My novel Blister will be published this summer by the merry folks at Sinister Grin Press. Just for fun, here’s a fairly long (three chapters!) sneak peek.
Warning: Contains some salty language.
I’m a liar, but this is the truth.
And I wrote every word of this. I’m saying that because you probably assumed that they paid some ghostwriter, or that it’s one of those “as told to _____” deals where I babbled into a recording device and somebody organized my thoughts into something coherent and marketable. It’s not. These are my words on the page. My blood on the keyboard.
I’m Jason Tray. Odds are you already know what I did. I’d prefer that you didn’t—preconceptions are a bitch. But no matter what you’ve seen, heard, or read, it’s not the complete truth. This is. Warts and all. And believe me, I’ve got some huge frickin’ witch-warts for you to gape at.
Don’t worry, I promise this isn’t going to be some whiny “Oh, alas, poor, poor innocent me!” string of excuses that makes you want to shove a few fingers down your throat. I’m not looking for pity. I just want to tell you exactly what happened, and why it happened.
The “why” part is easy: I fell in love.
But we’ll talk about that later.
Instead, I’m going to begin with two of the neighborhood kids. Greg and Dennis. School had started a couple of weeks ago, and one afternoon, a Monday, I looked out of my living room window and saw them standing outside of my backyard, rattling the metal links on the fence to rile up my Schnauzer. No big deal. I’d taunted a dog or two when I was ten. I went back to work.
The next day, they did the same thing. Ignatz ran back and forth, barking furiously, while the kids laughed and shouted things including but not limited to “You can’t get me, you stupid dog!” Though I couldn’t argue the truth of their assessment of his intelligence (Ignatz was the sweetest dog I’d ever owned, but his brain capacity was low), I decided to put a stop to this.
I came out the back door and gave them a friendly smile. “Hey, I’m gonna have to ask you guys not to tease my dog. The people next door get upset if he barks too much.”
Greg gave me the finger. “Screw you, old man!” The kids ran off, laughing.
Old man? Old man? I was thirty-eight! Barely thirty-eight; I’d just celebrated a birthday last month. Little bastards. I played fetch with Ignatz for a few minutes, then took him inside and resumed drawing the day’s installment of Off Balance, the comic strip I’d been doing for the past decade. The punchline to this particular strip involved Zep the Beetle having a stone gargoyle shoved up his nose, which was proving to be a more difficult artistic challenge than I’d anticipated.
On the third day, the rotten brats threw rocks. I made it outside just in time to hear a loud yip as a rock hit Ignatz in the side. Greg and Dennis ran away. Ignatz didn’t seem hurt—he licked my face happily as I scooped him into my arms—but it was time to involve the parents.
If I remembered correctly, Greg’s house was the red one on the corner, two blocks down. I put Ignatz inside, walked over there, and knocked on the door. A tired-looking, heavyset blonde woman answered.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you Greg’s mother?”
“I’m Jason Tray, I live in the white house about two—”
“The one with the graveyard in the front yard?”
I smiled. “Only at Halloween.”
She didn’t smile back. “All of October, actually.”
“Right. Anyway, your son and his friend were throwing rocks at my dog.”
“Maybe they were defending themselves.”
“He’s inside a fence.”
“Maybe they were worried that it was going to get out.”
I shook my head. “If they were worried he was going to get out, they wouldn’t stand there and throw rocks at him. Look, I’m not one of those ‘Hey you kids, get off my lawn!’ neighbors—”
“Seriously, I’m not. I just can’t have your son hurting my dog. So if you could have a talk with him and let him know that it’s not cool to throw things at animals, I’d appreciate it.”
“Why don’t you keep it inside?”
“The whole reason I’ve got a fence is so Ignatz can be outside. I’m not asking you to keep your kid indoors; I’m asking you to tell him to quit behaving like a psychopath.”
I cringed at my own comment, since parents tended to react poorly when you referred to their child as a psychopath. But this lady was starting to piss me off.
Greg’s mother barely even acknowledged my comment. She sort of nodded and sort of shrugged. I stood there for a moment, waiting for a verbal response.
“Thanks,” I finally said, figuring that the conversation was over.
I walked back to my house. I’d been tempted to mention that her ten-year-old son was giving the finger to adults, but I didn’t want to be a whiny tattletale. As long as they weren’t destroying stuff or harming pets, I was fine with kids being kids. I’d lived in this neighborhood for nearly three years without any problems.
The next day, I was so absorbed in my work that I didn’t realize what time it was until I heard Ignatz yelp in pain. I rushed out the door just as those little shits each threw another rock at him through the fence, both of which missed. They ran off, laughing. I crouched down next to Ignatz and ran my fingers through his fur. There was a small welt on his back.
Now, I realize that I was the mature adult and they were the children, and that I should have taken the higher road. But I wasn’t in a “higher road” kind of mood. I was ahead of deadline on Off Balance, and that made it very easy for me to take the rest of the day off to plot my revenge.
First, I needed a fake chainsaw. Not some cheap rubber thing—I wanted one that looked and sounded totally real, but wouldn’t actually, y’know, slice children in half. After some searching on the Internet, I found one at a costume shop that was an hour and a half away. I enjoyed the drive.
I wanted to find a phony severed head that looked as if it could belong to a ten-year-old, but I wasn’t able to locate one that I could get by the following afternoon. So I went with an adult head—a really cool one with a rubber tongue lolling out of its mouth and part of the spinal column dangling from its neck.
The next day, I let Ignatz out into the yard and splashed some fake blood on my face and clothes. I looked at myself in the mirror. Nope, not enough. By the time I was satisfied, I was absolutely drenched in gore. Heh heh.
The reprehensible little creeps showed up on schedule. As Dennis pounded his fist against the fence, I burst out of the door and ran toward them, a severed head in my right hand, a roaring chainsaw in my left.
Greg and Dennis shrieked. The crotch of Greg’s pants immediately darkened. They fled, screaming in terror.
Yeah, I know. I really should have left it at that. Instead, I opened the gate and chased them down the sidewalk, letting out my most maniacal laugh, which I was disappointed they wouldn’t be able to hear over the chainsaw, since it was a pretty darn freaky laugh.
At the end of the block, Dennis fell, landing hard. Greg just left his friend and continued running toward his house, never looking back.
I shut off the chainsaw and walked over to Dennis. He’d wet his pants, too. And his arm was bent at a funny angle.
I had a feeling that this was going to create some problems in my life.
* * *
“Why?” asked Chuck Rhodes, my agent and publicist, sitting across from me in the upscale seafood restaurant where he always ordered barbecue ribs. “Why would you think it was okay to chase after young children with a chainsaw in broad daylight?”
“It was a faux chainsaw.”
“Don’t be a smartass. This isn’t funny.”
“A lot of people would disagree with you. I should do a strip about it.”
“Jason, I’m serious. Just because the parents didn’t press charges doesn’t mean they won’t sue. This could be an absolute nightmare.”
“You’re supposed to enjoy this stuff.”
“No. No, I’m not.” Chuck took a big gulp of his ice water. The poor guy was in his mid-forties but looked ten years older. He often tried to blame those extra ten years on me, although since he had six teenagers (three adopted) I refused to accept responsibility for his totally gray hair and plentiful wrinkles.
“I already said I’m paying for his doctor’s bill. I’ll even draw a few cartoons on his cast so he can eBay it.”
“Yeah, that makes up for it. Those kids could be traumatized for life.”
“So they go through life with a fear of lunatics carrying severed heads and chainsaws. They should be scared. My chainsaw was fake, but the next one they encounter might not be.”
“Again, not funny. Not funny at all. The fifteen through nineteen demographic might be amused by your little stunt, but most other age groups don’t approve of people who break the arms of children. You could lose papers over this. Newspapers are folding all over the country; you can’t afford to lose any of them.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “We’ll make sure a really adorable photo of Ignatz goes out to the media and everybody will be on my side.”
Chuck sighed. “You know, Festering Pus doesn’t give me any problems. Why is it that the death metal band doesn’t create any headaches in my life, but the cartoonist does? Did you know that they leave hotel rooms in better shape than when they got there? It’s true. They leave flowers for housekeeping. But you drive me crazy. Legitimately insane.”
Chuck was hugely responsible for my career success, though if I’d known what the hell I was doing when I first tried to break in as a cartoonist, I probably never would’ve signed with him. He was a local Tampa, Florida guy, instead of working out of New York City, and he represented all manner of clients in all manner of ways, with virtually no area of specialty. But he worked incredibly hard, was a good friend, and I never thought of switching to a “real” agent, even when big names came calling.
On the other hand, I’m sure there were plenty of times when he felt like giving me the boot…
When I was developing Off Balance in college, I’d vowed to be just like Bill Waterson of Calvin & Hobbes and keep the strip pure. No coffee mugs, greeting cards, dolls, bumper stickers, calendars, or any shameless commercialism that would distract from the characters I’d created. I sort of forgot to mention this to Chuck when he took me on as a client, but insisted on it when I was finally offered a syndication deal. He wasn’t happy.
In the end, I totally caved. I’d experienced a lot of peer pressure in school, but negotiating this contract was like a thousand college students at once trying to convince me to take a drink of beer. The truth is that it’s virtually impossible to work out a major comic strip deal where you keep all of the merchandising rights. Just ain’t gonna happen. And I wasn’t going to risk losing out on such a large audience for my beloved characters simply to avoid seeing them in plush toy form. They probably would’ve ended up being bootlegged anyway. I’d hate to see a car decal of Zep taking a leak on the Chevrolet logo.
Off Balance took off faster than anybody ever expected, and some money started to pour in. That’s when I found out that I’ve got money guilt. I thought I had chrematophobia, but it turns out that’s an actual fear of money, which is even weirder than my problem. When I received my first really big check, I felt sick to my stomach. Why should I be making this much for sitting at home drawing funny pictures? So I started writing checks to various charities. I did it quietly—this wasn’t one of those mega-celebrity “Look at me! Look at me! I gave .0007% of my yearly income to this worthy cause!” deals.
Oddly enough, the IRS questioned the idea that I donated almost all of my income to charity. This led to some problems as I had to prove that I wasn’t funneling my money to fund terrorism or something like that. Fortunately, I may have financial guilt issues, but I’m not (too) stupid, and I kept all my receipts. It then became a minor news story—the wacky successful cartoonist who gives away all his cash.
Of course, I was made out to be some whack-job living behind a Dumpster, licking dried nougat from discarded candy bar wrappers for sustenance. Chuck didn’t like this. He also didn’t like it when, as a result of this publicity, he got flooded with literally thousands of requests for “donations.” So instead of That Weirdo Who’s Ashamed of His Income, I suddenly became That Stingy Bastard Who Wouldn’t Give Me Money To Remodel My Home. I tried to just keep my head down and focus on my work.
Until I organized a letter-writing campaign against a few newspapers that censored my week-long series of strips where Zep thought he found God living in his goldfish aquarium. Chuck didn’t like me doing that. Neither did my editor. But I thought the strips were funny and harmless. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have started the campaign (which was, I must say, quite successful) but, hey, I was angry.
I also threw a blue raspberry Slurpee at a reporter who asked me if Charles Schultz’s influence on the world of cartooning was overrated. That wasn’t so cool, I guess.
And I suppose there were other incidents, but that’s not what I’m here to write about. Overall, I think the past couple of years had gone fairly smoothly, until that one time when I covered myself with fake blood and chased some kids with a chainsaw.
“You need a vacation,” Chuck told me. “Just escape from everything for a while. The stress is getting to you.”
“I’m really not under that much stress,” I said.
“Well, I’m under stress, and it stresses me out even more to think that your dumb ass might talk to bloggers. I’m sending you to my cabin.”
“The one in Wisconsin? Lake Gladys?”
“No, the one in North Korea. How many cabins do you think I own? I want you to go there for a couple of weeks until all this blows over, or until you get your goddamn subpoena.”
“I don’t like cabins.”
“Do you know what I don’t give? A shit. Stay up there and catch some fish. Just stay out of my face while I try to clean up your mess.”
“All right, all right, I’ll go.” Hanging out on a lake for a few days actually seemed like fun. It might provide the inspiration for some cabin-themed strips. “Just between you and me, though—the kid breaking his arm was kind of funny, wasn’t it?”
Chuck just glared at me.
It took about two days for cabin fever to set in. This surprised me, because it wasn’t as if Chuck’s cabin was even a real cabin. It had a wide-screen television with a satellite dish, wireless Internet, a fully stocked bar, and a pinball machine. The only inconvenience was that the hot water in the shower ran out after about five minutes, and if I’d known that prior to lathering up, I could have prepared accordingly.
I did some fishing the first day, while Ignatz happily splashed around near the shore. I didn’t know what kind of lure worked best in this lake, so I went through Chuck’s tackle box and just picked the biggest one. After an hour of no bites, I switched to a flashy orange one that seemed to have twelve different moving parts. I gave up on that one after my second cast. The third lure was stolen from me by the thick underwater weeds, at which point I decided that fishing was not having the desired calming effect.
Kayaking worked, though. I must’ve been out there for nearly three hours, slowly gliding along the lake’s surface, enjoying the peace and solace. I peered down into the clear water and watched hundreds of fish who’d avoided my attempts at capture. Oh, sure, I still chuckled to myself every time I remembered the expression on those demon kids’ faces when I burst out of my back door, but the serenity of the lake made me wonder if I really had been stressed out and ready to snap and simply not realized it.
The cabin had a microwave and a convection oven, but I decided to rough it and make a campfire. Dinner consisted of burnt hot dogs, burnt marshmallows, and way too many sour cream and onion-flavored potato chips.
But by the evening of the second day I started to get antsy. Which is ironic, because the life of a cartoonist pretty much just involves sitting at home, being anti-social. Not a lot of human contact. Still, I felt this incredible need to get out and socialize, so I brought Ignatz inside and then drove to a small bar about five miles from the cabin, which had caught my eye because the real sign was covered by a handwritten banner that said “Doug’s Booze Wasteland.”
There were about six people in the bar, all guys. It was not a tidy place.
“Somebody messed with your sign,” I told the bartender, as I sat down on a stool.
He nodded. “Been that way for the past two years. It was a prank, but business improved after it went up, so I left it.”
“Fair enough.” I ordered a beer and looked around. Two guys were seated at a table, having an animated discussion, while two kids in their early twenties played pool. An old man sat alone in a booth, drinking hard liquor and looking depressed. I eavesdropped on the table conversation for a moment until I realized that it was about politics, then took my beer and approached the billiards table.
“Can I play the winner?” I asked.
“Sure thing,” said the first kid, who wore a baseball cap and a plain blue t-shirt. He missed a ridiculously easy shot and cursed under his breath.
“I’m Jason Tray,” I said, shaking both of their hands.
“Jason Tray…Jason Tray…” The second kid frowned. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Do you read the daily comics?”
“Nah, dude. The only good one is Garfield. Jason Tray…Jason Tray…oh, I know, you’re Susan’s new boyfriend. The zookeeper.”
A quick round of introductions and small talk let me know that I was hanging out with Jamie and Erik, both of whom worked at an auto repair shop. Erik was on the prowl for hot chicks, and Jamie was unhappily engaged. I explained my romantic situation, which involved a marriage at twenty-one and a divorce at twenty-nine, followed by several years of occasional but never serious girlfriends. My last one was six months ago. Penny. I broke up with her because I thought she never seemed to have time for me, and she happily accepted the breakup because she’d been seeing at least three other guys the entire time we were dating.
“I need another beer,” said Jamie, missing another easy shot.
“This round’s on me.” I ordered a couple more beers and handed them out, winning instant friends. Jamie and Erik both continued to suck at pool as they outpaced my drinking by about three-to-one. An hour later, they were sloshed and I was buzzed as I tried unsuccessfully to explain some of my funnier comic strips, which are never funny when I describe them.
(Example: There’s one where Zep the Beetle is at the dentist, who is explaining the stages of tooth decay using wind-up chattery teeth. If you’ve seen the strip, you know that it’s hilarious, right? But it’s mostly about the way I drew the teeth, especially the one with the worm.)
“We should go do something else,” said Erik. “We need to find some women.”
“Holly won’t like that,” said Jamie.
“So? I’m not gonna tell her.” Erik looked at me, or at least in my general direction. “Are you gonna tell her?”
“I don’t even know her.”
“See? Let’s go find some skanks.”
Jamie shook his head. “Holly doesn’t like me spending time with skanks. She gets all upset and stuff. When she’s upset, it’s like, no fun. We should go bowling.”
“I’m not drunk enough for bowling,” said Erik. “We should play darts.”
Jamie’s face lit up. “Oh! Oh! You know what we should do? I know what we should do!”
“We should take him to see Blister!”
Erik grinned. “Yeah! That’ll be great! Way better than bowling.”
“What’s Blister?” I asked. It didn’t sound appealing.
Jamie started to answer, but Erik waved a hand in his face. “No, no, no, don’t tell him. Let it be a surprise.”
“I’m not big on surprises from really drunk guys,” I admitted.
“It’s cool,” Erik assured me. “You’ll love it. I’ll drive.”
“Yeah, right. You’re not driving anywhere,” I told him.
“Sure I am.” He called out to the bartender. “Hey, Doug, can I have my keys?”
“Do you want to drive?” Erik asked me.
“You guys aren’t puking in my car.”
Erik shrugged. “I guess we’ll walk. It’s not too far.”
And so I found myself walking along a dirt road in the moonlight with a pair of intoxicated hooligans fifteen years younger than me. I wasn’t buzzed enough for this to seem like a good idea, but I had just enough alcohol in my system to go along with it with only moderate protest. Jamie and Erik staggered ahead, singing various popular hits that would be forever ruined for me.
“How much further?” I asked, after we’d been walking for about half an hour.
“Not much,” Jamie said.
“Are you lying to me?”
Jamie stopped walking and considered that. “I don’t think so.”
“We should head back.”
“Are you scared?”
“I’m scared of our stupidity,” I said. “There’s no way you’re taking me someplace I’d want to go if I hadn’t been drinking.”
“It’ll be worth it. I promise.”
We resumed our walk. I really hoped that Jamie and Erik weren’t leading me toward anything illegal. Somehow I didn’t see Chuck being cheerful about the whole situation if I got arrested.
It took another hour for us to reach our destination, although that included a fifteen-minute detour for Erik to unsuccessfully try to prove that he could climb a tree without using his arms. Finally, we stood at the end of the driveway of a small brown house, mostly hidden by woods with no other homes in the vicinity.
It was sort of run-down, with no lawn and an old silver pickup truck parked in front. A rocking chair on the front porch was missing the left runner. The windows were dark.
There was a wooden shed, about the size of a two-car garage, in the backyard.
“C’mon,” Jamie whispered, tugging on my arm.
I didn’t move. “Whose house is this?”
“It doesn’t matter. Let’s go see Blister.”
“Okay, I’m going to have to be the responsible adult here. I won’t be doing any trespassing tonight, sorry.”
“Suit yourself.” Jamie headed toward the house. Erik followed him.
I stood there, watching them. This whole thing was a bad idea on every conceivable level. That’s why I rarely drank—it made me do dumb shit like this.
My intoxicated buddies walked past the house, toward the shed. Jamie turned back and gestured for me to join them, at which point my still-buzzed brain decided that despite my intense reservations, I was legitimately curious about the whole Blister thing. I hurried down the driveway, mentally cursing myself with each step.
The shed had a small window. A light was on inside.
“Does somebody live in there?” I asked.
Jamie and Erik shushed me. We crept closer to the shed, moving with exaggerated (and clumsy) stealth. Erik caught the giggles for a moment, so we waited for him to get over it, and then proceeded forward.
“Look in the window,” Jamie whispered.
Slowly, carefully, I walked over to the shed. The shed was actually in much nicer condition than the house itself. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it looked to have been recently painted. For some reason I found this kind of creepy. Perhaps the shed was in better shape because it was where the owner of the house stored his precious tools and victims. Perhaps he liked to spend leisurely evenings with a tied-up woman and a hacksaw. Perhaps he was in there right now, cackling softly and gently kissing her forehead as he very, very slowly pulled the saw back and forth.
I hoped that wasn’t it. I only enjoyed phony decapitations.
There was a knot in my stomach and my mind kept saying “Get the hell out of here!” but I was only a few feet away, and a quick glimpse inside couldn’t hurt. I’d satisfy my curiosity, get Jamie and Erik off my back, and return to the cabin for some fishing. Maybe I’d try live bait instead of the metal lures. Yeah, that might work better.
I was scared.
I can’t explain it. Obviously, there was the rational fear of getting caught—that made perfect sense. But there was another level of fear, the fear that what lurked inside that shed might not simply be a vision to amuse drunkards, but something awful.
My hands were sweaty and I wiped them off on my shirt.
I felt like a million eyes were watching me from within the woods. I wanted to turn and run away from the shed and the house as fast as I could.
But, no, I was right there, and I had to see. I was being silly. There were no killers or corpses in there.
I walked up to the side of the cabin, then cautiously approached the window and peeked inside.
Somebody did live in there. I could see a neatly made bed in the corner, a small television, and an overflowing bookshelf. The wall was covered with pictures of owls, everything from crude drawings to photo-realistic paintings. The light came from an uncovered bulb dangling from the ceiling.
So the rickety old shed had been converted into a guesthouse. Still, what exactly was I supposed to see here? I was pretty sure it wasn’t the owls.
Then with a sick feeling I realized what this must be about. No doubt the occupant of the shed liked to walk around naked. I was a frickin’ peeping tom.
Oh, Chuck would love that. I could hear him shouting now: “You’re not supposed to peek into people’s windows after dark, you ridiculous idiot! I don’t care how nice the breasts were!”
A face appeared.
I don’t know how else to describe it except that it was…horrible. Burnt and scarred and, except for its long blonde hair, barely recognizable as human. A God-awful mess. A monster.
I jumped back in shock. “What the fuck is that..?”
The thing in the shed let out a soft sob and disappeared from the window.
I hurried away as Jamie and Erik fell to their knees and howled with laughter. Once I made it back to the road, they stumbled after me, still laughing. I quickly walked back the way we came, hoping to get far enough from the house that I wouldn’t be seen if somebody came out to investigate. Jamie and Erik rushed to catch up with me.
“What was that thing?” I demanded.
“What thing?” Erik put a hand over his mouth to stifle a giggle.
“Seriously, don’t screw with me. What was that? Was that Blister?”
“It sure was,” said Jamie.
“That was fucked up. Don’t do that again.” Furious, I stormed back in the direction of the bar, wishing desperately that I could un-see that grotesque sight.
Despite not having been all that drunk, I woke up with a brain-crushing headache. At least I was in the appropriate bed and alone. I got up, took a four minute and fifty second shower, then got dressed and poured myself a glass of orange juice.
God, what a hideous face.
The best Jamie and Erik could tell me was that Blister was “the town freak.” Then they got distracted with butchering more perfectly good songs. We parted ways back at Doug’s Booze Wasteland, where Doug called them a cab but I passed the breathalyzer test he kept under the counter. I drove back to the cabin and went to bed.
My headache faded a bit as I kayaked on the lake, though the experience wasn’t as relaxing this time. Maybe I just wasn’t an outdoors kind of guy. Or maybe I should buy a container of nightcrawlers and do some more fishing. I’d promised Chuck that I’d lay low for at least a week, and I didn’t want any blood vessels in his head to pop out and thrash around like cobras, so I decided to stick it out and get the worms.
I drove into “town” (which consisted of about six places of business) and went into the grocery store/tackle shop. I took a small plastic tub of worms out of a refrigerator that also contained a variety of carbonated beverages and brought it up to the front counter.
“Doing some fishing?” asked the cashier. He had a full white beard and looked about seventy.
“Just making sure. You look like a worm-eater to me.”
It took me a moment to realize that he was joking. I chuckled—usually I was one making jokes that people didn’t get. “I gave that up earlier this year. Lost twelve pounds since then.”
“Ah, I see. That explains it, then.” He smiled. “That’ll be $2.85.” I handed him a five, and he gave me my change and receipt. “Would you like a bag?”
“Nah, I’m fine.” I picked up the tub and started to leave, then hesitated. “Hey, weird question for you. What do you know about Blister?”
His smile broadened, exposing a rotten tooth on the left side. “I’ll bet you’re not asking about the things you get on your hands and feet.”
“Every town needs a spooky legend, don’t you think? Blister’s ours. Her father keeps her locked out back, never lets her out. I haven’t seen her in years. She may even be dead. Be an act of mercy if she was.”
“What happened to her?”
“Well, some folks say that her mother was a witch, and that on the night she was born—at the stroke of midnight—she ate her way out of her mother’s womb. The child’s skin was deformed, like she was filled with evil bubbling just under the surface, trying to rupture the flesh and spill out.”
I just stared at him.
“That’s horseshit, of course,” he said with a laugh. “Hang out here long enough and you’ll hear a dozen more versions of the Blister story. Truth is, she had a fight with her boyfriend. Nobody knows what caused it, but I think she was a bit too wholesome for him, if you know what I mean. He tied her down and went at her face with a straight razor and a blowtorch. Can you believe that? A blowtorch.”
“Yeah. He ruined her face, all right. I saw it once, and it made me just about sick to my stomach. I’d rather eat that tub of worms you bought than see it again.”
The bell above the door rang as another customer entered. The cashier looked down at the counter, as if he’d been caught gossiping in class by the teacher. I thanked him and left.
So I was vacationing in a town where some nutcase kept his disfigured daughter locked up in a shed. And Chuck was pissed at my behavior.
But as I drove back to the cabin, I realized that I felt like…well, like a complete jerk. Not simply embarrassed because I’d acted like a drunken high school student, but ashamed of my cruel behavior. If the cashier’s story was true—and admittedly, I had my doubts—then Blister had a pretty miserable life, and the last thing she needed was to have idiots like me peeking through her window saying, “What the fuck is that?”
Sure, it was pretty much all Jamie and Erik’s fault, but still…
I kept thinking about the sob she let out after I peeked in the window. What had it been? A sob of humiliation?
I needed to apologize.
Yep, just like the time I was twelve and I broke Mr. Scott’s car window with a BB gun, I needed to suck it up, march over there, knock on the front door, and say that I was sorry. And I needed to do it now, before I convinced myself that it wasn’t important and it became a small but ferocious bit of guilt gnawing away at me after I returned home.
Actually, there was something I needed to do at the cabin first. But immediately after that, I was going to drive back to the brown house in the woods with the shed and apologize to Blister.
* * *
A man sat on the front porch as I pulled into the driveway. He was seated in the broken rocking chair, smoking a cigarette. He stared at me suspiciously as I turned off the engine and got out of my car, a rolled-up sheet of paper tucked under my arm.
“Hi there,” I said.
He nodded, but it wasn’t in a friendly manner. “Hi.”
I walked up onto the porch. The knot in my stomach from the previous night had returned with a vengeance. I assumed that this was the father, and I’d really hoped to avoid him. The situation was uncomfortable enough as it was.
The man was probably in his fifties, and had short but unkempt black hair. His jeans and white t-shirt was covered with grease and dirt—he’d probably just gotten off work. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his face had tough, sharp features.
“My name’s Jason,” I said.
He glared at me. “I’ve already got a church.”
“No, that’s not why I’m here. Look, I feel like a complete jackass being here, but there was an incident last night. Some friends and I had too much to drink and I let them talk me into looking inside the shed.”
The man sat up. “You peeping at my daughter?” His angry tone concerned me a little, as if he might whip out a pocketknife and slam it into my face.
“No, nothing like that. I mean, sort of like that, but we weren’t spying on her or anything. Just a quick glance. I didn’t even know anybody was in there.”
“Well, now you do. And now you can mind your own goddamn business.”
“That’s exactly what I plan to do,” I said. “I’m only here so I can apologize. I really feel terrible about this. There’s no excuse for it.”
The man took a drag from his cigarette. “So apologize.”
“Good. Now you can go.”
I stood there for a moment, feeling awkward. “I was actually here to apologize to your daughter, if that’s okay.”
“It’s not okay.”
“She deserves an apology.”
“I’ll pass on the message.”
I sighed. I could hear the sound of Blister’s sob, playing over and over in my mind. “Sir, I’m not trying to cause problems for anybody. I just think she deserves to hear ‘I’m sorry’ from the guy who behaved like a jerk last night, and I’d feel a lot better about myself if I could apologize in person. And I brought something for her.”
He looked directly into my eyes, as if trying to discern my true intent. Then he shrugged, crushed the cigarette out onto the armrest of the rocking chair, and stood up. “I’ll take you back there. You make it quick, and then I don’t want to see you around here again.”
“Thank you. Your name is…?”
I felt a queasy sense of dread as we walked back to the shed. Why hadn’t I just let him apologize on my behalf? All I’d done was peek in her window; it wasn’t like I needed to drop to my knees and grovel for forgiveness. Maybe I should just say, “Actually, you’re right, I shouldn’t disturb your daughter any further” and head back to the cabin.
No. I needed to do the right thing. I’d failed to do the right thing many, many times during my life, but I was an adult and I wasn’t going to weasel out of a simple apology.
Malcolm rapped on the shed door. “Rachel! I’m bringing in company! Get decent.”
He waited for a moment, then pulled the door open. He walked inside and, after a brief hesitation, I followed him.
The shed smelled nice, as if somebody had been burning cinnamon-scented candles. It really was difficult to even justify calling it a shed from the inside. It was more like a very tiny house, maintained with more love and care than my own place.
Blister—Rachel—sat on her bed. She wore a faded pink nightgown and a porcelain mask. It had small slits for the eyes, rosy cheeks, and a too-wide smile. Very unnerving.
“Hi,” I said.
She said nothing. I couldn’t even be certain that she was looking at me.
I resumed speaking before the silence could become too uncomfortable. “I don’t know if you recognize me. I’m the fool who peeked in your window last night.”
Rachel gave an almost imperceptible nod. It almost looked like a doll that you’re sure you only imagined moved its head.
“That was uncool beyond belief. I will never drink again. I just wanted to come by and say that I’m truly sorry, and I hope I didn’t ruin your evening.”
She remained silent. Her right hand was trembling, and she used it to smooth out her nightgown a bit.
Malcolm stood there, arms folded. “Are you done?”
“Almost.” I pointed to the decorations on the wall. “I saw that you like owls. I’m actually an artist, a cartoonist. My work isn’t as good as the ones you’ve already got, but I did this for you.”
I unrolled the paper and held up the drawing I’d done of an owl. Though I wasn’t that skilled at drawing birds I thought it had turned out pretty well.
She stood up so quickly that I flinched. Just a reflex, but I mentally kicked myself. Great. I was here to apologize, and I was acting like she was some horrific doll-creature coming at me to eat my flesh.
Rachel lowered her head a bit and slowly sat back down on the bed. I walked over to her, forcing myself not to move at a tentative, cautious pace, and handed her the drawing.
She took it from me and held it in front of her mask, looking at it closely. “Thank you,” she said, in a soft, scared voice.
She adjusted her mask and spoke even more softly. “I like it.” She had a pleasant voice, not the ghastly growl or the high-pitched cackle I would’ve expected.
Her father cleared his throat and she placed the drawing in her lap.
“Anyway, it’s just a way of saying I’m sorry.” I shifted a bit, ready to leave. I could feel a trickle of sweat running down the side of my face, but didn’t want to call attention to it by wiping it away.
“People aren’t…people aren’t usually nice to me.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“We’re done here, right?” Malcolm asked.
I took a step toward the doorway. “Anyway, sorry once more about last night, and enjoy the owl.”
“It’s my favorite one. What else do you draw?”
“I do a comic strip. It’s called Off Balance. There aren’t any owls in it. I might add some, now that I’ve had practice. There aren’t that many owls in comic strips, except for that ‘Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute’ one. That’s not a comic strip, though.” I realized that I was nervously babbling and shut the hell up.
“I’d like to read it someday.”
I had the feeling that if I didn’t leave soon, her father really was going to stab me in the face with something, so I quickly stepped out of the cabin. Malcolm followed me, pushing the door closed with more force than was probably necessary.
“You happy now?” he asked.
“Yeah. I just wanted to say I was sorry.”
“And now you have.”
He walked me to the front of the house, then sat back down on his rocking chair, clearly indicating that I was supposed to leave. I got back in my car and drove away.
Wow. That was one of the weirdest, creepiest encounters of my life, and I’d had some weird, creepy encounters over the years.
I was glad it was over.
Anyway, I’d done the right thing and I felt better about myself after paying that little visit. Assuming that she hadn’t already crumpled up the owl picture and asked “Who the hell ever told that untalented hack that he could draw?” I’d made her happy.
Not many people are nice to me…
I didn’t really owe her anything beyond my apology—it’s not like I’d vandalized her home and contaminated her drinking water. A quick “I’m sorry” and a drawing of an owl and my karmic debt was complete.
I had copies of all six Off Balance collections at the cabin. If she wanted to read them, it couldn’t hurt to drop some off. I sure wasn’t going to spend any more quality time with her crabby dad, and I had no intention of carrying on another uncomfortable conversation with a chick in a creepy mask, but why not leave a couple of books by her door? I might get a new fan.
I couldn’t quite explain why I didn’t simply want to erase the incident from my memory. I guess I felt sorry for her. Hard not to feel sorry for a burnt-up girl locked in a shed in the woods. Once I’d burnt my finger on a hot stove and acted like a total baby for the rest of the evening, so I couldn’t even imagine the horror of having her entire face burnt—and cut.
Did it still hurt?
So I’d leave her a couple of books. Add an extra bit of reading pleasure to her life. No big deal.
Blister will be published summer 2016 by Sinister Grin Press. Stay tuned to this website for pre-order information.