Andrew Kozma’s fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, DIAGRAM, and Bound Off. His book of poems, City of Regret (Zone 3 Press, 2007), won the Zone 3 First Book Award. He lives in Houston, Texas. Here, exclusively online as number 6 in our Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase series, he pens us a fine and concise tale of horror. Enjoy!!
The Trouble-Men, by Andrew Kozma
Over the far hills, I saw them coming, but it was too late to run. They had seen me through the eyeholes in their masks. Their heads followed me as I instinctively backed towards the house.
But what could I do except make the best of it?
I stopped retreating. Instead, I walked towards them with my hand held out, a smile scarring my face. I said, “Hello. My name is Alexander Schlemiel. Welcome to my humble home.”
If I say so myself, I even managed to sound like I meant it. They weren’t welcome, this wasn’t my home, and my name is not, and never has been, Alexander Schlemiel.
But I knew them.
They were the Trouble-Men, and they were men or once had been. One of them carried a thick stick with which you might beat a dog, and then throw it for the dog to fetch. And the dog would.
The Trouble-Men ignored my hand. They stopped a few yards away and stood there, posing as though for a picture, as if wanting me to get a good look, perhaps the last good look of my life. I kept smiling, my teeth beginning to dry out in the air, the muscles in my face cramping, but I kept smiling. I obliged them.
They wore seamless costumes over their entire bodies, leaving only their eyes peeking through ill-shaped holes and their lips slipping through lopsided rectangles, and their hands – oh, their hands – poking from the sleeves like bouquets of weeds. The costumes were black and dull, dirty from travel and stained with, well, I didn’t want to think about the stains.
From out of the group stepped one who wasn’t dressed in black. His costume was motley, like a court jester’s, a shotgun-blast of brightly-colored diamonds on a white base. Instead of eye-holes there were burlap circles, and his mouth was trapped behind a tight strip of lip-colored cloth. He was shorter and thinner than the rest, but I was sure that behind the mask was a face that could flay flesh from bones with the power of its stare.
They wanted me to look at them, and I did. I even tried to put a little tremble into my right leg, as though I was frightened. And I was frightened, but I didn’t want them to know that, and I also didn’t want them to know that I didn’t want them to know that. My right foot tapped out a shaky SOS on the concrete.
When the world began to dissolve, they rose in the news like the freak frog-storms and the town-devouring sinkholes, just another force of nature. AP bursts tracked them across the country, or tried to. The Trouble-Men followed no pattern. They disappeared into the ground like a summer rain. They burst from the earth they’d sunk into like cellared mushrooms, smelling of dirt and decay and death.
They fed on rumors, or rumors fed on them.
Whole neighborhoods had vanished to the Trouble-Men. They led the elderly into volcanoes and stuck children up amongst the stars. If you looked at them wrong, your eyes would fall out, and new eyes would grow in their place that couldn’t ever look wrong, but would never look right again. Their clothes were the tanned hides of those who had killed themselves to escape the Trouble-Men. They knew all your secrets, even the ones you had forgotten, but they would never tell them to anyone and, now, neither would you.
That’s what people said when the Trouble-Men came up in conversation. No one I knew had ever met them, and no one had ever seen them. Entire flocks of reporters had disappeared investigating the Trouble-Men, with no pictures or sound bites to show for it.
But now that they were before me, I could see that the Trouble-Men looked exactly as I had imagined, even down to the lop-sided, floppy fabric horns attached to the sides of their heads and the bagginess of their clothing. They looked so much like they were supposed to that I couldn’t help smiling. I mean, I was already smiling, but the smile that that smile sprung into was a real smile. A croaking chuckle bumped up my throat.
The motley-clad Trouble-Man raised his right arm and pointed at me.
The Trouble-Man with the stick pounded it once into his open palm.
The chuckle crawled back down my throat a whimper.
“Hey,” I said, trying to be casual. “Hey, no call for that now. Come on inside, take a load off, and I’ll make some tea.”
I turned and walked inside, a tidal wave at my back. If they struck me now, it would be over quick. But I made it to the door – which was mercifully unlocked – and into the house and to the kitchen where a teapot lay on the stove, still warm. In a drawer, I found some Darjeeling, and filled cups with bags and set those cups around the small table where the Trouble-Men already were, silent as mice. Until the teapot screamed, they said nothing, and then they said nothing more.
They sipped their tea, even the motley Trouble-Man bringing the cup to his fabric-skinned lips, never touching the cup, but the tea disappearing all the same.
“So,” I said, my smile beginning to crack like plaster, my nerves frayed shoelaces. “How have you been?”
The stick thumped against the Trouble-Man’s thigh.
Outside, the sun was already dead. Only a few hours ago, it had been morning, but the sun, like everything else, no longer followed its own rules. The one bulb in the kitchen flattened the room, and us in it, painting us as though we were on stage and all around us a shoddy set.
“I’ve been well,” I said. “You know, lots of changes, same as everyone. My wife left me.”
I spat out the last. It was true. The Trouble-Men watched me as though I were a fly or a roach, waiting for me to make the first move before they stomped me flat.
“We’d grown apart,” I added. I couldn’t stop talking now. They were the judges, and I had to tell them something. “I had an affair with a woman I didn’t even like, just to hurt her. I sabotaged my boss, fixing the accounts to make it look like he’d been embezzling. He never complimented me.”
The stick rat-a-tat-tatted the linoleum floor.
“In the last days of her life, I never visited my mother. I didn’t answer her calls. She’d leave long, desperate messages on my phone, and I would listen to them, smiling. I don’t know why.”
I was smiling now. The words fell from my mouth like worms and toads and turds. They filled the small kitchen that now seemed the only place in the entire world that was real, and these Trouble-Men before me, the only inhabitants. Even myself, I didn’t feel real. I was a dream of theirs. I was their muse. I was the genius inspiring their steps across the earth, dictating their every move.
“I pushed Johnny in the mud in fourth grade, and held him there.”
The motley Trouble-Man rose like smoke from a smoldering fire. Ever so slowly, he reached up to the bare bulb that burned so hot I could feel the heat of it from where I stood. His fingertips closed on the glass with a sizzle.
“I told every boy in the ninth grade that Lisa was a slut and would do anything they asked.”
With glacial patience, the motley Trouble-Man turned the bulb, shadows jittering over the room like spiders.
“This isn’t my house. I came here to take whatever I could, even if I had to kill for it.”
The bulb turned.
“My name isn’t Alexander Schlemiel.”
The bulb turned. I couldn’t remember what my name was.
“Look, just let me go.”
The bulb turned.
“I’ve told you everything I know!”
The bulb turned. It was nearly free of its socket. The air was tainted with the smell of burnt skin.
“I don’t want to die,” I said.
With a final twist of the Trouble-Man’s wrist, he wrung all the light from the world.
“You will,” he said kindly.