The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

March 9, 2014

Furniture Spam: A Short Story

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:23 am

Image credit: Flickr user Greenkozi, Creative Commons

Earlier today, me and a couple of my friends made a trip out to the friendly neighborhood monolith of vaguely Scandinavian furniture to partake of the suspiciously cheap breakfasts they offer in their cafeteria and pick up some miscellaneous housewares.  While we were there, we saw that they were running some sort of event where you could get entered into a drawing for either a gift card or the ever vague “other prizes” by signing up for their mailing list.  After all, when you get a chance to get your inbox spammed for the next eternity or two in exchange for a longshot chance at a $250 furniture shopping spree, you’ve got to take it, right?  Then again, when me and my friends get together, we have a tendency to take these things to the most illogical and absurd conclusions we can possibly think of…

Thanks to the ridiculously cheap alarm clock that failed to go off for the third time this week, Ed was running late for an important meeting at work.  After hastily putting on the first three socially acceptable items that came out of the dresser drawer and halfheartedly combing his hair into something that bore a passing resemblance to a part, he quickly rushed down the stairs.  If he hurried, he might still have a chance of getting there on time.  After grabbing some frozen thing out of the freezer for lunch and shoving it into his bag, he quickly made his way to the door, opened it…  and stopped dead in his tracks.

It had happened again.  Why did it have to be today, of all days?

There, sitting on the front lawn, was a trendy new sofa, complete with matching loveseat.  Between these was a rather lovely little side table with a nice lamp, and a well-coordinated area rug tied the whole set into a coheisive group.  It was immediately apparent that someone had carefully selected these items to coordinate with each other and to compliment just about any room, and the overall effect made for a cozy little gathering place  that the whole family could enjoy.  On top of the loveseat, a colorful flyer helpfully suggested some coffee tables and shelves that might coordinate well with this grouping, and even provided some valuable coupons.  Not that Ed really had much use for the coupons in the first place, since a number of bookshelves had already appeared on the front porch just a couple of months ago, and one of the entertainment centers highlighted on the flyer was already occupying a considerable portion of his garage.

In fact, ever since the fateful day a few months before when Ed put his name and address into a drawing at the big-box furniture store and somehow managed to end up winning the grand prize, this type of thing had become a rather common occurrence.  The sign on the entry box had informed him that he could win free furniture or other great prizes, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of details there.  Surely if he had bothered to read the fine print he might have figured out what he was getting himself into, but at the time they were offering the meatball combo in the cafeteria for a dollar off the regular price, and he was too hungry to bother with such trivial things.  Maybe if he had stuck around for the drawing he might have been able to figure out what was going on, but he had too many other errands to run that day and had to leave quickly after lunch.  So it wasn’t until furniture started randomly showing up on his doorstep one day that he even had any idea what was going on.

At first, the whole thing was kind of amusing.  He would walk out to collect the mail and find a brand new set of pots, pans and dishes sitting at the doorstep.  Upon returning from an evening out he might find that his parking spot had been occupied by a brand new queen size bed, complete with tasteful yet cheerful sheets, pillows and duvet.  But then it just kept coming.  At least 2 or 3 times a month, Ed would find upon waking up that another shipment of stylish new furniture had been mysteriously delivered in the dead of night, always fully assembled, and always arranged very carefully to brighten up the place while still allowing maximum possible use of the available space.  And whoever was doing it was apparently very efficient about it, because he had never heard a peep from them, and always slept right through it.  Nobody he had talked to at the furniture store had any knowledge of what was going on, at least none that they would admit to.  It was clear to Ed that this was a well-organized and professional operation.  And in spite of his best efforts, nothing he tried to do seemed to be able to stop it.

And here he was, late for work already and facing the dilemma of yet another living room set on the front lawn.  And the clouds on the horizon made it clear that he was going to need to get the stuff inside unless he wanted it rained on.  Ed quickly took out his cell phone and scanned through his contacts list, trying to see if he could find someone he could call for some help.  Lately this had become an increasingly difficult task, as many of his friends stopped answering his calls after the fourth or fifth time he needed help hauling stuff into the garage.  Not that he had a whole lot of room in the garage anymore anyway.  A lovely dining room group was currently occupying the space where his car once parked, and a nice computer desk and set of filing cabinets followed soon after, as did a set of dresser drawers and nightstands, and a couple of rather large decorative vases.  Even Ed had to admit that it was all pretty nice stuff (at least in comparison to the mixed assortment of bachelor pad hand-me-downs and garage sale specials that comprised the current decor of his house) but somehow that didn’t provide a whole lot of consolation when he knew he was going to have to call the boss and explain that he was going to miss the meeting because the lawn is full of brand new furniture.  Yes, again.

After a couple of calls that went straight to voicemail, Ed quickly carried the lamp into the house and made his way to the shed in the backyard, realizing he would need to sort this one out later.  As he trudged back toward the front yard with a couple of giant blue tarps, he silently rued the day that he had signed up for the furniture store’s spam list.

August 21, 2013

The Ugly Little Bomb Pop Incident – A Short Story

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:24 am

On a night like this, I’m pretty sure that just about anyone more creative and/or bored than myself could have come up with any number of better places to be than hanging out in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket, but with as hot as the weather was outside, I certainly couldn’t think of any.  Well, Alaska maybe, but that tends to be a little tricky when I’ve got a 9am meeting tomorrow morning that I’m expected at.  This was a lot cheaper anyway, and besides, as of the last time I checked the modern American supermarket tends not to be populated by too many wild animals inclined to devour you.  To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was even there for, only that it was way too hot outside, and the frozen food aisle seemed as good a place as any to get out of it.

After aimlessly wandering up and down the aisle a couple of times I decided that I should probably consider actually buying something there before someone decided I was loitering.  There was no shortage of potential choices here, but for some reason, nothing seemed quite right.  Ice cream just sounded too heavy right now, and none of the good stuff was on sale anyway.  The usual litany of ice cream bars, sandwiches and other novelties wasn’t exactly sounding all that appealing either.  And the pies, cakes and other desserts were just right out.  Without any idea what I was even looking for, I began to make yet another slow walk down the aisle, pausing only to let the occasional shopping cart pass by.

Then it hit me.  As I looked into the freezer case, I saw the Bomb Pops.  Even though I hadn’t had one in years, I could immediately taste them in my mind.  The combination of cherry, lime and blue raspberry flavors sounded like just the thing I wanted at that moment.  And yet, as I took a closer look at the case, I found a rather odd sign placed above them:  “Please ask an associate for assistance with these items.”  I quickly dismissed the sign as some sort of misplaced leftover from something else as I reached for the handle to the door, but strangely enough, the door would not open.  Further investigation revealed that for some unknown reason, there was a lock on this particular freezer door, which appears to have been a recent addition.  Not that it would have done any good anyway, since I could have just reached in from the next door over and grabbed a box anyway, but that was beside the point.  At this point, I suspect most people would have just given up and wandered a couple of doors over to the generic popsicles a couple of doors down, but at this point morbid curiosity took over.

Down at the far end of the aisle I found a store employee stocking the shelves, and wandered over.  Trying not to act too suspicious (which I suspect was rather difficult at this point since I had probably already spent twenty minutes slowly walking up and down the aisle by this time)  I got the clerk’s attention, and asked him where I might find the Bomb Pops.  In retrospect this was probably a really stupid question since I had been staring right at them no more than thirty seconds before, but I naively assumed I could feign ignorance.

The employee looked up from the shelf he had been stocking, pointed back to the front of the aisle, and said, “The popsicles are at the front of the aisle on the right.”

“Yes,” I replied, “But I’m looking for the Bomb Pops.”

“I’m afraid we don’t sell those anymore,” replied the stocker.  “But we do have a 2-for-1 sale on our store-brand ice pops…”

At this point, there was no point in maintaining any sort of pretense.  I pointed toward the locked case.

“It appears that you have at least three boxes in the freezer over there.”

“Fine, but I’m afraid those aren’t very good.  If I were you, I’d strongly recommend the Fudgsicles…”

At this point it was clear that this had become far more of a hassle than the situation really warranted, but by now I was determined to carry on, if for no other reason than to see just how ridiculous it could possibly get.

“Is there a problem with the Bomb Pops?” I asked.

“No, I can assure you that the Bomb Pops are just fine.  I stocked them in that case on Thursday.”

“Then why can’t I just buy a box?”

“BUY A BOX?” the stocker exclaimed, with a sudden look of shock on his face.  “Why on Earth would you want to do THAT?”

At this point, I found myself straining a bit to avoid breaking out into laughter.  After a pause, I replied, “Well, because I’m looking for a snack.”

“Well, if you’re looking for a snack, why don’t you just go get some POTATO chips?” the clerk quickly blurted out, sounding like a con artist who had just figured out a way to weasel out of his rapidly collapsing web of deceit  “The Pringles are currently Buy two get one…”

I interrupted before he could continue, “Potato chips aren’t what I’m here for, I’m looking for Bomb Pops, and I’m trying to figure out why this is so difficult.”

“Clearly you have no idea what you’re asking for!” the stocker exclaimed.  Apparently our conversation had attracted the attention of several other shoppers in the store, who had now congregated at the opposite end of the frozen foods aisle.  By now we had also attracted the attention of a store manager.

“May I help you?” the manager asked as he approached the conversation.  The stocker took this opportunity to hastily  back away, apparently wanting nothing to do with this conversation.  It seemed that he had some pressing business in the cereal aisle that required his immediate attention.  A shortage of Cap’n Crunch perhaps?

I continued the conversation with the store manager.  “I’m just trying to buy some Bomb Pops.”

The manager paused for several seconds.  “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “It seems they’re being locked up in the freezer for some reason.”

“Of course they’re being locked up,” the manager replied, with a slight hint of condescension in his voice.  “We can’t just have anyone wandering in and buying the things now, can we?”

“I don’t see why not,” I replied.  “I mean, they’re just popsicles, right?”

“Popsicles?” responded the manager, who had now reached the point of full on indignation.  “Of COURSE not.  Only Popsicles are popsicles!  Those things are…  Are…  Are…”  He struggled to find a word.

“Quiescently Frozen Confections?” I offered.

“Yes, those!” the manager replied.  “But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

“How complicated can it be?  I’m looking for some Bomb Pops, your store is selling them.  If it wasn’t for the fact that you’ve got the things locked up in the freezer I’m pretty sure I’d be halfway home with a box of the things already.”

“Wait,” replied the manager.  “You mean you would actually take the things HOME?”

“Of course I would, unless you expect me to sit around and eat a whole box of the things here in the aisle.”

“Clearly you have no idea what you’d be getting yourself into.”

“And just what would I be getting myself into?”

“Trouble, of course!”

“Listen,” I replied, “Just how much trouble could I get myself into with those things?  I mean, I’m pretty sure I could just walk into the Safeway three blocks away and buy the things off the shelf without any hassle.”

“Of COURSE those irresponsible nitwits at Safeway would sell the blasted things to anyone who wandered in off the street!” the manager snapped back, clearly irritated by now.  At the other end of the aisle, the other shoppers continued to watch, transfixed by the pointless-yet-amusing drama unfolding before their eyes.  The manager paused again, this time for several seconds, possibly noticing for the first time the stares of the other shoppers.  Afterward, he assumed a much quieter tone.

“I apologize sir,” he said.  “I suppose we can’t expect every customer that wanders into the store to understand.”

“Understand what?” I replied.

“Let’s just say that there have been certain… Shall we say… UNFORTUNATE incidents, related to Bomb Pops in this store.”


“Well,” the manager replied in hushed tones, almost as though he didn’t want anyone else to hear, “We still haven’t figured out all the details really, but the place was a disaster area.  It took three people an entire Graveyard shift just to clean up all the red and blue goop before the morning rush arrived.  I mean, we were finding the stuff in the BAKERY for Heaven’s sake!”

“So that means you have to lock up the Bomb Pops now?”

“It’s the only way to be sure.”

“Be sure of what?”  By now, It was pretty clear that this entire conversation was a was doing nothing but wasting everyone’s time, but nobody was backing down at this point.

“That there won’t be another Ugly Little Bomb Pop Incident.”

Wait,” I replied.  “Let me get this straight.  Somehow there was an incident involving Bomb Pops, and now everyone is so afraid of the things that they have to keep them under lock and key?”

“To make a long story short, yes.”

“So why do you even sell the things?”

“Believe me, I’d be more than happy to just get rid of the things and be done with them, but someone in corporate just keeps putting the things into the weekly ad, and the warehouse just keeps sending more.  We’ve tried explaining to them, but they just ignore us and keep expecting us to sell them anyway.”  By now, the manager’s face grew increasingly nervous, and as he spoke he made several glances to the side, as if to look for a way out.  I figure that by this time the stocker with whom this conversation started was hiding out in a dark corner of the breakroom, waiting for  the whole thing to blow over.

“Listen,” the manager said nervously, apparently getting as sick of this conversation as I was, “If I let you buy a box of Bomb Pops, will you agree to never speak of any of this again?”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for, right?”

“Are you sure there isn’t something I could do to talk you out of this?”

“OF course not,” I replied.  Sure, I had just wasted the last fifteen minutes in a pointless argument over a three-dollar box of popsicles, but I sure as heck wasn’t leaving without them after all that.

“Very well then,” the manager finally said, with a barely concealed sigh.  “Now if you can follow me over to the customer service desk, we have some papers we will need you to fill out.”

As we proceeded down the frozen foods aisle toward the front of the store, I noticed another “Please ask an associate for assistance” sign located above the case holding the Eggo waffles.  I’m pretty sure I don’t even want to know what prompted that one.

October 31, 2012

A House Too Far: A Halloween Short Story (Part 2)

Filed under: Holidays, Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:47 pm

(Note:  If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 can be found here.)

As Old Johnson watched from his perch at the top of the ridge, he could see the shadowy figures beginning to converge on the Baker House below, flashlights in hand.  From the skies above, he also saw the occasional ghost float into the window.  As the skeptics have continued to grow in number over the years, the number of ghosts attempting to drive them away has gradually declined to the point that only a few brave souls even make the attempt anymore.  Old Johnson figured that most of them would be sticking to all the old tried and true methods of haunting.  Granted, when you’ve been hanging around in incorporeal form for the last fifty years or more, your options are a little bit limited.  Most new ghosts, once they managed to get past the initial stages of unbridled rage and swearing vengeance on whatever brought them to their fate, generally learned to manipulate very small objects without too much trouble, and gradually worked up to somewhat larger ones.  A dropped candlestick here, a rattling window there, maybe even something thrown across the room if you’re motivated enough.  In most cases that and a few eerie shrieks and moans would be plenty of skills to hold down a respectable haunted house, but not the Baker House.

At least that’s the way it seemed.  Although Old Johnson hadn’t been to the Baker House before, he had heard all the stories.  It didn’t matter what you did to the skeptics, they would immediately find an excuse and write it off.  Bangs, rattles and creaks were settling.  Ominous noises were the wind.  Vague senses of dread meant you probably left the oven on at home.  There’s just nothing you could do to these guys that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss as the work of some easily explained natural phenomenon.  An unsubstantiated rumor was floating around that one particularly vengeful (and thoroughly demented) spirit even tried a full-fledged fountain of blood coming from the chandeliers many years ago, and even that was quickly chalked up to some sort of plumbing malfunction.  What was even more shocking was the sheer speed with which the skeptics could come up with these “perfectly logical” explanations.

Eventually, the crowds outside began to wend their way into the house, and it appeared that the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics would be getting underway shortly.  It was at this point that Old Johnson decided to make his entrance.  Even though he could float right through pretty much whatever he wanted, he still preferred to stick to the front door.  Completely unnecessary, but it seemed to be one of the few forces of habit that remained from his mortal existence.  Someone even conveniently left the door ajar, so with a small amount of exertion he was able to swing it wide open with a convincing slam.  One of the skeptics, sitting on a dilapidated old couch in the entry hallway, looked over, quickly made some offhand comment about the wind, and went back to his own thoughts.  Not that old Johnson expected anything else.

The entry hall opened up into a rather large foyer, where the main body of skeptics was gathering on a number of conveniently placed folding chairs.  As Old Johnson entered the room, he could see that a number of the spooks and spectres were already hard at work.  One swung slowly from a chandelier located above the  crowd (which was no easy feat for the average ghost, but given enough time it was possible to work up enough momentum to get the chandelier swinging pretty well.)  Another young lady spook was in the upper part of the room, inching a dusty old book out of its place on one of the shelves.  It was clear that she hadn’t had much experience with this, so this was likely to take her most of the evening to accomplish, and likely to be dismissed as a problem with the structural integrity of the bookshelf in seconds.  With various ghosts throughout the room straining at their various self-appointed tasks, the whole scene looked like something out of an amusement park haunted house, except for the part where none of the humans in the room could see any of it, and when the occasional physical manifestation showed up they were surprisingly quick to make up an excuse.  But in spite of his considerable talents in object manipulation, Old Johnson didn’t join in.  As he found himself a spot in a conveniently empty corner, someone came to the podium (or what passed for one, which at this point seemed to be some sort of end table with a dusty old bust with the face of some long dead tycoon on it)  and called the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen,” said an older man in a somewhat raspy voice, “We would now like to call this 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics to order.  Everyone please rise.”

Everyone in the room stood up, and began some sort of nonsensical chant about how everything had a logical explanation and that there was no such thing as a haunted house.  As they stood, one ghost hastily floated across the room and tried to push one of the chairs away from its occupant, but was barely able to move it a half an inch before the chant ended, and everyone sat down.  The leader of the society rose again to speak.

“Once again, I would like to welcome everybody to the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics.  As you may know, the mission of our society is to prove irrefutably and incontrovertibly that there is no such thing as a haunted house, and that ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are nothing but figments of an overactive imagination.  As you may know-”

His speech was interrupted when a drinking glass full of water that had been placed on the table suddenly tipped over and spilled all over his suit.  Old Johnson could see that the glass had been given some assistance in this matter.

Pausing for just a second, the leader of the society continued, “Oh, I’m sorry, I suppose I must have a talk with my doctor about my hand-eye coordination.  Anyway, as I was saying…”

It was at about this time that Old Johnson tuned out the speech, which consisted mainly of shopworn claptrap about how only idiots believe in the supernatural and how skeptics would soon be the ones in charge of everything because everyone else was being too superstitious about things.  Instead, he turned his attention to the audience, looking for the most gullible person he could find.  Shockingly, this turned out to be a lot less difficult than it might seem at first, since there were clearly a lot of gullible people here trying desperately not to look gullible.  Having the advantage of being incorporeal and not having to worry about silly things like personal space or the laws of physics, Old Johnson was able to move at will through the crowd as they sat, seemingly enthralled by the drivel coming from the podium.  As he moved along, he noted that several people in the audience were reading from a small reference card of some sort.  A closer look revealed that it contained a list of some of the various symptoms of the other ghosts’ attempts at haunting, followed by an “explanation” of exactly what they “actually” were.  He didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but he did find an unattended one underneath a chair, and quietly began to “push” it underneath one of  the couches in the room to come back and read later.  One person actually noticed this, but after muttering something under his breath about how breezy it was in the room, and quickly turned his attention back to the front of the room.

Finally, after identifying 3 or 4 particularly gullible subjects within the room, he turned his attention back to the speech (or, the way it was being presented, more of a sermon really) at the front of the room.  As before, the ghosts throughout the room were busy with whatever endeavors they thought might manage to invoke a scare or two (but in reality, the whole “blood from a turnip” thing seemed more likely at this point.)  Occasionally something would rattle, fall, creak or sound ominous, but by now most people weren’t even paying attention.  As the leader droned on, Old Johnson moved over toward one of the targets he had identified earlier, moved his mouth toward the skeptic’s ear, and sat in wait as he listened to the speech from the front of the room.  Even by ghost standards this was nothing unusual; already Old Johnson had observed several other ghosts trying to make spooky noises in peoples’ ears, suggest to them that they’re getting really, really, REALLY creeped out right now and generally just trying to haunt people one at a time, but as with practically everything else going on around here, it was dismissed as something in the wind.  But Old Johnson had a different idea.

“And by now,” the leader droned on, “we should ALL know that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY for this house to be haunted!”

With this, Old Johnson spoke quietly into the skeptic’s ear, “There is no possible way for this house to be haunted.”  The voice, as perceived by the human that would be hearing it, would be very quiet, almost imperceptible.  Perhaps it would even take some time for it to register.  While this was happening, the leader continued.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a ghost!”

Old Johnson repeated into the skeptic’s ear a second later, “There is no such thing as a ghost.”  This evoked an almost imperceptible nod.

“You have NOTHING to fear in the Baker House, There is a perfectly logical explanation for EVERYTHING!”

Old Johnson continued quietly repeating the leader’s words into the ear of the skeptic.  “You have nothing to fear in the Baker House.  There is a perfectly logical explanation for everything.”  As he continued, it became clearer and clearer that he was reacting to what he was hearing.  After all, the voice in his head was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear, so why not?  He kept up the routine for several more minutes, until there was a brief lull in the leader’s speech.  Old Johnson used this lull to make his play:

“So what am I even doing here?”

The skeptic paused.  Perhaps for the first time all night, he thought for a moment.  He pulled the reference card out of his pocket and consulted it, but found nothing.  Sure, the card included the standard explanation for hearing unexplained voices, but in the skeptic’s mind, there was nothing unexplained.  The voice he heard was merely confirming to him exactly what he had already heard, and exactly what he wanted to hear.  For all intents and purpose, it was his own voice speaking to him.  Old Johnson knew that he was on to something, so he tried again.

“My bladder is starting to get full.”

With this, the skeptic began to twitch almost imperceptibly in his seat.

“I really need to go to the bathroom.”

While this was going on, the leader continued on with his incessant hectoring and lecturing, but the skeptic was distracted.  Whether or not it was actually true, he had started believing that he really needed to go.  It took Old Johnson a few more tries with this suggestion, but eventually the skeptic got up from his chair, and shuffled past several other people toward the center aisle.  Old Johnson followed close behind, but soon he realized he had a problem:  There were no fewer than six ghosts in the bathroom, just lying in wait for someone to try out their usual shopworn haunted clichés on.  Sure, the old self-unrolling toilet paper trick tended to be a hit at parties and in the right context could literally scare the pants off of someone (believe me, this actually isn’t a good thing,) but these were skeptics here, and such a party trick would likely serve only to put this man right back into skeptic mode, probably finding an explanation on that little card in his pocket.  Old Johnson knew that he would need to make his move now, and make it fast.  He quickly caught up to the skeptic, moved up to his ear, and whispered again:

“You know, this whole thing is really kind of silly.  I should really just go home.”

The skeptic stopped for a second, appearing indecisive.  Old Johnson took the opportunity to whisper again:

“Wait, I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom anyway.”

A quiet filled the air, interrupted only by the droning of the leader’s talk in the other room.  The skeptic stood motionless for a second.  Old Johnson made another suggestion:

“What am I even doing here?” 

The skeptic shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked back.  Quietly he said, “What am I even doing here?”

“This is getting boring,” Old Johnson whispered again.

” This is getting boring,” the skeptic muttered just a second later.  He turned around again, looking toward the front door. 

“I should really just go home.”

Almost immediately, the skeptic spoke.  “I should really just go home.”

With that, he turned and headed for the front door of the Baker House, still wide open from Old Johnson’s earlier entrance.  In the other room, the other skeptics were all too busy listening to the speech, and none of them paid any attention to his departure.  A slam of the door briefly interrupted the talk coming from the other room, but naturally everyone just assumed it was the wind, as usual.

Eventually, the overly long speech came to an end, and as the skeptics milled about in the foyer and socialized, Old Johnson experimented a bit more with his methods on a couple of the other gullible people he had identified earlier.  Although he did manage to get one or two minor reactions, his results turned out to be decidedly mixed.  Eventually the night wore down to a close, and the rest of the skeptics dispersed.  None of the other haunts in the Baker House had paid much attention to Old Johnson that evening, and since the skeptic had not left the building screaming, few were inclined to treat it as anything special.  Eventually the ghosts too began to float slowly off into the distance, assuming that the skeptics had won the battle for another year.  Old Johnson quietly wandered back into the woods, made especially spooky by the ominous clouds overhead and a stiff breeze in the trees.  Perhaps he hadn’t gotten the screaming panic that ghosts everywhere seek to inflict on the Society of Skeptics, but that wasn’t what he had been aiming for.  What he had done was sow the seeds of doubt.  Perhaps if his efforts were effective enough, he could get a few more people to either leave next Halloween, or perhaps not even show up in the first place.  Then he could work on a few more people.  And then a few more.  Eventually, the numbers would dwindle, to the point that even the leaders of the Society might be left vulnerable.

Sure, it wouldn’t have the glamor of scaring the living daylights out of them, and it might take years or even decades to successfully pull this off, but that didn’t matter to Old Johnson.  After all, for better or for worse, he had all the time in the world.

A House Too Far – A Halloween Short Story (Part 1)

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:59 am

From the top of a nearby hill, Old Johnson surveyed the scene.  Barely visible in the few remaining rays of twilight that managed to penetrate the dark clouds overhead was a house in the small ravine below, dimly illuminated by what appeared to be candles in the windows.  Although this particular house had been built stoutly enough to withstood nearly 200 years of the ravages of time, it clearly hadn’t been spared their effects, as even at this distance the telltale signs of wear and neglect were clearly visible on the house’s outer walls.  The decrepit state of the house by itself was enough to keep most sane people away from the place,  but even the bravest souls of Old Johnson’s acquaintance would think twice before approaching the Baker House on Halloween night.  Most saw that as a warning to stay away from the place, but there were a few particularly brave or particularly foolhardy individuals who saw the Baker House as a challenge.  Perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Oh, there was no doubt that the Baker House was haunted.  In fact, on a particularly busy Halloween night, one could find no less than 200 ghosts lurking the halls of this old Colonial mansion.  In the Baker House, it wasn’t the ghosts you would have to worry about.  Each year on Halloween night, the Baker House was infested with something even more terrifying than ghosts, creeps, spooks, haunts or perhaps even demons.  For each of the last 83 years, Halloween night found the Baker House occupied not only by ghosts, but also by a particularly intractable group of skeptics.  And in all that time, no amount of chain-rattling, vase dropping, door slamming, tormented groaning or any other manner of haunting could get a single one of the skeptics to budge from their ironclad conviction that there was no such thing as a ghost. 

It wasn’t always this way.  The Baker House, abandoned by its owners over 150 years ago under unfortunate circumstances that are now largely lost to the winds of history, was once a respectable haunted house, with a resident population of spooks and spectres who could generally invoke a hasty retreat in the occasional visitor who entered the house on a dare or a bet with a few rattles of the chandelier or the occasional sense of impending doom.  Eventually, the house developed a reputation as being haunted among the local Human population, a reputation that the house’s occupants drew great satisfaction from.  That all changed back in 1929, when one particularly foolhardy individual by the name of William Meyer boldly made a large wager with several members of the local gentry that he could not only spend an entire Halloween night in the Baker House, but that he could prove that there was no such thing as a ghost while doing so. 

To this day, it is still disputed exactly what happened during that fateful night, but either by sheer force of will or sheer force of thick-headedness (possibly aided by the fact that his relatively meager financial reserves would in no way come anywhere near covering the amount of the bets he had made,) William Meyer managed to somehow completely ignore any attempts at haunting made by the resident ghost population on that fateful night.  As Mr. Meyer emerged from the house the following morning apparently none the wiser (and considerably richer), he made a big show out of it, loudly proclaiming to the local populace that there was no such thing as ghosts.  The following year in another show of braggadocio, he invited several others to join him in the Baker House.  These additional houseguests, perhaps aided by Mr. Meyer’s boastings and hasty excuses for whatever unexplained phenomena occurred during the night, proved just as intractable as Mr. Meyer himself, and once again, all emerged from the house boasting. 

Over the years more and more people joined in, to the point that in 1951 a number of them formed a Society of Skeptics within the town, and from that time forward, each year the Society makes a big deal out of spending Halloween night in the Baker House, where they spend the night mostly boasting to each other about  how nothing can scare them, explaining to each other just why ghosts can’t possibly exist, and generally sitting around not believing in things.  Although the resident ghost population of the Baker House departed for browner pastures many years ago, some spooks just can’t resist the challenge of trying to scare off the skeptics.  To date, none have succeeded, and not for lack of trying.  As many a ghost has learned from painful experience, about the only thing that a typical Society of Skeptics member believes is that they don’t believe anything.  Gradually many of the local spooks gave up on the Baker House, and over time the house began to develop a reputation exactly opposite from the one it once enjoyed:  An unhaunted house.  Every once in a while a particularly brave ghost would boldly pronounce that he would be the one that would finally scare away the Society of Skeptics, but inevitably each one would fail.  Now it was Old Johnson’s turn to try.

One thing was clear about Old Johnson:  He was old.  Exactly how old nobody knew, and even he didn’t really care to bother finding out.  When you’ve restlessly wandered the Earth for as long as he had, you tend to forget a lot of things, and to be honest, Old Johnson kind of liked it that way.  By now, Old Johnson had no idea how or even when he died, nor did he know why he ended up trapped between two worlds as he had, and he didn’t really care to find out either.  He fancied himself to be something of a free agent among ghosts, providing haunting services when and where they were needed.  Over the years he had seen a lot of ghosts that had chained themselves (literally and metaphorically) to various places, apparently unable to get past the unfortunate circumstances of their mortality, and he was determined not to be one of them.  So in order to keep himself busy, Old Johnson made a business (if that’s what you could call it) of acting as something of a freelance spook, going from place to place and haunting as needed.  Sure the hours could be long and the pay nonexistent (not that it really mattered anyway) but it had to be better than sitting in some decrepit old basement forever with nothing to do but rattle the doors every once in a while.

Although Old Johnson was generally content with this arrangement, he was prone to occasional bouts with extreme boredom and unease with his situation.  Sure the usual haunting kept him reasonably well occupied, but it was often mind-numbingly boring, and rarely much of a challenge.  Somewhere in Old Johnson’s heart (or whatever passes for one in a disembodied spectre,) he knew that there had to be something better for him out there.  It was on his aimless wanderings last year in search of a new haunt that he first heard of the Baker House.  Immediately he was drawn to the challenge of trying to haunt the unhauntable, but the reports were discouraging:  For years, there had been countless ghosts that had gone before him, and all had failed to raise so much as a vague sense of disquiet among the skeptics that infested the house.  At one time or another, practically everyone had tried practically everything in the book (up to and including throwing the book at someone’s head) and every time the skeptics would brush it off with one lame excuse or another.  In casual conversations with some of the ghosts that had failed in their quest to rehaunt the Baker House, many of them spoke of a belief that there had to be some way through their defenses, some weakness that would send them fleeing in panic.  But nobody had found that weakness, and by now all but the most diehard of spooks had given up on the Baker House altogether.  Many spoke of elaborately constructed and elaborately choreographed plans, some calling for an all-out assault on the collective psyche of the skeptics, others calling for a slow buildup of dread leading to a crescendo of sheer terror.  Inevitably, all of these would fall apart.  Most of them somewhere around step 1.

To be honest, Old Johnson didn’t have much of a plan either.  But he did have an idea…

(Continue to part 2)

July 6, 2011

An Example to Others: A Short Story

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:57 am

Image credit: Flickr user Kol Tregaskes, Creative Commons

It was a lovely summer day as I took my customary stroll through the park.  From the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the weather, as the park was full of people walking around, playing in the grass, or just lying down in the shade of one of the park’s many trees.  For my part, I wasn’t paying much attention to any of it, and I mostly just wandered along the paths that cut through the grassy areas, halfway lost in my own thoughts, occasionally pausing to take notice of something that happened to catch my eye.

Suddenly, I was snapped out of this state by the sudden notice of what appeared to be a commotion around the fountain in the center of the park.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell what was going on, but I could see that a crowd was beginning to gather.  Slowly I approached the scene, not wanting to get involved in anything that could result in trouble, but as I approached, I could see the crowd continuing to gather.  As I got closer to the fountain, I still couldn’t see what was going on, but unless my eyes were deceiving me, it appeared that there was actually someone who was trying to climb up on top of the fountain.  By the time I arrived at the scene, quite the crowd had gathered.

Sure enough, as I looked on the scene, I saw that the man I had seen earlier had now climbed up to the top of the fountain, fully clothed, and was now standing on what was surely a precarious perch at the top, seemingly oblivious to the torrents of flying water splashing around him.  There wasn’t any indication that the man was drunk or otherwise a danger to anyone there, but he also didn’t seem to be up on top of the fountain for any particular reason that anyone could see.  It almost seemed as though he was waiting for the still-increasing crowds to gather before he set out to do…  Well, whatever it is that people standing on the tops of fountains in busy parks do.  Which could be anything really. Clearly nobody here had any idea what was going on, except that there was a man of indeterminate sanity who was  already doing one crazy thing, and seemed to have the potential for more.  For all anyone there knew, that thing could be anything from a sermon to a sales pitch.


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