A little short story I wrote, inspired by ideas had while grading over in Fenwick.
The Coughing Fit
Mark was sitting less than pleasantly by his less than pleasant self at a small library desk which, coincidentally, was less than pleasant. Mark was uncertain how much he believed in coincidences, but was quite certain that this seat, himself, and his manner of sitting were all most definitely less than pleasant.
Mark was working hard at doing nothing – that is, nothing that he enjoyed doing, and nothing that was getting him anywhere in life. Mark had found himself finding work for the last several years, floundering through most of it like some miserable fish on a dock. For all of it, Mark thought himself ill-defined: he was neither overly dumpy nor particularly thin, in no way muscular or handsome, with a poorly shaved face that came off as patchier than it ought to. Mark was a man among men, a runner upon that mill of humanity, and his most fervent hope was to somehow stand out without having to do anything special. Such is the dream of many men, all run of the mill, and Mark himself was no different.
He had been making especially strong strides on this particular batch of nothing that he had to do, due on an unimportant but swiftly approaching deadline, and he felt the smallest tinge of satisfaction in his productivity. He was a machine, a force with which to be reckoned. Yet here he was, working, alone, letting his dreams slip him by- whatever it was they had been when he had had dreams – and now he was about to accomplish someone else’s deadline and deliver his weekly deliverable.
He was working in the library as a point of necessity. The power at home had been as spotty as his pay was lackluster, and he found himself getting too little signal for that magical internet which allowed him to connect not only to work but to every distraction he needed in order to make his work an eight hour exercise. So, wanting for internet and electricity, he had quit his rather drab and ill kempt welling and sauntered with relative aim over to the library.
Mark enjoyed sauntering. It was, he thought, one of his greater skills. He could saunter with the best of them. If there had been a prize for sauntering, why, he would have it.
Only right now, he was no longer sauntering. He was meeting a deadline. Crunches were his best time to accomplish work, and here he was, crunching away on a small, antiquated computer whose internet was somehow vastly superior to his own. He was nearly positive he was eighty percent finished. Well, maybe not eighty percent. What was a percentage, anyway? Would he be graded, like in the first twenty odd years of his life, with a decent grade for eighty percent? No. Would he be rewarded in anyway? No. He would be allowed to do more work for someone who didn’t know his name and didn’t give a rat’s-
And that was when he heard the coughing.
It was a good, hard cough. A racking, heaving cough that went on like a roller coaster of wind and phlegm from some distant but all-to-close corner of the library. And it was his first distraction since he had sauntered over to library.
Knowing that he could saunter no more until his work was done, Mark took to thrilling in the exercise of looking around for the source of the overly loud cough.
He looked behind himself. But he knew it hadn’t come from there, he thought as his eyes passed over dinged-up bookshelves full of overlooked tomes. He wheeled his chair around and craned his neck over his little wooden cubicle.
He was seated in a sort of hall between bookshelves, left especially wide for wanderers and perusers to pass each other by. His cubicle was one such in a row of cubicles, equipped each with like computers, donated by tax dollars and people with too much money. In front of him stretched six rows of bookshelves, numbered and sorted in that odd dewie system he remembered learning about vaguely in gradeschool. Beyond the shelves was another little walkway, then more shelves, then the old brick library wall.
He leaned left. Nobody. Then right: someone passing through, an older man. No. The cough, he thought to himself, had been a woman’s cough.
With a little shrug, he ceased his efforts, as the disctraction was becoming a task, and returned to his productivity. These files weren’t going to process themselves, after all.
He was getting back into the rhythm, the glare of the computer screen no longer bothering his eyes, his mouse clicking like a thing alive as he checked, double checked, updated, cross checked, stamped, dated, signed, and cc’d each document. He was a man on mission, and he would change his company forever, and maybe Susan down in HR would flash him one of her cheesecake smiles she only flashed at the bigwigs, and…
And the coughing struck out again. A shot from the strangest corners of the library, somewhere deep and dense, hidden away. Maybe a bathroom, he thought. But it was the same, great hacking as before, but this time longer, almost with a kind of rhythm to it (the kind that one assigns to meaningless patterns).
Immediately he was out of his own rhythm – Mark was off-mark. He had to be nearly done, he was sure, but by god were his eyes sore. And maybe that was carpal tunnel he was feeling in that left hand there… But he was so close.
Back into the fray of white and black he went, arial fonts filling in spaces previously blank on documents both utilitarian and nihilistic. Almost there. He could finish this up, and then saunter back home. Maybe it was cooler out. That could be nice. Hopefully not too cool, though.
God, there were so many forms.
Then the coughing wailed out again, softer but more painful. There was a good deal of phlegm to be had somewhere in the library, and someone was having all of it.
But Mark was undeterred. He was a God of productivity, a little marvel of engineering wired to focus-
And coughing again! Honestly, he thought, this is just…
Maybe someone needed help.
Someone else would help, he was sure. He set back to that keyboard and his rhythm and the clicks and – really? There it was again. No rhythm to it, no structure, just a hacking that made his own throat hurt in what little partition of his brain held empathy.
It was that same partition that he cursed as he stood and left his cubicle. He was definitely at 95% done. He was so close.
Yet here was was, wandering down the carpeted rows between the bookshelves, seeking out the source of the coughing. It was more constant now, and he was fairly certain it was coming from the women’s bathroom.
Ninety-five percent. Funny how in school that was rewarded, but in business, the five percent left unaccomplished was held against you. People would lodge sticks so far up their hindquarters when they underpaid you. And here was some sick old nun hacking her heart out, discourteously distracting him. Maybe when he found her, he would give her a piece of his mind. He was trying to work here, after all. Some people had jobs.
The number of retirees he had seen in the library over the past months had been ridiculous. It was like a mecca for the bluehairs. He sort of resented them: their slowness, their intolerance, their inability to negotiate. Well. When he said negotiate he really meant give any ground at all because, after all they thought they deserved everything they were getting, all of which, by the by, was free, and… well, crap, here he was, being a solid samaritan and checking on this mystery geezer when surely come Monday, Todd, the new monkey in charge of budgeting, would breathing down Mark’s neck all day unless Mark got more work done.
How dare this old lady cough like this? Didn’t she know how hard he was working?
All old people were the same. If they had a problem, they didn’t care who knew, they’d make a fuss all the same. Well, they’d been through work and they’d saved and kudos to them for that, but some people still had their whole working lives ahead of them, thank you very much, and just to keep that nine to five and that petence of a paycheck, Mark had to complete his deliverables. So here he was, and honestly, he was none too pleased to be so close to getting work done, and this old – whatever she was- just kept on hacking. Mark wasn’t sure it was going to stop. He’d ask her nicely to keep it down, maybe. He’d offer her something, maybe just let her know it was bothering him, and really, that she should be a little more considerate in a public building, and…
And there in one of the study rooms was an old lady, bent over her chair, coughing. She was in a deep red shawl, riddled with intricate letters and designs of a language that Mark couldn’t recognize. She had long raven hair that was going to gray in frilly strands, and her face was pocked and lined with age, spotted with moles like a painter’s tarp. A thin hand was covering her mouth and holding a very well made handkerchief with the same designs on it as her shawl. She was a dumpy old lady, having given herself over to fat in her age, and her black robe under the shawl did no good to complement herself.
Mark felt himself almost pitying her. At least he wasn’t old, even if life had stood him up.
He opened the door and poked his head in.
“Hey.” He said. It felt informal enough. “You alright?”
The old foreign looking bat looked up at him with a beaky nose and eyes that glinted black and green. Her face was blank.
“Can I get you anything? Some water?” He went on. Try to seem courteous, it’s better than telling her to shut up.
She waved him off with her free hand, a withered and knotty thing. Her face crinkled.
He thought about leaving, but she started to breath deep again, like as to hack.
That was when he fully entered the room, standing there. What was he doing?
“Breath.” He said. “Get a good deep breath and just let it out.”
The door shut behind him. She breathed in.
The room was still except for that odd buzzing that counts for silence in buildings. Something banged dully in the airducts a few feet up.
She breathed out and considered him for a moment. The buzzing was deafening.
“So um.” He sort of started, wishing he’d just left. Maybe stayed at his cubicle. “Did that help?”
He thought he saw her smile. It was a weird, wicked smile, and he swore he saw part of a sickly caramel colored snaggletooth. He felt behind him to open the door. Sure, it worked – she had stopped coughing. He felt very odd, like he should definitely leave.
But the doorhandle was locked. That was also odd. The darned thing must have gotten jammed.
His mind raced to Todd in budgeting and to Susan in HR and they were doing terrible things in front of him because he hadn’t made his deliverables, and for some reason Todd had Mark’s mother’s face, and just kept saying ‘we’re so disappointed in you.’ And honestly, the brain is a stupid thing sometimes, because none of this was Mark’s fault, and he had come here just to solve a problem, and -
“Mark.” It was the old woman. Her mouth had barely moved.
“Mark.” She had a very familiar voice. Was she like, a relative, or… or how did she know his name?
“Mark.” It was like a reproach, and he let go of the jammed door.
“Do I,” he started, his mouth inexcusably dry, “do I know you?”
“Everyone knows me.” Said the old woman. She definitely had a snaggle tooth. For what she had in the way of teeth, anyway. Mark realized that her breath smelled very bad.
“That’s good,” he said. Wonderful. She was crazy, and the door was jammed. Wonderful. He turned to look out the glass to see if anyone spotted him.
“Mark.” She said, “Turn around.”
“Hey, if you work here, can you like, fix this thing?” He asked. That was how she knew his name – she was one of the librarians. Wasn’t she? He didn’t know, it made sense, she must have seen his library card or…
He hadn’t ever really used his library card.
“Turn around, Mark.”
He did it, leaning against the glass, nonchalantly. Well, sort of. He kind of slipped a bit and tried to recover, but the moment was definitely past and… and she smelled, really, really old.
She was sitting back now, looking very satisfied with herself.
“That door won’t unlock.” There was that semi-snaggle-toothed smile again. What was so darned pleasing about all this? “ Shut up in there, Mark. You’re talking to yourself in your head again.”
Yes, but didn’t everyone?
“Yes, but not everyone as insipid as you. So please. Just shut up, and listen.”
“Mark,” her voice was definitely familiar – where had he heard it before? “You won’t be getting out of this room with the door jammed. You say to yourself, yes, I will ask someone outside to let me in. But Mark, no one can see you out there. No one can see me either. This room is dark and empty and locked, as far as anyone out there knows. Now, you immediately question me and think perhaps this old bat is full of herself. But really, what does it matter if I am lying or telling the truth? Trick or no trick, no one else cares that you’re in here, no one really knows. We’re off in one small corner of a very small library, and I believe that you have somewhere else you have to be. By your manner, anyway.”
“If you want to get out of here, you’re going to have to do me a favor.”
Oh no, he thought. This is one of those awkward old people sex things he had clicked on once not really meaning to when he was twenty. Oh god.
“Not that kind of favor.” Was she reading his mind?
“Obviously. I have established that I can, and that in this room, I have absolute power. Well, I suppose I only just established that, but the fact remains. Now. You need my help. There’s a door you want to open, and only I can set you free.”
“Stop.” Mark was talking now, this had gone on long enough. The room smelled very bad, thanks to this old bat, and he was definitely not getting into any shades of gray business with her. “Stop. You are old, and lonely, sure, that’s fine. But honestly, acting like you can read my mind is only making me think that you’re crazier. Okay? Okay. So. Look, if you don’t open this door, I can’t get you any water. For that cough.”
The room was somehow getting darker, which was very strange. The fluorescents seemed not to flicker, just… the shadows were getting longer. He’d been working too long.
“Ah yes, you’ll go and get me water and never come back, and think to yourself, what a clever ploy to play on a senile old woman just to get away from an awkward conversation. So go ahead, Mark. Go get me that water.”
His hand was on the doorknob again, turning it futilely. It wouldn’t budge.
“All you have to do is open that door.” Even her voice had a snaggletooth smile.
Then Mark realized that the glass between him and the library was fogged over with black mold. He could sort of make out that outside of it, there was another space, but the window was just… thick with the stuff.
“Who are you?” He asked. Her voice was so familiar, and somehow sinister. Mark felt a weird hollow in the pit of his stomach.
“Good.” Said the old woman, who as Mark turned, he found standing behind the table, playing with her little kerchief. “Enough parlor tricks and you realize that I mean business.”
“I have curst you, Mark. You are unable to leave this room until you promise to do me a favor. Now, I won’t pull an odd deal on you. You’ve let yourself be walked on enough. I will meet you halfway. I simply want you to bring me a simple, small item. That is all. Promise me that you will do it, and I will let you go.”
Mark didn’t have the slightest who this batty foreigner was, but everything was definitely out of whack, and something deep in his mind was telling him ‘do not bargain.’
The shadows were getting deeper, and seemed like the only light in the room came from something inside of the old woman’s handkerchief. It took Mark a moment, but he was almost certain that in there was a little candle. And the smell of the room… like the light, that smell emanated from that handkerchief as well, he was sure.
The old woman was thrown into a new kind of focus in the blackness around them. Every wrinkle and wart on her face made a pattern not unlike that which he had seen on her shawl.
“I want you to bring me an item. Is that so very hard?”
Meekly, Mark muttered back, “What?”
“Sorry?” The old creatured asked, the shadow-shapes dancing on her face.
“What. Item.” Mark felt strangely strong right now. He had never… never really stood up for himself. It felt kind of good. Then the crone smiled a full smile, and the brown-orange shards of teeth she possessed filled him with a kind of fear.
Those teeth have eaten children.
He didn’t know her, but he knew her. He didn’t recall her name, but he knew that everyone knew her, and feared her, whoever it was that she was. He had seen her in dreams. He had fled her cottage, that strange tell-tale place told of in horrors to little children. That broken building, watered down in waking day tales to let its full ferocity roam in their dreams by night.
“You know already. Good. A child’s heart will suffice. But then. Not any heart, no. I need the heart of Henrietta Colette.”
Mark’s eyes went wide. The Colette’s were Susan’s family, Henrietta was her niece. Mark had no particular attachment to Susan besides really really wanting to sleep with her some days, but seriously, this was… if she ever found out…
“Oh, Mark. She need never know. Children run away all the time. They’re real monsters, they are.”
Delicious monsters, he thought.
Maybe it had been a candied house. No, that was wrong. Was it a castle of ice with statues about it? Perhaps. He knew her of old, and he knew that bargaining was wrong. He had just never envisioned her lair as a room, in some library.
“Yes, we both know who I am, and how really irrelevant all the titles and names are. Mark. Do you want to leave? You’ve bargained nicely, you know.”
She was patronizing him. He had no reason to bring her anything, besides that. Well. He was really screwed here. And he felt that, if he did do what she asked, he was screwed as well. This was utterly ridiculous.
“So what will it be, then, Mark? Will you bring me the heart of Henrietta Colette?”
Many questions came to mind. Why, where, how, what, holy crap you crazy old lady are you seriously a…
“Yes.” She said, her breath and her voice filling the room, which was now just a pinpoint of candlelight in what felt light a cold, cold woodland.
But the one question that escaped his lips would define Mark for the rest of his life.
“How dare you?” he asked. And when the old crone’s face looked insulted, he dove right into it.
“No, really, how dare you? I came here, out of my way, to come and… and… help you. Somehow. Alright. I gave up on finishing a job, that, granted, I can’t stand. But. I came here to get you help, to check on you, to make sure that, whoever you were, you were okay and, and what, not dying, which, which I guess, You, being You, you don’t do, but… But seriously, how unfair of you. You don’t get to make a deal with me. You don’t get to lock a door and make me… I mean, honestly, a kid’s heart? That’s just. No. Screw you. Screw you and your black magic and your trick candle handerkerchief coughing. Screw you. Screw you.”
The woodland was quiet, save for a whistling of a foul wind. The midnight around them was black and cold, and Mark felt himself shivering. The only warmth came from that cursed little candle.
“You dare address me.” Said the old woman, more runes and shadows than form now, somehow much bigger than she had been. She seemed to stretch up to the very boughs of the high trees that somehow had formed around them. “You speak to me as one would speak to a mortal thing? You throw at me your morality? Spare me your complaints, you miserable creature. You are nothing. Among nothingness, you are less. The insignificant about you mean more than you ever will.”
“Then let me go.” He heard himself say.
And something struck him. A whip, it felt like, but thorny and reeking of earth. It lashed him on the tender parts of his ankles, and he stumbled forward, crying out.
“Mortal. You have little chance left now. You are in my house, and I am supreme here. You will do this task for me.”
Mark started coughing. The nightmare woman looked down at him with eyes that were echoes of candles and not eyes, with wrinkles that were branches and skin that was a stretching tarp strung up from the skins of children. And Mark coughed again. But he coughed louder, and longer. He forced himself to cough, and not to stop coughing. And he made his coughs bigger and bolder and strove to bring up phlegm and spittle.
He kept it up as long as he could, until the coughing died down and his throat felt raw. The horror before him stared down as it had before, but grand, and hideous.
“You are a fool, mortal.”
“And you are inconsiderate. What, you trap people with empathy? Shouldn’t they trespass somehow? Shouldn’t there be some kind of moral to the pain you inflict?” His ankles were throbbing.
“I am not a servant to the laws of man,” said the child-skin face. It began to bend around him, to make a room of weirdly stretched eyes and a snaggle-tooth grimace that stretched zipper-like into a maw that was night and darkness. The room spoke all around him now,
“You and your kind pretend at kindness, but all that you do is to serve your sole selves. You left that little desk to stop me, to end my fit, to fix a problem, not for anyone but yourself. You complained bitterly all the way to me, I can feel it in your heart, Mark, and throughout the dreams that rang around your mind as you opened that door. You are no better than I, mortal. But you, worthless thing, you have no power here. You have only to serve me now, to serve me or to die.”
And the nightmare was complete. The maw practically engulfed him, and Mark simply thought to himself, “This is ridiculous.”
“Will you bring me the child’s heart?”
The voice in the back of his head cried out again, ‘do not bargain.’
And Mark said “no.”
The old woman rose from her desk, wound her way back to the cubicle where her papers lay. She looked over her emails and the forms she had been filling out ever so diligently. She liked it here in the library, working peacefully. At home, the power was… infrequent, and the internet spotty. She sat down, cracked her knuckles, and typed out the last five percent of her documents. She sent out her work notice so that that young Todd in budgeting would give her that Ken doll smile he had, and maybe that little hussy Susan would stop going on about her over-achieving niece, Henrietta whatever. Honestly, this old body should have retired years ago, she thought to herself.
Picking up her papers, she sauntered out of the library. Given over to fat though she was, she could still saunter for a bit.
The raven haired old woman in the patterned shawl waited a half hour for the bus, massaging her old legs and her throat. She felt like she had hacked up a lung. Honestly, it was getting tough being as old as she was.
Then with a squeak and squeal of tires, the local bus pulled up, hissed open its doors, and the crone ascended slowly, muttering to herself about the stairs on the bus.
She sat down near the front and looked out the window.
In the reflection on the glass was the face of a man whose name she couldn’t remember, but whom she somehow knew. This face was neither overly dumpy nor particularly thin, in no way muscular or handsome, and poorly shaved so that it came off patchier than it ought to.
The face made a fog – or was it her breath? Wasn’t it her breath?
As she stared, the writing appeared in front her. That face, and the phrase it wrote, which it never stopped writing, would haunt her and taunt her for the rest of her days. It simply wrote, and ever kept writing,
‘How dare you.’