I decided to make my avatar/logo match my art style more, so I drew something last night. What do you think?
I decided to make my avatar/logo match my art style more, so I drew something last night. What do you think?
My husband’s last words were an accusation. Nathan blamed me for his death even before it happened by his own hand. Nathan had always been like that, in life and in death, always finding ways to make his mistakes someone else’s fault, usually mine.
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.”
Some way or another he’d twist things, until I was on my knees and begging for forgiveness. His last words were intentional, one last shot from the grave…a guarantee that I’d never be free. His death was my fault, he wouldn’t let me forget it. Death guaranteed the last word, an argument won and closed forever.
We’d been in the middle of a messy divorce when it happened. Nathan kept the rent controlled apartment… I slept on a friend’s couch. To be honest, I didn’t care; the scratchy fibers of the couch felt like freedom, something I hadn’t had for a long time.
The only real point of contention was our dog, Piper. That, and the fact that Nathan didn’t actually believe I wanted a divorce; he thought I was trying to prove a point. While he waited for me to ‘come to my senses’… he used Piper as leverage. It broke my heart when he refused to let me see her. On the rare days he allowed it, Nathan was sure to remind me what an act of benevolence it was.
My threshold for his bullshit only lasted a good year and a half into our marriage before I started worrying over ways out. The prospect of divorce was enough to get the pews at church abuzz with scandal, which I desperately wanted to avoid. I procrastinated—and tolerated—until Nathan’s bullshit went beyond emotional abuse and became physical.
How did I even get to that point?
My answer shouldn’t come as a surprise: I rationalized the red flags. When we met, Nathan was 28 and I was 18. I’d been eager to prove I was an adult and made mistakes learning what that actually meant. Nathan was an attractive man, made even more attractive by his apparent maturity. His initial possessiveness was flattering; I didn’t realize he considered me a possession until we were already married.
With a divorce already underway, I was actually happy. My life was far from perfect, but the feeling of throwing off the yoke and becoming my own person again was exhilarating. If I could walk away with only one thing, I wanted it to be Piper. Nathan refused to give up his leverage, claiming I was too irresponsible and unstable to keep her. Unwilling to let him win even one more time… I planned shamelessly, intending to get my dog back at any cost.
Nathan didn’t expect it, but I was equally capable of guile. I knew what he anticipated—and frankly, I didn’t have much pride. When I was ready to make my move, I didn’t hesitate to humiliate myself. I let him think he won, showing up one morning and crying on his stoop. I begged him to take me back.
“I made a mistake!” I kept my head down submissively. The theatrics were necessary; an argument at the door wouldn’t resolve anything. If I showed any sign that I wasn’t there for him, I’d only find myself on the wrong side of a slammed door.
Barely able to contain his smugness, Nathan let me inside. Immediately, his lecturing began—he steered me into the living room almost gleefully. My future ex husband loved being right, he loved it so much that I might’ve gotten off easy… if I’d really been there to reconcile.
I grabbed a handful of tissues, dabbing at my face as I continued to blubber. I had cried a lot over the years—ugly crying, not the pretty kind you see on television. My face goes bright red and puffy about ten seconds in; it’s not something you can fake. Hiding my face was the only way to guarantee Nathan wouldn’t catch on.
“Let’s talk about what needs to change for this to happen. I’ll take you back, but you’re going to have to try harder.” Nathan gloated, the words sounded rehearsed. He picked up a notepad with a list of demands, further proof that he’d fully expected my return. Knowing him, he’d type it up and have me sign it when he was satisfied with the ‘terms’… he wouldn’t let me ‘pull this stunt’ again.
I pretended I was too overwrought to listen. I leaned forward, burying my face in my hands with a burst of unintelligible apologies I didn’t mean. Piper had already waddled over on her short, stubby legs—giving my knee a comforting lick. The corgi bought my performance as readily as Nathan did. I reached down to pet her, unable to resist; it had been too long since I’d seen her.
Nathan sighed, tossing the notepad on the coffee table with an audible thwack. He wasn’t angry (he thought that he’d won after all)… but his patience wore thin.
“I’m making us some hot chocolate.” He declared, “Try to get yourself together please, this is embarrassing. I don’t want the neighbors to hear you crying again.” nevermind that he was always the reason I cried, he added: “You’re making us both look even worse than you already have. I wish you had more self control, but… we’ll address it. Things will get better, for both of us.” he said that with authority, but the corners of his mouth must have been quirked in a barely concealed smile. No matter what he said, he was actually delighted. I knew that without looking. I heard Nathan get up, strutting victoriously down the hall.
That was what I’d been waiting for, a moment alone.
I made my move then; scooping up Piper and heading out the front door. My friend Nadine was my waiting getaway driver, peeling off the second I jumped in the car. We escaped to a symphony of squealing tires and the accelerating rhythm of my heart.
We’d made it. I had Piper, and walked out without so much as a scratch! I couldn’t help but grin, hugging a bewildered but excited corgi to my chest. Nathan had underestimated me—victory was sweet.
“That was badass!” Nadine howled with laughter once I recounted the story back at her apartment. We were all safely nestled in her living room while a Netflix binge played, ignored, on the screen in front of us.
“Badass?” I snorted. “All I did was cry until he left the room—then I grabbed her and ran. There’s nothing badass about that.”
“Standing up to that douche canoe IS a huge accomplishment, don’t try and downplay it Ivy. With all you’ve been through… you’ve got guts.” Her smile was infectious, I couldn’t help but smile too, but there was still a niggling worry in my stomach.
It wasn’t over yet.
That night, Nathan called me over and over. When I didn’t pick up, he left messages. I didn’t block him, I always kept his messages for court. The messages escalated from annoyance to fury—and even begging. It was shocking at first, because I’d never heard him cry before. It didn’t make me happy, it made me… uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but listen—driven by morbid/masochistic curiosity.
Then came the final voicemail. He was no longer crying or screaming… his words were perfectly level and assured:
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.” his voice held the tone of an ultimatum, but I just laughed. He was used to making demands—he was used to me obeying. He didn’t even bother following it up with a threat. For a moment, I thought I was free… his words no longer had power over me.
I didn’t know that these would be his last words to me…his last words to anyone. I got the news in the morning: Nathan was dead, a self inflicted gunshot to the head. Is it bad that my first feeling was relief?
The police deemed it a suicide in record time, thanks in part to a note he’d left me (I declined to read it).The final voicemail suddenly had an unnerving perspective; a grip I couldn’t shake.
Nathan had the last word, there was nothing more I could say. I became a widow, with no need for a divorce. Dutifully, I dealt with the aftermath. I didn’t smile… it wasn’t a victory.
About a month after his death, I moved back in to the apartment we’d shared. I was reluctant, but knew I couldn’t stay on Nadine’s couch forever. The old apartment was a haunting collection of bad memories, I tried to fix that: I got rid of everything. I used my savings to buy new furniture, trying to make the apartment look and feel completely different.
It didn’t work because Nathan had never left.
I heard him. Felt him, but… I never saw him. It was enough to keep me in denial, I fell back into a pattern of stubborn rationalizations just I had in our marriage.
At night, Piper would bark at something unseen. I’d hear creaking footsteps creeping down the hall; a slow and deliberate tread, like a predator waiting to be noticed. The building must have been settling. I’d pull up the covers, trying to ignore the oppressive weight of anxiety as I curled beneath the blankets.
Denial didn’t stop the footsteps from coming closer, closing in on my cowering form. At the foot of the bed I’d hear Nathan’s voice; his words woven with shadows, a tapestry of woe:
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.”
A footstep followed each syllable; the mattress warping under his weight as he climbed under the covers too. I had to be imagining things… I told myself it was the guilt. Guilt I didn’t even need to be feeling. I’d tell him so, a wavering whisper… but that just made him laugh with incredulity at my gall.
It was was worse when he didn’t laugh.
I’d feel the bite of his fingers, gripping my throat with invisible hands. I’d be paralyzed with fear, gasping for breath while his tongue would trace the contours of my body, leaving an icy trail of putrid saliva and my own cold sweat. Time always seemed the slowest then. I couldn’t move, but his grip was just tight enough that I could still scream.
“You did it to yourself!” became my shrieked mantra in the middle of the night, every night. A prayer before the sun started its descent. Medication, meditation, none of it helped. I was haunted, terror lurking in every shadow and unexplained sound. I wore a necklace of fingerprints, bruises circling my neck.
My nights became increasingly difficult to explain away. I lost it when I woke up one morning to find a ring under my pillow—my wedding ring, long abandoned. The simple band was a gleaming circle of etched gold, engraved with my broken promise: ‘Forever Yours’.
I dropped it in the toilet, flushing it down with stress induced vomit—but that wasn’t the end of it. The ring appeared under my pillow the very next morning, within a stinking water stain and a single dirty hand print next to where my head had been.
The next few days were a repeat of the same, with alternating methods of disposal. It didn’t matter, the ring kept reappearing, until one day it wasn’t under my pillow. A moment of relief was cut painfully short—it was on my left ring finger.
I couldn’t get it off, no matter how hard I tried! Trying only made it worse, tightening until my skin began to bulge and discolor. It didn’t stop, even after cutting off my circulation… The metal bit into my skin, blood seeping out and running in rivulets down my hand and arm as I tried to drive to the hospital.
The gold was unnervingly cold, even when my skin was glistening red… my wedding ring remained immaculate, gleaming without a drop. It didn’t stop, even when I stopped resisting and parked my car in the middle of traffic— screaming in agony— the ring continued to chew through my finger, until it was off completely.
It was only when my finger fell off and rolled under the driver’s seat that the pain went away, giving way to a tingling numbness. I finished the drive to the hospital, managing to find my lost digit… but not the ring, it was gone.
The finger couldn’t be reattached. While it wasn’t a life threatening injury, the loss of my ring finger was symbolic. It was a message: I was never going to get married again, I still belonged to Nathan.
The ring did not reappear after that, but I couldn’t sit still and wait for Nathan to find new ways to hurt me. I knew he would, because the more I tried to ignore him… the angrier he became.
Without any other options, I went to church. It seemed silly even to me, but I didn’t know where else to turn. After services were over, I waited patiently for the congregation to disperse… I kept my head down, not making eye contact with anyone. I didn’t want my plight to become gossip, so I wouldn’t speak up until everyone else had gone.
Except in passing, I’d never spoken to Father Dan. Although I faithfully attended every Sunday service, I’d never felt comfortable asking for his help directly. Of course, I probably could have used his help a long time ago… ‘taking responsibility’ for my mistakes and enduring had not ended well.
Father Dan noticed, taking a seat beside me once the church went quiet. His eyes were warm, his face lined with years of genuine joy and sorrow; he was a man who had heard and seen it all. I’d always found him intimidating, he wasn’t exactly what you pictured when you thought of a priest. He was scruffy, with calloused hands and skin that was almost perpetually sunburned… I wasn’t sure how he found time to get a tan, let alone the time to overdo it!
Once I was sure we were alone, I told him all that had been going on since I’d moved back into my old apartment. I didn’t hold back, finding it surprisingly easy to be honest with him. I showed him my left hand, missing a finger. To my credit, I didn’t even cry. To his credit, he didn’t interrupt me once—just listened quietly to my entire story, withholding judgment.
“This isn’t your fault.” He told me once he was sure I was done. I smiled wearily when he said that—it did sound a lot more convincing coming from a priest. “Where’s his body?” Father Dan was getting right to business.
I was surprised, but answered: he’d been buried at Memorial Park Cemetery. I watched as he wandered over to his office… only to return moments later with a shovel and what I assumed was a very old bible.
“Father, can you explain before I get the wrong idea?” I laughed nervously, eying the shovel. He smiled, not at all surprised by my reaction. He answered decisively, speaking slowly in the scripted way people do when they’ve explained something a thousand times.
“His body needs to be burned.” He explained, “Unfortunately, since he’s buried…” he nodded towards the shovel by way of explanation. “I’ll also perform a… divorce.” He added, “I’m assuming the courts didn’t deem it necessary to issue a decree of divorce upon his death?”
“They didn’t, there wasn’t a need. ‘Till death do us part’, right?” except Nathan hadn’t parted after all. I felt tears build pressure behind my eyes, but I managed to keep them in check.
“That’s poetry. Death isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. If you were happily married, would you really want to be parted from someone just because you’d died?”
“… No.” I admitted, although I considered that a big if. If I was happily married.
“I have the authority to perform a divorce for the dead. That won’t sever his connection completely, but… the cleansing fire will.” I didn’t pretend to understand, but I had hope. Without further argument, we both made our way to Memorial Park Cemetery.
It felt like the setup to a bad joke: A priest and a widow walk into a cemetery… only neither of us were laughing. However, for the first time since Nathan’s haunting had begun—I felt safe. Father Dan waved at the groundskeeper as we walked through the gate. The groundskeeper waved back; not batting an eye when he saw us with a shovel conspicuously in tow.
My fears that we would be caught were quickly proving unfounded, this must not have been the first time Father Dan had to perform this kind of service. It was broad daylight, but that didn’t seem to be a deterrent. No one bothered us.
“Is this really okay?” I bit my lip, watching him press the shovel firmly into the dirt covering Nathan’s grave. I was surprised to see a priest doing this sort of heavy labor—when I offered to help, he wouldn’t have it. Father Dan was considerate of me, pausing every few minutes to offer a kind word or reassurance even when his breathing became labored from the task at hand.
“You’re so comfortable at a time like this… have you done this before?” I finally felt comfortable making conversation, breaking the one sided silence to ask.
“Many times, unfortunately.” He answered, “Don’t worry, this isn’t illegal. You’re the widow, you have the authority to allow this. Breathe, Ivy.” his smile compassionate, his tawny eyes crinkling at the corners.
“It’s just… I don’t know…” But my reaction must have been common, because he was calm and patient throughout. I’d always thought Father Dan was stern and serious from where I’d sat during the Sunday services, now I saw that I’d misjudged his character.
When the casket was unearthed, he had me step into the grave where he read a passage from his book. All I had to do was repeat after him, with my hand placed on the dirt caked coffin—carefully enunciating every syllable, although the recitation wasn’t in a language I understood.
With that, we were divorced apparently. It was so simple I almost wanted to laugh—a lot easier than anything I could have hoped for in a courtroom.
I kept my distance while he salted and burned the body, adding a dusting of a strange black powder from a satchel at his waist. I tried to ignore the smells and sounds of burning flesh… It wasn’t pleasant, even if he’d been dead for a while.
I refused to leave, even with assurances that I didn’t need to stay. I needed the closure, so I waited as the fire burned unnaturally hot and bright—watching a column of black smoke rise dramatically up into the sky, as though Nathan were giving us both the finger. The thought didn’t frighten me, it made me smile.
It was only when the body was reduced to ash that I braved a look inside what was left of the coffin. I almost wasn’t surprised to see two golden rings, spotless and gleaming amid the ashes. Our wedding bands. Father Dan picked them up, despite my immediate protest—having lost a finger, I was naturally reluctant to see them in anyone’s hand.
“Remnants like this have their uses within the Church.” He assured me, “Don’t worry, without Nathan’s malice tied to this Earth any longer… they are rendered inert.” While I didn’t feel completely convinced, I decided to believe him. This wasn’t the first post-mortem divorce he’d performed, I didn’t even want to know what else he’d done or how often! Some things are best left to the experts.
“So he’s…?” of course, I had a million and one questions. Father Dan predicted them and answered before I could even find the words:
“Gone. Without a physical body or marriage to tether him, he will go where he’s meant to go now. Take a shower before sunset, and you’ll be cleansed as well.”
The muddy priest fished through his pockets and extended a business card, pressing it gently into my hand. Confused, I glanced down to read the embossed golden print: Father Dan’s Plumbing and Exorcism Services. As my eyes met his with questions, he grinned sheepishly.
“My services are primarily word of mouth, I don’t advertise because I only take on special jobs.”
“You’re also a plumber? Is that … allowed?” it wasn’t that I’d cause trouble, but the question stumbled out of my mouth anyway before I could think better of it. By ‘special jobs’, I guessed he didn’t mean clogged toilets.
“Only as an extension of my ministry.” he explained, leaving it at that. He mopped at his brow with a handkerchief that had seen better days, exhausted yet exuding a sense of deep satisfaction.
“Thank you, Father.” I whispered gratefully, tucking away the card. I had more questions, but I decided it was better not to ask. I already felt like I knew too much, I didn’t need or want to know anymore.
“Go home Ivy, you’re work here is done. You’re no longer beholden to your ex-husband. Your duty has ended here.” with a final pat on my shoulder, he sent me on my way. “See you next Sunday.”
The first thing I did when I got home was take a long shower, washing away the events of the day and the past few months, watching my worries wash down the drain. Nothing happened, even when the sun set. I’d grown so used to nights of terror that I didn’t completely trust the peace and quiet at first, but that initial apprehension melted quickly.
As I lay down to sleep, curling up with my corgi. I murmured a quick, sincere prayer…I took comfort in the fact that Nathan was gone. Remembering Father Dan’s words, I smiled: he will go where he’s meant to go now.
Who would’ve thought I’d be relieved that Hell exists?
I couldn’t sleep because of the crying.
This wasn’t the first night I’d laid awake and listened to that horrible sound. For the past several weeks I’d suffered through the sound– no one else seemed to hear it. I’d asked Rupin, but he’d assured me I was only dreaming. I knew that couldn’t be true. There was nothing dreamlike about it, it was weighing on me. Every morning I bore the bloodshot eyes of someone who hadn’t slept… with a nightmare, wouldn’t I at least be rested?
Tonight I made the decision to get to the bottom of it. I knew that I couldn’t keep ignoring the voice, or it would never go away. The past few weeks were evidence of that!
Determined, I slid out from beneath the covers— quiet to avoid waking Rupin. I edged out into the darkness, sensing my way down the narrow hallway. My feet felt out the floor, the cold slats creaking with each tentative step. The wailing and whimpering continued, leading me down the hall which stretched out, unfamiliar in the darkness.
The only light came through the window. On this cloudy night, the shadows shifted at the whim of the clouds wrapped around the moon, choking out its light. The crying stopped with a sudden abruptness that made the silence seem deafening. Only my heartbeat could be heard as I sucked in a slow breath, staring straight ahead at my destination—Rupin’s home office.
I’d never been inside. Rupin kept confidential client information in there, which we’d both agreed was none of my business. However, the sleepless nights were wearing on me—I’d been brought here. I needed to know why! I was sure he’d forgive me when I explained it!
I tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge- It was locked. I was shocked, I knew he hadn’t wanted me in there but had he really needed to lock the door? What was in there that was really so important?
Defeated, I drifted back to bed, falling into an uneasy half-sleep.
In the morning, I was the first to wake up. I felt dead tired, but I didn’t want to disappoint Rupin so I put on make-up to cover up my exhaustion. My relationship with Rupin was a little unconventional. He was a cosmetic surgeon- good looks were his bread and butter!
I’d actually met him through his work, but not due to any insecurity or vanity. I’d been in a terrible accident, losing my face in a brutal hit-and-run. By some miracle, Rupin had managed to reconstruct a face for me. In fact, my case had brought him a good deal of attention—no one had thought it was possible, other surgeons had turned me down because failure would ruin their success rates.
Rupin wasn’t afraid of the challenge. In fact, he seemed to relish it! The recovery was long and painful, but it’d been worth it. The only catch was that I looked nothing like my old self, but I was still grateful. In fact, Rupin thought I looked even prettier than before! Sometimes I struggled with feeling like a stranger when I looked into the mirror, but I was grateful to him. So grateful in fact, that I’d asked him if there was anything I could do for him in return…
He asked to marry me, and I accepted.
“There.” I whispered once I finished fixing my face. I opened the closet so I could change, slipping into the first dress that caught my eye. I didn’t recognize it, but my fiancée was always buying clothes so this wasn’t unusual.
Today’s dress was simple and feminine, cut just above the knee with a flowy skirt. Cream in color, the most notable feature was the print of bright flowers. I looked into the mirror resting a top the vanity… even now I wasn’t accustomed to my new face, but there was a certain familiarity in my reflection today.
I felt energized as I headed into the kitchen to make breakfast. On the table I found a surprise. In a white vase upon the table was a fresh bouquet— flowers soft white and elegant. The petals were bathed in early morning sunlight, but they looked as though they were lit from within. I admired the arrangement for a long moment, my heart feeling lighter thanks to the romantic gesture.
I didn’t want to eat breakfast alone, so I decided to wait and flipped through the newspaper instead. I instantly regretted my choice– on the front page there was terrible news, a body had been recovered at the bottom of Lake Zinnia. Foul play was suspected because several identifying features had been… removed, including the woman’s face. I decided I didn’t want to read anymore.
That was when I heard the crying again.
At first, the sound was subtle and soft- but it escalated into a scream, growing so loud that the whole room trembled—and so did I. Now it was going to happen in the daytime, too? Was there no escape?
“The room is locked!” I sobbed, but the wailing only grew louder in reply. I tried covering my ears, but nothing could block it out. The vase on the table shattered from the piercing, vibrating scream– sending white porcelain scattering across the table in every direction. The flowers fell into a heap in the center of the table, dripping mud which spread across the white tablecloth and seeped onto the floor.
I was sobbing in terror, tears leaving tracks on my cheeks as I stumbled back—but that was when I noticed a silver gleam in the muddy tangle of stems. Reluctantly, I moved closer and found something strange: a key. My hands were immediately stained with cold mud, but the key was pristine. There was only one locked door in this house, I didn’t have to wonder what it was for.
My heart raced in fearful anticipation; I moved almost unwillingly towards Rupin’s office. The key fit! I felt both compelled to move forward… and too afraid. I had to put this cry to rest—
The first thing I saw was a mannequin. I froze! As if sensing my hesitation, the scream only grew louder! The mannequin was a life-sized version of a ‘perfect’ woman. Her nude form was marked up in black lines, like a surgery being mapped out. Worst of all was the missing face; there was just a gaping hole. Just looking at it made me feel a certain sense of wrongness.
I threw my arm out in front of me like a shield, pushing past the figure. It fell to the floor into several pieces—a bizarre mound of limbs; they jutted up at odd angles as though they were reaching for me. My hands were sweating, my heart racing its own circles in my chest. Why wouldn’t the screaming stop?
That was when Rupin came running in, wild-eyed. “Iris! What are you doing in here?” he was still wearing his pajamas, pale as a ghost. Suddenly, it was silent again. He stared straight ahead, straight passed me—and I turned to see what he was looking at.
It was then I saw her: a woman with her back to me. She was slim and lovely, and… wearing the same dress I was, though it was much filthier– and wet. Her shoulders shook, wracked with now-silent sobs.
“Miss?” I wanted answers, but my first impulse was to see if she was alright.
“Iris… don’t”! Rupin cried as I reached towards her, but before I could touch her she spun to face me— she was wearing a mask. In fact, she was wearing the mannequin’s missing face! She pointed, towards the corkboard on the wall which was covered in different pictures. Before and after photos of the many surgeries he’d completed.
“Who are you?” I asked her, the glassy eyes of the mannequin mask seemed to stare right through me. “Why are you wearing that mask?” The woman did not answer me, but she reached up to touch her painted-on expression… lowering it slowly.
My breath caught, hands clapping over my mouth when I saw— she had no face! Her face was merely smooth, pale skin without any features. A blank canvas. Was this even real? Was I having a nightmare?
Perhaps because she had no mouth, she did not speak—merely pointed back to that corkboard, patiently waiting for me to react. I looked at the pictures, finding nothing strange about them at first– merely a board of Rupin’s accomplishments… until I looked closer.
On the bottom of the corkboard, lined up uniformly—there were different pictures that stood out. They weren’t before-and-after shots, just picture after picture of smiling women. One in particular caught my eye, a woman in a flower-print dress—with my face. I felt sick! The back of my throat burned with bile as everything began to click.
The respectable doctor was not only an unethical surgeon, but a murderer. I knew the faceless ghost before me was the one in the picture. My mind immediately went back to the article I’d read in the newspaper this morning: all identifying features had been removed, to include… her face. Her face, which had become my face—it was what connected us. Only I could hear her crying, because I was the one wearing her lips!
I had to be wrong. That couldn’t be true! With tears and trembling hands, I turned to look at Rupin. He seemed to see the ghost, but he wasn’t panicking like I was. He must have known she’d been in here all along!
“Rupin… the pictures—why does the woman in this picture have my face?” I whispered.
“Because it’s the same.” He replied, whispering excitedly without shame or regret. “It was wasted on her anyway, she was dead!” His eyes were filled with unfathomable madness. “You have to understand- I had to fix you!”
I shrieked, unable to get any words out— reaching for the phone to call the police. Rupin made no move to stop me. In fact, he just seemed to admire me with a dreamlike smile settling across his features.
“You’re beautiful.” He sighed, satisfied.
It was only when the police arrived that the faceless ghost disappeared, leaving behind only a soaked dress and a pile of perfect white begonias. Rupin didn’t resist arrest; he stood by ‘his work’ and felt no guilt for his actions—offering a full confession without even being prompted.
I’d later learn the woman’s name: Rose Thompson. Once her picture was circulated on the evening news, it didn’t take long for her family and friends to identify her. Her parents wanted to meet me, but I declined. It would be too strange, and crueler still to let them see her stolen face.
I didn’t attend Rose’s funeral, but I always visit to leave flowers with messages of gratitude and guilt upon her grave. I haven’t seen Rose since, except when I look into a mirror.
Do you smoke? I used to.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to list a million and one reasons you shouldn’t. I won’t insult your intelligence—you know exactly why you shouldn’t smoke.
You don’t need me (or anyone else) to tell you. I’ve been victim many a holier-than-thou lecture, I’m not about to subject you to the same. Smoking is one of those habits that people feel comfortable judging you for, so long as it is out of ‘concern’ for your health. We’ve heard it all before.
No … I’m going to give you one more reason to quit. Only one. It was enough to get me to stop, maybe it will be enough for you. If it’s not, I’ve done all I could. What happens after you read my story is entirely up to you, and frankly—none of my damn business. Hell, just putting this out there is going ‘above and beyond’ any sort of moral obligation. I don’t give a shit what you do, I don’t even know you.
Yet, here I am: typing this out while wondering if I’m a fucking nut. But you know what? I quit cold turkey, and though my health is probably a lot better—that perk still comes second to the fact that I’ll never see one of those things again.
A couple years ago I was reluctantly attending a wedding. My ex Lissa, the one that got away, was about to be forever out of my reach. I didn’t want to be there, but I also didn’t want to be an asshole… so there I was, hunched in a pew and pretending to be happy for her. I guess I sort of was, but I was also feeling pretty damn sorry for myself.
After the excruciatingly long ceremony, I excused myself to have a smoke outside. I had no interest in attending the reception and watching Lissa look so happy with someone else. At this point, I felt as though I’d fulfilled any obligation our continuing friendship had wrought: I’d gifted some fancy blender that makes soup off her registry, I’d watched the ceremony, shed a few happy tears and borrowed the tux.
Now I just had to wait until the earliest time I could leave without looking like a dick.
A smoke break would at least give me an excuse to step away from the bustling celebration. There was a designated smoking area outside, frustratingly far from any of the entrances. It was early spring, the sky was still winter-dark and it was cold as fuck… but it was still better than being inside, so I made the walk and fished out a smooshed pack of Camel Lights.
I’d borrowed the tux from my younger brother who’d made me swear I wouldn’t smoke while wearing it—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I needed this! Smoking would take the edge off this miserable evening.
A woman was already standing at the oh-so classy ash tray garbage can combo. I didn’t recognize her, but that didn’t mean much– I hadn’t been paying attention to the other guests. What surprised me about her was her dress… it was white.
Even I know that’s a faux pas. Only the bride is supposed to wear white at a wedding—and I knew that the entire church had been rented out for this event, so it wasn’t like this was some errant bride from another wedding. No, her dress was an act of rebellion—a petty gesture that my bitter heart could appreciate.
Clearing my throat, I approached; making noise because I didn’t want to startle her, giving her a chance to hear me coming before closing the distance between us. The woman had her back to me, not bothering to turn to acknowledge me.
I didn’t take it personally, just drew out a cigarette and lit up with an almost frenzied desperation. The first slow drag was incredibly satisfying, dropping the tension in my shoulders like fucking magic. I exhaled, watching the smoke pollute the air in front of me with satisfaction.
Turning my attention to the pale woman, I felt up to a little small talk. Having a cigarette in hand put me at ease, even knowing it was nicotine addiction rather than any real relaxation benefit. I couldn’t help but stare at her—she was remarkably thin, her silhouette could be accurately described as a skinny rectangle. The absence of curves was… disappointing but not a deal breaker. It’s not like I was looking to pick her up anyway, though I wouldn’t say no to a good pity fuck if anyone offered. What can I say? I was heartbroken.
“The ceremony went on a little long, didn’t it?” I flicked my ash into the tray before taking another drag, still observing her back. “I’m Rick, by the way.” The woman turned her head slightly in acknowledgement, but didn’t turn around. I caught a glimpse of a soft, orange glow—the cigarette between her lips, though I couldn’t make out her face through the dense cloud of smoke that had filled the air around her.
“Your dress is beautiful.” I complimented, still admiring it— the gown was strange, long and form fitting. Hauntingly beautiful, made of an unusual fabric that has turned brown and curled at the edges—it reminded me of an old map, in color and in texture (at least, from what I could see). I don’t pretend I understand fashion, but as unusual a sight as she was, I was drawn in.
I don’t know how long I’d been standing there making one-sided conversation, but it was time for a second cigarette. I sighed as I took inventory of my pack—only two cigarettes left before I’d have to buy more. Not enough to get me through this evening. The first cigarette in the pack had been inverted for luck, but I felt far from lucky.
Feeling as though I was bothering the woman, I decided I’d wrap up the respite and go back inside. She clearly wasn’t up to talking, but in a last-ditch effort to be polite I figured I could at least offer her a cigarette. I really wanted to see her face, or hear her voice. There was something about her, so mesmerizing… though she’d done nothing but stand there and smoke in silence. I felt compelled to seek her attention, I just couldn’t help myself!
“I have two cigarettes left. Want one?” I drew one out, extending my hand to present it hopefully. The woman turned to respond, and my heart caught in my throat when I finally saw her. The woman was little more than a skeleton wrapped in paper, her face perpetually obscured in a pale cloud of writhing smoke. The only thing I could make out through the haze were two glowing orange spots like two cigarettes in the dark—I realized only then, as she gazed back at me… that those were her eyes.
She was no longer beautiful, the mysterious and pale visage was replaced by a tar-stained specter of smoke, paper and bone. I was frozen by the realization, dropping the cigarette I’d been offering. I just stood there, stuck on stupid as she—it— glided towards me with ominous purpose. My mouth hung open while my brain screamed at me to do something besides stand there like a fucking moron!
But I couldn’t.
The creature placed dead, yellowing hands upon my shoulders and leaned down so her face was level with mine. I began to sputter and cough from the dense smoke, choking on the thick miasma. Skeletal fingers dug into my shoulders, tearing holes into the fabric of the jacket. As I felt its touch on my skin, it burned! Yet I couldn’t even let out a hiss of pain as I continued to hack and gasp for air.
Pressing what I could only assume was her mouth against mine, the monster began to inhale deeply—each breath rattling her bones. I stopped coughing… but only because I was suffocating. It was as though the breath was being sucked out of my lungs, leaving me cold and empty—left only with the burn of agonizing pain. I wasn’t even granted the ability to scream, as she continued to inhale… tasting my smoke-stained lungs, my vision beginning to tunnel into darkness.
All I could see were those burning eyes, yet I understood that this was a blessing. I no longer wanted to see her face. I closed my eyes, unable to do anything to fight back… so I thought about Lissa. How beautiful she’d been in the wedding dress as white as her radiant smile. At least she was happy, she didn’t need me … there was no one to regret leaving behind. I knew I was going to die, and I accepted that.
I passed out.
I was surprised to wake up. I was on my back, soaked from the morning dew under the faint light of a barely-risen sun. I just lay there for a long time, staring up at the cloudy sky in confusion and horror. My shoulders and lungs hurt. I briefly entertained the idea that my aches and pains contributed to a nightmare… but when I sat up, I saw the holes in the ruined tuxedo jacket.
I’d offered that bitch a cigarette, but she’d smoked me instead. It still hurt to breathe, but… I was alive. I got to my feet, and found the near-empty pack of Camel Lights resting on top of the ash tray. Inside, I found my last cigarette—the first of the pack, inverted for luck. Was it luck that kept me alive? I have no fucking clue, but I pocketed the pack. I still keep it in my pocket to this day, either for luck or as a reminder. I’m not sure which.
The urge to smoke didn’t disappear overnight. But every time I reached for that last cigarette, something stilled my hand. I began to see tall, pale people with smoke covered faces everywhere I went, backs turned and dressed in outfits like burnt paper. I call them Smokers. They stand there, waiting for someone to offer them a smoke—not knowing the creature would take it from their very lungs. I don’t think it’s an experience you’re meant to survive. I was lucky.
Eventually, I stopped seeing Smokers. I know they’re still there, but… I’m not their prey anymore. I’d been smoking since I was 13—I’d heard every reason not to smoke and more, but it was one of those monsters that decided it. They are the only reason I needed to quit smoking.
If I still haven’t convinced you, at least keep my story in the back of your mind: and for the love of God… don’t offer cigarettes to mysterious, mesmerizing strangers!
Stenger and Sons Self-Aware Appliance Repair has been in my family for generations. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? The work isn’t glamorous, but our business has always been well respected by the community. We never have a lack of service orders—even out of town, because we offer services that other companies aren’t equipped to handle.
I learned the truth about our work when I was a scrawny teenager learning the ropes. Even as a kid I’d tagged along with my dad for the standard jobs, assisting him by handing him tools or pointing a flashlight. Sometimes, he’d have me do the repairs; watching with a stern expression and firm instructions… but I never minded. It was kind of cool that my dad trusted me like that, even if his personality had always been on the coarse side—we’d always had a special bond.
One morning during Spring break my dad burst into my room and yanked off the covers. I’d been trying to sleep in, but it was a lost cause. Dad was barking orders, as usual, but something felt a little different that morning.
As I got ready to go help him on an emergency call, he kept giving me a strange look as though he were uncertain about something. I got ready in silence, and was ready to go in about fifteen minutes. I knew better than to dawdle, or complain about waking up early—he’d let me have it if I did!
“Where’s the job, dad?” I asked as I climbed into the company van. The van was a dated turquoise color with our company name stenciled in navy on the side, nothing fancy… but it got the job done and was considered almost iconic in our quiet town.
Dad handed me a tall metal thermos of hot black coffee, and I sipped it with a grimace as the van chugged along the road in otherwise perfect silence.
He wasn’t talkative when he wasn’t giving orders, but he was a lot quieter that day.
I knew it wasn’t anything I’d done, because if it was … I’d have heard about it. Something told me not to push him, so I just watched the long stretch of road in front of us and noted each turn we made.
The job was local, so it didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to get there. We pulled up to a peach colored house, only a little dingy compared to the other houses on this run-down block.
My dad started walking to the front door while I grabbed the tool bag and hurried to catch up to him. He waited for me on the step before knocking on the door. It opened almost immediately, just a crack, to reveal a thin woman wearing a towel that smelled faintly of mildew.
It was strange because it was obvious she hadn’t showered for a few days, her brown hair was falling in greasy clumps around her face and her skin had an oily sheen to it. I wrinkled my nose but kept my mouth shut. If my dad noticed, he didn’t show it.
The woman was obviously nervous, holding the door like it was a shield as she appraised us with wide, frantic eyes. I kept looking at my dad, but he seemed unbothered and just introduced himself. Business as usual.
“Good morning, ma’am. I’m Raymond Stenger from Self-Aware Appliance Repair. How are you today?” he offered his hand to shake, but the woman didn’t take it. She shot me a suspicious look, then looked back at my dad almost accusingly.
“I thought the company was Stenger and *Sons*?” her words were pointed, but my dad just laughed. It was a question he’d been asked a hundred times before, though usually without hostility.
“I didn’t name the company, I just inherited it. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.” Though my dad didn’t mind how the woman was acting, I did—but I bit my tongue and kept my expression in check. I’d always been a little defensive when people seemed put off by me, but I channeled that frustration into defying expectation.
“I see. Well, I’m Bethany. Come in, then…” she didn’t seem reassured, but opened the door a little wider to let us in. Bethany seemed overly aware of every movement she made as she walked us over to a top-loading Maytag washer and dryer.
Standing there uncomfortably, she gestured helplessly as though the machines somehow terrified her. I couldn’t help but notice that her right arm had a dark bruise from her shoulder to elbow. It looked recent.
“You don’t have to be here for the repair.” My dad told her, “I just have a few questions first. It was the washer, correct? I already told you my rate over the phone.” He was all business and started running through the usual spiel. I looked around nosily, the house was a bit shabby but not dirty. I could tell she had a cat, but the smell wasn’t overpowering.
I was only half-listening to their conversation as I wandered over to the washer, setting our bag of tools on the peeling linoleum. The washer was an older model, older than me, in a beige color that had become dirty with age. It smelled pretty bad too, as though someone had mixed together sewage and detergent.
“It’s eaten my clothes! All of them!” I heard Bethany say in a hushed whisper. She sounded upset, I couldn’t hear the rest of what she said, but I wasn’t actually interested. I thought she was overreacting! If she’d lost some socks, we’d probably find them in the course of the repair.
I was about to flip the lid when my dad noticed what I was doing and reacted furiously! He grabbed me by the back of my shirt and yanked me backwards just as my fingers found the lip of the lid, causing it to rattle as I half-toppled away. I heard a strange metallic whine from the machine, followed by a high pitched screech.
“Get your head out of your ass, Murphy!” his tone was sharp and brooked no argument.
I felt embarrassed and nodded wordlessly as I gave him and the old Maytag a wide berth. I felt hurt that he was acting like I was a dumb kid getting in the way, but… I knew now wasn’t the time to argue.
Bethany made herself scarce, I heard the bedroom door slam down the hall as she left us to our work. I watched dad, a bit miffed but also curious about what made this job so different from all the others. I knew it was different, there was a palpable sense of urgency in the air that I’d never felt before.
“Sorry, dad.” I started to move over to grab the tool bag, but he stopped me with a look and I froze mid-step.
“Listen to me carefully, Murph. I want you to watch. Follow my instructions to the letter, do you understand?” his voice was low and steely, making his expectations clear. I nodded without hesitation, and he gestured me over. “You need to learn how to handle things like this, you’re going to own the company someday.”
“Things like what?” my voice was soft with apprehension. My dad didn’t say anything, popping open the lid with both hands. The smell that followed had me gagging, clamping a hand over my nose and mouth.
At his okay, I moved a little closer to peer into the washing machine. It was filled with cloudy, burgundy water and an oily brown sludge that floated in clumps on the surface. I couldn’t see any clothes.
“Sick!” I gasped in a whisper. It looked like someone had tried to use the old Maytag as a toilet! The hose probably clogged up so the tub couldn’t drain. I was used to helping dad unclog or replace pumps, but the mess was something else altogether.
I watched my dad close the lid, it slammed shut with unnecessary force that made a loud, intimidating clang. He unplugged the power and unhooked the hose systematically before he turned to me. A strange gurgling noise could be heard, followed by a slow leak of filthy, stinking water which formed a dark pool on the floor.
I grabbed the tool bag in time. Dad was wearing rubber boots, but still stepped to avoid the mess. My skin was crawling with the urge to shower, but… I wanted to prove to dad I could handle even the messy jobs. By some miracle, I didn’t throw up but I could still feel the bile rising and sticking, a lump in my throat.
“Our company name is a little strange, isn’t it?” my dad spoke conversationally, but I knew this discussion wasn’t casual.
“Well, it IS long,” I agreed, smiling in spite of the mood, “and inaccurate.”
Dad let out a little chuckle too, but he was shaking his head. “That’s not what I mean, though you’re right on both counts.” He waited for a moment, letting me roll the words around in my head. Stenger and Sons Self-Aware Appliance Repair.
“The rhyme is kind of weird.” I said after a moment. “I get it’s catchy, but you lose the effect when you say our whole name out loud.” We usually just said ‘Self-Aware Appliance Repair’, but dad never could bring himself to officially drop the ‘Stenger and Sons’. Probably because it reminded him of Grandpa.
Dad looked reflective, stepping over the puddle on the floor as we walked back to the van to collect what we needed for the repair. He grabbed a 5-gallon bucket from the back, I could hear the contents sloshing around inside but I had no idea what was in it. I grabbed our industrial shop vac and wheeled it inside so we could drain the water from the washer.
“There are some things in this world that can’t be explained,” my dad began. “I can’t tell you why, but if something is around long enough… it starts to become self-aware. It becomes more than what it was, especially if it’s created and used by humans. Washers are…. Particularly problematic.”
“I think the exposure to our messes speeds up the process. Our sweaty clothes, blood, hair, what have you. Parts of us have the essence of life itself imbued within them, and have a power that can change things over time.”
He lifted the lid of the washer for me, and gripped it very tightly as I lowered the hose from the vac into the water. The process was quick, sucking up the mess as soon as I hit the power… though the smell lingered. I noticed clumps of wet fur in the water, but not a single article of clothing. Not even a sock!
Dad closed the lid once the tub was drained and watched as I vacuumed up the pool on the floor. He gave me an approving smile, then turned to remove the outer cabinet from the washer, taking out the retaining screws and side trim pieces. He flipped the console up, releasing the spring clips with a screwdriver and a practiced hand. I moved to help him tilt the cabinet forward so he could lift it off, waiting for him to continue explaining.
“It’s less common these days, because people tend to replace things quickly. But… appliances are expensive, so people aren’t as likely to get a new model right away. That’s fine, most of the time… but like I said, washers are problematic.”
“Are you saying… that this washer is alive?” I felt almost afraid to ask, half-expecting him to laugh at me for saying something so ridiculous. I wanted him to laugh, but he didn’t.
“Not quite alive. But… aware.” He nodded, “It’s usually a gradual process, which can be stopped by replacing old parts with new ones. But if someone procrastinates and doesn’t see the signs right away… the situation becomes dangerous.”
“What signs? Dangerous? How?” the questions spilled out in quick succession. My dad was not the type of man to play pranks or tell tall tales, so I was taking him seriously even if I struggled to believe what he was saying.
“With washers, the first sign is missing clothing.” He answered, “The washer starts devouring the laundry, a shirt or two at first… but, eventually, this isn’t enough.” I thought of Bethany, wearing nothing but a mildew towel… and nodded my understanding. She’d probably found a way to rationalize the disappearances, until she had nothing left.
“The danger comes when it’s run out of clothing to eat. It needs to eat to stay aware, I think.” Dad continued his work. The repair actually seemed pretty standard, apart from the bizarre circumstances. He removed the hose that connected the tub to the pump, his brow creasing as he checked the hose and found more clumps of fur and a small collar clogging it. It smelled like death, and that’s no exaggeration. He threw the hose in the trash. The whole machine started to make strange grinding noises despite being unplugged; it began rocking back and forth, causing dad to back away and wait for it to stop.
“It got her cat.” He told me, still watching the Maytag which thrashed in a way no appliance should. “Bethany saw it happen, tried to pull Poppy out of the washer…. But the lid clamped down and tried to take her too. That’s how she got that bruise on her arm.”
I grew visibly pale, not sure what to say… I was horrified. Dad was pretty calm considering, but I could tell he sympathized with Bethany. I did too, now that I understood more about what she’d gone through.
The Maytag stopped rocking after a moment, as though it needed to catch its breath. Dad had me help tilt it again so we could place blocks under it. That prevented it from moving again while he examined and replaced the pump.
The washing machine made plenty of noise at first, but seemed to weaken and grow quieter through the course of the repair. Dad replaced everything he could, essentially gutting it.
Once he was done with that, he put it back together and removed the blocks. Together, we poured the contents of the 5-gallon bucket into the washer—it was full of a black fluid, which seemed to neutralize the stink instantly. I could finally breathe through my nose again! I plugged the machine back in so we could run it through a rinse cycle, which concluded the repair.
Dad said the black stuff cleansed the machine and made it less likely that it would become self-aware in the future. It’s a mixture mostly comprised of ultra-fine charcoal powder and seawater. He doesn’t pretend to understand why it works, but it does.
He left to tell Bethany the job was done. I could hear her sobbing, and didn’t want to interrupt so I kept myself busy. I just picked up the garbage and hauled it outside, then loaded up the van. Dad came out just as I finished up, smiling at me.
“You did great today. From now on, we’ll start taking the special calls together.” When he said that, my heart swelled up with pride and I smiled back at him.
“Sounds good, dad!” we both went home, and playfully fought over the right to shower first. He let me win, and cancelled the rest of our scheduled jobs for the day so I could process what had happened, and what would continue to happen as long as we were in the business.
Ever since that first day, he took me on all the “special” jobs. They didn’t happen too often, and we were usually able to catch them early…. But not always. A few years later, dad felt comfortable enough with my training to retire. I run the business now, and will teach my kids just like he taught me when they get old enough. There is a danger to it, but it needs to be done—and we know what we’re doing.
Next time you notice you’re appliances are behaving strangely… don’t ignore the signs. Call Self-Aware Appliance Repair today at (202)555-0150 and ask for Murphy!