Rogue Mutt Doghouse of Horror, Part 2: Tartarus
This is my Twilight Zone-inspired story “Tartarus.” I like to think that it’s a pretty fair representation of a Rod Serling story in that it features that old-style Biblical justice with a good comeuppance at the end. You might think differently. This is part of my short story collection The Carnival Papers–on sale now!
The dream shattered into shadowy fragments and Brandon Gibson’s eyes shot open. A scream—whether his own or someone else’s he couldn’t remember—echoed in his ears. His nose burned with a fetid stench, like the smell of a dead animal that had lain on the side of the road for days. When he tried to swallow, a coppery tang filled his mouth. The way his senses still reeled from the dream, Brandon knew it was more than a dream, but when he tried to recall even a single image, the dream slipped out of his grasp like a phantom.
He rolled over in bed and found the spot next to him vacated. He bolted from the bed and dashed into the bathroom and when he saw that it too was vacant, a cold lump formed in his stomach. He pounded down the stairs and into the living room, where he found only unopened boxes and furniture still wrapped in plastic.
Slipping through the empty dining room, his heart raced as he imagined the grim possibilities. The pregnancy had become too much and she’d committed suicide. She’d grown tired of his lengthy business trips and left him. The truth, he discovered as he swung open the door to the kitchen, was more horrible than either scenario.
Daphne lay on the floor, a pool of blood from the hole in her forehead forming a halo on the white tile floor. Her blue eyes were wide open, unfocused, and when he knelt down beside her, he felt the coldness of her pale skin. He pressed her head against his chest and ran his hands through her sticky red hair. Tears poured down his cheeks as he rocked back and forth and mumbled incoherent syllables. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Her eyes continued to stare up at him, pleading with him, but she was long past saving. He closed her eyes and eased her back onto the floor as though she were asleep. When he saw her belly bulging against the pink maternity gown, he thought of the child Daphne carried within her. If he hurried, maybe the paramedics could arrive in time to save the baby.
As he stood, he heard the back door creak behind him, followed by the echo of footsteps on tile. Brandon turned and found himself facing a man in a dove gray trench coat and black ski mask wielding a 9mm Beretta pistol. “Who are you?” Brandon said. “What do you want?”
The gunman lifted up the ski mask enough for Brandon to see his face. He recoiled in horror and tears sprang to his eyes. “Why?” Brandon said.
“I have a job to do,” the gunman said and squeezed the trigger. The pistol’s silencer wheezed and spat a single shot that drilled into Brandon’s chest. He collapsed next to the body of his wife and, as the world turned black, he groped to find her cold hand—
The dream shattered into shadowy fragments and Brandon’s eyes shot open. A scream—whether his own or someone else’s he couldn’t remember—echoed in his ears. His nose burned with a fetid stench, like the smell of a dead animal that had lain on the side of the road for days. When he tried to swallow, a coppery tang filled his mouth. The way his senses still reeled from the dream, Brandon knew it was more than a dream, but when he tried to recall even a single image, the dream slipped out of his grasp like a phantom.
His heart thumping in his ears, he rolled over and found the familiar softness of his wife’s plump body next to him. The terror from the nightmare subsided as he stroked the broad expanse of her back. Though it had been six years since Erin’s birth, Daphne still looked nine months pregnant. At his touch, she groaned and her eyes fluttered open. When she recognized him, her chubby face lit up with a smile. “Where were you last night?” she asked and tucked strands of red hair behind her ears.
“I had to work,” Brandon said.
“On Christmas Eve?”
“I know, but it was important.” He kissed her on the lips. “I promise I won’t let anything interfere with our plans today.”
“You better not,” she said and the bed creaked as she sat up. He tried to kiss her again, but the door burst open and a pink object hurdled over the bed to land between them.
“Mommy, Daddy, come on!” the object said. Erin grabbed Brandon’s hand and tried to tug him off the bed. “It’s Christmas morning.”
Brandon crushed his daughter in a bear hug. Erin had her mother’s pudgy frame and he squeezed her little potbelly as he asked, “Do you think Santa left you anything?”
She looked up at him and shook her head as though he were an idiot. “Of course he did.”
He tousled her brown hair and rubbed his jaw. “If he’d seen that room of yours, he might have been scared off.”
“Daddy,” Erin said and rolled her eyes.
“Well, let’s say we find out,” Brandon said and swung his daughter onto his shoulders. Daphne waddled ahead of them and flung open the doors to the living room, the glittering tree and rainbow of lights making Erin’s eyes go wide. Brandon knelt down to allow his daughter to dismount and watched as she dove into the pile of brightly wrapped presents.
“Careful honey,” Daphne said and giggled at the scene of Erin tearing into the stack of gifts like a tornado, leaving a trail of wrapping paper in her wake. Brandon put an arm around his wife and watched the scene with a contented smile. The nights and weekends spent dueling other frantic parents to obtain the perfect gifts paid off as his daughter squealed with delight and held up each present in turn.
Only after Erin had exhausted herself—she clutched a handful of booty to her chest as she rested on the floor—did Brandon and Daphne sit down to open their own gifts with far less enthusiasm. Once they’d set aside the neckties, sweaters, and household appliances, Brandon put an arm around his wife and surveyed the ruins of their living room. “I’d better start cleaning this place up,” Daphne said and began to heave herself to her feet, but Brandon grabbed her arm.
“Wait, just one more,” he said with a smile and pulled a flat felt box from under his couch cushion.
She gasped when she opened the box and pulled out the diamond pendant. “It’s beautiful,” she said. He stood and draped the pendant around her neck, the gold chain just long enough. She kissed him on the lips and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Merry Christmas,” he said and kissed her back.
“Gross!” Erin said and stuck out her tongue.
Daphne’s cheeks reddened and she looked down at the floor. “Honey, why don’t you help me clean up,” she said. Brandon took the hint and donned his parka and boots before he went into the garage to get the snow blower.
After clearing away the six inches that had accumulated overnight, he went inside and found order restored to the living room. He followed a delightful mixture of scents through the dining room and into the kitchen, where Daphne supervised four boiling pots on the stove and an oven full of baking pies. “Smells good,” he said and wiped a smudge of flour from the end of her nose.
She didn’t take the bait, turning her back to stir one of the pots instead of rewarding him with a kiss. “Everything’s almost ready,” she said.
He put his arms around her apron-clad waist and pressed his head to her shoulder. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Nervous about seeing your folks?”
“No, it’s not that.” She pushed him away and waved a hand along her body. “It’s just what Erin said earlier…do you think I’m too fat?”
“Of course not. In fact, I think you could use to put on a few pounds.”
“Come on, I’m serious.” She brushed tears away from her face. “When you go on those long business trips, I worry that maybe you’ll find someone more attractive—”
“There’s no one else for me except you. I love you and nobody is going to come between us.” He brushed hair from her face and said, “How about I mind the store while you get cleaned up?”
She kissed him on the cheek and her smile returned. “Try not to burn anything.” Only after she’d disappeared did he allow himself to heave a sigh of relief. He’d dodged a bullet today, but in time the issue would come back to haunt him again. He might not be so lucky the next time.
Later, after he’d filled the trunk of his silver Mercedes sedan with presents and baked goods, Brandon climbed behind the wheel of the car. “Everyone ready to go?” he asked. He glared at Erin. “No one has to go to the bathroom before we leave?”
“Daddy, let’s go,” Erin said, rolling her eyes at him again. He shrugged and slipped the car into gear, hoping she didn’t really have to go to the bathroom, because she would have to crouch in a ditch along the side of the road if she did.
As he drove, the number of houses dwindled while the number of barren fields increased with each mile. “Look, Mommy!” Erin shouted and pointed to a group of dairy cows milling in front of a dilapidated barn with an advertisement for Mail Pouch tobacco fading on one side.
“I see them, honey,” Daphne said and, while she smiled, Brandon saw from the tightness around her eyes that she hadn’t recovered from their conversation in the kitchen.
“It’s so festive-looking out here, how about we sing a song?” When no one answered, he launched into an off-key rendition of “Jingle Bells” that made his wife and child cringe.
While the sleepy countryside passed them by, they filled the Mercedes with the sounds of the season. They sang in round, with Erin starting, her little voice full of infectious joy. When Brandon’s turn came, he disrupted the harmony by singing the wrong words. Each time he slipped up, Erin interrupted, “Daddy, those aren’t the right words.” He would then wink at her and invite her to do better, which she did. Daphne joined in after the fourth go-around and he hoped it was a sign that she was feeling better.
Brandon had begun his own version of “O Holy Night” when Daphne screamed. He slammed on the brakes and the Mercedes fishtailed as it struggled to come to a stop along the snow-covered road. The car stopped inches in front of a deer frozen in the center of the road and Brandon heaved a sigh of relief. He checked to make sure his wife and daughter were unhurt; they were both pale and shaking, but otherwise fine.
While they waited for the deer to gather the courage to complete its journey across the road, Daphne’s scream reminded Brandon of the nightmare he couldn’t remember. Had it been a premonition of some kind? A warning not to leave home today? He took a deep breath and shook his head. It was just a stupid dream and a stupid deer. “Are you all right?” Daphne asked.
“I’m fine,” he snapped. The deer disappeared into a field and Brandon eased the Mercedes forward. An uneasy silence hung in the car and this time he had no desire to break it. Instead, he focused on the roadway to make sure that his nightmare would remain just a stupid, meaningless dream.
When they stopped at the four-way stop that, along with the old general store, made up the town of Red, Brandon sighed and leaned back in his seat. Another mile and they would be safely at the farm where Daphne had grown up, where the only harm that could befall them was perhaps being an unlucky bystander if her brothers got into a drunken brawl. Red disappeared into the rearview mirror and ahead of Brandon waited a narrow, crumbling bridge over a dried-up creek.
At first he thought it must be an optical illusion, but then he saw that there was another silver Mercedes on the bridge. As he approached, the other car didn’t move; it had positioned itself to prevent anyone from crossing the old bridge. “What’s going on?” Daphne asked, but he had no answer to give her. The Mercedes in their path didn’t have its hazard lights on and he couldn’t make out anyone behind the wheel. Maybe the driver went for help, he thought.
Then he saw a head in a black ski mask pop over the car’s roof. “Get down!” Brandon shouted.
“Why?” Daphne started, but he shoved her down an instant before the windshield shattered in a spray of gunfire. Brandon opened the glove compartment and heard Daphne’s shocked gasp as he hefted the 9mm Beretta pistol he kept there for emergencies.
He fired a pair of shots to distract his attacker while he threw the car into reverse. The Mercedes struggled in the snow, but slowly backed away from the other car. Erin whimpered and wriggled into her mother’s arms, burying her head in Daphne’s chest. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK,” Daphne whispered.
But it wasn’t, Brandon saw as he watched the gunman come around the front of his vehicle and kneel down. When the man hefted an olive tube, Brandon knew there was no escape. “Jump!” he commanded, but it was too late. A tongue of flame erupted behind the gunman’s shoulder, the missile impacting against the front of Brandon’s car a heartbeat later.
Before he could think or even scream, he found himself lying on his back in the snow along the road, the Mercedes a burning hulk a short distance away. He stumbled to his feet, brushing fragments of glass and debris from his smoldering clothes. Blood oozed from a dozen gashes and dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t notice. He focused solely on staggering to the charred remains of his car.
When he reached the passenger’s side of the Mercedes, he buried his face in the snow and wept. While he’d somehow been thrown clear of the explosion, Daphne and Erin had not been so fortunate. He found their remains—rendered unrecognizable by the flames and shrapnel—still sitting in the passenger’s seat. In death, mother and daughter were forever fused in an embrace.
Footsteps crunched the snow behind him and Brandon looked up to see a man in a black ski mask and dove gray trench coat approaching with a 9mm Beretta pistol in his hand. Brandon had no weapon and no strength to fight back; instead he sobbed and pleaded, “Why?”
The gunman stood over Brandon’s kneeling form and jammed the pistol into his mouth. Only then did the gunman cast the ski mask into the snow to reveal an all-too-familiar face. “I have a job to do,” Brandon said and pulled the trigger—
The dream shattered into shadowy fragments and Brandon Gibson’s eyes shot open. A scream—whether his own or someone else’s he couldn’t remember—echoed in his ears. His nose burned with a fetid stench, like the smell of a dead animal that had lain on the side of the road for days. When he tried to swallow, a coppery tang filled his mouth. The way his senses still reeled from the dream, Brandon knew it was more than a dream, but when he tried to recall even a single image, the dream slipped out of his grasp like a phantom and would elude him forever. Each day he would experience the futility of Sisyphus, the pain of Prometheus, and the longing of Tantalus as what he loved most was taken from him.