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Isn’t by L. David Hesler

1.

They tell me he isn’t real.

How can that be?

When I was fourteen, my family sat around the table and prepared to eat dinner. It was supposed to be my birthday feast. Nobody showed up because it was raining so hard.

Outside was dark as the crack in the basement floor.

I dropped a toy down there one time.

Mom decided to go ahead and cook for dad and Becky and Stanley and me, even if my aunts and uncles and grandparents weren’t going to be there because of the storm. After Stanley cried about not getting to eat pigs in a blanket for dinner, we sat down around the table and stared at each other. We started to pray, then something shook the house. A picture of me and Stanley playing checkers fell off the wall and ended up in a pile of broken glass that looked like teeth growing out of the carpet.

“What is that?” dad asked.

“Sounds like a headache,” Stanley said.

Dad ran to the front door, opened it, screamed.

There was a river. It had formed in the road, which was the lowest point between our side and the opposite side of the street. Black water poured over the asphalt and smashed into parked cars, made stop signs and telephone poles lean like they were sick to their stomachs. And there were oblong boxes in the water, darkened by mud and night. One of the boxes struck the rear of my father’s truck and exploded with a wet snapping sound like cantaloupe cracking open on a tile floor. Something that looked like a body fell to pieces in the bed of my father’s truck and then washed away with the black water. It was a parade of liquid night marching through our street, down the hill and into town.

“What is that?” dad asked no one in particular.

By morning, the water had receded and a glaze of gray mud covered everything. And strewn throughout our street and a few others deeper in town were the coffins that had been vomited from cemetery behind the Liberty Christian Church after the rain tore through the weak earth. The mud slide cost the town thousands of dollars.

If the dead can swim in the river on my street, why can’t he be real?

2.

If it isn’t a cold and it isn’t pneumonia and it isn’t AIDS and it isn’t measles and it isn’t chicken pox and it isn’t shingles and it isn’t bronchitis, then what is it?

It’s something black and twisted in his body, eating as it grows.

Filling space and making space.

It isn’t fair.

That’s what mom says. She always says that it isn’t fair. Before Stanley broke himself in the basement, he was already sick. He had this thing in him, this thing that made him ill and weak and sleepy. So, one day I asked mom if it was alive. She only looked at me with enormous brown eyes that shimmered with tears.

I asked her, “Is the thing in Stanley alive? Like a person?”

She held her mug of tea in both hands, tendrils of steam reaching up towards her face. Then, without moving her lips much, mom said, “Not like a person.”

So, if it isn’t a person, what is it?

3.

We have to watch what Stanley wants.

He likes to watch the screens with white static or the channels with colored bars. He loves the colored bars. He stares at them and giggles, like he can see something that no one else can see. I squint my eyes and turn my head sideways. Even though I see things sometimes, I can’t see the same things he does. It frustrates me, but I watch anyway.

He sits in his wheelchair and smiles. One eye is lazy, like it’s been disconnected from the rest of his body, and it watches the ground while his other eye focuses on the colored bars. He says, “Turn it up.”

I turn it up.

His eyes go wide at the sound. It’s a test tone, just an endless note that carries on through the house. And then he starts to make a noise with it. He harmonizes with the sound and starts to jerk from side to side. His arms twitch and he starts to drool. I can’t help but laugh because he’s enjoying it so much. His mouth is wide open, his tongue curled in a soundless chuckle. He likes it because the thing inside him likes it so much.

Then he screams.

I scream.

Tears flood his eyes and race down both cheeks and mom comes in and turns off the television and gives me a dangerous glance. Then she wheels Stanley away and closes herself off in his room, cooing and wooing to him and settling him down until he falls asleep and then the house is silent because the thing inside him is quiet again. Sitting in the living room by myself, I look at the empty screen. The person staring back at me looks lonely. I smile at the face in the screen, give a quick wave which he, with quiet courtesy, returns just as quickly.

Mom steps into the room and says, “You shouldn’t encourage him.”

I shrug and say, “He was having fun.”

“It hurts him,” she says, “You have no idea how much it hurts him.”

“But he was enjoying it,” I say, “Laughing. Singing, too!”

She curls her hands into fists and says, “It isn’t singing. It isn’t pleasant at all. You know better than that.”

Without looking at her, I say, “I didn’t mean to hurt him.”

Mom is halfway across the house when she mutters over her back, “But you did.”

4.

I drew a picture today. Mom got angry because I drew it while I was supposed to be studying my grammar. She’s a good teacher; dad says she’s better than the teachers at the school in town. Becky goes to school, but I stay home and let mom teach me. She says I’m smart, but I should know better than to draw when I’m supposed to be studying.

She looked at the picture and then she was crying.

“Don’t you like it?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything.

I said, “Look at his eyes. Are they black enough?”

She turned away, walked into the kitchen and shut the door.

I looked at the drawing.

He smiled at me. He always smiles, even when it hurts.

With a broken red crayon, I scribbled his name at the bottom of the page and nodded with satisfaction. I whispered the words.

“Imo Jack.”

5.

His name is Jack.

He lives in a crack.

His eyes are black.

He’s coming back.

6.

Stanley stares at the painting on the wall and says, “That painting is like a headache.”

“I know,” I say.

“Tell me the story again,” he says.

I turn off the television and say, “Mom says I can’t tell you again.”

“Mom’s a headache,” he says.

“I know.”

“Tell me,” he says, “Please.”

He rolls himself across the living room and parks the wheelchair next to the couch, then says, “Tell me.”

I tell him the story and by the end, he’s sobbing into the one hand that will reach his oblong face. I tell him to shut up and he keeps crying. And then mom comes in and wheels him away and says over her shoulder, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“He wanted me to tell him!”

“He doesn’t know any better!” she says. She wheels Stanley to his room and shuts the door so he won’t hear her when she comes back to the living room.

“You want him to have nightmares?”

I say, “No.”

She sits on the edge of the couch and says, “You’re fifteen years old. You should know better than to scare him like that. ”

“He’s twenty-five. He shouldn’t be afraid of anything!”

She stares at me without speaking.

“He’s older than me. He can’t have nightmares!”

“His brain is hurt,” she says slowly, like she’s fighting to keep the angry words trapped inside her throat. “You understand that, don’t you?”

“My brain hurts too,” I say.

“He’s like a child,” she says and then she wipes at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Just stop telling that awful story. It’s not real.”

I watch her leave the living room. Sometimes, I wish this could be the loving room and we’d all hug and shake hands and tell each other that we loved each other and that everything was going to be okay. But then I imagine having to shake Stanley’s trembling hand. And he’d shake his useless legs at me, the things that used to carry him across the football field and down the halls at school. He’d shake those little things at me and say my hand was like a headache.

The living room is empty except for me. I tell myself, “I love you. And it’ll be okay.”

7.

Here’s the story.

Crawl down the basement steps, but watch out for the shadows.

Fingers can climb out of the corners and grab your feet if you don’t watch the shadows.

On the wall, going down, there are pictures of people who must have been in my family. They stare at you with black eyes because the light over the steps doesn’t work. It’s been busted for years, so the stares are always dark and uncomfortable. The frames are old and the people trapped inside are mostly dead, probably swimming in the street or banging into cars like torpedoes. They say my great-grandfather’s coffin ended up halfway between our town and the next, stuck in the ditch on the side of the highway. But it was open and where his old scarecrow’s body should have been there was only a sleeping dog. I think the dog ate my grandfather.

Or maybe my grandfather is a werewolf.

His picture is the last one you see on the wall going into the basement and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss his tongue sticking out at you, trying to taste the side of your face or lap at your ear. Beyond his picture is a collection of old tools and pieces of weapons that people used in the Civil War. You can smell the sweat and blood and grass on those old pieces of moldy metal as you pass by. At least, I can smell those things. But my brain hurts all the time. And people died because of these things. Now they’re on a wall in our basement like medals on an admiral’s chest.

And in a few more steps, the basement is opening its mouth and waiting for you.

There isn’t any carpet down here.

Only cold, wet concrete and the smell of stone buried in the damp earth.

A light opens its eye, shuts its eye. It blinks and flutters and never stays bright enough. It makes a shadow here, kills the shadow there. Throws a shadow on the wall, then tosses it across the floor. The light is a trickster, only there to confuse and entertain.

There’s a water heater in the corner, beside a mostly-empty closet where a thousand roaches wage war with millions of witless beetles. Their battle cries are like fingernails and wood shavings trickling down the wall. And all around, water seeps through the stone walls from the ground beneath our yard. Even when it hasn’t rained, there is water.

And there is a crack.

It stretches like a wound from one corner of the ground to the middle of the basement, a great gash that never bleeds but is always sore. It didn’t exist when we moved here, at least not inside the house like it is now. It grew like a smile on a corpse’s face. I think it was under the house before we came, before anyone was ever alive. I think it has always been there, a cold grinning wound on the world and it just won’t heal. I think it belongs to someone else. It is cold and it breathes and it is emptiness.

We never get to come down here by ourselves. That’s the rule.

We’re not supposed to be down here because this is where he lives, an unwanted guest in our home.

Or maybe, we’re the guests.

There is a washer and a dryer; they sit like sleeping robots against one wall, rusted and useless. Mom takes our laundry to the Laundromat next to the Pastry Palace. Once upon a time, we used these machines. Now they sit alone in each other’s company and stare at the crack.

That’s the story.

When I dropped my toy in the crack, it never made a sound. It disappeared into the black sore and never made a sound.

But when Stanley fell into the crack?

He made a sound, for sure.

We weren’t supposed to be down there.

Stanley said it was just a hole, standing over the edge and peering in like a miner. We were younger. He was still in college. And he could walk.

The black thing hadn’t crawled inside of him, yet.

I said, “It’s more than a hole.”

I tried to keep my distance because I could sense the ugliness of that crack.

I could feel the animal’s breath drifting up and out.

Then I tossed the little army man with binoculars into the hole. It slipped into darkness and never made a sound. I stared at Stanley.

“Probably mud down there,” he said.

“Maybe not,” I said. “What if it isn’t mud? Let’s go upstairs.”

We heard mom come home. She slammed the front door and dusty cobwebs rained on our heads from the floorboards above. I darted for the stairs because we weren’t supposed to be in the basement. I was almost to the top.

Stanley stopped halfway up. He looked at me and said, “You hear that?”

I heard it.

A slippery sliding sound, frogs trying to escape from a wet barrel.

Stanley might have been coming back upstairs or maybe he was going to turn around. He moved only a little and then his feet went out from under him and he tumbled down the stairs like a doll, arms and legs flailing and slapping the wall and things snapped. He screamed and when he hit the concrete, he didn’t stop moving. He was going towards the hole.

Like a fish reeled out of the water.

And I saw the hands that held Stanley. They belonged to a man who doesn’t belong anywhere. His eyes are black and he dances in shadows.

His name is Jack.

“Imo Jack,” he said real slow and deep. “Imo Jack and Imo mess you up, boy.”

He lives in a crack.

Stanley didn’t fall in.

He was pulled.

And he’s lucky mom pulled him out.

8.

Stanley watches the mirror sometimes.

He says things like, “My face is a headache.”

Mom puts some kind of lotion on the scars so they don’t get sunburned and so they will maybe heal and turn into real flesh someday. They’re not like normal scars because Imo Jack gave them to him. She holds him like a baby in her arms and sings him songs like when Becky was a little pinkish thing wrapped in sheets.

She says, “My honey baby. My sweet little dear, my cupcake.”

And Stanley only stares at her and says, “My face is a headache.”

They never took him to the doctor. Mom doesn’t trust them. She had someone else come and look at Stanley when he came back out of the hole. The woman who cared for him was tall and thin like an overgrown scarecrow dressed in warm colored clothes, shirts and pants that looked like they were homemade. She spoke of spirits and negative energy. Her skin was covered in blotches and she smelled like spice. I asked mom what they were doing to him and mom said, “Trying to make him better.”

They didn’t get it right. He didn’t get better.

A man in black spent an afternoon with Stanley. I didn’t trust him because he was short and quiet. But he prayed and put his hands on Stanley like he was trying to pull something out. He screamed at the black thing inside, cursed it and called on the powers of things I can’t see. But it didn’t work.

9.

I keep the pictures under my mattress. I remember finding Stanley’s dirty books under his mattress and I found out that keeping things under there was a good idea. Nobody except nosy little brothers can find what you’re hiding. So I keep the pictures under the mattress and before I go to bed, I look at them and think about the crack.

It never made a sound down there.

I think the crack is where my old family lives. All the people in the pictures are down there in the crack and I sometimes think that if that’s true, then maybe Jack is my uncle. Maybe he’s a second cousin, twice removed. A fifth uncle, a distant dad. Grandma dressed in wolf’s clothing.

And then I go to sleep and I see Jack with a smile on his face and his big hands reaching out of the crack. I should scream, but for some reason I only stand there and stare at him. It’s like looking in one of those mirrors at the circus. They’re wavy and bent and they make you look like someone else. That’s how I feel when I look at Imo Jack in my dreams. And when I draw him, it feels like I’m drawing a picture from one of those mirrors. What does that mean?

They say he isn’t real.

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m downstairs by the crack. I try to think about how I got there, but I can’t figure it out. So then I walk back up the stairs where the light doesn’t work. People stare at me as I go up and I sometimes stop and stare back at them until they start crying. Then I smile and go back to bed.

10.

Mom says I almost killed him.

She’s been drinking and dad is gone again. Always gone to avoid this.

Becky is in Stanley’s room and I can hear her crying.

I say I was trying to go upstairs and he fell behind me.

That was a year and a half ago.

The story.

She says I was in the basement next to the crack. It grows. She doesn’t believe me, but it does. It grows and grows and grows and grows. People fall in and get hurt. That’s what happened to Stanley. She says it isn’t true. I say it’s the only thing that is true.

And she says I’m lying.

I stare at the floor. She slaps my head and the ring on her finger slices through my scalp. It burns and the blood there is on fire, just like everything in this room.

She says I ought to be ashamed.

I ask why.

She says that I almost killed my brother.

I say he almost killed himself because he got too close.

She says it isn’t true.

She says he’s sick and she says it’s impossible to cure the thing inside him. She says he’ll die before any of us and that it’s my fault.

I say, “It’s not my fault.”

And when she starts to speak, I scream, “Imo Jack!”

“He’s not real,” she says.

I say, “He is. And he’s coming back!”

“You shut your mouth.”

“He’s in the crack and his eyes are black and he’s coming back. He’s Imo Jack!”

Mom screams wordless sounds at me and slaps my head again.

She collapses on the floor beside the couch and cries into the crook of her arm. I sit and watch until she passes out. Then I throw a blanket over her. It’s the color of the sky, but stained with coffee that looks like urine.

I go to my room and draw.

11.

Everyone stayed home today. They brought Stanley into the living room and stared at him. Mom made me sit between dad and Becky. Dad’s shirt was warm with cologne and he kept a hand on my shoulder. It was a brick.

They tried to smile.

I said, “What are we doing?”

“We’re enjoying ourselves,” mom said.

I wondered if she also dreamt of having a loving room in our house.

She said, “Stanley, you look good today.”

“My hair is a headache.”

His hand trembled below his chin and he grinned. Crooked yellow teeth smiled at my family.

“I’m making dinner tonight,” she said.

“What are you making, mom?” Becky asked.

“Pigs in a blanket,” mom said.

Stanley laughed and rocked back and forth in his chair. His lessened legs wiggled like fingers in a glove. Mom and dad laughed with him.

“Pigs in a blanket,” he said, “My stomach is like a headache.”

12.

I saw him.

They stood together at the door to the basement.

I drew a picture while they stood there.

Stanley nodded his head, like he was going to fall asleep. But every time I thought he was dozing off, his head snapped back up and he stared at the dark row of teeth that led down into the dark.

He smiled.

“Imo Jack is coming back.”

His eyes are black inside the crack.

Cuz Imo Jack is coming back.

My head was filled with the sound of wet things crawling out of mud. They reached out of the basement and took hold of his legs. The wheels of his chair went forward and I only watched. I noticed how damp the side of Stanley’s face was, how shiny it became as he passed through the last shard of light before bumping into the basement. It was the first flight of his wheel chair, into the mouth and into the crack.

And for a moment, I see him.

Smiling with a mouth that goes on forever. Staring at me because I’m the only one who sees him for what he is, for what he was, and for what he will be.

I told them he was there, but they say it isn’t true.

They say he isn’t real.

13.

His bed is in the weak earth, a loaded torpedo waiting for the next strong storm. We stand with our feet buried in moist grass and we stare at the hill of mud where Stanley is curled up and sleeping. There are others here, grandfather and grandmother and aunts and uncles. They never talk to me because somehow it’s my fault and they only say a few things to mom and dad. Becky couldn’t come out of the car.

And then there are the others.

Old dead grandpa who went swimming in the mud, standing under a tree on the hill beyond the long black car they used to carry Stanley. He sticks his tongue out at me. There are children, white and gray and blue and shimmering, and there are others. Black things that came out of the crack after Stanley fell the second time. They’re all laughing, even grandpa is laughing, and their laughter is the sound of black tears striking the earth. Their joy is the sound of flesh torn, their smiles are crooked daggers dripping with blood.

Jack stands among them, shrouded in a sheet of midnight. He looks like royalty.

His name is Imo Jack.

He’s king of the undone.

They say he isn’t real.

But if he isn’t real, why are they crying?

————-

L. David Hesler is the author of fantasy/horror collection “Prismatica” and the YA fantasy/horror novel “Children of Aerthwheel”. He is currently producing a serialized science fiction ebook called “Age of The Wonderbot”. His work has been featured in the literary magazines “New Wine” and “The Ivy Review”. When not writing, L. David Hesler is a guitarist and songwriter with well over a hundred original songs available online. His blog is found at: http://www.ldavidhesler.blogspot.com

Isn’t was inspired by three things. For many years, I had a recurring dream about losing action figures to a mysterious hole in the basement of my best friend’s house. The hole existed only in my dreams and literally haunted me as a child and young adult. I was also tormented by a story about an old local grocery store’s ghostly inhabitant named Imo Jack; that name infected my imagination for well over a decade. And finally, I read a news article about a cemetery coming unhinged by torrential rains, leading to a flood that left coffins and corpses scattered about a rural town. I felt compelled to write a story that somehow connected all of these ideas. Strange, isn’t it?

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