“He Came Upon A Midnight Clear” By Michael Arruda

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Cover art for my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, which contains the short story "He Came Upon A Midnight Clear."

Cover art for my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, which contains the short story “He Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”

Here’s a look at my Christmas-themed ghost story, “He Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”  This story was originally published in 2001 in THE ETERNAL NIGHT CHRONICLE. 

It’s also one of the 15 stories contained in my 2013 short story collection, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4294076.

 

Enjoy!

 

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael

HE CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR

 By

MICHAEL ARRUDA

My great-aunt Georgie passed away last night.  She was 81.  I’ve never really been close to any of my relatives, especially the older ones, but Georgie I loved.  There was an incident— back in 1978— Christmas Eve.  Circumstances beyond my sister’s and my control had taken us out of our home that holiday and placed us in the enormous ancient house of our crazy aunt Georgie.  Crazy we called her.  At least we used to call her that.  Before.

***

            “Would you kids like some eggnog?”  the gray haired woman with the beaming cheeks and glowing red nose asked, snug as she was in her brightly colored red and green Christmas sweater.

            “Yes, please,” the children said, nearly in unison, their voices low and hardly enthusiastic.

            The woman crossed in front of the crackling fire, leaving the children alone in the toasty living room.

            Outside the snow fell.  Giant white globs accelerating to the ground like a raid of miniature paratroopers. The sky from which they fell glowed orange.

            With his nose pressed against the window, the boy watched the invasion with indifference.

            The woman returned to the room with two glasses filled with thick eggnog.  “Here you go, Teri.  And here you go, Todd.”

            “Thank you, auntie,” said 11 year-old Teri.

            Her younger brother said nothing.  He turned from the window, took the glass, and sulked in the corner.

            He sipped the sweet beverage and looked around the room, which was full of all things Christmas. An elaborate Nativity scene to the left of the fireplace, an illuminated Christmas tree to the right, Christmas cards on the mantelpiece, a three foot plastic Santa which in years past was outside and lit but had since stopped working stood in the far left-hand corner of the room, all kinds of holiday knickknacks in every spot possible.

            His mother always said that great-aunt Georgie’s decorations were tacky, but he didn’t think so.  He loved them.

            Usually.

            But not this year.

            “I hate it here!  I want to go home!” the eight year-old exclaimed.

            “Todd!”  Teri said, stomping her foot.

            “What?”  he shot back.

            “It’s okay,” great-aunt Georgie said calmly.  “I understand.  It’s Christmas Eve.  Boys and girls belong with their mommies and daddies, not with a crazy old lady.”

            “Well, my mommy and daddy hate each other!”  Todd said.

            “Todd, mommy said—.” .

            “I don’t care what mommy said!  They hate each other!  Now they’re not even living together!”

            “Well, maybe that’ll change tonight. Your mom’s gone to see your dad, right?”  Georgie asked.

            “Yes,” Teri answered.

            “It’s always the same!”  Todd exclaimed.  “He leaves, she begs him to come back, he comes back, they fight, and he leaves again.  This time he said he’s never coming back!”

            “Do you believe him?”  Georgie asked.

            “Would you come back?”  Todd said.  “You’re only home a few hours a night and on Sundays, and all you do is fight with your wife and shout at your kids who can’t seem to do anything right!  Would you come back?”

            “It’s not like that!”  Teri said.  “Dad’s tired.  He works all week.  He’d like to have some time to himself, and you know how mom is, always wanting to do things together!  He doesn’t get that time!”

            “He gets time.  He just wants all of it for himself!  What about me?”  Todd asked.  “When do I get what I want?  When do I get to go to a movie with dad or something?  Or to the zoo?  Dad doesn’t take me anywhere!”

            “Yes, a marriage is anything but simple,” Georgie said, plopping herself into her favorite rocking chair by the fire and sipping eggnog from her mug.  “When it works, there is nothing more precious in the world, and when it doesn’t, there’s nothing uglier.  Throw children into the mix, and it’s tough.  You have to be willing to sacrifice to have a successful family.”

            The elderly woman smiled at her great niece, who was seated across from her in another wooden rocking chair.  An empty soft chair was situated even closer to the fireplace.

             “Todd, why don’t you come sit with us?”  Georgie asked.  “The fire will make you feel better, honey.”

            “I like it here by the window.”

            “Suit yourself. Yes, the fine art of marriage.  I’ve had experience with both ends of the spectrum.  Your uncle Trevor— you remember your uncle Trevor, don’t you, Teri?”

            “Yes.  I remember playing games with him when I was like three or something.  He was really nice.”

            “He’s the devil!”  Georgie said.  “He left me after 23 years of marriage!  Twenty-three years!  Selfish bastard!  Excuse me,” Georgie smiled again.  “But your uncle Sal.   Now he was the genuine article.”

            “Uncle Sal?”  Teri asked.

            “Yes, you didn’t know your great auntie Georgie was married twice.  First to your uncle Sal, and then to the devil!  Selfish bastard!  Yes, Sal and I were high school sweethearts.  We were married right after we graduated, in 1938.  Four years later, he was in Europe, fighting in the war.”

            Her voice tapered into silence.

            A silence that turned Todd from the window.

            “What happened to him?”  Teri asked.  “Was he— did he come home from the war?”

            The elderly woman looked with sadness upon her niece.

            “I don’t tell this story often.  It’s rather unsettling.  Perhaps I should stop.”

            “No,” came Todd’s voice from the window, turning the women’s heads.  “Tell us.  I want to know what happened.”

            “Well,” Georgie began, placing her mug of eggnog upon the table next to her rocker.  “If you insist.  Believe it or not, it was Christmas Eve.  I had gone to my parents’ house.  They had a gathering there every Christmas Eve.  The whole family was there, except for the young men, of course.  They were all in the military.  When it got close to midnight, I decided to go home.  I wanted to sleep in my own bed.  I wanted to dream of Sal.  My parents only lived a few blocks away from my house, so it wasn’t a long walk.

            “About a block from the house, I noticed a man on the sidewalk up ahead walking towards me.  I thought nothing of it because in those days lots of people were out walking on Christmas Eve.  When people visited friends and relatives, they walked back then.  They didn’t drive.  Anyway, as he got closer, I could tell he was wearing a military uniform.  I was excited because I thought maybe a ship had come in.  Maybe my Sal would be amongst the group that had returned home for the holidays.

            “I was all set to ask him where he had come from when— I nearly fainted.  It was Sal.  My Sal!  I ran to him, and he was all smiles.  We hugged and kissed, and he felt so warm.  I actually felt his body.  I’ve never forgotten that.  We talked, and we walked towards our house. I finally asked him, ‘Sal, what are you doing here?  You didn’t tell me.’  And he smiled and said he didn’t know ahead of time that he was coming.  I was so excited I couldn’t believe it.  Sal was home!  On Christmas Eve, no less!

            “We reached the bottom steps of the front porch, and he stopped.  ‘Aren’t you coming in?’ I asked.  ‘No,’ he said.  ‘What?’ I asked him.  And then he told me he couldn’t stay.  That he had only come to see me and kiss me one last time.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  He might have said I’m back from the moon, and I wouldn’t have noticed, I was just so happy to see him.  I missed him so much.  He kissed me again on the forehead and told me to go inside and that he would see me again later.  I thought he meant he had to stay on the base. Everything was so secretive back then.  I turned and climbed the steps but before going inside I turned again to watch Sal go, and I thought about running after him to kiss him yet again.

            “There was a bright streetlight about a block from the house.  I saw Sal approach the streetlight, and then— and this is the God’s honest truth— I saw him disappear into a fine mist, a mist that rose like smoke into the bright light above the street, and then there was nothing.

            “December 24, 1943.  The same day my Sal was killed halfway across the world.”

            Teri gasped.

            Todd stepped towards the empty soft chair by the fire.  “Was he a ghost?  Did you see a ghost?”

            Georgie looked carefully at both children.  She bit her upper lip.  “I don’t know what I saw, but I do know it was Sal.  Since Sal couldn’t have been there, then, yes, I believe I saw a ghost.”

            Todd sat in the seat.  “Awesome!”

            “Please understand that this is a story I don’t like to tell often.  People will think I’m— well, people don’t generally believe in ghosts.”

            “I do,” Todd said.  “Did you ever see him again?  Did the ghost of uncle Sal ever come back?”

            “I’m afraid, that’ll have to be a story for another night,” Georgie said, looking up at the antique clock on the wall.  “It’s getting late.  You children ought to think about getting ready for bed.”

            “Oh, auntie!  I’m not tired!”  Todd said.  “I want to know!  Did Uncle Sal’s ghost ever come back?”

            The woman sighed. “Children are so hard to say no to!  There are times, especially on Christmas Eve, when I feel his presence, and in my dreams I see him often, looking just the way he did all those years ago, in his uniform, as handsome and strong as ever, but as far as his spirit coming back to me the way it did that night— you’ll have to wait until morning to find out!”

            “Oh, auntie!”  Todd groaned.

            “Off to bed!”  Georgie smiled.  “It’s Christmas.  You know who’s coming tonight!”

            “Like we still believe in Santa!”  Todd scoffed.  “But I believe in ghosts, and I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story in the morning!”

            The boy bounded down the hall towards the bathroom to brush his teeth.

            His sister rose from her rocker and looked her great aunt in the eye.  “You made up that story just to take his mind off my mom and dad, didn’t you?”

            “I never make up stories,” Georgie winked.

            “Yeah, right!  Thank you, auntie,” Teri smiled, leaning over and kissing her aunt on the forehead.  “Good night!”

            “Good night, and sleep well.”

***

            Voices.

            His aunt was talking to someone.

            Uncle Sal’s ghost!

            Todd looked to the bed next to him.

            In the darkness, he couldn’t see his sister, but he could hear her rhythmic breathing.  She was fast asleep.

            Todd threw off the blankets and walked softly towards the door.  He did not want to wake Teri, for she’d yell at him for being awake, and the awful sound of her loud voice would certainly frighten the ghost away, and this was the last thing Todd wanted to do.

            The bedroom was on the first floor adjacent to the living room.  Auntie Georgie kept this particular room for guests rather than the extra bedroom upstairs because it was warmest.  The door was closed, but it had a nice wide keyhole, the perfect size for Todd’s little eye to peer through.

            Todd placed his eye against the hole and looked through.  Bingo!  There was Auntie Georgie still sitting in the rocker by the fireplace, her back to Todd.

            He looked to the left, to the wooden rocker his sister had been sitting in earlier in the evening.

            Sitting in the rocker now was a man.

            Todd’s mouth fell agape, and he almost blew the whole thing by crying out, but his hand shot to his face and covered his mouth.

            “So you’re Mary’s nephew?”  Georgie asked.  “I haven’t seen you since you were wee high!”

            Todd frowned.  That wasn’t the ghost of his Uncle Sal!  It was some other guy, some ugly dude with dark hair, bushy sideburns, and an Adam’s apple the size of a Ping-Pong ball!

            “What’s he got in there?  A toad?”  Todd wondered.

            “I haven’t been here since I was wee high,” the man smiled.  “I’ve been away for a while.  Working in the Midwest, and before that— overseas.  I was overseas.”

            The man’s voice didn’t match his body.  It was soft and high, like a tenor’s, while he was coarse and rough and big.  His legs were long, extended in front of him, nearly touching Georgie’s feet.  His face was angular and hard, with a nose that could have been used as a weapon.

            “My aunt and uncle were on their way over with me, but they got a phone call from their daughter in California, so I decided to go on ahead.  I went for a nice walk around your neighborhood.  I thought they would have been here by now.”

            Georgie shook her head.  “No, they haven’t been by.  You’re my first visitor tonight other than my niece and her two children.  I’m sure they’ll be here soon.  Can I get you something to drink?”

            “No, thank you.  I had quite a bit already at my Aunt Mary’s house.”

            Todd didn’t like the way the man was looking at his aunt.  It was the way his dad looked whenever he was about to blow up at his mom.  That moody look that said, “I’m pissed off, and you’re only pissing me off more by being here!”

            This man was upset about something.  He was going to blow up.  Todd could feel it.

            “Have you ever noticed that— ,” the man leaned forward.  “—evil— is most prevalent during the holiest of times?  Like Christmas?”

            Todd’s little heart started doing jumping jacks.

            “I’ve always thought it strange that evil doesn’t rest on holy days,” the man went on.  “On the contrary, the opposite is true.  Evil is strongest during holy times.  It’s almost as if the devil wants to steal all the attention for himself, as if he wants to ruin the happiness of those who are in their moments of highest expectation, expecting nothing but good times and good cheer.  Little do they know that they are about to enter hell.”

            Todd looked at his aunt.  To his astonishment, she was still rocking, seeming as relaxed as if the stranger had been talking about the weather!

            “You are sad about something, aren’t you?”  Georgie asked.

            The man leaned back and cracked a smile.  He looked surprised by the elder woman’s perceptivity.  “Yes, I am.”

            “What?”

            “I’ve— lost—.”

            “What have you lost?”  Georgie asked, her voice sounding as sincere and caring as if she had known this man all her life.

            “My children,” the man said, his voice breaking with emotion.  “On Christmas Eve, not so long ago, my wife walked out on me, and she took my children.”

            “Why?”

            “Why?  Because she— she’s a— I admit, I had some problems, but I still loved them!  She had no right to do what she did!”

            “I’m so sorry for you.  Have you been able to see your children since that time?”

            The stranger swallowed.  “I saw them.”  His voice trailed off.  “You have children here in the house with you, don’t you?”

            Georgie did not answer.  Todd’s stomach rumbled.

            “I would like to see the children,” the man said.  “I want to look at them.”

            “I think not,” Georgie answered politely.

            “Show me the children!”  the man exclaimed, somehow keeping his voice in a whisper.

            Todd jumped.

            “I think the time has come for you to leave, sir,” Georgie said, instilling her voice with strength.  “My niece and her husband are due back here any moment, so I wouldn’t make any trouble if I were you.”

            The man shook his head.  “Your niece is not due back any time soon.  Nor is she with her husband.”

            Georgie stopped rocking.

            “What do you know about my niece?”  she asked.

            “I know that she’s out there somewhere trying desperately to save her marriage, and that it’s not going to do her any good.  Once the other half makes up its mind, it’s all over.”

            “How do you know this?  That my niece is trying to reconcile with her husband?”

            “I have good ears, madam.”

            “You mean you’ve been eavesdropping?  Trespassing on these grounds?”

            “I’ve been out walking.  Taking in the aura of the evening.  Of this special holy evening, and as I said, I’ve got good ears.”

            “And this house has solid walls and windows.  Your hearing’s not that good.”

            “You had a lengthy conversation with your niece earlier in the evening in the open doorway, did you not?”

            “Yes, I did, but I didn’t see you,” Georgie said.

            “You have a wonderful light display in the side window of your house, just around the corner from your front door.  I was there, looking at it.”

            “You can see it from the street!”  Georgie barked.

            “I did, but it warranted a closer look.  As do sleeping children.  I only want to look at them.  Just show me them sleeping snugly in their beds, let me see their innocent little faces, hear their soft breathing.  That’s all I ask.  Then I’ll be on my way.”

            “You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”  Georgie asked.

            The man shook his head.

            “And you only want to look at them?”

            “Yes.”

            “I suppose— there’s no harm in your looking,” Georgie said.  She turned and pointed towards the closed bedroom door.  “They’re in there.”

            The man grinned.

            Todd jumped backwards, his mind swearing every obscenity it knew at his aunt.  He bolted towards his sister’s bed and tugged at her bare foot which was hanging out from underneath the bedclothes.

            Teri kicked and moaned.

            Clang!

            “Ohh!”

            Thud!

            Teri bolted upright.

            “What is it!” she screamed.

            “There’s a man out there with auntie!” Todd screeched.

            “What?”

            “There’s a strange man out there with auntie!”  Todd repeated, on the verge of tears.

            The door to their bedroom flung open.

            The children screamed.

            “Shh!  It’s okay!  It’s me!” said their great-aunt, who was standing in the doorway with a large iron frying pan in her right hand.

            “Did you hit that guy with that?”  Todd asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Hit what guy?  What’s going on?” Teri asked.

            “There’s no time to explain.  Get your coats on.  We’re going next door to Mrs. Martin’s house.  Your coats are out here hanging by the door.  Come on,” the elderly woman urged, stepping to the side, to allow the children to pass in front of her.

            Todd went first.  He stepped through the doorway and screamed.

            The man was standing in the center of the living room, a streak of blood flowing down the right side of his face.

            Georgie thrust herself in front of the children, the frying pan held prominently in her right hand.

            “You come at me again with that frying pan, old woman, and I’ll use it to reshape your face into an omelet!”  the man warned.  For the first time, he laid eyes on Todd and Teri.

            “Ah, the children!  Such sweetness!  Like candy!  Come here, little ones, and give a poor man a hug!”

            “Stay behind me!”  Georgie said to the children.

            “Get out of the way, old woman!”

            “No,” Georgie answered firmly.  “Leave the children be!”

            “I only want to hug them.  To touch them.”

            “The front door is over there!”  Georgie pointed.  “Use it.  Leave my house, now!”

            “My dear woman,” the man said calmly, “you don’t seem to understand.”  He shouted, “I want to see the children!  Do you hear me?  Don’t keep them from me!”

            He spoke calmly again.  “Do you know what we do to mothers who don’t let fathers see their children?  We teach them a lesson.  That’s right.  I can’t have the children, neither can you- or anyone else!”

            Georgie turned and pushed the children into the bedroom.

            “Get out of the house, now!” she screamed to them.  “Through the window!”

            The man screamed and charged.

            Georgie lifted the frying pan, but the man grabbed her fingers and ripped the pan from her hands, flinging it across the room where it smashed with a twang into the bricks around the fireplace.  He wrapped his bony hands around her elderly throat and squeezed mightily, lifting her off her feet, carrying her towards the old rocker.

            Todd and Teri got as far as the window, made eye contact with each other, and did an about-face immediately.  They raced into the living room screaming.

            Teri latched onto the man’s right arm and tried to pull his hand off her aunt’s throat.  The man released Georgie’s throat with his right hand and with the back of the same hand smacked Teri across the face.  She crashed into the wall with a loud yelp.

            Todd punched the stranger in the back and kicked at his heels.  With his left hand still strangling Georgie, the man pivoted his upper body, grabbed Todd by the head and shoved him across the room.  The boy landed on the floor by the front door.

            Todd groaned and rolled onto his side.  When he looked up, his jaw dropped, and he gasped.

            A pair of huge boots were inches from his nose.  The man was standing directly above him.

            Whimpering, Todd looked higher.

            It wasn’t the stranger, but another man.

            A man with a face as friendly as Mister Rogers.  He even smiled.

            He was wearing a uniform.  A military uniform.

            The man’s friendly eyes darted across the room towards the attack, and his face grew grim.

            He looked at Todd once more, and his eyes roved to a spot on the floor by Todd’s left hand.  Todd followed the gaze to the heating vent on the floor by his hand.  Inside the vent, something glistened.

            Todd looked back at the figure, who smiled warmly at him while nodding his head.

            Todd ripped open the grate to the vent and reached inside.  He pulled out a handgun.  He had never used a gun before and wasn’t sure if he could use one now, but the sound of his aunt’s choking told him he had no choice.

            He rose to his feet, took three steps towards the brutal stranger, and aimed the gun.

            “Sir!  Excuse me,” Todd cleared his voice.  “Would you turn around, sir?”

            The man turned his head.  His eyes fell upon the gun.

            “Jesus Christ,” he said.  He looked into Todd’s eyes and saw in the trembling boy a look he had seen so often in the mirror.

            “Bless the beasts and the children!” the man muttered.

            Todd pulled the trigger.

***

            The gun belonged to my uncle Sal.  He had stashed it there long before he had gone to war, the result of an argument with my Aunt Georgie.  She didn’t believe in guns, and didn’t want one in the house.  She had told him to get rid of it.  Apparently, he couldn’t let go and hid it.

            I swear to this day I saw my uncle Sal standing in that living room.  Nobody else did.  But how else would I have known to look inside that heating vent?

            Georgie, you’ve gone on to a better life, I’m sure, a life I’m confident you are sharing right now with a very special man.

            My dad never did reconcile with my mom.  He never came back.  It’s been years, and I still hate him.

            But Sal.  Uncle Sal.  He came back.  Even after he was dead, he came back.

—END—


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FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR Now Available In Print Edition

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For The Love Of Horror coverI’m happy to announce that my short story collection, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, previously available as an EBook, is now available for sale as a print edition at
https://www.createspace.com/4294076.

So, if you don’t have an e-reader yet, or if you just prefer the printed page and like the feel of an old-fashioned book in your hands, now you too can own a copy of FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR contains 15 short stories, 7 reprints and 8 original stories, plus a wraparound story that ties everything together. I wrote this with the old Amicus anthology horror movies in mind, films like DR. TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971).

Here’s a look at the book’s table of contents with a brief line on each story:

The Stories

1. LITTLE BOYS WITH FROGS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

A young couple is terrorized by a giant.

2. THAT THING WHICH CAN NEVER BE SATISFIED © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
A date goes awry.
3. BLACK HEART OF THE WOLF © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
There’s a bloodthirsty wolf on the loose.
4. THE HORROR CURSE © 2002 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in THE STEEL CAVES)
Strange murders at a school haunt a former horror movie actor turned teacher.

5. GOOD TO THE LAST DROP © 2002 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in E-THOUGHT)
Coffee addict has one cup too many.

6. KISSES © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
How deadly can one kiss be?

7. THE PAINTING © 2000 Michael J. Arruda (First prize winner in the Horror Fiction category of THE SALIVAN SHORT STORY CONTEST and originally published on THE SALIVAN WEB SITE in 2000).
There’s evil in that painting.

8. FRIENDS FOREVER © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in MORBID MUSINGS.)
Sometimes it’s not what you do, but what you don’t do.
9. ON THE ROCKS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
Rick is so fed up with his girlfriend he thinks about killing her, but he wouldn’t really do that— would he?
10. RECONCILIATION © 1998 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in the anthology THE DARKEST THIRST.)
A vampire seeks religious redemption.

11. CURSE OF THE KRAGONAKS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
A demonic race asserts itself.
12. THE MONSTER WHO LOVED WOMEN © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
He lives through the centuries, loving and killing.
13. THE HOUSE OF MR. MORBIDIKUS © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in the anthology THE DEAD INN.)

You don’t want to stay at Morbidikus’ house.

14. HE CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in THE ETERNAL NIGHT CHRONICLE.)
It’s Christmas Eve, and there’s a menace in the house.
15. FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR © 2012 Michael J. Arruda
What do you love most? Would it be horror?

If you’re in the mood for some old school horror tales, feel free to check out my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR.

Thanks!

—Michael

Sneak Peak at FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR

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For The Love Of Horror coverHere’s a sneak peak from my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, now available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com.

In my short story “On the Rocks,” Rick has had it with his girlfriend Jill.  Things were great for a while, but now she’s pregnant, he’s about to go off to college, and he doesn’t want a baby to ruin his future.  He’s thinking some pretty sinister thoughts about her, including killing her.  It would solve all his problems.  Of course, in real life, he’d never physically harm anyone, especially someone close to him.  But the thoughts are there, in his mind, but that’s okay, because he has lots of thoughts he doesn’t act upon.  Right?

Then, one day, on the beach, on the rocks, something happens and suddenly Jill is dead—.

Here’s a preview of “On the Rocks”:

ON THE ROCKS

By             Michael Arruda

    The waves smashed the jagged rocks with a vengeance, and Rick found himself imagining the waves were his hands, and he was cracking  Jill’s head wide open on the rocks.

            But the second he saw this image, he felt sick.

He was no killer.

He hated stepping on bugs even.

Yet the fact remained he wanted to rid himself of her.  Badly.

He had even said the words to her earlier.  Said them aloud.  “I could kill you!”

He hadn’t meant it.  Not in the literal sense.  It was just one of those things people said all the time.  “I could kill you!”  That sort of thing.

Yet the very thought of inflicting pain on Jill made him sick.  He just wanted to be rid of her, that’s all.

He was very confused.  He also felt terribly guilty.

So he leaned across the beach blanket and kissed Jill on the forehead.

She pulled away.

“I’m not in the mood for kissing.”

Rick huffed and looked down at the sand.  He raised his right hand to his mouth and nibbled on his thumbnail.

There was no one else on the beach with them.  Most kids their age were swimming at Horseneck Beach.  Very few came to these small Padanaram beaches which were full of rocks and were more suited for amateur fishermen.  Besides, most were private.  The public areas were few and far between, and you had to know where they were.  Rick knew because his buddy Shawn lived here the past three summers with his father and had showed Rick the best places to hang out.

“Why did this have to happen?”  Rick asked.

“Will you stop saying that?”  Jill said.  She and Rick sat side by side on one large beach towel.  The sun had gone in behind a cloud, and both of them felt a shiver.  “It did happen.  Now we have to deal with it.”

“I don’t want to deal with it.”

“You think I do?  I’m the one with the baby inside me!”  Jill said.

“Can’t you— you know, have a—.”

“No!  I’m not having an abortion!”

Rick chewed his thumbnail off.  He nibbled on it between his front teeth.

“Are you going to help me or not?”  Jill asked.

Rick spit the severed nail into the rocky sand.  “I want to, you know that.  But I’m supposed to be going to college in two weeks.”

“Me, too.”

“Yeah, but you were supposed to—.”  His voice trailed off.

“Supposed to what?  Say it,” Jill said, but Rick wouldn’t say it.  He contorted his face into a grimace.  “I was supposed to put my diaphragm in?  Is that what you were going to say?”

“Just forget it, alright?” Rick said softly.

“I was drunk, remember?  I didn’t see you reaching for any condoms!  It’s just like you to put this on me!  You’re an ass sometimes!”

“I’m two weeks away from college.  It’s my ticket out of here,” Rick said.  “I know it’s yours, too.”  He closed his eyes for a moment.  “Can’t you see that if we have this baby, we’ll never have this chance again?  Never!”

“Well, it’s a little late for you to be thinking about that now!  You should have thought of that before!  I’m not killing this baby!”

“Then raise him alone, okay?  Because I don’t want any part of it!  I’m going to college, damn it!  I’m getting out of here!”  Rick said.  His voice was mean.

“Fine!  I’ll raise him alone!  You prick!”

“Shut up!”

“Well, you are!  You’re willing to let me ruin my life while you go off to Notre Dame and have fun.”

“Well what do you want me to do?”

“I told you!  I want you to help me.”

Rick shook his head.  “Marry you, right?  Raise a family, right?  And where am I supposed to work, McDonalds?”

“I don’t know, Rick.  I just thought you’d help me.  Why do I have to bear this alone?”

“Because you choose to, that’s why!  You can get rid of that baby like it’s nothing!”
“But it’s not nothing!  It’s a baby!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

“You’re a jerk.  You’re a jerk!”  Jill shouted.  She got up and walked away, onto the large rocks which jutted out towards the ocean.

Again, he thought about how he wanted to pick up one of those rocks and smash Jill over the head with it.

He just wanted her to disappear.  But why did his feelings have to be filled with so much anger and violence, he wondered?  He loved Jill, so why would he want to hurt her?

Because she never shut up, that’s why, he answered.  Never in all his life had he known anyone who talked as much as Jill and who got on his case as much as Jill.  Not even his own mother was that bad.

He didn’t really want to hurt her.  He just wanted to be rid of her and their little problem.  He couldn’t think of any other way to be rid of her completely.  If she were dead, that was the ticket, because he was never going to say “Okay, let’s raise this child together.  Let me put off college for a while.  I’ll find a job, we’ll live together, and we’ll make this work.”  He just wasn’t going to say it, and he knew she wasn’t going to let him go. Oh, she said she’d raise the kid on her own, but he knew she wouldn’t.  She’d tell everyone they knew that he was the father, that he had abandoned her.  He’d be hated by all their friends.  But worst of all, once his parents found out, there’d be hell to pay.  They’d kill him.  Not literally, of course, but they would certainly make his life miserable.  Guilt trips, lectures, and no more money.

Even if Jill said nothing, they’d put two and two together, and they’d know.  That’s why he wanted Jill to have an abortion.  His parents couldn’t find out.  If Jill could just disappear, that would solve everything.

She stood on the rocks which jutted out towards the ocean.  One little push—.

“Stop it!”  Rick scolded himself.

He was a coward, and he knew it.  He knew he was wrong to abandon Jill.  He knew she was right.  She deserved better.

“Okay.  Just stay in the real world,” he thought.  “Killing is for the movies.  You can’t do it.  You don’t want to do it.  Maybe it’s time you grew up.  Tell her that.  Go up there and tell her you’re not going to go to college after all.  That you are going to stay and help her raise the kid.  Tell her.”

A part of him wanted to tell her this, but the very thought of the kind of life he’d be leading if he stayed made him sick to his stomach.

“You’re thinking too much,” he said.

So he stopped thinking.  For a second.  Before he wondered what it would be like if he came clean yet still went to college?  Could that be done?  Would his parents be supportive enough to support Jill and the kid financially while he studied for his degree?  He knew Jill wouldn’t go for it.  She would want him there with her.

But it was a start, wasn’t it?  If he could tell Jill today, right now, that he’d own up to his responsibility, that he’d stop asking her to have an abortion, wouldn’t that be something?  Couldn’t they compromise?  Couldn’t they still go to college even with a child?  Surely there were more answers out there.  Suddenly he felt inspired and optimistic.

He jumped to his feet and made his way towards the rocks.  Jill was standing smack in the middle of them, and on both sides of her the ocean bucked and roared.

“Jill!”  He called.  “I have something to tell you!”

She turned around, her arms folded in front of her chest.  “What?”

He was close enough to touch her now.  “There’s something I want to say to you.”

“Yeah?”

“Help me.”

It was a whisper, soft, barely audible, but they both heard it.

Rick looked around them on all sides.

“Did you just hear that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, and she looked frightened.

“That was weird,” Rick said.

There was no one around.  The two rocky beaches on both sides of them were empty.  Behind them was the road, and they didn’t see any cars anywhere, other than Rick’s Honda, which was still parked on the dirt shoulder in between the winding country road and the partially hidden beach.  Ahead of them, nothing but ocean.

“You think someone’s pulling our chain?”  Jill asked.

“Dunno,” Rick answered.

“Help— me,” came the voice again, more deliberate this time.

Again, Rick and Jill looked around, scouring both sides of the rocks, and again they saw nothing but empty beach.  A group of crying sea gulls flew overhead.

“Maybe they’ve learned how to talk,” Jill said.

Rick shook his head.  “No.  Not unless they’ve learned how to throw their voices.  The voice we heard didn’t come from up there.”

“No, it didn’t, did it?”  Jill said.

“No.  It came from—.”

Jill pointed to the ground.  “Down there.”

They looked down at their feet.  The rocks on which they stood had plenty of gaps between them, some large enough for them to stick their legs into thigh deep.

Rick dropped to his belly and peered into one of these cracks.  He acted so fast he didn’t even think about what he might see.

So when he saw the man’s face staring up at him, he screamed.

The face looked dead, with pale flesh and lifeless bloodshot eyes.  It spoke again, and this time Rick saw its lips move.

“Help me.  Please,” the face said.

Rick grimaced.

“What is it?” Jill asked.

“There’s someone down there,” Rick said.

“Under the rocks?”

Rick nodded.  “Look.”

“I don’t want to!  Is there really someone down there?”

“Yes!”

“Oh my God!”  Jill screamed.  “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to help him,” Rick said.  He peered back into the gap.  “We’re going to help you, okay?”

“No,” the man said.  “Too late.”  He said something else too, something Rick didn’t quite make out.  Rick thought it sounded like “run.”  But that couldn’t have been it, Rick thought.  Why would he say something like that?

Rick grabbed onto one of the large rocks in between him and the man.  It was really heavy.  He tugged but it wasn’t moving, not one inch.  It was like lifting a safe.  He knew because his cousins Jon and Randy had one in their basement.  The three of them together couldn’t lift it off the ground.

Rick tried again.  He wrapped his hands around the edges of the rock and pulled.  Grunted, groaned, heaved, and his right hand slipped, sliding along a jagged corner that sliced his palm.  He cried out and pulled his hand back, shaking it, trying to ward off the sting.  A bright white scratch ran the entire length of his palm, a scratch that quickly turned red.

“Damn!”  He cried.

“Are you okay?”  Jill asked.

“No.  It’s deep!”  Rick pressed his left thumb tightly over the wound, but he couldn’t stop the flow of blood.

“What are we going to do?”  Jill asked.

“Shawn lives five minutes from here.  We can go to his house and call 911,” Rick answered.  “You’ll have to drive.”

“I can’t drive a stick!”

Rick rolled his eyes.  “I’ll drive with one hand then.”  He got back down on his knees and leaned towards the man underneath the rocks.  “A friend of mine lives real close.  We’re going to go to his house and call 911.  Hang in there, okay?”

The man screamed.

It was an incredibly loud scream, high-pitched, the way Rick’s little brother Russ sounded when he fell off his bike and split his head open when he was 7.  It was almost a squeal.

It knocked Rick back onto his butt, and he felt his lips curl into a grimace.  Jill let out a shriek and jumped backwards.

The man squealed again, and this second cry was worse, worse than anything Rick had ever heard.  It was full of pain, and Rick knew that whatever was happening to this man it had to be bad.  No one sounded like that unless they were being dismembered or gutted or— Rick covered his mouth with his hands, and he could taste his own blood.

And then just like that the man’s screaming stopped.  Cut short as if he were gagged.  Jill continued to sob, and Rick remained sitting, too frightened to move.

Until the stink came up.

Like rotten eggs.  He cried out and keeled over on his side.

“That smell!  Christ!”

On his hands and knees coughing, Rick couldn’t expunge the odor from his being fast enough.   Jill started coughing too.

Over their coughing Rick became aware of another sound, a flip flop flip flop, like a fish flailing on a boat deck.  He looked up to see large tentacles, four of them, each longer than he and Jill were tall, reaching out from the cracks underneath the rocks, in effect surrounding them.  Before he could do anything, one of the dark green almost black tentacles whipped towards them and snagged Jill by the ankle.  She screamed.

Rick reached for her but suddenly she wasn’t there. The tentacle had yanked her feet out from under her.  She crashed face first on the rocks with a nauseating thud, and then the thing dragged her backwards away from Rick.

By the time Rick had jumped to his feet, a mere two seconds, a second tentacle had wrapped itself around Jill.  She wasn’t fighting back.  While the tentacles squeezed and pulled her this way and that, she lay limp, as if already dead.

.           Rick scrambled towards her.  He grabbed the tentacle wrapped around her waist.  It was cold, freezing, and although shiny was not slimy in the least but hard and thick like leather.  He grabbed it and pulled it, trying with all his might to wrench it from Jill’s body.

She opened her eyes.  A moment later she realized.

“Help me!”

“Oh Jesus!” Rick cried, still tugging on the tentacle and having about as much success as if he were pulling a tree out of the ground.  “Hold on, Jill!  I’m trying!  I’m trying!”

“Please!”

He felt something grab his ankle and looked down to see a tentacle wrapping itself around his foot.

“Get off me!” he shouted, kicking at the serpent-like appendage.

Another one shot at his face, as if it were going to grab him by the throat.  He let go of the limb around Jill and jumped backwards.  He lost his balance and fell off the rocks, landing hard on the rocky sand below.

He heard Jill shriek, and he clenched his eyes shut and screamed, begging for the horror to go away.  He opened his eyes and jumped to his feet and ran for the rocks.  He leapt to the top of the rock wall without using his hands, and he landed on his feet.

Jill had been pulled down into one of the cracks.  From the waist down her body was hidden.

She was still conscious.  Her eyes met Rick’s, and she screamed, “Oh Rick!  Please help me!  Help me!

Rick tried to run to her, but the tentacles were everywhere.  There were at least eight of them now.  If he got any closer, he’d be grabbed, too.  It would be suicide.

A large thick one the width of a python wrapped itself around Jill’s throat and began to constrict.  Her face went red as she gagged for air.

Tears poured down both their faces.

“Jill!  I can’t get to you!”

Her mouth was wide, in disbelief that she was going to die.  And then it was over.  Her eyes rolled, her tongue hung low beneath her lips, and the huge thick limb around her throat let go just as whatever was holding her legs pulled her down below, and just like that, she wasn’t there anymore.

“Jill!”  Rick shrieked.

The remaining tentacles swung and swooped, blindly reaching for more prey, until, as if satisfied with their recent prize, they retreated into their holes, like snakes slithering into the ground.

Then all was quiet.

Other than the sounds of Rick’s sobs and a buoy bell clanging from somewhere off in the ocean.

***

The fist slammed the table, and Rick jumped.

“What did you do to your girlfriend?”  Detective Orin asked.  It was the fifth time he had asked the question.

“I told you,” Rick said, swallowing, a dry lump caught in his throat, exhausted, looking up at the detective with swollen, crying eyes.  “I didn’t do anything to her.”

Rick sat on a tiny wooden chair behind a tiny wooden table in the police interrogation room.  Orin stood over him and leaned into his face.

“Bullshit!  We read all about it in your diary, Rick, how you wanted to get rid of her, how you wanted to kill her!  You even wrote down some of the ways you could do it, like throwing her off a cliff into the ocean.  How about that!”

“No, that’s not what happened.”

“Look, I know how things are,” the gray haired detective said, taking on a friendlier tone. “I’m a guy.  I was a teenager once.  No teenage guy wants his girl to get pregnant.  Yeah, that was in your diary, too.  I mean, you have your whole life ahead of you, right?  She didn’t want to have an abortion, and that was going to ruin your life, so you killed her, didn’t you, Rick?”

“No.  I didn’t kill her!  I told you, it was the squid thing!”

“The squid thing.  Yeah, right.  Maybe I should give fucking Ray Harryhausen a call to see if one of his creatures has come to life.  You know who Ray Harryhausen is?”

“No.”

“He used to make movies with lots of giant monsters in them.  Real fun but not very real.  Just like your story, Rick.  It’s not very real.”

“Look, if I was going to make up a story, would I make up something this stupid?” Rick asked.

“Had a guy once who told me his wife thought she was Supergirl and that’s how she ended up in bits and pieces on the park lawn.  She jumped out of the twin engine plane on her own because she thought she could fly,” Orin said.  He sat on the edge of the wooden table.  “I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, Rick.  You hear a lot of things, some of them even stupid.”

Rick sniffled.  “I’m the guy who called the police.  If I killed Jill, why would I do that?”

“No one’s calling you a serial killer, Rick.  Sometimes people just snap and in the heat of the moment do things they regret later.  Believe me, many guilty people call the police.”

“I’m not guilty!  I—I want a lawyer!”

“If you’re not guilty, what do you need a lawyer for?”  Orin asked.

“Because I’m entitled to one.  I don’t want to talk to you anymore unless I have a lawyer!  Or my parents!”

“I dunno, Rick,” Orin said.  He stood again.  “Asking for a lawyer.  You sure sound like someone who’s guilty.  But that’s okay.  We can play it that way if you want.  It’s just that, once you get a lawyer, then I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you tell me the truth now, that you lost control of your emotions, and you let your anger get the better of you, in short, you admit to killing Jill, the judge will go easy on you.  You call a lawyer, he’s going to advise you not to cooperate, and then the judge isn’t going to go so easy. I’m going to prove you murdered her, Rick.  I’m giving you the chance now to cooperate and get a lighter sentence.”

“I didn’t kill her, damn it!”

“Diaries don’t lie, Rick!  It’s right there in black and white, in your own handwriting!”

“Yes!  I wrote it, okay?  I write lots of things in my diary!  It’s a diary, for Christ’s sake!”

“Watch your mouth!”

“I wrote I was a secret agent too, but I’m not!  It doesn’t mean anything!”

“It means a whole lot to me, Rick.  It tells me you wanted that girl dead!”

“Yes, I did but—.
“What did you do with the body, Rick?

“Nothing!  I didn’t do anything with it!  I didn’t kill Jill!”

Orin shoved his face into Rick’s.

“Her blood is all over those rocks!  It’s on your clothes!”

I didn’t kill her!

            “Yes you did!  And I’m going to prove it!  I’m going to find her body or a piece of her clothing or maybe a broken fingernail, but goddamn it, I’m going to find something, and then you’re going to be sorry you didn’t confess right here and now, you snot nosed little bastard!”

************

To read the rest of this story, check out FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR at www.neconebooks.com.  My short story collection features 15 short stories, 7 reprints and 8 original stories, plus a wraparound story that ties everything together.

Thanks!

—Michael

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR – Blurbs and Interview

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For The Love Of Horror cover

Dracula & Frankenstein interview me about my short story collection

Dracula & Frankenstein interview me about my short story collection

Here’s what some people are saying about my short story collection, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, now available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com:

“One thing you’ll notice about this story collection is how entertaining it is. For the Love of Horror is an apt title, because you can tell how much Arruda loves the genre, and you will, too.”

L.L. Soares, author of Life Rage and Rock ‘n’ Roll

“Michael Arruda’s For the Love of Horror is a brutal collection of stories, using well-imagined villains in a way that keeps the reader guessing and thoroughly disturbed…in a fun way.”

Tracy L. Carbone, author of Restitution

“Michael Arruda has a knack for creating immensely clever stories that step outside of the norm, turning your expectations, and your nerves, on edge. His first collection of short fiction is an event worth celebrating!”

Daniel G. Keohane, author of Christmas Trees & Monkeys

 And for more insight on my collection, here’s an excerpt from an interview that I did recently, conducted by two very good friends of mine, the FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER and COUNT DRACULA.

Interview:

FRANKENSTEIN:  Your short story collection— good!

ARRUDA:  Well, thank you.  I’d like to think so.

DRACULA:  To write such stories—that must be glorious!

ARRUDA:  I try, but to be honest, I struggled with this one.

DRACULA:  Struggled?

ARRUDA:  Yes.  I ran into some problems that I felt I was never able to fully resolve.  I have to be honest here and say I wasn’t satisfied with my finished product.

FRANKENSTEIN:  Finished product— bad?

ARRUDA:  Well, I don’t know about that.  It’s not as good as I wanted it to be, let’s put it that way.

One of the problems I faced was I wanted to write a cool wraparound story, but the more I wrote, the more I wanted to flesh it out, but I resisted turning it into a full-fledged narrative because I didn’t want to turn the book into a novel.  Now that it’s all said and done, I’m not sure it worked.  But it was fun trying!

FRANKENSTEIN:  Trying, good!  (lights match)  Frying, bad!

DRACULA:  What else about your work did you find— troub-ling?

ARRUDA:  Some of the stories I wrote specifically for this collection, to move the narrative along, work more like chapters in a novel rather than separate short stories.  I’m not sure this worked either.

DRACULA:  Why didn’t you change it?

ARRUDA:  I definitely put the stories through various edits and rewrites, but—.

(A wolf howls.)

DRACULA:  Listen to them!  The children of the night.  What music they make!  Excuse me.  What were you saying?

ARRUDA:  I was talking about the stories I wrote specifically for this collection.

I went back and forth with edits more times than I can remember, but I read some other short story collections, and I found that oftentimes the stories ended in the strangest places, and I thought, other stories end this way, why can’t mine?

DRACULA:  Are you- disappointed with the collection?

ARRUDA:  Not at all.  I just don’t think I accomplished what I wanted to. You can’t win them all.

I did have fun connecting old short stories that when I wrote them originally had nothing to do with each other.  It was fun finding common themes and then molding them into a cohesive work.  And that I think worked.

But ultimately it comes down to the quality of the writing.  To me, the writing process is always a work in progress, and each story I produce I hope is better than the last one, and so I hope that whatever I churn out next is in fact better.

The trick is to do it consistently, and that’s something I haven’t done yet.  I think my movie reviews are consistently solid, but when it comes to fiction, I’m still looking for that string of hits.  Some day.

FRANKENSTEIN:  Short stories— good!

ARRUDA:  Gee, thanks.  I appreciate your kind words.

DRACULA:  To celebrate.   (Holds a wine bottle for ARRUDA to see.)  This is very old wine.

ARRUDA:  Great!  Better wine than blood!

DRACULA:  I never drink— wine.

ARRUDA (grabs bottle):  Then I’ll just take this to go.  Thanks, guys, for the neat interview!

—END—

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR now available!

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For The Love Of Horror cover

I’m happy to report that my short story collection, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, is now available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR contains 15 short stories, 7 reprints and 8 original stories, plus a wraparound story that ties everything together.  I wrote this with the old Amicus anthology horror movies in mind, films like DR. TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971).

It’s a love story, but it’s actually more of an anti-love story.  The folks in these stories make more mistakes and handle relationships in such appalling ways— well, let’s put it this way, if you do the opposite of what most of the characters do in these stories, you’ll be in good shape.  Then again, you can do everything right, and your relationship can still go down the toilet.  It’s the nature of the relationship beast, and it’s one of the themes of this book.  Men and women want to be involved with each other. Men and women need to be involved with each other.  But more often than not, it’s not a pretty process.  And sometimes it’s downright sinister.

As a sneak preview, here’s a look at the book’s table of contents: 

The Stories

 LITTLE BOYS WITH FROGS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 THAT THING WHICH CAN NEVER BE SATISFIED © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 BLACK HEART OF THE WOLF © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 THE HORROR CURSE © 2002 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in THE STEEL CAVES)

 GOOD TO THE LAST DROP © 2002 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in E-THOUGHT)

KISSES ©      2012 Michael J. Arruda

 THE PAINTING © 2000 Michael J. Arruda (First prize winner in the Horror Fiction category of THE SALIVAN SHORT STORY CONTEST and originally published on THE SALIVAN WEB SITE in 2000).

 FRIENDS FOREVER © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in MORBID MUSINGS.)

 ON THE ROCKS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 RECONCILIATION      © 1998 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in the anthology THE DARKEST THIRST.)

CURSE OF THE KRAGONAKS © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 THE MONSTER WHO LOVED WOMEN © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

 THE HOUSE OF MR. MORBIDIKUS © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in the anthology THE DEAD INN.)

 HE CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR © 2001 Michael J. Arruda (originally published in THE ETERNAL NIGHT CHRONICLE.)

 FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR © 2012 Michael J. Arruda

Well, that’s it for now.  Again, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR is available from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com.  Hope you enjoy it!

Thanks for checking it out!

—Michael