Short Story Honourable Mention - June 2013

Christopher Fielden - The El Paso Phantom Feeder

1

An unseasonal storm was throwing a fit the night I found myself seeking shelter in an El Paso hellhole called The Schmuck’s Ruin. Rain poured, wind howled and thunder rumbled as if played by hell’s orchestra.

The Ruin looked as inviting as Hull, but I was wetter than a mermaid’s snatch, so I ignored the bar’s lack of aesthetics and pushed the door open. There was only one other person sitting at the bar when I entered – a grizzled old guy, bigger than a bear with a steroid addiction. He didn’t look up, even when I bent over on the premise of adjusting my sodden boots and gave him a face full of ass. He just sat there, knocking back shots, staring at nothing.

“What do you have to do to get served in this shithole?” I asked.

Old Bear glanced at me. “What you drinkin’, lady?” His voice was deep, with the rasp of a rusted chainsaw.

“Whiskey.”

Old Bear leaned over the bar, helped himself to a drink like he owned the place and slid the glass towards me. I took off my coat, placed a few dollars on the bar and sipped my whiskey, watching Old Bear, wondering if he might be the man I was hunting for.

I was about to try starting a conversation when two young redneck pieces of shit stumbled in through the door. They had a dangerous look, their laughter false and attitude menacing. I could sense they were seeking a spark to ignite their fire, and that fire would probably go up like an inferno, right in the face of whoever was unlucky enough to light it. Pretending to scratch my leg, I unfastened the securing strap on the holster hidden inside my boot, removed the gun and subtly tucked it into my jeans for easy access.

One of the rednecks sat next to Old Bear and prodded his arm with a grimy finger.

“Howdy, ol’ cuss,” he said. “You wanna party?”

Old Bear ignored him.

“Why’d you hang out here? This place is a fuckin’ shit pit.”

Old Bear shrugged.

“Full o’ fuckin’ ass lovin’ fudge lickers.”

Old Bear nodded.

“You like ass, ol’ timer? Smells like you do. Smells like you fuckin’ love it.”

Old Bear went back to ignoring him.

“What’s up, ol’ man? I just messin’ with you, havin’ some fun. Why you bein’ such a dick?” He looked at his brain-dead buddy, who seemed unable to take his dilated eyeballs off my tits, and they both laughed laughs that weren’t laughs. “I done somethin’ to upset your dumb ass?”

“Leave me be, kid,” said Old Bear. “I ain’t good company.”

“Oh shit, ol’ cuss. I just bein’ friendly. What the fuck’s your problem?” As he said this, the redneck prodded Old Bear again.

“I got no problem, kid, it’s all you.” For the first time, Old Bear looked up. His eyes burned with controlled fury. “Now leave me be.”

The redneck stood and knocked the drink from Old Bear’s hand with a childish slap. “You wanna take this outside, ol’ man?”

“Sure thing, kid.”

As Old Bear stood up I realised he was even bigger than I’d first thought. He took off his denim jacket, revealing tattooed arms, decorated with demons, devils and hellfire, and a pendant hanging around his neck on a chain. It depicted a woman nailed to an inverted crucifix. He folded the denim and placed it on the bar.

Sticks and stones looked like they’d have to be hurled by the Incredible Hulk to hurt Old Bear, so names stood no chance. Still, the two rednecks goaded him with puerile insults as they walked towards the door.

As they made their way outside, the one who’d had his eyes super glued to my tits paused in the doorway, turned back and said, “When we done with him, we comin’ to play with you, pretty bitch.”

I blew him a kiss and said, “Can’t wait.”

My lack of fear must’ve annoyed him – I saw a glower set on his spotty mess of a face. “I’m gonna enjoy hurtin’ you.” The redneck drew a knife from his pocket, offered me a humourless grin, and disappeared outside.

To this day, I don’t know what happened outside The Schmuck’s Ruin, amidst the lashing rain, howling wind and cracks of thunder, but a few minutes later Old Bear walked back in, put his jacket on and poured himself another drink. Rain dripped from his greying hair and a shallow cut decorated his forehead. Aside from that, he was exactly as before.

I noticed a killer’s coldness lingering in Old Bear’s eyes. My hunt might be over.

“You talk them down?” I asked.

“Somethin’ like that,” he said.

“They coming back?”

“I doubt it, lady.” He took a swig of liquor. “You Australian?”

“English.”

“Don’t get many limeys in these parts.”

“That’s why I like it,” I lied.

We sat for a while in companionable silence. When I’d finished my whiskey, I said, “What you drinking?”

“Panty Peeler,” Old Bear replied.

“What’s a Panty Peeler?”

“Try one and see.”

I did. I wished I hadn’t. It looked like water and burned like a bad chili relleno.

“Tastes like shit,” I said.

“And your panties are still on.” He gave me a wicked wink. “Better have another.”

I took his advice. By the time I’d had my second, I found myself craving a third and swearing like I had Tourette’s.

“You talk like a guy,” said Old Bear.

“Think like one too. Make you uncomfortable?”

He shook his head. “It’s unusual.”

“My parents died and I was raised by my brothers,” I said. “Got a man’s mouth and a woman’s body.”

As we drank, me and Old Bear got talking, starting with small bites of crap, moving on to bigger chunks of bullshit. His name was Cyrus McGruder and he owned the Schmuck’s Ruin. To my surprise, I found myself liking him. He had a dry sense of humour and a no shit attitude. Not that it mattered. If he was the murdering son of a bitch I guessed him to be, McGruder was going down. I was long overdue a payday and the bounty on a serial killer would sort me out for a year or more.

“You haven’t told me your name,” McGruder said, after returning from a piss break.

“Scarlett Blaine,” I said.

“What you doin’ in this shithole, Scarlett Blaine?”

“I’m a journalist.”

“Journalist, eh?” He didn’t sound like he believed me. Well he sure as shit wouldn’t have guessed my real profession. Your stereotypical bounty hunter doesn’t have my physique. I sound bigger than I look.

“I’m investigating the disappearances,” I said.

“What disappearances?”

“Every few years, during storms, people go missing.”

“First I’ve heard of it.”

“Usually vagrants, people no one would miss.”

“So why give a shit?”

“Someone has to, Cyrus.”

McGruder shrugged and stood up. There was a new distance in his eyes, as though his friendliness had found a last minute bargain on travelsupermarket.com.

“Smoke?” he asked.

Against my better judgement, I said, “Yeah, I’d love one.”

 

2

Outside, the rain was coming down like Niagara and bursts of lightning shredded the shadows. We stood under the porch. McGruder lit a cigarette and passed it to me, then lit one for himself. There was no sign of the rednecks – no sign of anyone.

“You know what I think?” he said.

“Telepathy isn’t my thing.”

“You’re prettier than you are clever.” The way he said this sent a tingle crawling up my neck.

“Well, you’re older than you are wise.”

“Touché, Scarlett Blaine.” He took a quick step towards me.

Crying like a jittery bitch was never my style. I went for my gun.

Moving with a speed that belied his bulk, McGruder grabbed my wrist before my fingers could touch the pistol-grip. I tried to slam my knee into his groin, but he sidestepped and shoved me into the wall, winding me. Before I could catch my breath, he pressed something into my forehead. It burned so bad I screamed, but the noise was lost in the storm. I felt numbness spreading through me. McGruder took a step back and as I fell over I saw the inverted crucifix dangling from his hand. It glowed like fire.

“What have you done to me?” I asked. It was a struggle to enunciate the words – my tongue felt like a swollen slug.

“Marked you as ghost fodder.” I saw a look of genuine remorse on his face. “Sorry, Scarlett Blaine, I ain’t got no choice. I have to feed her, or my soul’s forfeit.”

“Gutless fuck.”

I guess he’d been called worse. He just nodded and said, “Most people are paralysed by her brand. You got fire enough to fight it, but take an old man’s advice. When the phantom comes, don’t resist her. It’ll be a whole lot worse if you do.”

 

3

As McGruder walked back inside the Ruin, I floundered on the porch, trying to stand on legs that wouldn’t do as I commanded. I slipped and smacked my head on the floor. Fuck. This couldn’t be happening.

As I tried to will my limbs into sorting their shit out, the storm tugged at my clothing and clawed at my skin as if it were coming to life. I felt invisible hands gripping my shoulders. They turned me, slamming me onto my back. Hearing a disgusting suckling noise, I watched a shadow take physical form in front of me.

A figure appeared, standing above me. It swayed back and forth, its long black robe sodden with rain.

“What the fuck are you?” I managed to ask, despite the state of my tongue.

It just stood there, swaying, but I discerned a whisper on the wind.

Phantom.

Lightning flashed repeatedly in the distance, banishing the shadows just enough to illuminate the creature. It was a woman, but she looked like a half-hearted imitation of a human, as though someone had sculpted her but lost interest before completing the project, leaving her to rot. Her eyes were red and lidless, her mouth black and slimy, her skin pallid and papery. There was something cruel about the way she watched me, a pitiless look writhing in her eyes and a smirk shrouding her wet mouth. It lacked any compassion or morality.

Never knowing when to shut my mouth, I said, “Euthanasia’s the only cure for that much ugly.”

The rancid smirk slithered from her lips and she lunged, clawing at my face. Her touch was cold and repulsive. Nausea engulfed me. I spewed vomit like I was at an audition for the Exorcist. She moved in quickly, her lips pulling back to reveal pointed teeth protruding from rotten gums.

Instinctively, I fought the numbness in my limbs, willing them to move. Somehow, I managed to lash out. My thumbs found her eyes. I pushed and they sank into her sockets, down to the knuckle.

Thank you, the wind whispered.

A light drifted from the phantom’s mouth, travelling free on her final breath. For a second, I saw a woman’s face shimmer above me. There were tears in her eyes. As quickly as she’d appeared, she faded into the night.

The phantom’s body started to crumble over me. Excruciating pain engulfed me. As I writhed and screamed I saw that my skin was rotting, my flesh decaying.

McGruder returned from inside the Ruin and stood on the porch, watching me.

A new pain suddenly erupted behind my eyes. It felt like something was eating my brain. “Help me,” I pleaded.

“Can’t.” He lit a cigarette. “You fought her and won. The curse has been transferred. You’re becoming the phantom.”

I screamed as tendrils of pain lashed around inside my skull.

“I warned you,” McGruder said.

The pain suddenly stopped.

I don’t like being told. My voice was the wind, the wrath of the storm. You’ll feed me?

McGruder nodded. “I have to. I’m as cursed as you.”

I stood and felt the weight of a storm sodden cloak about my shoulders.

See you, McGruder.

“Soon, Scarlett Blaine,” replied the feeder. “Too soon.”

The wind banshees shrieked and electricity split the sky with forks of death light. Drawn by the storm, I reached for the wind. And flew.

*****

About The Author

Christopherfielden

Chris lives in Bristol in the UK. He published his first novel, Wicked Game, through Lulu in 2010 and released a Kindle version on Amazon in 2012. He is addicted to writing stories, riding motorcycles and playing drums in rock bands (not all at the same time). You can read more of Chris’s published stories on his website, where he uses them as case studies to try and help other writers achieve publication.

www.christopherfielden.com

https://twitter.com/chrisfielden