Description: Janey in Amber: A woman visiting her mother’s house encounters some uncomfortable realities about her own life.
Santos del Infierno: In a tale set in the world of Clive Barker’s “Hellbound Hearts” (Hellraiser), a man loses his family and gains a new friend—one with a dark agenda.
The Strip: At the edge of a city plagued by zombies, a small community gathers to try to watch out for one another’s humanity. But when it goes, it’s gone…
Nine short works of terror by award-winning novelist and comic book writer Jeffrey J. Mariotte (The Slab, The Devil’s Bait, the Dark Vengeance Quartet, Missing White Girl, River Runs Red, Cold Black Hearts, four 30 Days of Night novels, and more). Some of these stories have appeared in Hellbound Hearts, The Stories in Between, and Zombie Cop, while others are published here for the first time.
Janey in Amber
Sometimes her mother’s house seemed like alien territory. After Dad’s death, Mother had redecorated the place, almost top to bottom. The room that had been Janey’s was called the sewing room now, although Mother had never done much sewing and rarely seemed to use it for anything. She kept a day bed there, which Janey and Jack slept in when they visited. At night, with the lights off, the room whispered to her, reminding her of half-forgotten memories, but when the sun streamed through white lace curtains in the morning it was an unknown land full of sights and odd floral scents that evoked strangers’ lives.
What hadn’t changed were the three maple trees in the backyard. Maybe they had grown a little taller, but it was hard to tell, because as a child they had always seemed so towering anyway. This time of year, afternoon sun angled between the houses down the street and lit the crimson leaves on fire. Those that had already fallen pooled around slender trunks like children hesitant to leave their parents’ comforting sides. Janey kicked through them, dry and crackling underfoot, making her think of the cast-off skins of serpents.
“You like this place, don’t you?” Jack asked.
“Yes.” Janey answered without hesitation. She sniffed the autumn air, which carried hints of wood smoke and dark spices and enough of a chill to start her nose running. She touched its tip. “Out here, I mean. In the yard, it’s…the most like it was. Inside…I can hardly find Dad in there at all. Or me.”
“Fortunately,” Jack said, draping a strong arm over her shoulders, “I can always find you, inside or out.”
“That is a good thing.”
“I think so.”
Janey burrowed against his chest for a minute. His other arm wrapped around her, cutting the cold, like rolled blankets against her shoulders and back. “We should go in,” she said, wishing she didn’t mean it. She would give anything to stay here, in Jack’s arms, captured in the dying rays of the sun. Like an insect trapped in amber, she could remain that way forever, watching the eons pass from within a golden cage.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Jack said. “She’s probably asleep.”
“Probably. But I think we should look in.”
Jack kissed her forehead. He hadn’t shaved that day, and his chin rasped against her flesh. “Whatever you say, darling.”
And Janey thought, idyllic, that’s the perfect word for what this is. Idyllic.
Mother’s room smelled bitter, like piss from one of her rare accidents mixed with some tart liquid medicine she had spilled, all of it confined in stale air. She didn’t like having the window open, not this time of year. She was always cold and kept a space heater going, in spite of the central heating that kept the house at seventy-four degrees. Janey worried about her starting a fire somehow, but the space heater seemed safe enough. If it was knocked over it shut off automatically, and you could put your hand right on it without getting burned.
Janey pushed open the door a few inches and looked inside. The warmth slapped her face. Mother was sitting up in bed, eyes open, and she turned her head toward the door as slowly as if she’d had to force it through unseen tar. The hairbrush that always sat on her dresser was on the floor.
“It’s me. Janey.”
“I know that,” Mother snapped, as she almost always did these days. She couldn’t seem to bring herself to speak in a pleasant tone. Either it was an angry-sounding bark or a phlegmy complaint, with very occasionally a screeched dismissal.
“Okay, I just wanted to make sure.” Janey didn’t like to think about Alzheimer’s, but there probably weren’t hugely significant differences between one type of dementia and another. Her mother’s mind was slipping away, and at this age Janey suspected it wasn’t coming back.
She pushed the door open more. Her mother had lost weight since Dad’s death, four years before. Lots of it. The skin on her face was pale and tight against her bones, like it might split at any moment and her skull would erupt from beneath it. Mother’s mouth sagged open and a tiny wedge of pink tongue flicked out, then away again. “Is there anything I can get you?” Janey asked. She picked up the hairbrush and put it back where it belonged.
“No.” Mother looked at the water glass on her nightstand. She liked having water handy, but the glass was three-quarters full. “No.”
“Do you want me to read to you?”
“Jack was reading this article, this doctor, he said—”
“Please don’t start with that,” Mother said. She touched her hair; short and wispy, she had given up on it after her seventy-fourth birthday and taken to wearing wigs whenever she left the house. As if just remembering it was there, her fingers brushed her hearing aid.
“Start with what?”
Mother made a huffing noise, and saliva dribbled down onto her chin. Janey hurried to her side, picked up the folded cloth napkin from the nightstand, and started to dab at Mother’s chin. Her clawed fingers snatched it away. “I can clean myself.”
“I know, Mother. I just wanted to help.”
“If you want to help, then cut out the nonsense.”
She seemed lucid at moments like these, but that was illusion, Janey knew. It was temporary lucidity at best, as shot through with holes as a soda can used for target practice. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Mother turned her head away and threw the napkin onto the bed. “Honestly,” she said.
“I’m tired.” She closed her eyes. “Wake me when dinner’s ready.”
“Have you talked to Mother today?” Janey asked.
“She doesn’t like me.”
Dinner was over, the dishes washed and put away. Janey had built a fire, and she sat with her feet up on the sofa reading a hardcover bestseller from the 1980s she had found on the bookshelves flanking the living room fireplace. Jack was on the floor, his back against the sofa, where she could reach out and tousle his hair from time to time. His masculine musk wafted to her on the fire’s warm breath.
“That isn’t true,” she said, putting her finger on her page and closing the book.
“Sure it is. She never has.”
“Remember when we were here, when your father died? She wouldn’t speak to me the whole time.”
“She was a wreck then. She barely spoke to anyone. She wasn’t eating or sleeping, either.”
“She’s made it very clear, Janey.”
“I think you’re exaggerating. And anyway, I don’t care, I love you, and that should count for something. Whether it does or not is her problem.”
Janey protested, but she couldn’t deny the truth in Jack’s words. Her father had died suddenly, choking on a bite of bagel at breakfast one morning. A flailing arm had knocked his orange juice glass on the floor, shattering it. While dialing 911, Mother had tried to pick up the shards and had sliced open her right index finger, a wound that she said bled like a son-of-a-bitch and required two stitches to close. She told Janey the mixture of blood and juice had looked just like a particularly vivid sunset.
She had come right away, arriving late that night, and stayed for two weeks. During that entire time, she couldn’t remember a single conversation between Mother and Jack. Maybe he was right after all.
“Thanks, honey,” Jack said. “I appreciate that.”
He turned back to the fire. She looked at the back of his head for a moment, his hair thick and sandy blond, brushing the collar of his red sweater. In the four years since, they had made periodic trips down from the city to keep tabs on Mother, who refused to move from her house. She didn’t mind spending money redecorating, but she didn’t want to leave her small-town home. Then her mind had started to drift, she rarely slept through the night, and she stopped eating right. Janey had hired a nurse to check in on her a few times a week, but found herself having to make the trip more and more often. Jack always came along, which made it easier on her.
Five days ago Mother had what she called a “dizzy spell.” The nurse had let herself in and found her on the living room floor, soiled and still. The nurse had feared the worst until she touched Mother to take her pulse, and Mother had swatted at her hand and called her Sue.
Sue was Mother’s younger sister, who had died at seventeen, more than sixty years before.
The nurse had telephoned, and Janey had rushed down.
Mother had been confused when they arrived, referring to the nurse as Sue or Helen, a woman who had lived down the street for years, and utterly ignoring Jack. Jack had insisted that part, at least, was intentional.
Janey didn’t know how long they would stay this time. She didn’t feel like she could go back to the city with Mother in this condition, clearly unable to fend for herself. Janey couldn’t afford to pay for full-time nursing care, and so far Mother had refused to entertain the notion of moving into a senior facility. If she could make the obstinate woman pack up and go to the city, it would be so much easier. Janey’s job was there, her life. Jack liked it here, but Janey didn’t know how she would make a living in such a small town.
She opened her book again, found her place. No sense dwelling on it nonstop. A decision would be made. Maybe she would make it, and maybe circumstances would dictate it. But it would have to come in its own time, or she would just have to knock Mother out and drag her from the house.
She resumed reading, her free hand stroking Jack’s broad shoulders.
Janey woke up alone the next morning. The bed was cool beside her, but still smelled of Jack. She slipped into a robe, tugged on heavy wool socks. Mother was sound asleep in her own room, a softly undulating lump under her blankets. A chair in her room had been overturned sometime during the night, so Janey righted it and then left, closing the door behind her.
She made breakfast, took a quick shower, put on a black sweatshirt, soft jeans and sneakers. Mother was still asleep, so she called her office, in the corporate headquarters of a sportswear company, to see if anything demanded her attention. There had been crises, she was told, but manageable ones. “You just worry about your mother,” her supervisor said. “We’ll take care of things here.”
“Thanks, Barb. Jack and I will—”
“Jack,” Janey said. “You know, my husb—”
“Look, Janey,” Barb said. “I have to go. Take it easy, and don’t worry about us.”
Before Janey could respond, she heard a click and a dial tone.
She and Jack had never actually married. They felt married, that was the important thing. She called him her husband. She spent every night in his arms, never tired of gazing into his blue eyes, felt able to tell him every secret and know he would understand. Had anyone ever been more married, whether some church or government agency had validated their union? She couldn’t see how.
She hadn’t told many people about the minor deception. She must have told Barb at some point, though, and now Barb was sensitive about it.
When she turned around, Jack was leaning against the sink, his arms folded over his chest. “Everything okay, sweetheart?”
“Oh, I suppose. It’s just…sometimes Barb is a little sensitive, you know?”
“Not everyone’s as level-headed as you.”
A slight flush warmed Janey’s cheeks. “I try.”
He crossed the kitchen to her, enveloped her in his arms. “You succeed,” he said hoarsely. His lips found hers.
“Are you making tea?”
Janey spun around, startled by Mother’s voice and not expecting her to be up and about, much less in the kitchen. Janey’s hand went to her throat. Her pulse fluttered like a hummingbird’s wings. “You startled me, Mother.”
“I didn’t mean to. You usually make tea in the mornings, so I wondered—”
“You should be in bed. I can bring it to you.”
“I’m perfectly capable of walking around my own house and sitting upright at a table, Jane.” Mother’s robe was gray with yellow trim, a matching fabric belt snugging it in at the waist. Beneath it and at the cuffs, a faded rose nightgown peeked out.
“Sit then.” Janey waved toward the mahogany dining table. Something else she had bought since Dad’s death—for all of Janey’s life they had used an old steel table with a spotted yellow plastic surface. That kind of plastic had a name, but she couldn’t think of it now. Her heart had barely begun to slow. “I’ll get the water boiling. Jack and I were just—”
Mother interrupted her as she sat in her usual chair. “Please, Janey, don’t start that up again.”
“That Jack nonsense, of course.”
“What on Earth do you mean?”
“I hope to hell you know what I mean.”
“I don’t have the slightest idea.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I am, Mother. Whatever you’re talking about, you need to—”
“He doesn’t exist, Jane.” Mother was snapping again. Flecks of saliva glistened on the dark wood of the table.
“Maybe you should go back to bed after all, Mother.”
“It’s bad enough that I can’t trust my own mind half the time. Don’t try to make me think it’s worse than it is.”
“Mother, he was right here in this room!”
“And where is he now?”
Janey glanced over her right shoulder. He had been there a minute ago, leaning against the sink, then holding her in a loving embrace. “I don’t keep track of him every instant. Maybe he went outside. Or to take a shower. What’s the difference where he is right now?”
“I think you need to come outside with me.”
“You shouldn’t go outside, Mother, it’s cold out.”
“I’m hardly an invalid. I can walk around my own damn yard.”
Janey started running water into a kettle. “Can’t it wait until I make the tea?”
“I don’t believe so, no.” Mother started toward the back door.
Conflicting urges bumped up against each other. Should she drop the kettle, spilling water all over the floor and perhaps distracting Mother? But why? Whatever idea had cropped up in her addled mind would pass quickly, maybe by the time they got out the door and down the four concrete stairs to the yard. She wanted to shout out to Jack, to put all this to rest by summoning him back into the kitchen.
But Mother yanked the door open. Cold air shouldered into the room. Janey stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans and followed Mother out the door and down the stairs. The morning was frigid, more like winter than fall, a taste of what the next few months would bring.
Dry leaves whispered in a sudden breeze. Mother led the way to the back fence, passing between two of the maples. Janey hunched her shoulders against a chill more pronounced than the cold morning could account for. By the fence (wood slats, the reddish-brown paint peeling like early summer sunburned skin) her mother stopped, one thin arm pressed against a slat for balance while she scuffed away leaves and dead grass with her slippered left foot.
“What are we doing out here?” Janey asked. “It’s so cold.”
“I’m going to show you something,” Mother said. Her mother had never minded the cold, Janey recalled, in her younger days. It was only recently that she had begun to complain and insisted on blasting the heat inside. Having cleared a space at her feet, Mother lowered to an awkward crouch and started pawing at the earth. Janey moved closer, peering over her mother’s shoulder. Bit by bit, a flat slab of stone was revealed, bone-white beneath hard crumbled dirt and yellowed grass and those big red and brown leaves.
“What is that?”
“You don’t remember it?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Janey tried to pay close attention, sure that she would have to report this entire incident to Mother’s doctor. But she felt suddenly dizzy. The wind swirled leaves around them, chittering urgent warnings that wouldn’t be silenced. She put both hands against the cool wood of the fence. Goose bumps mottled the flesh of her forearms. “Don’t be ridiculous! Can we please go inside now?”
“Not until you look at this.” Mother stood up. The stone was fully revealed now, eight or nine inches square, with uneven sides, mostly white but with gray and black streaks she hadn’t noticed at first.
“I see it. It’s a rock. So?”
“It’s a gravestone.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Well, not a real one. I can’t believe you’ve forgotten.”
“Forgotten what?” Janey touched the stone. It felt like a block of ice. She caught a whiff of Jack’s musk, heard a sudden intake of his breath, as if something had startled him. But when she looked, he was nowhere in sight. The dizziness wouldn’t leave her alone. “Is there…something buried under there? A bird or something?” Trying to force thoughts of Jack from her mind, she tried to remember any dead pets, but her parents had not been big on bringing animals into the house. She’d had some goldfish, but when those died, usually after only a few weeks, they went into the toilet or the kitchen trash.
“You put this here,” Mother said. “You were nine. No, eight.”
“What is it?”
“Not a bird.”