A special excerpt from one of six stories in Mental Shrillness
It was his quest for the suspension of reality that held Damon Brooks captive.
He pressed another key on his laptop and wished that he could POOF! Disappear like the magician he'd always wanted to be. Life had become hideously normal. He was happily married, gainfully employed, overstocked with worldly belongings. He had everything but the daughter Linda's doctor said they'd never have without the aid of adoption.
A sound stirred his daze.
"Linda, you hear that?"
Linda snored softly, rhythmically, her half-finished romance novel guarding her breasts. Damon peeled back the blinds and saw the bushes rustling. He heard the guttural sound again.
His breath caught upon seeing its depthless green-orange eyes. Damon edged his nose closer to the glass. He put a hand against the cool pane.
"What the hell are you?" he whispered.
It crept slowly from the bush, half-crawling, half-walking away. The streetlight's faint beam grazed its face and Damon gasped, pulling instinctively away. His nose and breath left a pregnant fog.
Whatever creature it was its gestures were universally familiar.
It was wounded.
Damon turned to Linda who remained shackled by her dream. He pushed past his unfinished paperwork and unclosed briefcase, entering the hallway. Moving quicker, he slipped on his black loafers and moved into the kitchen. He grabbed a flashlight and his gun from the compartment beneath the sink.
He checked to see that it was still loaded. Linda was forever the spooked one when it came to prowlers and insisted upon it. Flicking on the flashlight, Damon stepped into the night and turned toward the bush.
"Nrrro liiight," the voice grated across Damon's brain. He quickly snapped the light off, but kept the queer target centered.
He started to ask what it was again and it rose what faintly resembled a paw. The paw-thing was wet and gleamed in the faint light. Bloody.
"Are you a dream?"
"I am an Illusion."
"Illusion?" Damon said, stepping closer. The gun wavered in his hand. "You are neither man nor animal, what are you?"
"No time for further explanation, Damon."
It knows my name, Damon mouthed but made no sound. His finger twitched on the trigger.
"Y-you a-are a d-dream."
"I am dying."
The bloody paw rose again and the Illusion made a loud, strangled throaty sound.
"I'll call 911," Damon started away.
"Only you can help me. You must take it to Harry. Your turn. Youuu." It raised the paw even higher into the faint beam of the streetlight. Harry moved closer, the gun practically shaking from his hand.
He moved closer.
He saw the bloody paw and his stomach somersaulted. Closer.
Damon reached. Only inches from the mangled paw.
The Illusion jerked and knocked the gun out of Damon's hand.
The neighbor Doberman’s started barking.
Damon raised the flashlight in defense but almost instantly realized the illusion wasn't fighting. The pungent odor struck his nostrils next. He blinked several times, watching its death spasms.
Damon lowered himself and re-clicked the flashlight. The light's beam sawed through the flesh of the Illusion, melting it like a candle. He saw its eyes fuse with its long bony nose. Its three red-white teeth outside its face pooled in the hot beam of the light.
As Damon watched the light rapidly cremate the Illusion, the realization of what was in its mangled paw seized his mind.
Damon awoke the next morning, showered, shaved and went straight for his jeans. Linda watched, just pulling down her covers.
"Damon, it's Friday, dear. Not Saturday."
"Not going to work today, honey."
Linda reeled from the bed. "Not feeling well?"
"You could say that," Damon pulled up his jeans and buttoned his shirt. "I've got to find Harry."
"The carnival in town. He works there. A magician, I think."
Damon slapped his tennis shoes on and kissed Linda. "An unfulfilled dream."
Karper & Sons Carnival inhabited the outskirts of Medina like a storm cloud. Once a year it fell over Medina and sucked money from the townspeople. A week later sunshine reappeared. Damon Brooks penetrated the open gate on its second day of business.
He passed the carnies and various rip-off midway games. The nearly impossible ring toss, the slightly bent machinegun with red star gag, the dart--
"Three for five bucks, mister, give it a try." The carnie started lowering the darts and quickly reclaimed them upon catching Damon's odd stare.
Damon's mind stirred with the picture of the enigmatic Harry. He'd woken with Harry's visage etched in his mind. Damon started to ask where to find Harry when a hand tapped his shoulder.
"This way," the tattooed-faced man said. His entire face was a jigsaw puzzle.
Damon followed the short man across the midway and into a huge black tent.
Inside there were rows of bleachers and a short set of stairs leading up to a vacant stage.
"Harry will come."
"Wait. How do you know who I'm here for?"
"Call me Stag." He rolled up his white sleeve and showed Damon a tattoo of a set of haunting orange-green eyes on his right bicep.
ONLY YOU CAN HELP ME. YOU MUST TAKE IT TO HARRY. YOUR TURN. YOUUUU.
Stag started walking away.
"Wait! What am I doing here? Why am--Stag, please!"
Damon wanted to run, jet as far away from the carnival but his legs were uncooperative. Instead he turned toward the stage.
Slowly his legs moved him down the aisle and up the stage. There was a table with a red tablecloth and black magician's cap. He reached, touched, and felt it crawl up his arm and under his skin.
The scream surfaced in his throat but lodged unspent.
He picked up the hat and placed it on his head.
He turned to the crowd and Mom and his stepfather Denny clapped.
"For my next trick I will pull a rabbit out of this..." He reached into the hat and paused. Staring into the small crowd he caught his mother's mascara-smeared eyes. She looked up but wouldn't lock eyes with him.
Damon reached into the hat and felt the mousetrap SNAP! his fingers.
The laughing in his head began. The crowd unwittingly applauded. There was Denny in the front row grinning evilly. The drunk from the abyss. He'd never belonged in either of their lives. He was the crack in the mirror, continuing to ripple and fragment until he--
"--took her to Satan?"
Damon turned, startled.
A tall man with straight black hair and a knobby face nodded slowly.
"She was a good woman -- my mother -- but Denny brought her misery."
"And that mousetrap thing... that was his idea of a joke?"
Damon raised his right index and middle fingers. "Broke them in two places."
"Denny blamed it on you, too. What were you, only ten years old?"
"Yes, said it was me just craving attention. Nobody ever believed me."
The man moved closer into the spotlight and took the magician's hat. He held his hand out. "I am Harry, Damon."
Damon shook Harry's hand, managing a smile. He was disturbed that everyone seemed to know him.
"Your confusion right now is warranted. An Illusion escaped last night."
"We've known of its insecurities and instabilities around here for some time. It wanted out. For its own, well, complicated reasons. Stag was its guardian and friend. He felt betrayed and despondent. We almost had two tragedies last night."
"What the hell did it do to me? I feel...not right."
"Quid pro quo. It took your normal life in exchange for..."
Damon's eyes raised and then darted around the empty auditorium. "Wait one damn minute I'm not..."
"You're not what?" Harry replied slowly.
Damon tried picturing what happened to his real father. He could only focus on his stepfather's wicked scowl. It was one of many first pieces that had eerily vanished from his memory.
"I...I'm having trouble..."
"This is how it begins. Soon you will lose all but pertinent pieces of your identity, Damon. Don't fear, we will assist you with the process. You are among us, now."
Damon fell to one knee and then a sitting position. He stared ahead, falling, falling deeper into the chasm inside his mind while Harry spoke steadily in his ear.
"You dreamed of being a magician more than anything, remember?"
Read the conclusion of "The Illusion" and five other twist ending horrror short stories in Mental Shrillness