Barry has published more than 40 short stories and poems in print and online. He is the author of the Everything Theory series, The Hollows, The Masks of Our Fathers, and Broken Nightlights, a short story collection. He has also had work published thought various small presses, including his novel The Bleeding Room, and two poetry collections. He has served as guest poetry editor of Inkspill Magazine and has recently completed compiling and editing the poetry anthology I Know What I Saw: poems of the unexplained.
You'll be seeing his book in the DEAD MAN series in early 2013. But you can get a sneak peek right now. His winning chapter is below.
Thanks again to everyone who entered the contest.
She’d been in bed for so long that it seemed unnatural to be standing again. Her old aching knees seemed fifty years younger and the lungs that had hindered her lifestyle for the last five years seemed reinvigorated, breathing in the crisp air of the afternoon. When she breathed the clean air in it made her body feel plump, a far cry from the frail state she had last seen herself in.
She was standing in the middle of an ancient dirt road, the ditches to each side so worn and faded that she could imagine the finger of God etching them shortly after Eden. The dirt track wound away to both sides, bending to the right ahead of her where it eventually merged into the distant forest. In the other direction, the path sketched itself through an impossibly green field where it then narrowed to a pencil point on the horizon of greens and blues.
A butterfly passed by her, circled back around her head and perched on her shoulder. It seemed to be directing her eyes slightly to the left where a long forgotten white house stood untouched by human hands for countless years. A once-white porch sat crumbling and gray. A porch swing hung from a single chain with its fallen twin curled up in a rusted loop on the porch boards.
She knew this all; she had been here before and she knew that something was missing. She looked beyond the house and saw a fence, the majority of it cracked and fallen. She waited for a human shadow to fall across its weak posts but there was nothing. The sun blazed down fat and bright but there was nothing behind the fence to cast a shadow, not a man, not an animal, not so much as a tree.
She frowned and waited. She knew that she wouldn’t be here long; she could already feel the weight of reality tugging at her, pulling her towards a world where her knees still flared with pain, where her now delicate fingers were callused and weathered.
She looked back to the wooden fence, its rails splintered and cracked, waiting for that figure to appear. But the blue country sky on the other side of the fence and the golden fields that rolled out beyond them were all there was to see.
And as beautiful as this all seemed, she was still slightly disappointed; the man that should be standing there by the fence post was not coming.
In this to-good-to-be-true place, she felt a tear forming in the corner of her eye. It was the sweetest relief imaginable, the most normal thing her body had done in weeks. And with that sign of human frailty, that other place stopped tugging at her and simply claimed her.
She let out a gasp and tried desperately to feel the warmth of the tear on her cheek before she was taken.
She opened her weary eyes to a white ceiling, dreary walls and poor light. She felt something on her shoulder, wondering if she had somehow brought the butterfly back from that country road. But when she lolled her head to the side, she saw what perched there and it was not a butterfly.
A plastic tube brushed against her shoulder where a small patch of her dry skin was exposed by the yellow hospital gown that she wore. The tube traveled upwards, into her nose and then, in the opposite direction, over the side of the bed and into some machine that hummed patiently.
“Momma, you’re awake…”
She looked over and saw Chester. His graying hair was frazzled and the poor boy looked as if he hadn’t slept in ages. Calling him a boy seemed foolish; the amount of life lived and the knowledge acquired from it was evident in his eyes. But she had held him inside of her for nine months, had breastfed him, had clothed him and sent him to college, had nurtured him through his first broken heart, his first experience with death…fifty-five years old or not, Chester would always be her little boy.
“Yeah,” she said in a shaky hoarse voice. “Haven’t gone anywhere yet.”
She looked into his eyes, made tiny behind the lenses of his glasses, and was reminded of the man she had not seen by the fence.
“You were smiling in your sleep,” Chester said. He grinned at her when he said it, not voicing the fact that it pleased him to know that whatever dream she had been having could very well be her last, and that he was glad it had made her happy.
The machine that she was plugged into made a persistent beep-beep sound, like a metronome for the life she had left to live. But she did not hear it. These days, it was hard to hear anything past the rattle in her chest when she breathed.
There was a fleeting moment when she knew that she needed to tell Chester something, but she couldn’t remember what. She knew that he would like to know about the house she had seen, the failing fence and the winding country road. But that wasn’t it…there was something more.
Her eyes were growing heavy and she felt the ghost traces of pain begin to tickle her at the knees. She felt her eyelids fluttering and was vaguely aware that her boy was reaching out, grasping her hand lovingly.
“Chester,” she said, so softly that she didn’t know if he had heard her. “The man at the fence…so handsome…please stay away from the man at the fence…”
But before her son could respond, she was gone again.
She wore a sundress and smelled of jasmine. The smell was pushed out ahead of her by the country breeze at her back, making it so that she walked into her own scent as she made her way over the gentle rise of an impossibly green hill. There was a man walking with her, his eyes glued to her. He usually wore a hat but, in those times when chivalry wasn’t quite dead just yet, he held it in his hands. His dark brown hair stood up in several directions as a result.
“Do you not love me?” he asked. “Is that it?”
“Of course it’s not,” she said. “Nothing is ever so simple that it can be blamed on love. Do all men think women are that stupid?”
He grinned and looked down to his feet. “No, I suppose not,” he said.
She looked to him quickly, out of the corner of her eye, and repressed a smile. There was the slightest trace of grass stains along the elbows of his shirt sleeve from where they had been rolling in the grass, kissing. Yet when his hands had found the waistband of her skirt, she had pushed him playfully away, stood up and began walking. It was not the first time she had done this.
“Are you waiting on marriage, then?” he asked. “If that’s the case, I think you know I would marry you.”
She smiled at him and stopped for a moment. “Not all women are that stupid, either,” she said and then started walking again.
She glanced down the hill and saw the dirt track that would lead her home. The sunset cast out shades of subtle gold that seemed to be sewn into the ditches along the track. God, it was such a beautiful day. Had she had a few more glasses of wine with her lunch earlier, perhaps she would have given him what he had been seeking from her for nearly a year. The thought made her tremble inside and she felt an anxiousness in that place that her mother told her was supposed to only be for the man she married.
As they neared the dirt road, her male companion tensed up a bit because he knew this is where they parted ways. “Do you want me to walk you home?” he asked.
“I’m a big girl,” she said. “I think I’ll be okay.”
He nodded, leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. He tasted like salt and she knew that the taste of wine was still lingering on her own lips. When their tongues touched, she felt that creeping need once again. She broke the kiss and smiled at him.
“Can I see you tomorrow?” he asked.
She nodded and gave him another kiss, this one on the cheek, and turned away from him.
A few steps down the road, she paused. Up ahead she could see the framing of a fence, like a giant crooked spine springing from the ground. She felt the slightest bit of uncertainty and the fear caused her to turn back towards her boyfriend.
He was headed down the road, his shoulder hunched like a defeated man and his hat once again on his head. She smiled briefly at him, considered going to him and then thought better of it. She watched him go until he was nothing more than a silhouette and then she started walking again.
In a blur of motion that only exists in dreams, she found herself standing by the fence. The man she has been expecting is standing there as if he had been there all along. He wore torn blue overalls and a straw hat on his head, but she somehow knows that this is not what he wears most of the time.
“How do?” she said.
The man grinned and adjusted the straw hat. He looked as if he might be a bit uncomfortable, but he never took his eyes off of her. He didn’t speak to her, only looked her up and down.
She stared right back, cocking her head to the side and studying him as best as she could. She felt her heart pulling in two directions, one wanting to retreat back down the dirt trail, the other wanting to stay here with this man, to venture into that old abandoned white farmhouse with him and learn his secrets.
Without a word, the man removed his hat in a sign of chivalry. The gesture made no sense to her, but she instantly felt an irrational fear spreading through her.
And then the smell of it hit her.
Something dead…the smell of a gutted animal left the rot in the woods in the summer. The smell was overpowering and she thought that it might be coming from the man at the fence—a man that was very familiar to her.
“Why are you here?” she asked him. “I know this is just a dream. I know I am old and dying in the real world. Why are you, of all people, here?”
When he opened his mouth to speak, she saw his teeth. They were misshapen, slightly yellowed. Sharp.
“The same as before,” he said, his voice like a spring breeze. “To let you know it is almost time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re coming,” he said to her with a smile.
Then a scream rose up in her throat (her dreaming throat and her real one) and she opened her eyes to the hospital room.
She saw Chester again, confused and crying. She saw the bright lights overhead and a muted television on the wall. And for just a fleeting moment, she saw his shape there in the room with her. Seeing this, she screamed again. She kept screaming until two nurses came into the room and gave her an injection which calmed her almost immediately.
As she rest her head back onto the pillow, she looked to Chester and shook her head in defeat.
“Don’t let him in,” she told her son. “Keep him out…he’s coming…”