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ONE MAN’S MUSE by Chris Holm
Larry Arsenault could’ve done without the voices.
It was bad enough he had no job. No girl. No favored hangout to haunt, nor any money to spend there if he did. Nothing but this godforsaken place, and the constant company of the voices that resided here. The rest, he could’ve swallowed – accepted as his lot in life. But the voices he could not abide, any more than he could shut them up.
Time was, things were different. Time was, Larry had as decent a gig as a high school dropout in Central Maine could hope for, working the line at the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill up in Old Town. Made enough to buy himself a decent truck (a Ford Super Duty not more’n ten years old) and his knocked-up lady friend a ring (a cheap gold band inlaid with diamond chips, but real gold and diamond nonetheless). Made enough to move them out of that shitty one-room walk-up above the Bangor pool hall that reeked of fried food, fuel oil, and the prior tenant’s cigarettes once Tammy started to show.
For the baby, he told himself. So the three of them could have a life together. The thought seemed so goddamn foolish now.
He put a down payment on a timeworn little doublewide that sat crooked atop a hill just outside of what passed for Hermon, Maine’s town center – a small cluster of run-down buildings eight miles outside of Bangor proper gathered in a bend on Route 100, whose most prominent feature was the sprawling parking lot of its Baptist church. The trailer wasn’t much to look at, old and tired as his favorite frayed sweatshirt, but it was one thousand square feet in Larry’s name, and from the second he set foot inside, he felt like a king in his castle, lording over his quarter-acre patch of weed-strewn land. He heard tell that once upon a time, the place was rented by that big-time author who lived in Bangor – the one who wrote that spooky shit. Banged out his first three published novels here, the realtor said, and snippets of a bunch more. Larry didn’t much care for fiction – he didn’t see the point wasting time reading about stuff that never happened – but still, he figured that meant the place must be good luck.
Not long after, the voices started.
It was Tammy who heard them first. Folding Larry’s jeans and T-shirts in their trailer’s little laundry nook, while he was parked in front of the new flat-screen he’d just brought home from Walmart, watching the UMaine/BC hockey game. “Larry!” she called.
He ignored her.
“Larry, c’mere – you gotta hear this!”
“Dammit, woman, you know I get but one day to myself with all this OT I’m puttin’ in – can’t I watch my game in peace?”
“But there’s something in the walls!”
“Probably just a mouse,” he said. “Don’t pay it no mind.”
“It doesn’t sound like a mouse,” she said.
“What’s it sound like, then?”
“It sounds like… talking. Like a radio or something.”
Larry rolled his eyes. “A radio,” he repeated.
“Well,” Tammy replied, the condescension in his tone giving her pause, “that’s what it sounds like, at least.”
“How the hell could there be a radio in our walls? Where would it plug in? And how come you’d only just now hear it?”
“Jesus, Larry, I don’t know! I’m only telling you what I hear. You gonna come listen or what?”
Larry dragged his ass up off the couch and scuffed across the carpet to the laundry room. Any chance of enjoying the game was shot anyways – once Tammy latched onto something, wasn’t nothing gonna shake her till she got what she wanted.
But when he stopped and listened, he realized she was right: there were voices, or at least something that sounded like them. What they were saying, had no idea – they sounded like distant whispers, a susurrus of countless utterances rising and falling and bleeding into one another so that all he caught was the occasional out-of-context syllable. “The fuck is that?” he muttered.
“That’s what I’m asking you!” Tammy replied.
Larry shook his head. “Gotta be the wind or something.”
“That sound like wind to you? And anyways, the neighbor’s flag is still.”
“Maybe it’s something funky with the ducts, then. Or the gas line for the dryer.” The whole place was rigged for natural gas – heat, stove, dryer – a necessity for living outside of town, where the power was liable to go down every time a storm blew through, and stay down for days before they fixed it.
Larry realized he’d said the wrong thing when Tammy’s eyes widened in fear, and her hands cradled her baby bump protectively. “You think we got a gas leak?”
“No! I mean – I don’t smell nothing weird or anything. I’m just saying, it ain’t like this trailer’s brand new. She’s old and creaky, and she’s bound to have her quirks. Could be anything making that noise, is all – and we got no reason to think it’s worth worrying ourselves over. Just ignore it – it’ll go away.”
But Tammy didn’t ignore it. And it didn’t go away.
In the weeks that followed, as her ankles swelled and her stomach grew, Tammy spent more and more time in the laundry room – sitting, listening. Larry tried to dissuade her – even putting a couple holes in the walls trying to find the source of the noise and shut it up – but it was no use. There was nothing there to stop.
Tammy’s obsession got so bad, the laundry started piling up, because she refused to run the washer, on account of it was so loud she couldn’t make out what the voices were saying. “They’re getting louder,” she told him once. “Clearer, too. And you wouldn’t believe what they’ve been saying.”
“Yeah?” he asked, equal parts amused and annoyed. To him, they weren’t any louder than they had been – so quiet, in fact, he found he hardly noticed them unless he really strained to hear. “What’ve they been saying?”
“Secret things,” she told him, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Secret and horrible.”
He pressed her as to what that meant, but she’d say no more on the subject. And truth be told, he didn’t think there was much to it but hormones and stir-craziness. Before she got pregnant, she used to hit the bars pretty regular with some friends of hers from high school. But now, they lived well outside of town, and all she really had in common with those friends was a decade’s worth of binge-drinking, so she didn’t see ’em much anymore. It wasn’t till the day the trash bag broke he really began to worry.
It was just after dinner – some godawful noodle casserole Tammy tossed together while he showered up from work. She barely touched her food – not that Larry could blame her, since it looked like snot and tasted like Elmer’s glue – and afterward looked pale and drawn and unsteady on her feet, so Larry’d offered to clean up. He assumed she was feeling lousy on account of the pregnancy.
He was wrong.
As he stepped on the floor-pedal to open the trash so he could scrape his plate, he realized it was full to overflowing – the bag collapsed into the can with garbage piled up on top. Cursing, he fished the edges of the bag out from beneath the pile of refuse, scooping out whatever fell between bag and can and depositing it back where it belonged. Then he tied off the bag and hoisted it out of the trashcan.
He and Tammy didn’t spring for the fancy name-brand trash bags that were all thick and reinforced; they bought the cheap store brand instead to save a buck. Problem was, the cheap store brand ones were fifteen-gallon bags that couldn’t hold fifteen gallons of anything without tearing, and this one was stretched to twenty. Which is to say, the damn thing broke.
Garbage strewn across the floor. A string of curses that stopped abruptly as annoyance became confusion. Because amid the food scraps and cellophane and what-have-you were three pint bottles of Allen’s Coffee Brandy. 60 proof and caffeine-laden, Allen’s is the preferred rotgut of a true Mainer. Empty, and clearly hidden, or else they woulda been in the recycling bin with the rest of the returnables (light beer and Moxie, mostly.)
The bottles weren’t his. And the last time Larry took out trash was Sunday. Today was Wednesday, which meant in three days, his pregnant wife had polished off three pints of Allen’s – more, maybe, if she had another bottle going in the house.
A squeak of slippers on linoleum alerted Larry to Tammy’s presence. As his gaze met hers, his anger evaporated, because her face was twisted into a rictus of despair, and her eyes brimmed wet with tears. “I’m sorry, Larry. It’s just, the voices…”
“It’s okay,” he told her, pulling her close and stroking her hair. “You messed up, is all. I don’t blame you. We’ll get through this. But the drinking’s got to stop, okay? We’ve got a little one to worry about now.”
She nodded, her head moving against his chest as she sobbed. “I’ll stop – I promise.”
Although he couldn’t admit it at the time, even then Larry knew that she was lying.
Three weeks later, she miscarried.
The doctors later said it was on account of all the booze. The baby’s heart just couldn’t take it. But Larry didn’t know that at the time. He just came home from the mill one rainy night to find Tammy soaking wet in her blood- and dirt-caked flannel nightgown, clawing with bare hands at the ground in their front yard. As his pickup rocked to a halt at the end of the driveway, its headlights bathed her prostrate form in yellow, the slanting rain projecting static and making the grisly scene look like something out of a horror flick. Larry was so dumbfounded, it took him a moment to realize what had happened. Then he saw the fetal human form beside her, gray-blue and unmoving, and the hole she’d dug beside it, and realization dawned.
He climbed from the pickup’s cab on limbs stunned clumsy, but he couldn’t bring himself to approach Tammy, as wild-eyed and manic as she appeared. Fear and revulsion bolted him in place.
“Tammy,” he said, voice quiet and tremulous as a frightened child’s, “what are you doing?”
“We have to bury her,” she said, and began clawing at the ground anew.
Her. Not it but her. The word damn near caused Larry’s knees to buckle. But shock numbed him, enough at least he kept his feet.
“Honey, I’m so sorry. But that’s not for you to do. We need to get you to a hospital. We’ll bring… her…too, and get her taken care of right.”
“No,” she said. “You don’t understand. It has to be now. It has to be here.”
“The voices told me,” she said.
That was the moment Larry first realized the depths of Tammy’s insanity. “The voices told you what?” he asked.
Oddly – horribly – she smiled, eyes glinting with the fire of madness. “The voices told me sometimes they come back.”
Tammy didn’t bury their daughter in the yard. Larry wouldn’t let her. Instead, he called 911, and requested both police and EMTs. Tammy was so distraught by the time they arrived on account of Larry wouldn’t let her touch the baby, she had to be sedated. It was the only way they could stop her from digging.
She spent two weeks in Dorothea Dix – the latest in a long list of names for the facility that began life as the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital back in 1901, and has been keeping crazies locked up since. Every time a name built up too many negative associations, the state went and changed it, but it didn’t matter. Most in Bangor just called it the Big House on the Hill.
The time there was good for her, it seemed. She cleaned up, dried out, put on a healthy bit of weight – even with the pregnancy, she’d grown so drawn she’d looked like she was barely there – and, most importantly, she stopped talking about the voices. She came home a new woman – or, at least, the woman Larry’d fallen for in the first place. He visited her every day during her stay when his shift was done, and by the time they let her go, he began to think they’d recover yet from what had happened.
Four days later, she was dead.
It was the day he got the news the mill was closing. Georgia-Pacific decided it was too expensive to keep running, and so far, their attempts to sell it had been unsuccessful. Management said they were hopeful they’d be up and running in a couple months at the outside. Nobody believed them. That’s what management always said right before they closed a mill for good.
Once the news came down, there wasn’t much point in Larry sticking around; production ceased immediately, and everybody was sent home early. Some of the fellas went to grab a drink or ten to mourn their jobs and drown their sorrows, but after all Larry’d been through with Tammy, he wasn’t hardly in the mood. Which is the only reason she wasn’t dead already when Larry got home.
He found her in the bathtub. Naked in water the color of wine, both forearms sliced deep from wrist to elbow, a spattered kitchen knife beside her on the floor. The kind of cuts folks make when they mean it. The kind of cuts you don’t come back from.
He thought at first that she was dead already, but when he made a sickly gurgling in his throat at the sight of her, bile rising, she opened her eyes – heavy-lidded like a sleepy Sunday morning.
“Hey, hon,” she said, the corners of her mouth twitching as she tried to smile. Larry could barely see her through his tears.
“Hey,” he croaked: useless, stupid, automatic.
“Dontcha worry ’bout me,” she slurred, her scant life force seeping out her arteries into the crimson-stained basin. “I’ll be with our baby girl soon enough. The voices said.”
“The voices,” he echoed. He should have known.
She nodded, or tried – head lolling, eyelids drooping.
“Yup,” she said. “You wanna know a secret?”
No, thought Larry. “Yes,” he said.
“There are other worlds than these.”
Her eyes closed, then, and she was gone.
To where? Larry thought. But deep down, he hoped to God he’d never get his answer.
Once Tammy died, Larry tried to sell the place – but the economy tanked right around the time the mill closed, and his mortgage wound up underwater. Without a job, he didn’t have the cash to bring to closing, and there weren’t any buyers to be found even if he did. Like it or not, the place was his, and would be as far ahead as he could see.
Job prospects were nonexistent. Fifteen months, and not a single bite. Enough time to burn through his severance. Enough time for unemployment to run dry. Enough time spent in his doublewide to truly hear the voices.
He soon realized he’d never heard them like Tammy did – not really. Before, they’d been quiet enough for him to ignore, and he couldn’t understand why Tammy didn’t just ignore them, too. But in those months spent languishing at home, he discovered that the more you listened, the louder and more insistent they became: repeating the same messages again and again on an endless loop. And it was more than mere words – it was as if they filled his head with horrid memories of people he’d never met, places he’d never seen – a flood of images and dialogue and stories of bad men bad places bad ends and oh so very many worlds.
And that’s to say nothing of the monsters.
The voices filled his mind with their endless loop of violence and corruption, and even bled into his dreams – until every time he closed his eyes, he saw the strange things of which they spoke. A poor, misunderstood girl drenched in blood, murderous anger coming off of her in waves – victim becoming aggressor, thought becoming deed. A town infested with vampires slowly burning to the ground, its once-decent citizens now demons, writhing as they died. A bloodied croquet mallet – no, a roque mallet, he somehow knew – lying in a field of white outside a massive snowbound citadel, while a child’s screams rang through the chill night air. A painted face gazing out from behind a sewer grate – ancient, evil, knowing – all hunger and ill intentions.
Beyond them, as if in the distance, were images less distinct. Vague sketches of a great pestilence wiping mankind off the map, and of a terrible war between those who remained. Of a vast ship not of this world buried deep beneath the soil, bending those above it to its will. Of a massive beam of light bisecting a desolate wasteland, and stretching as far in both directions as the eye could see.
And on the horizon, like a shimmering mirage, a black tower lording over all.
Larry didn’t want to see these things. Didn’t want to hear what those voices said. But he couldn’t stop them. Couldn’t exorcise the demons. He had no idea what they wanted, or how he could appease them.
Until, one night, he asked them.
It was four past midnight by the clock. After a half a case of beer failed to stop the relentless cavalcade of images, Larry’d reached his breaking point. “What do you want from me?” he pleaded, his hoarse voice echoing through the house, empty but for him but not unoccupied.
They must be told, the voices whispered.
“They must be told?” Larry asked.
They must be told.
For the longest time, he didn’t know what the voice was asking of him. Who must be told? And what must they be told?
But eventually, he came to understand. He was not audience enough for the horrors the voices spoke of. They wanted more. They wanted everyone to know what Larry knew.
Larry couldn’t let that happen. He refused to unleash such evil upon the world. Not if he could help it. And he thought he could.
Larry’d never bothered patching the holes in the laundry room walls. At first, he hadn’t the time, and once he did – once he lost his job and Tammy both and found himself with nothing but – he no longer had the inclination. So even hammered as he was, it was child’s play to reach inside and yank free the gas line that fed the dryer. Just as it was child’s play to blow out the stove’s pilot lights (make a wish, he thought madly) and set the burners to high. Soon the house was full with the smell of eggs, the hiss of gas – and Larry began to experience a lightheadedness that could not be explained by the alcohol alone.
The last thing Larry felt before he struck the match and felt nothing anymore was a deep sense of heroic satisfaction at the thought of this awful place’s destruction – at the knowledge he was thwarting the demon voices’ wish the world be told.
After all, he thought in the moment before his castle was engulfed in the flaming ball of light and heat that would wipe both he and it off the map, God only knew what untold horrors would befall the world if their stories ever got out.
A version of this story appeared in DEAD LETTERS: STORIES OF MURDER AND MAYHEM (2013).
Image of Chris Holm is courtesy of Joshua Atticks