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Vol. 4, No. 3

Camera Obscura
by Lee Durkee


The roads are out, the bridge a death trap. Chico, who lives on the island, tells me this and offers me a couch, but I assure him that I'll sleep upstairs. He slides the soggy primes under the lamp. Reentering the porch, I notice that their faces have lost muscle tension. Their pupils have dilated. They appear innocent. Years of suffering erased. Lambs.
    "MEAT!" I bellow, dishing out the plates. "MOOOO!"
    I leave them blinking down at the marbled primes pooled in blood. Pausing by the stairs, my hands plunging my beard, I wait ten minutes before doing a callback. "How's you moo-moo, gents?" Only the old man is chewing; his eyes gleam with a nuclear contentment. The other two steaks have been dissembled into jigsaws of meat. Under my scrutiny, the bishop pushes in a bite. Paul follows suit. There begins a strange musculature at work, as if they are chewing with the tops of their skulls.
    "Another round?" I inquire, and all three flail a hand upward.
    I am mixing the drinks when I remember Joe. I pick up his glasses and take them into the men's room, where Joe is slumped over the toilet, his beard disappearing between his thighs. In his hand is a pen, and scattered over his lap are a dozen bar napkins filled with scrawl. I test his wrist. No pulse, no nothing. Deader'n Elvis.
    It's Chico who finds me braced against the bar and asks if I'm okay. I ignore him and initial his time card and tell him to lock the door on his way out.
    "You're drunk," Chico ascertains. "Tommy-tom's drunk!"
    As soon as he's gone, I drink another whiskey and tray up the drinks. The old man has finished eating and is eyeing the other plates, both glowingly filled with red cubes. Paul has hidden his one chewed mouthful under a roll. Seeing me, he takes another bite and holds the meat inside his mouth like hard candy. I grab the empty chair, spin it around. "About those ghosts." I roll up my sleeves. "Now do you gentlemen want the stories we're supposed to tell the customers or do you want the truth."
    "The truth, of course," replies the old man.
    Behind him snow fills the window. I crack the knuckles of my fist, almost a drumroll, as I regard my audience, children around a campfire.
    "Okay, but it's only fair to warn you--it's not ghosts per se, it's more like . . . vampire ghosts."
    "Vampire ghosts," Paul echoes in soft reverence.
    "Aye." Paul and I lock eyes until the phone rings, then I excuse myself and make for the bar. It's Nick, sounding very drunk.
    "Tommy-tom!" he yells. "How's it hanging?"
    I tell him it's cold, and that there's a white-out, and I ask can I sleep upstairs. The pause lets me know he doesn't relish the idea, but then he says, "Yeah, just don't be trying on my wife's underwear."
    "Too late," I tell him.
    "Tom, you sound funny. You find my stash?"
    "Yeah, it was in your wife's underwear drawer."
    This is met with a clammy silence, then, "You drunk, Tom?"
    I scratch my nails against the receiver and start saying, "Hello, hello?" Nick is reminding me to feed the fish when I sever the connection. I change the CD from Vivaldi to the Pogues. Then, back inside the men's room, I bunch up Joe's pants and grapple him to the dinner table, where I prop him on a chair beneath the window so that his head lags philosophically backwards. Crossing his arms over his beard, I explain to the priests, "A friend. Bit of a ghost-story enthusiast. I've agreed to let him sit in if he keeps quiet as a mouse." I find my chair. Smiling benevolently, I ask, where were we?
    "Ahh, the vampire ghosts," I recall, winking at Joe. "Let's see now. About a hundred years ago, a young couple lived here. Priest and his wife, a very fetching lady." I belch horribly. "But one day she fell ill. Some degenerative illness, nobody knew what, but they treated it with opium. Laudanum, to be exact. And, of course, she wound up addicted. The husband, meanwhile, takes up with the local school marm and sticks the old wife upstairs, in a wheelchair. Supposedly some nights you can still hear her wheeling about, deranged on opium." I dangle my arms, swinging them from the elbows, and issue a long screech. We all stare at the ceiling. (Joe, his beard casting him as Rip Van Winkle, seems suddenly attentive.) Then I take off my tiny octagon-shaped spectacles, hardly bigger than my eyes, and polish them with my shirt. Whispering now, I continue, "She's trapped up there. All she's good for is reading. She reads one book over and over. Dracula. Reads it so much she goes a bit daft. Starts thinking her husband is a vampire, and that he's sucking her blood out slowly each night. That's why she's sick, she decides. And she writes all this down in her journal. They have it at the island library. Under glass. Page by page, in her bird scratch, she goes insane. Finally, one dark night, when there's a blizzard raging, a night like tonight, and her husband is passed out after a night's drinking, she takes needle and thread, and wheeling around the bed she sews the sheets tight over him. By the time he wakes up, it's too late, she's straddling him, and holding a wooden stake and a mallet. He can't move, he's paralyzed, trapped. All he can do is scream as she fits the stake to his heart." I clamp my left hand over my chest then hammer it three times. "But she's weak, almost too weak. It takes her hours to break through breastbone, and it takes all night before she has him pinned to the bed board."
    The bishop is glowering at me through splayed fingers. Both Paul and Joe continue to stare at the ceiling, Paul's shoulders rowing crowlike, Joe's mouth widening. The old man is holding the back of his right hand to the candle and studying the pink circle this creates inside his palm.
    "She can't get off the bed, though," I inform them. "Because the wheelchair, it shot to the wall. It's deep winter. And she's starving to death. For food, for opium. Two weeks pass before a neighbor comes calling." I knock twice under the table. (The sound scares even me.) "And finds them there. On the bed. His neck devoured. Her mouth sutured with blood."
    The room falls quiet. I sigh, then, winking at Paul, I observe that revenge can be a work of art, yes? . . . or it can be bloody stupid, depending. I stand up, brush my hands. "No appetite, eh gents?" Then I repeat the question using a warped slow-motion voice. The old man wads his fist, lets it unfurl. "Your friend?" he says, looking at Joe.
    "Can't handle his liquor, I'm afraid."
    Paul perches both hands above the table, like a pianist, then blurts out, "About those rooms?"
    "All booked up." I beak my lips, shake my head. "Not a room on the whole island. I'm afraid you won't find one short of Burlington. But you'll never make it there alive." I draw two fingers across my throat. "The bridge."
    "The bridge," repeats Paul, without emphasis. The bishop repeats it next, which startles the old man from the candle. "The bridge?" he inquires.
    "Gentlemen, tell you what, we'll put you up here tonight. Upstairs. That is, if you don't mind bunking with Joe and me."
    The house lights flutter. The Ice House blinks and goes dark.
    "Snow on the lines," I say softly, and Paul echoes this, too.
    It's the bishop, huddling closer to the candle, who decides, "We're going to risk it. We have to make . . . Boston."
    "We have to make Boston," Paul hums, his cheeks fierce with tears.
    I pick up the candle, hold it to my face. "You don't even have snows on your van. Listen to me, that bridge doesn't exist."
    But the old man agrees, too--they have to make Boston. "I'll sleep in back," he adds, as if to reassure me. I nod solemnly. I tell them it's been a pleasure, and that the meal is on the house. "Goodnight, gentlemen. Fair play to you." I take the candle upstairs, leaving them in the pitch black with Joe.
    Inside Nick's apartment, in his stepson's room, I sprinkle food into the candlelit aquarium and watch it sift down upon the grinning akimbo skeleton draped against its treasure chest. From downstairs I can hear bumpings, then the front door opens, shuts . . . a minute later a car starts, revs. I rummage through the boy's toy box until I find a set of Matchbox cars, then I drop a reddish van into my pocket and walk into the bathroom and stopper the candle to the soap dish. There is a large pair of scissors on the counter. The sink begins to fill with red-veined hair. When the scissors land noiselessly upon this cushion, I take up Nick's razor and finish the job. After the razor falls from my hand, I lift the candle, pushing it towards the mirror as if into the mouth of a cave. The flame reflects in both my eyes--this strangely androgynous creature, cherubic, orphan-eyed and seductive, culled from the dark.
    Still stroking my cheeks, I wander into the kitchen and cup my hands to the window and see that the parking lot is now empty. I return to the aquarium and take the red Matchbox van from my pocket and hold it poised over the water. I start moving the toy around, dowsing it above the surface in a slow figure-eight pattern. While doing this, I sing snatches of old Irish lullabies. After about ten minutes, singing and dowsing, I feel it, a series of short tugs, like a fish nibbling a line. I release the red van, plunk, and it sinks down through the scattering fish and settles upon its side next to the skeleton.
    My fingers slip under my spectacles and find my eyelids and shut them as gently as we do the eyes of the dead. We will haunt this house.

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