All In the Suit That You Wear

The following story is a prequel to last year’s Halloween short, “The Hollow Sleep.” While you don’t need to read the first one to understand this, you may enjoy the connections.

All artwork courtesy of Bev Parypinski.

ALL IN THE SUIT THAT YOU WEAR

© Joanna Parypinski

Adlai jpg

Bryan swept bits of dead leaves tracked into the funeral home on the soles of black shoes.

He discreetly swept these into a dustpan and tapped the debris into the garbage. As soon as the viewing in room 3 was over, he could clean up in there, then call it a day. He hadn’t eaten lunch, and his gray uniform sagged around him.

He would have eaten, but he’d spent his lunch break asking again when Mr. and Mrs. Peterson were going to give him that raise. They smiled—the sad, sympathetic smile ubiquitous to funeral directors—and said if he would only hold on a little longer, they were sure business would pick up in the new year, now that it was likely Dixon Funeral Services would close. They ushered him out the door, thanking him profusely.

It wasn’t the first time they’d asked him to hold out at minimum wage. But it was getting cold now, and his trailer wasn’t too good at keeping heat. He wanted to buy a space heater as the chill of late October fell, but those were expensive.

He kept sweeping in the corner, though there was nothing left to sweep. Those few people had been in room 3 for a while. Not very many of them. The dead man must not have been well-liked.

Hoping to speed things along, Bryan slipped into the viewing room and stood near the back, toying with his ring of keys and sweeping dust along the hardwood floor. Three people stood around the open casket. They looked unhappy, but not in the way people normally did when grieving. One woman, frowning, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Bryan was going to tell her that there was no smoking in here, but instead he kept quiet.

At last the handful of people left, muttering to each other in muted angry tones. They hadn’t left anything of a mess behind, like some folks did, so Bryan put down his broom. He glanced left and right before heading toward the casket, curious to see who was in there.

They’d chosen the simplest wooden casket on offer, with a white velvet interior. The man within was old, with ghostly liver-spotted skin and thin wisps of gray hair. He leaned in closer, curious about the man, about his unhappy turnout, and saw he was wearing an old gray suit—

“Bryan.”

He whirled around, heart leaping into his throat. It was Mr. Peterson, leaning casually in the doorway.

“The last of them just left. We’ll be heading out now. Be a help and close up that casket when you’re finished cleaning. We’re burying it first thing tomorrow—no ceremony, I guess. Thanks, Bryan.” He turned back down the hall. “Don’t forget to lock up when you’re done!”

Bryan listened to the patter of Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s shoes down the hall and out the front door.

He turned back to the man in the casket and noticed, again, the suit.

It had an older style, like something you might find at a vintage clothing store, and it was dark gray. The weave was thick and coarse—wool. Tweed, maybe. Bryan didn’t know much about suits. He’d never owned one. Most of his clothes were ripped jeans and sweat-stained t-shirts, plus this janitor’s uniform he wore to work. He never liked to go anywhere around town. He was always worried the women would sneer at him, at his clothes.

There was something about the suit he liked, though. It was old but dignified. Might do a good job keeping its wearer warm in these chilly dying months of the year.

What did that corpse need to keep warm for, anyway?

Bryan looked around. He was the only one left in the building. The Petersons had turned off some of the lights, and he stood in semi-darkness.

He hadn’t stolen anything since he was a kid, when he used to pilfer packs of gum and bottles of soda pop from the convenience store.

It was awkward, trying to pull the corpse’s arms out of the sleeves, but he managed. Getting the pants off was easier once he opened the rest of the casket lid all the way. When he was done, the old man lay in his underwear and undershirt, his hairy bare legs looking thin and sad.

Bryan folded the suit and closed up the casket.

Janitor jpg* * *

It was full dark when he got home. The stars were bright and the crescent moon was grinning. He’d passed increasingly decrepit houses as he’d made his way to his end of town. Some sported colored lights and jack-o-lanterns.

He had no decorations for his trailer. When he got inside, he popped open a beer and unfolded the stolen suit on his couch. He ran his hands over it. The seams were fraying slightly, but it held together well. His fingers kept roving, and he found a name etched onto the inside of the collar—Adlai.

Bryan was pretty sure the dead man’s name had not been Adlai. Maybe it wasn’t the man’s suit. Thinking this, he stood in front of the mirror and pulled it on.

The material was thick and warm, but he felt cold. This wasn’t right. He’d never stolen from a dead body before. Bryan respected the dead. But, now that he had it on him, he realized how well the suit fit, as if it had been tailored for him. For the first time, he looked smart. Snappy.

He grinned into the mirror.

A movie called Beetlejuice had come out earlier that year. He’d liked it a lot.

He held up his hands, imagining the gray suit separating into black and white stripes, and said, “It’s showtime!”

* * *

He spent the rest of the evening watching television in his new suit. It smelled a little of mothballs, as if it had been closed up in someone’s attic for a while, and he tried not to think about how a dead man had worn it only hours ago. Strangely, the longer he sat there and the more beer he drank, the colder he became. The damn trailer must have some kind of insulation problem, and even this thick suit couldn’t help.

Occasionally, he found himself zoning out. He would blink at the TV and realize he’d simply been sitting there, staring and blank, for the past thirty minutes.

He fell asleep on the couch, still wearing the suit.

When he woke, it was the middle of the night. He stood up, turned off the TV. Went in front of the mirror. He stared at his reflection, and for a moment, he did not recognize himself. The man he saw was pale with dark circles under his eyes. He opened his mouth, without even intending to, and croaked out—

“I will not be forgotten.”

Blinking, wondering why he had said that, Bryan shrugged out of the jacket and draped it over the couch. He pulled off the pants and staggered off to bed, feeling feverish and ill.

* * *

The next morning they buried the man whose name was not Adlai.

Bryan helped move the casket, his heart pounding, thinking they would open it at some point—but of course they didn’t. No one wanted to see the dead man. His casket was lowered into the earth under an overcast sky, and no one knew what Bryan had taken.

His mind drifted as he worked.

He thought he might wear it to visit his father. He hadn’t been to see the man in years. Had been too afraid, really, but now he wanted to go. To show off his new suit. To show him that he wasn’t like his father, that he was better than his father.

The gravediggers sweated even in the cool air. Autumnal colors littered the cemetery from overhanging trees, red and orange leaves falling faster than the groundskeeper could remove them. They landed over graves and around headstones, onto the mound of dirt displaced by this newly dug grave for the man who wasn’t Adlai.

When he walked home that day, jingling his ring of keys in an imitation of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme (the original, not the third sequel that was in theaters right now), a boy rode past him on his bike, wearing a clown mask. As he passed, he called over his shoulder, “Nice janitor costume!”

Bryan stopped.

That’s right. This was just a costume. He wasn’t really a 28-year-old janitor paid minimum wage at a funeral home and living by himself in a trailer. His real clothing was at home. His real clothing was a nicely-tailored tweed suit, vintage, like a professor might wear. And his name wasn’t really Bryan.

A little blonde girl, maybe four or five, chased after the boy on the bike, shouting, “Clayton! Wait up for me! Hey!” She wore cat ears on a headband and had whiskers drawn onto her face in marker. She tripped on the unevenly-laid sidewalk, skinning her knees. To her credit, she didn’t cry.

Bryan took her little arm and pulled her to her feet. “You better catch up to your brother,” he said.

She looked up at him and seemed to see something in his face she didn’t like. Slipping her arm out of his grasp, she stumbled back, still staring at him, then turned and took off again down the sidewalk.

“You’re welcome,” he muttered, continuing toward home.

When he got there, he took off his uniform and put on the suit. It fit so well, even better than his worn-in jeans that he’d had for years. It fit him like his own skin.

Over the next few days, he formed a habit where he put on the suit as soon as he got home from work. Sometimes he didn’t even turn on the TV but simply sat there, still, silent, and staring. He usually wore it straight through the night, dozing, until he inevitably woke up on the couch, disoriented and feverish. Sometimes he had nightmares. In them, the suit got up and walked around the cemetery, empty and headless, passing dead trees and stopping beside the grave of the old man whose name was not Adlai. He always woke from these dreams in a cold sweat, his skin itching as though the fibers in the wool were fusing to his skin. That’s when he would take it off and go to bed, but he could still sense where he’d left it, sitting, watching, waiting to be filled.

* * *

Saturday arrived, and he decided he couldn’t just sit around at home wearing a suit of this caliber. It was time to pay his father a visit.

He caught a bus uptown, along a winding road that cut through a forest of shedding trees, then changed to another bus that took him well outside the town’s limits, into the countryside, past apple orchards smelling of cider and pumpkin farms with fields of orange gourds.

It was over an hour and a half before he arrived at the prison.

Gated in by chain-link fences, the plain cement-hued building looked ominous and out of place against the peaceful country backdrop. He entered the visitors’ area and gave them his father’s name.

They sat him at a table in a room where prisoners sat talking to civilians. Bryan waited. He thought he would be nervous, but the suit instilled a calm confidence in him that made him sit completely still until his father was guided to his table, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

He looked old and haggard, black scruff growing on his chin, his black hair turning gray. His cheeks were sunken, but his eyes still had their same mean glint.

“Well, look what the fucking cat dragged in,” he said, his voice a low smoker’s growl. “Thought you forgot about me. Why’d you finally decide to come pay your old man a visit?”

Bryan stared at him and realized he had no idea what to say. As a child, he’d usually remained quiet and docile while his father wailed on him. Now, some of that old fear crept up, but it was tempered by the chill seeping into his heart, by some osmosis through his skin, from the wool.

“Ain’t you gonna say something, you little shit?”

Bryan glanced down at himself, then slowly looked up at his father. “How do you like my new suit?”

“It’s a fucking suit. Looks like an outdated piece of shit. Where’d you find that thing, in a dumpster?”

Something was filling him from the inside, like a black smoke suffusing his organs. There were two of him now: Bryan, who wore his janitor uniform, and the other one who wore the suit. He stared at his father, and for the first time, the old man averted his eyes, looking uneasy.

“You should respect me,” said Bryan.

His father leaned back, frowning. The mean glint was gone from his eyes. “What…?”

The prison seemed to darken. All Bryan felt was a cold rage, an emotion he’d never felt before. It was as though the feeling belonged to someone else, and he was just borrowing it.

He stood up and slammed his fist into his father’s face.

The old man toppled over, and Bryan came around the table, grabbed him by the collar, and hit him again. Blood spurted up from the man’s nose, streaked down over his broken lips and teeth.

Guards descended on them, pulling Bryan off of his father and out of the visiting room. He turned his head as he was led away to watch the bloodied prisoner pulled up by two guards and hauled off, his knees dragging on the floor. The look he gave Bryan just before he vanished around a corner was not a look he’d ever seen on his father’s face before, and it gave him great satisfaction.

The old man had looked afraid.

Bryan was deposited unceremoniously outside of the prison and told not to return. The next bus wouldn’t be coming by for a while, so he straightened his suit and started to walk.

It was a long trek to the next bus stop. Over an hour. He walked calmly, though, and after a short while he noticed the bloodstains speckling the suit. His father’s blood. The fabric absorbed it well, and it darkened until it was almost unnoticeable, as though it were part of the wool.

Rather than worrying that his new garment was ruined, Bryan was pleased, because the Other was pleased.

* * *

On Sunday, he put his janitor uniform into a trash can outside his trailer, poured in a little whiskey, and set it aflame. He watched the golden embers race across the cheap material, burning black holes in it. The jumpsuit curled in on itself, smoldering away until it was unrecognizable.

On Monday, he wore the suit to work.

The adjacent cemetery was quiet, but today was the day before Halloween. Mischief Night, the kids called it. He knew that later, after they closed down and darkness swallowed the sun, costumed teenagers would hop the fence and roam the grounds, throwing toilet paper and daring each other to wander alone among the graves.

For now, though, it was quiet. The air was that rare mix of cool and warm that only happened on sunny October days. He felt it, distantly, beyond the numbing effect of the tweed suit.

When he entered the building, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson called him into their office. They sat at their joint desk, wearing fine black attire, and smiled identical sad, sympathetic funeral director smiles.

“What happened to your uniform, Bryan?” asked Mr. Peterson.

He straightened the jacket, feeling the etched name burning into the back of his neck. “Don’t you like my new suit?”

“It’s… it’s very nice,” said Mrs. Peterson. “But… it isn’t really something that a janitor should wear to work, you understand?”

He stared at the two of them behind their polished mahogany desk. He was again divided. There was him—timid, pushover Bryan—and there was the dark presence of the Other.

“We can get you a new uniform,” said Mr. Peterson, smiling. “A nicer one. We can even have your name sewn onto it. How would you like that?”

He didn’t move. “I like this one.”

“If this is about the raise—”

“No.”

He flattened the key ring in his palm, carefully sliding a key between each knuckle so that they jutted out from his curled fist like talons.

“It’s about the suit.”

Before either of the Petersons could speak, he lunged forward and threw a right hook into Mr. Peterson’s neck. The keys protruding between his fingers pierced the skin. Mr. Peterson fell to the floor and cried out, blood soaking his collar. He grabbed Mrs. Peterson by her long hair and yanked her out of her seat.

He brought his foot down on Mr. Peterson’s face, and the man fell still. Mrs. Peterson, screaming, kicked out her feet as she was dragged backwards by the hair, one of her high-heeled shoes sliding off. He dragged her out of the office, to the back stairwell, which led down to a dim basement room. She sobbed and pleaded, but he ignored her.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, trying to pull free. “Please, Bryan. Don’t do this!”

That made him pause. That name. He turned to look at her.

“I’m not Bryan.”

Mrs. Peterson’s puffy red face transformed from desperate to confused. “Then who are you?”

Bryan was there, but he was only an idle viewer. Attending the funeral, observing the others, but not participating. The Other was in charge now, and it was the Other who responded in a low, creaking voice entirely unlike Bryan’s.

“My name is Adlai.”

He grabbed a bottle of embalming fluid and a syringe.

She screamed again and continued screaming even as he injected it into her, again and again. He quieted her by stuffing a mop head into her mouth. Holding it there, suffocating her, he injected more embalming fluid until her eyes rolled back, she convulsed, and her tissue turned necrotic around the injection sites.

He brought the dead Mrs. Peterson and the unconscious Mr. Peterson to the display room—an arduous task—and picked out a casket for each of them. He laid them inside, smoothing Mrs. Peterson’s hair against the lush velvet, before closing and locking the lids.

There were several newly-dug graves in the cemetery, prepped for some recently-deceased folks who would soon inhabit their chosen plots. He had no trouble pulling back the tarps covering them. What he did have trouble with, however, was lowering the caskets into the graves by himself. Still, he got the job done, and he covered them with a layer of dirt to hide them, then pulled the tarps back over.

He left work early.

When he got home, he took off the suit.

Bryan started to shake. He paced left and right, then went to the bathroom to throw up. Crusted flakes of Mr. Peterson’s blood clung to his knuckles. With trembling hands, he folded the suit, but he kept seeing Mrs. Peterson’s hair tangled in his fingers.

The Other told him to put the suit back on. He would feel better.

Instead, mind swimming and stomach churning, he went to Goodwill and handed them the suit. They asked if it was a donation. He said yes, take it. Take it.

He bought a rope at the hardware store.

He stopped at the library and looked up how to tie a noose.

When he got home, he sat in his trailer, wrapping the rope around and around his hands, staring into the blank television screen and intermittently crying out or laughing. He sat like that for a while and realized that he was like his father. He was just like his father.

He sat like that through nightfall, afraid to fall asleep in case the suit returned in his dreams, hollow and hungry for flesh. He sat like that throughout the following day, until trick-or-treaters knocked on his door and saw him and ran away screaming. And he would sit like that until someone found him, staring and starving and babbling about a haunted suit, and called the authorities, and locked him up where he belonged.

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10 Commandments of Writing

As part of the final project for a class I recently took, which focused on various aspects of the writing life, I was instructed to compile 10 commandments for writing well. Each student in the class made a list, and each one turned out different from the next, proving that there is no one ideal method for how to write. We took our cues from similar lists made by established writers, such as Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, John Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Richard Bausch.

You can find a few of these lists online, perhaps at the websites of these authors. Reading and discussing the lists helped my class to understand that these are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some writers contradict each other; some tell you not to follow rules at all. These commandments are for the writer who made them.

So I want to preface my own list by saying that these commandments were written for me. They are things that I’ve learned over the years, which have helped me become a better writer, and which I try to adhere to. They won’t work for everyone. But maybe someone else will stumble across this list and find it useful. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Joanna Parypinski’s 10 Commandments of Writing

1. Forget that tired cliché, “show don’t tell.” It’s “show and tell.” Great fiction includes elements of both, and there are some things you really don’t need to show.

2. Speaking of clichés, forget that other one, too: “write what you know.” Write what you don’t know. I’m going to quote Richard Bausch again here, for he said it so elegantly: “Write to discover what you don’t know about what you thought you knew.”

3. Strive not for realism but for believability. However fantastical the tale, believable characters and emotions generate the strongest suspension of disbelief, and if these elements are believable, your reader will follow you anywhere. This is so important because we must remember that fiction is never reality.

4. One good noun/verb is worth ten good adjectives/adverbs. That’s not to say you should never use them, but use them sparingly. When they can be replaced or dismissed, do it.

5. Wherever possible, allow the characters to react in the way that feels most natural to them, without trying to direct the story to where you think it should go. If the characters are functioning, the story will go where it needs to go. Too much authorial navigation can seem contrived.

6. Forget the idea that there is a muse only using you as a conduit. You are the writer, and everything coming through your fingertips originated in your mind. This is your work. Don’t forget that. At the same time, try to disengage from yourself as much as possible and allow the story to take over.

7. A one-sentence description is almost always more powerful than a three-sentence description. Say what you want to say, but say it only once: the right way.

8. Make the reader feel something. Fear, hopelessness, hilarity, love, repugnance. If the reader feels nothing, no matter how literary or well-written the piece may be, then the story isn’t doing its job.

9. Revision is just as important as writing from scratch. Don’t burn yourself out on the first draft. Let it sit for a while and come back. But make sure you always come back. Don’t let it sit for too long, or it will die.

10. Just keep writing.

The Hollow Sleep

And now for a Halloween story to keep you up at night. The artwork for this story was drawn by horror enthusiast (and also my mother), Bev Parypinski.

Adlai2

THE HOLLOW SLEEP

© Joanna Parypinski

Wendy opened her eyes. Something had woken her.

She gazed around the dark bedroom, at the moonlight slipping in through the parted curtains, at the green glow of the clock. 3:48. Paul lay still beside her, a breathing shape beneath the white sheets. Resigning herself to the interruption and preparing to settle back into sleep, Wendy rolled over on her side, facing away from Paul. But she didn’t  close her eyes.

Instead she trained them, wide and unblinking, on the figure standing in the corner of the room.

Wendy froze. In the darkness, the figure was a mere silhouette, but it stood tall and solid, facing her direction. Watching her. How had he gotten into the house? Had Paul forgotten to lock the door again when he came to bed? Could he see her staring eyes now in the moonlight, knowing that she was awake? Why did he stand there, so still?

“Paul,” Wendy whispered, hardly daring to move. “Paul, wake up.”

Paul stirred but didn’t wake.

She feared to close her eyes. Her vision grew watery, but the figure remained.

“Paul, wake up,” she pleaded, voice rising despite her attempt at remaining quiet. “There’s someone in the room.”

“Hmm?” came the half-asleep reply.

“Wake up, there’s someone in the room!

Paul startled then, reaching his long arm to the light and switching it on. One moment, the figure was there, cloaked in darkness. The next, the light fell over the empty corner. No hanging clothes—nothing that might have created the shape of a man. Nothing.

“I saw him. He was just there,” she murmured, sitting up and running a hand through her bedraggled hair.

She glanced at Paul, who rubbed his eyes as he sat back against the headboard. “You know your eyes can play tricks in the dark—”

“I saw him, Paul. And I wasn’t dreaming.”

She stood up and pulled on her terrycloth robe against the chill of night. Heart pounding.

“Babe. Come back to bed,” said Paul, sliding down to his pillow. Wendy paced left, then right, eyes never leaving the empty corner of the bedroom. Finally she shook her head and stalked down the hall to the kitchen. She dumped some coffee grounds into a filter and listened to the burbling sounds of the brewer working its magic. Outside the windows, the moonlit haze of predawn settled blue over the sweeping front yard with its mess of Halloween decorations. Gravestones erupted from the browning grass, thick white spiderwebs stretched over the bushes, and pumpkins sat on the porch, waiting to be carved into leering faces.

Wendy sipped her coffee. The sun crept its way over the horizon, reaching its tendrils across the October night as it slogged steadily toward dawn.

* * *

With only a few weeks until Halloween, Wendy found it difficult to concentrate. Chatter about parties and haunted houses and cable movie marathons echoed down the halls of the college. She assigned “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to her literature class under the guise of discussing how Washington Irving created an American literary tradition and played with unreliable narration—but really, she assigned it because it had been Clayton’s favorite story.

Her brother had always loved Halloween, and it was perhaps because of this that Wendy found herself drawn back into the holiday every year. A remembrance for Clayton. Had she and Paul not inherited her childhood house when her father had moved into the nursing home, the memories might not have been so strong. Yet in all the old decorations she remembered putting up as a kid, in all the groans of the house’s floorboards and the woods trailing off out back where they used to play hide-and-seek, she sensed the ghostly imprint of his memory.

The last students straggled out of the classroom, laughing about headless horsemen. Wendy, staring out the window at the drifts of fallen leaves, hardly noticed.

* * *

“You seem distracted,” said Paul as he came up beside her. She sat on the front porch, stuffing the annual straw man who would hold vigil until Halloween. When Wendy was a kid, she, Clayton, and their father had found an old gray suit at Goodwill with the name Adlai etched onto the inside collar. After filling the suit with straw, attaching gloves and shoes, and topping it with a stuffed and upturned burlap sack for the head, they named Adlai their greatest success in yard décor. They cut eyeholes in the sack to give the appearance that the straw man was always watching.

Then, come Halloween, Wendy’s father would quietly empty Adlai’s suit and don it himself, pulling the burlap sack over his head and sitting still, so still, on the porch—propping himself against the wall as if he, himself, were made of straw. Trick-or-treaters would race up to the house, thinking him a dummy, and Wendy’s father would rise to his feet, sending the children shrieking away in terror. He became something else entirely when he wore the Adlai suit. Something greater and more terrible than the mere man that was her father. He became the very essence of fear.

Clayton had wanted to put on the suit ever since he was ten, but it was an adult’s suit and too large for him. Their father had said he could wear it when he was big enough. “Not yet,” he’d said. “It’s a big task to be Adlai. You’re not ready.”

Every year, Adlai came, dusty, out of the basement, and every year Clayton tried him on and found he could not fill the straw man’s suit.

Instead he pulled a white sheet over his head and hoped his “boo!”s would scare his friends as much as their father’s transformation into Adlai did. He went off trick-or-treating, leaving little Wendy at home. She preferred handing out the candy, and Clayton always gave her half of his bounty, anyway.

Until that year, of course. When Clayton didn’t come back.

“Huh?” she murmured, looking up from her memories into Paul’s concerned face.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” he said, motioning with his head to the half-stuffed suit that was so old and worn it had begun to unravel at the seams. “Maybe it’s time to put this guy to rest.”

“It’s tradition,” she said, going back to stuffing the sleeves with straw. In a way, Adlai was part of the family. The only part of the family she had left, unless she wanted to drive up the long and winding way to the nursing home where her father lay wheezing on his oxygen, only half-cognizant of the world around him.

“I don’t like that thing,” said Paul, looming over her as he frowned at the suit. “Kind of gives me the creeps.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” Wendy replied as she picked up the flat sack with its two cut eyeholes, running her fingers over the rough cloth. She remembered how her father had changed when he put it on. Even those who knew of his annual trick could not contain their horror when he leapt, an inanimate dummy turned animate, from the porch. There was nothing so fearsome on Halloween night.

Paul sighed. “Getting cold,” he said, arms wrapped around himself. Through her jean jacket, Wendy felt the brush of autumn chill; the breeze swept her cheeks, but she didn’t mind. “I’ll go warm some cider. Come in when you’re done.”

He went inside, leaving her alone on the porch. The road was empty, but she saw her neighbors taking out the trash, lighting candles in the windows—performing their own preparations for the witching season. Though she had a stack of ungraded student papers sitting on her desk inside, Wendy worked slowly, deliberately. The essays could wait. Adlai lay patiently on her lap, waiting to be filled.

* * *

She had a hard time falling asleep that night. She kept snapping her eyes to the corner of the room, expecting to see a figure hovering in the shadows. There was nothing there. Paul’s snores began filling the room as sleep claimed him. Wendy remained awake, thinking about Halloween.

People always seemed surprised at her devotion to Halloween—especially those who knew about Clayton. They wondered how someone with such a tragic history connected to the holiday could put up decorations every year, hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, and even fashion her classroom activities in accordance with autumn festivities.

That year—Clayton’s fourteenth—he’d run with a crowd of high school kids, some a little older than he, some who carried paper bags filled with whiskey bottles and went house-to-house smashing jack-o-lanterns into a pulpy mess on the street. If he couldn’t be Adlai, he had decided he would be something else. A corporeal ghost, perhaps, who went about causing mischief. A poltergeist.

He’d said he was going trick-or-treating, but instead he’d gone with his friends to the cemetery to drink booze and unroll toilet paper and play loud music on a boom box.

Wendy never got the whole story. All she knew was that some commotion had stirred—from the booze or from the knife someone had brought or from a stranger who had stumbled into their midst—and Clayton was stabbed. Wendy pictured the body lying crumpled beneath the sheet, blood spreading on the white cloth.

It was an accident.

She rolled over, sleep drifting farther and farther from her grasp.

* * *

She’d asked Paul if he would put on the Adlai suit this year. He didn’t seem eager to take on the role.

“Come on,” she’d said, half-joking. “Don’t you want to see how dapper you’d look in this antique?”

Last year, Adlai had remained a straw man throughout Halloween, and Wendy didn’t like it. The eyes in the burlap sack stared almost accusatorily into the night. I will not be forgotten, they seemed to say. Clayton had always wanted to put on the suit, and now he never would. I will not be forgotten.

* * *

At some point, Wendy must have drifted off, because when she woke again, it was in the darkness of the three o’clock hour. She blinked, trying to orient herself in the still of night. The moon glistened through the curtains like a spiderweb strand blowing on the wind.

Still sleep-clouded, Wendy turned her eyes to the corner of the bedroom.

The figure stood in the shadows.

Her heart paused mid-beat, then rapidly restarted.

Her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and the figure resolved itself. Solid, real, it stood in the corner, face turned toward the bed. That face appeared misshapen, as though the skin were hewn from some thick, rough material. Moonlight washed in through the window, and she saw it: the gray suit, the burlap sack with two dark eyeholes cut away so that whoever—or whatever—inhabited the suit might see.

She tried to call out for Paul, but her vocal cords were frozen. The figure in the suit, standing in the thin beam of moonlight, did not move. It was still—still as a straw man. Still as the person who had once inhabited the suit.

“Dad?” her voice cracked on the word, on the dread pooling in her chest. She lay on her side, afraid to move. Even as she called out for him, she knew it could not be her father. He was dying slowly in a nursing home fifty miles north.

Then another thought came to her—one that turned her insides cold. She let out a shuddering breath.

“Clayton?”

The figure did not move. Wendy choked back a sob and whispered again, “Clayton? Is that you?”

The straw man watched her through the black eyes of his burlap face.

Unable to stand the stalemate the two of them shared in the darkness, Wendy turned over, her back to the figure, and reached out for Paul. Her hand fell on a cold, flat sheet and Paul’s indentation in the mattress. He wasn’t there.

Wendy sat up quickly and looked back at the figure still standing the corner. “Paul?” she said, her voice harder now. “Paul, take that off. It’s not funny.” The figure gave no response. Her heart clawed its way into her throat, even as her mind told her, it’s not Paul. She grasped at the sheets, pulling them up around her as if to shield herself. “Paul, you’re scaring me.”

All she could hear in the silence was her own labored breathing, her heart pounding in her ears. Then a creak in the hallway—footsteps? Was Paul out there, unable to sleep? And if he was, then who was wearing the suit?

“You’re not Paul,” she whispered.

Slowly, the burlap head turned left, then right.

Her hands clutched the sheet so hard her knuckles started to hurt. “Who are you?”

A low, creaking voice—an ancient voice on a rusty-hinged jaw that hadn’t been used in ages—replied, “Adlai.”

Wendy threw off the sheet and dashed from the room, down the hall, looking around for Paul. She called his name as she raced through the darkness, fell into pools of moonlight. “Paul!” she shouted as she entered the kitchen, which lay dormant and dark. A cool breeze blew, and Wendy turned around. The front door stood ajar.

She crept toward it. “Paul?” She peered outside. All was dark and still but for the rustling, windblown leaves. The porch sat empty of its straw man. The rest of the decorations—spiderwebs, gravestones, pumpkins—remained.

Fear shivering through her, Wendy closed the front door and turned back into the dark foyer. “Paul?” she called again. She felt naked, vulnerable. Stepping back into the kitchen, she fumbled around until she found her sharpest butcher knife. She crept back down the hall to the bedroom, feeling her way through the darkness. The silver shine of the knife gleamed before her.

Standing against the wall and breathing slowly to calm her nerves, Wendy peered through the open doorway to the bedroom. A shape lay under the white sheet. Sleeping, perhaps. How, she wondered, could Paul sleep at a time like this?

Adlai was gone.

As she approached the figure on the bed, she couldn’t help but think of Clayton: a corpse beneath his ghost sheet. She knew it must be Paul sleeping under there, but still she reached tremblingly forward. Before she could pull off the sheet, the floorboards behind her creaked with a footfall, and she spun around and thrust the knife deep into the chest of Adlai’s gray suit.

Where she had expected to find a thin packing of straw, instead the knife sank into solid flesh. Blood bloomed around the protruding hilt.

Wendy let go of the knife and stumbled away from the creature, who now bent over the wound, clutching with gloved fingers at the knife. She reached up for the burlap sack and pulled it off, revealing the face of Paul, pale and sweaty with pain—Paul who wasn’t Paul but was Adlai, his eyes already glassy as he sank to his knees.

Horror rushed through Wendy as she watched him fall, watched him wheeze his last struggling breaths and then go still. Still as a straw man.

“Paul?” she whispered, disbelieving her eyes.

If Paul was wearing the Adlai suit… Wendy turned around to the figure on the bed and threw off the white sheet. What lay beneath was a pile of straw shaped into the semblance of a man.

She looked from Paul’s body on the floor to the straw on the bed.

She was still holding the burlap sack in her hand, its black eyeholes staring and staring.

Maybe there was only one person who was meant to wear Adlai’s suit. To embody the spirit they’d brought into their home long ago, the one etched into the fraying seams of the gray jacket. Not Clayton, not Paul. Maybe not even her father.

Slowly, Wendy pulled the burlap sack over her head.

An Ode to October

© Joanna Parypinski

October, October:
when twilight falls early
on leaf-scattered duffs
and trees’ spider-branches
creep over the dusk;

when pumpkins grow faces,
alit by the flame
of a thousand lost souls
and a low burning candle.
October, your name

is a beautiful corpse
that beckons from churchyards
where angels weep
in D minor: key of ghosts
and restless sleep.

October, your death-throes
burn life to the wick
and dissolve all the walls
between the dead
and the quick.

Though you’ll grow winter-old,
and your colors will fade,
October, I know
your departed shades
will come back next year

and even if I lie beneath the soil,
I will meet you then,
October, October.
All that dies will rise
again.

Outliving

© Joanna Parypinski

i. Temple of Zeus, Athens

Stark stone against a breathless
sky—your columns
rusted by sun
and a thousand years of neglect.

You might have been grand
—once—
Corinthian carvings
flowering in old stone,

but now you are in pieces:

two isolated limbs,
one broken in the grass,

braced against
the loneliness of immortality.

You linger, a skeletal god,
king of Necropolis—

splendid in your destruction
like a blind lion
limping through the underbrush.

ii. Six Flags, New Orleans

Years have passed
since you rode my back to the sun
and waited
in winding lines to scrape
the sky—

Don’t you abandon me, too,
in these silent
swampy days, where

skeletons of roller coasters slide
in and out of floodwater
like serpents,
curling in great steel waves

through the fog. The tracks
are rusted steel columns; the trains sit,
disused—awaiting phantom riders.

Swings hanging on their strings,
still. Ferris wheel’s silhouette
reflected in orange water.

Remember me as I was,
not as I am—

cold, rotting, left to the vines.

iii. Imagined Mountain

Up close, the waterfall
is a free-flowing string of piano keys.

The mountain spitting music
crawls with flowering columns

of trees, and
the lake froths white like
cherry blossoms.

That’s where I go when I close my eyes—

a temple of dreams,

still empty and nonexistent
the way Mount Everest must have been
before someone gave it a name:

people make places.

I wonder what will happen when my sleep
turns to dust, and the mountain rusts,
abandoned,

and there’s no one
to hear the music of the waterfall.

Maybe it will be lucky enough to die
with me.

12/21/12: The Mayan Apocalypse

So the ancient Mayan-predicted Apocalypse has begun. Zombies swarm the streets, the sky billows black with smoke, and fire rains down on the broken remains of the world. Natural disasters run rampant; the Earth’s magnetic field is reversing; Walmarts across the nation are being looted. Or something.

How are you spending your Apocalypse? In case you’re bored, here’s a fitting piece of Apocalyptic flash fiction that I wrote, and which was previously published by Necon E-books.

If you need me, I’ll be out killing zombies.

12.21.12

In the folds of a cyberreality, time shivered and stuck. The machine whirred histrionically as thousands of equations stuttered on the series 1221122112, where the virus corrupted the alien entity of electric intelligence.

The Scientist growled in frustration at the frozen world of coding paused upon the screen—an entire universe of virtual evolution vanquished by a calculation error. Why was it always this spot where the system crashed?

And how did the virtual people all know it was coming?

The Scientist unplugged and reset the program. Time imploded. He hit restart and the universe banged into existence once again.

Flash Fiction: Cold-Blooded Genesis

Remember how I won that flash fiction contest at Necon E-Books? Well, my entry “12.21.12” was the winner, but I actually submitted two pieces, which both came to me in one big rush of inspiration. I agree that the former is probably the superior hundred-word story, but I like this one too, so I thought I’d share it. The prompt, if you’ll recall, was “new beginnings.”

COLD-BLOODED GENESIS

From out the barren wasteland crawled a lone and broken figure, skin sizzling against gridiron ground, cracked and smoldering in the bloated red sun’s infernal glare.

How he had survived the bombs and blistered earth escaped him. He was alone. Blood boiling. Dying slowly in Hell-on-Earth.

Until the haze of smoky air parted around a green reptilian form, scaled and sharp-tailed. The female skittered closer on the deadland.

The immensity of their aloneness in this broken world flattened him.

“We’ll start a new one,” hissed the female lizard. “What’s your name?”

“Adam,” he said to his new companion. “You?”

“Eve.”

Beach Sunset

Beach Sunset

© Joanna Parypinski

The sun bleeds red
into the water.

I watched, unmoved, as God
slit his throat
and drained himself

into the line
between the red sea and red sky,
where you float, bloated
and blue
like a cold canoe

adrift. You—my mirror-smile,
the light in my eyes—took years
to drown,
and now seagulls
have tugged the eyes from your skull
for lack of fish,

left black-hole sockets blind
to celestial suicide—

and you
left me alone
on the windblown shore,

watching the sun melt
with a wave to its shadow-double
as it splatters
into the wet red grave.

The white nail-clipping of moon
rises, doppelganger of the fallen,
to sing its goodbyes,

and while you lie in the withering
light, the moon and I,
like ghosts,
will tiptoe through the night.

The Final Ingredient

Hello, Coffin Hoppers! It’s only day 3 of the Coffin Hop but already awesome things are brewing. I’ll be posting something every day until Halloween, so keep checking back, but so as not to forget about my Coffin Hop Contest, I’ll keep linking to it and reminding you to enter!

CONTEST #1: Enter either by subscribing to my blog, commenting on any post, or submitting to Contest #2. Each thing you do gets you an additional entry to win a free copy of Indiana Science Fiction.

CONTEST #2: Respond to my Halloween writing prompt in 50 words or less. Click here for the prompt and respond to win a free copy of Alternate Dimensions (my story in this one is even Halloween themed!).

And now for today’s post: a short story I wrote way back in high school and recently spruced up a bit. I hope this offering appeases the Samhain gods.

THE FINAL INGREDIENT

© Joanna Parypinski

It was a fine autumn day: the whisk of the dead leaves, like the ruffle of old parchment, sang through the honeycrisp air of the orchard. Rhian wound around the apple trees as the breeze whispered into the knitting of her sweater. Her long curls of dark hair lifted in the wind and then settled again over her eyes.

Rhian knew the owners of the apple orchard—just like anybody knew everybody in a small town like this—and they knew she liked to wander among the gnarled trees in the quiet of a Sunday morning. The sun beat down hotly on her back in a strange contrast to the cool air, and she zigzagged all the way to the edge of the orchard where the property ended and the forest began.

She kept going. Other kids her age were out making Halloween plans for the following weekend and getting their costumes ready, but not Rhian. She preferred the scenic beauty of an apple orchard in the fall stretching out to the forest at the edge of town. The leaves were changing, lighting up in the sun like fire.

Ahead was a small clearing that she wondered if the orchard owners knew about. Within were several decrepit headstones jutting crookedly from the earth, the names worn off with age, but some of the dates were still visible, going back to the 1800s. The weatherworn stone crumbled, and many of the graves were marked with no more than a shapeless rock still stuck into the earth.

There was something like nineteen graves in the forest, and local legend said they were the graves of the nineteen witches who supposedly lived there long ago. They were bad witches, too; some said their dark magic had left the town cursed.

Rhian liked the old cemetery. There was something eerie but peaceful about it. She almost wished she’d stolen an apple to munch on as she walked, but she knew her conscience wouldn’t have allowed that.

As she stepped into the clearing, she noticed that something was wrong.

Continue reading

Idea Contest Story: “The Solomon Equation”

It’s finally time: you pitched me your ideas. You voted on the idea you wanted to see become an actual story. And you picked a winner. In case you don’t remember, the winner was Mark with his excellent pitch:

A physicist/geologist/mathematician accidentally proves the existence of Hell, but he can’t get anyone to believe him–not his colleagues, not religious leaders, not even his family. Eventually he realizes that he’s inadvertently created his own personal Hell on earth.

And now I proudly present to you the story inspired by Mark’s winning idea…

THE SOLOMON EQUATION

© Joanna Parypinski

Three weeks after he was nearly struck by a drunk driver, Dr. Mark Solomon discovered the existence of Hell.

He had received his Master’s at Stanford and his Ph.D. in particle physics at MIT. Now he lived in Boston with his wife Cheryl and their six-year-old daughter Peyton, where the salty smell of the harbor invigorated the braying seagulls during his drive to work at the lab. Lately he had been focusing on the creation of a Theory of Everything, which would explain the entire physical world and all its mysteries.

Right now he was observing the data from a double-slit experiment, which revealed the dual nature of matter. Light could be directed to one of two paths, showing that it can appear as either a particle or a wave. As Dr. Solomon redirected the light path again, he considered his paper on the findings and what journal might decide to publish it.

As he did, his thoughts turned to the drunk driver from two weeks before:

The driver could have taken one of an infinite number of paths, but he had taken the path that led almost, but not quite, to Dr. Solomon’s demise. He had taken a path that led him straight through the night and down the winding side road where Dr. Solomon happened to be taking his evening stroll and smoking his evening cigarette. In a fraction of a moment, Dr. Solomon had spotted the swaying headlights like two angry beams of an alien spaceship, dropped his half-smoked cigarette to the sidewalk, and dove out of the way of the swerving car, which had rocketed over the curb and crushed its front end on a fire hydrant.

He remembered the way the still-lit cigarette had emitted that wispy, wave-like strand of gray smoke from the sidewalk.

At the lab, he was trying to combine his work with the double-slit experiment and the theory of quantum tunneling—the phenomenon where a particle tunnels through a classically impenetrable barrier. He knew there was something here that he was missing, but he couldn’t quite grasp it yet. It was as if he were able to see into two dimensions with the first experiment: one in which matter was particles, the other in which matter was waves. Somehow his vision was able to tunnel through the barrier between these dimensions and observe something fantastic.

Somewhere, in some far-off galaxy, that drunk driver had killed Dr. Solomon, or maimed him so profoundly that he was left a drooling, brain-damaged, limbless beast.

But this world had taken a different path.

The cogs in his brain clicked.

The Schrodinger equation stared back at him from the page filled with numbers and constants.

The particles and waves of matter danced through the barrier between his brain and the universe.

And Dr. Solomon, conceiving the possibility that this far-off galaxy existed parallel to his own, began writing his own equation. Continue reading