini olives behind the thin lenses of his glasses.

  “Please please please,” said Geoffrey, “don’t tell me you guys are leaving so early.”

  “Baby’s getting fussy,” Sam said. It was after one in the morning. “And we’ve got a bit of a drive.”

  Geoffrey slouched against the door frame. He had a glass in one hand, half-filled with amber fluid. “I remember when it used to snow on New Year’s.” There was more than a tinge of melancholia in his voice. Geoffrey’s lower lip stuck out in a pout that was nearly comical. “Did you have a nice time?”

  With Annie’s coat draped over one arm, Sam continued searching for his own under the pile of leather jackets, sports coats, winter coats trimmed in imitation fur. “Of course, Geoffrey. We always have a ball at your parties.”

  “They’re good people,” Geoffrey said from the doorway. It sounded strangely like an excuse. “Sure, they can get a bit outlandish, a bit garrulous, but I think that’s sometimes what makes them interesting. Part of the charm. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that makes them interesting.”

  “They’re all very nice,” Sam said, still looking for his coat.

  “Listen,” Geoffrey said, moving a few steps into the bedroom. The change of tone in the man’s voice was apparent. He paused just before Sam, drunkenly unbalanced, his limp-wristed hand threatening to drop his drink to the carpet. “I know I’ve said it before, Sam, but I just wanted to thank you again for the money. I feel like a regular heel. I feel horrible.”

  “Nonsense. What’s to feel horrible about?”

  “Christ. I’m a grown man. I shouldn’t be…I mean, borrowing money from an ex-girlfriend’s…well, you know. It’s unpalatable.”

  Sam knew of Annie and Geoffrey’s history—their ancient history—and while it did not bother him, he felt uncomfortable now in hearing it come from Geoffrey’s mouth. Annie and Geoffrey had dated for just under a year, but that was long before he had met her. They were all married now and life had moved on, but Geoffrey sometimes said foolish things when he was drunk. And Geoffrey was drunk a lot.

  “There’s nothing shameful in needing some help,” Sam said now, not wanting to get hung up talking about Geoffrey’s problems at the moment. “Anyway, it’s just a loan. It happens with people all the time.”

  “Just till Mary and I are, you know, back on our feet.”

  It crossed Sam’s mind to suggest that maybe he and Mary should have forgone their annual New Year’s celebration this year in light of money being so tight, but Sam did not say so. Geoffrey Fulton wasn’t a bad guy. Up
until the close of summer, he’d owned and operated a bistro in downtown Philly that catered to the city’s small but dedicated bohemian crowd—painters, writers, musicians, and the occasional journalist looking to slum among the hipster crowd. Decreasing profits, dwindling clientele, and poor business decisions had forced the little bistro to fold. Mary, Geoffrey’s spunky, bright-eyed wife, worked at a crafts store, and her meager salary alone did not cover the high cost of city living. It wasn’t until the Fultons were faced with losing their townhouse that Geoffrey had come to Sam—come to Annie, in truth—and humbled himself by asking for a loan. Sam and Annie Hatch weren’t their closest friends, but they were certainly the most well off. When your circle of friends consisted of the similarly bankrupt, one had to reach beyond that circle when the cards were down.

  “Forget about it, Geoffrey.” He finally spied his coat on the floor, draped over the baby’s car seat. “Have a happy New Year.”

  He bent and scooped up his coat and was about to reach for the car seat when Geoffrey moved swiftly across the room and gripped him hard, high on the forearm. Sam spun around and faced the smaller man, and Geoffrey hugged him clumsily. Sam could smell the alcohol issuing off him like steam rising from desert blacktop. Sam hugged him back with one arm and couldn’t help but feel somewhat foolish standing there doing so.

  “I love you guys, you know,” Geoffrey said. “The both of you.”

  “You’re drunk,” Sam told him.

  “Happy New Year, pal.”

  Back in the living room, Sam wended through the diminishing crowd of people toward the kitchen where Annie stood talking with Mary, the baby bouncing on Annie’s thigh. He nodded at his wife and she saw him and winked in response—just a sec, love.

  When he turned, the woman in the headscarf was standing directly before him. This close, he could see how the cancer had sunken her eyes and jaundiced her flesh, robbing her of life even though her heart still beat. The pores in her flesh looked overlarge, like strawberry seeds, and her thin, lipless mouth appeared as nothing more than a scalpel’s hasty incision in the taut putty of her face.

  “Excuse me,” he said. Juggling the two coats and the car seat, he attempted to maneuver around the woman.

  She reached out and, much like Geoffrey Fulton had done moments ago in the back bedroom, gripped him high up on the forearm.

  Sam made a small, confused sound at the back of his throat.

  “Wake up,” she said in a breathy whisper, her grip tightening on his arm. Sam felt her bony fingers digging into him like a bear trap. “They come out the way they go in.”

  “What?” he uttered.

  The woman leaned closer to him. He imagined he could smell the cancer coursing through her veins. “They come out the way—”

  He tore his arm free of her grasp with enough force to elbow some guy walking past him. The guy mumbled something but Sam did not turn to look at him. His eyes were locked on the woman in the headscarf.

  The woman blinked. Her eyes, which at first Sam had believed to be a cool light blue, were suddenly as gray and as dull as seawater. A nervous tic caused the corner of her lipless mouth to throb. “I’m sorry,” she said, folding her wrists across her chest. “Please excuse me.”

  Sam watched her move quickly through the crowd of people until she disappeared down the hallway.

  He jumped a second time when Annie came up behind him and touched his elbow. “Hey, jumpy. You ready to go?”

  “Yeah,” he said, sweating.

  Then they were in the car driving home, the baby asleep in the back in her car seat, Annie fooling with the car’s CD player. The city lights around them blurred as an icy rain began to fall.

  “It was a nice party,” Annie said, selecting a John Coltrane CD and lowering the volume. She peered in the back at the baby, who was already asleep.

  “Yes,” he said. “Geoffrey brought up the money again. He was drunk but sincere.”

  “I know he feels bad about having to borrow it,” Annie said. “I feel bad for him, too. And Mary.”

  “I just hope he makes use of it.”

  “We’re good, right? It didn’t hurt us, lending them that money, did it?”

  “No,” he said. “We’re better than good.”

  She smiled and leaned her head on his shoulder. He could smell her eucalyptus shampoo and the floral perfume she wore. Her warmth spread from her into him, tracing through his whole body while, from the speakers, Coltrane blew in the New Year.

  And the rain came down harder.

  * * *

  A group of motorists found Sam Hatch an hour later, soaking wet and wandering along the highway median, disoriented. What clothes he still wore were covered in blood.


  Piloted by impulsiveness and—he would reflect on later—some separate, indescribable urge to pursue that, at least to him, was foreign and held no name, he found himself turning the battered old Volkswagen off the highway and down a rutted dirt access road for no apparent reason. Beneath a blazing summer sun and in the heat of a sweltering afternoon in late July, he drove along a swath of roadway flanked on both sides by tall grass the color of straw. The Volkswagen was a piece of shit, and the spoils of some previous impulsiveness, having purchased it from some sun-bleached farmer in his mid-twenties back in Mississippi for all of five hundred dollars. “For another five bucks, I’ll throw in the nudie magazines I keep in the glove box,” the farmer had offered with a lecherous wink that made Sam want to take a shower; suffice it to say, he didn’t give him the extra five bucks. Now, Sam doubted the car would make it much farther. There had been a close call with the car just outside Atlanta when a radiator hose split. Thankfully, one of the car’s previous owners had attempted to repair the splitting vinyl upholstery with great silvery slashes of electrical tape, so Sam was able to remove the tape and use it to bandage the hose. It was a quick fix, but he was able to make it to a garage before sundown.

  The car rattled, it smelled bad, the AC didn’t work, and it belched bluish clouds of exhaust from the tailpipe. Nonetheless, it was better than the Oldsmobile he’d purchased back in Sacramento; that car had only gotten him as far as Reno before it seized up on the side of the highway like a stubborn mule, forcing him to hitchhike to the nearest town. He hated hitchhiking—not in theory, but in practicality. He hated the casual conversations with the succession of ageless, grizzled men who picked him up on the side of the road without compunction. He hated the way their cars always smelled, an amalgamation of sour perspiration, rotting vegetation, and bad breath. It was only a matter of time before their questions—harmless in their interrogation, sure, but painful nonetheless—caused something hard and warm to ball up in the center of his chest. Inevitably, they would ask about his past, his history. He had gotten good at lying, but even the lies were painful and dredging, for they were borne on the veiled thread of truth, as all good lies were.

  Often, he wondered what these men thought of him. Longish hair, clothes in need of laundering, the unshaven jowls of a longshoreman, he looked like every other drifter. Yet he found that the gruffer and emptier he looked, the less apt these men were to ask about his past. And that was good. So he grew a beard and stopped washing his clothes at the coin-operated Laundromats he came across in each town, and soon he fell so strongly into the role that he actually began to be this lonesome traveler. And that, too, was good. Dr. Samuel John Hatch—the old Sam Hatch, the man and the history of the man—had already truly died over a year ago anyway. There was no need to hang onto him and pump him full of artificial life like air into a punctured tire. Sam—the new Sam—had no desire to cling to that old skin.

  Sam continued now down the dirt road that cut through the tall grass that resembled straw, the Volkswagen’s windows down, the air smelling strongly of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. By his calculation, which was only somewhat reliable, he estimated that he was somewhere along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He had no destination in mind…yet he was suddenly overcome by some sense of
compulsion, of nonspecific drive, and so he kept his foot on the accelerator. It was nearly a tangible thing, and he felt like a bloodhound following a scent.

  He came to a T in the road and brought the Volkswagen to a shuddering stop. This is a breathless town, he thought, not really knowing what the thought meant. There was an empty field off to his left and a rundown church whose foundation looked about as sturdy as a chair with three legs off to his right. The windows of the church were boarded up and the rickety bell tower was bristling with falcons’ nests. Overhead, seagulls wheeled across the sky.

  With his foot still on the brake, Sam attempted to understand the peculiar sensation of compulsion that engulfed him. He recalled times in his youth where he’d woken late for an exam. This feeling was very similar. Yet as he sat there idling at the intersection, he felt the sensation release him, as if probing it had frightened it away. The feeling was strangely tactile—so much so that he actually imagined he felt fingers tracing down his back. The feeling had left him. Had it really been there to begin with? Or was he finally just losing his mind?

  A breathless town, he thought again for no apparent reason. And then he caught his reflection in the car’s rearview mirror and the sight of himself sitting there, as lifeless a ventriloquist’s dummy propped up in the driver’s seat, caused an ice-cold spike to wedge itself at the base of his spine.

  Instead of continuing in the direction he had been heading, he turned right and drove through the field along a corrugated service road. The Volkswagen’s undercarriage scraped the earth, barking over every undulation. Despite the heat, a sickly chill overtook him; by the time he came to the end of the road, where the roadway dispersed in a scatter of white stones before vanishing into the blonde grass altogether, he was actually shivering.