Episode 3: Dark Secret
The third story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World. This episode is produced by Ed Robinson and read by Justin Waggle.
I was listening to the Toadies “Possum Kingdom” one day and I was trying to write, but nothing was coming. Then my cat came in the room and started meowing at me… incessantly. Before I knew it I was on YouTube trying to distract him with annoying cat videos, (He eventually left the room, disturbed that he could hear other cats in the room with me, I laughed then felt bad.) when I had an idea. I wanted to write a ghost story and I wanted it to be original, and I had YouTube in front of me; ghost in the machine…literally. The song made the story blossom (I even incorporated it in the story) and once I got going I couldn’t stop until it was done. The cover of the book is supposed to be the boathouse and the lake from the story, just for a little bit of insight. I’d also like to hear what people think of the ending, because I had a specific idea in mind, but it doesn’t seem to come across. Let me know…
Dan flips through the videos while the computer projects it’s blue-white light through the dark room. He’s been at it for hours, but then again that’s the beauty of the job. He can do it any time, anywhere, and best of all he can work at home.
Dan has been a moderator for youtube.com for about a year. His entire job entails surfing videos, then when he finds one of unsatisfactory content(That’s the word his boss uses, unsatisfactory, with a pedantic little lisp)he deletes it and blocks the user from posting again. Some might think this a boring job, a pointless job, but Dan loves it.
He decides tonight he’ll concentrate on porn, mostly because he’s feeling horny himself, but also because he hasn’t surfed the “sexuality videos” for at least three days. He spent those on animal abuse and violence.
He types “Asian Sex” into the search bar and cracks his knuckles by weaving his finger together and dramatically swooping them out towards the computer. He holds back a little smile then lets his right hand rest on the mouse, slowly scrolling down through his options.
There’re a surprising amount of trick videos, like “two lesbians having SeX!” and “Penetration! Asian SLut!” Dan hates these tricky ones. He always clicks on them ready to cancel the account, but when the video comes up, six times out of eight it’s some douche bag who has too much time on his hands with a note saying “pervert!” and pictures of little animals and babies. To Dan these are a waste of time. Why would someone go through all that effort just to berate another?
This time, thought, it’s different. He logs on and the first video that comes up says “Sexy asian girl dancing.” Most times Dan passes by something like this because invariably it’ll only be a girl dancing on a webcam feed, nothing you couldn’t see out on the street, but there are occasions when he finds an older man forcing a pre-teen to do a strip tease. He forwards those on to the police and bans the user from the site. But, this time it’s different.
He clicks on the link and she comes on. It is as he expects, probably a self taping on a webcam of a co-ed doing a booty dance. He has a brief second of sorrow for the girl, trying to imagine what happens to girls like this in an Asian culture. Don’t women get disowned for this kind of thing, he thinks. He shakes his head in ignorance and clicks the play button.
It starts with her face covering the screen, giving him a distinct and startling view of her expressionless face. An intermittent guitar riff blares over his speakers. She slowly backs up and briefly gives Dan a view of a few hastily scrawled words written in a red liquid on the blue wall behind her. “dead now.” He thinks they say, and he immediately feels cold. What if it’s in blood, he thinks, but before he can tell she deftly dances in front of it. The music continues:
“Make up your mind/Decide to walk with me/Around the lake tonight…”
She’s wearing a little tight white tee shirt and underneath she’s wearing a pink bra. Her bottoms are a white pair of short shorts giving full view of her great legs. She begins to slowly wave her hips back and forth, out of tempo with the music, while looking directly at the camera. Her eyes are intense and he finds he can’t tear his from hers. Those deep hazel spotlights.
“…I’ll not be a gentleman/behind the boathouse/I’ll show you my dark secret…”
Suddenly, she snaps her head to the side, breaking eye contact and slowly weaves her body, as smooth as a snake, until her back is facing the camera. Dan’s eyes are drawn to her ass, where written on her little white short shorts in red block lettering is the word “Lifeguard.” As if to emphasize this, she brings both arms up, sensuously dancing and weaving them in the air then brings them down and points both her index fingers at the word, framing it. Actually points at it. When she turns back again her face looks intent and her hazel eyes burn into the camera.
“…Don’t be afraid/I don’t mean to scare you/so help me Jesus…”
She crosses her arms and grabs the bottom of her shirt beginning to pull it up, then turns again. Dan can see little bits of the scrawling behind her as she sways her body and is sure he’s right. They say “Dead now” in red dripping letters.
My god, is that blood? He thinks.
“…I can promise you/you’ll stay as beautiful…”
Her back’s to him again and she takes the shirt off cascading her long brown hair across her deltoids, then turns again and looks deep into the camera. She looks almost nervous.
On her stomach there’s an arrow pointing at her left breast. It’s a decal that almost looks like wood. When he follows the arrow he sees something that further disturbs him. The pink bra is actually a white bra, stained red. The left side is darker than the right.
“…With dark hair/and soft skin/Forever…”
Unnerved he looks back down to the time bar, hoping the video nearing completion, but it isn’t moving. The ball tracker is still on the left and the counter says 0.00. He looks back at the screen and she’s staring at him, barely moving with an imploring stare.
She turns again; reaching up for her bra with both hands and begins to unlock it. “…Forever…” Then the screen goes black. Dan sits back and takes a deep breath, realizing how close he was to the screen. “Holy shit.” He says. He flags the video but doesn’t erase it.
There are dreams where you can tell it’s a dream; where reality is thin and you can feel it. Dan’s having one of those now of his little Asian girl.
She’s doing the same dance, but this time he’s in the room with her. It’s the same room as in the video with few exceptions. The substance which comprises “Dead now” is gone from the wall behind her and he’s sitting in a chair where the camera must have been.
She backs from him and takes position a few feet away, her movements have a jerky halting progress as if she’s a projection. She does her little shimmy the same as before, but there are little details Dan notices which he didn’t notice watching the Mpeg. When she points at “Lifeguard” written on her shorts, she flexes a bit. Not much but enough for Dan to see veins straining in her wrists. She spends longer than he remembers; jerking her fingers and flexing even more, accentuating the word. It’s like she’s saying pay attention.
Then she turns and takes off her shirt while mouthing words to him over the cotton as it crests her mouth.
“Find me.” Of course it could have been a multitude of other phrases, but he’s sure she sneers. A tiny raise of her upper lip and she spits out the letter F with a breathy fuh.
Desire for her invades his mind, overtaking his soul. He wants to stand and put his arms around her. To kiss her. But in that special reality dreams create, he’s stuck to his chair no matter how much effort he puts into it.
He looks up at her and sees her nodding at him, ever so slightly, but never taking her eyes from his. She moves forward and puts her arms out beckoning him to embrace her and blood starts to pour from of her left C cup. Pouring over the seam where fabric meets flesh and staining the white bra a deeper shade of burgundy. Then she mouths it again. “Find me.”
Dan wakes the next morning both disturbed and inquisitive. He knows it was only a creepy dream, but he can’t shake how real it felt; as if he could watch the video and all the changes from the dream would be there. Regardless what he finds, he just has to watch that video. Just one more time.
Dan gets up from his sweat soaked bed and lights a cigarette on the way to the computer. “Well, lets just see here.” He croaks through a lung full of smoke.
He turns his computer on producing a bright blue light that shines into the room, illuminating the smoke and its seductive wave as it sways to the ceiling. It makes him think of her.
He shakes his head and goes back to the computer, clicking the link to bring her up. He has a brief reminiscence of her hair and the way it draped over her shoulders. He thinks in the dream it may have touched his chest when she began to dance, but then again it was only a dream. A phantom of sensation.
The phone rings in an alarmed repetitive bleating and he looks back at it in distain, angry at its audacity, that it may intrude on his viewing, but then he hears the soft hitching electric guitar coming from the computer and he whips his head around to see the show begin. He knows it’s probably his boss on the phone trying to document his progress through the “Unsatisfactory” videos. He knows he could be in trouble if he doesn’t answer, but he just has to see the video. Just one more time.
Everything from the dream is there. She pumps her hands twice at lifeguard. She does say “find me” just before the shirt covers her face. She does bleed a bit at the end and those arms do rise.
“She’s telling me something.” Dan says through the smoke as the phone blares in the background. “She’s in trouble.”
He gets up long enough to grab a pad and a pen, and then he sits down and scrawls an inventory of every detail he thinks could be important.
- Find me
- Dead now
- Arrow to bloody bra
Dan puts his hand to his left breast as a reflex to the image of her bloody breast and recognition lights his face. It was something he did everyday as a child in elementary school. He put his right hand over his heart. Pledging.
He clicks the play button and the dead lifeguard comes back on the screen, swaying and shaking. He peers into the video and tries to find more clues, but finding none, he peruses his list. She’s a lifeguard, so she must be by a body of water. A lake? A pool? A beach? But then lifeguards are usually only out during peak hours. Too many people. Then the song lyrics strike him. “…decide to walk with me/around the lake tonight…” She was telling him something!
While he’s contemplating, Pocket his tabby cat, saunters into the room. He’s made it a rule for the cat to stay out of the room whenever he’s working, because for some unknown reason known only to troublemaking cats she loves to bat the power cord until it’s pulled from the wall. It wasn’t a big deal, but when he’s lost in his videos it infuriates him.
Dan clicks the play button again desperately searching for any hint that might tell him something. When she moves back and “dead now” becomes visible he finds what he’s looking for.
He’s not sure why he didn’t notice it before, but those two cryptic words are actually written on something; not directly on the wall. They’re written on a map. A map which has a lake on it. A map of his town.
He pauses the video, grasps his flat screen monitor with both hands and leans in straining his eyes in an attempt to decipher where she could possibly be when he feels the familiar brush of fur against his leg. His eyes widen and he reaches under the table grabbing for Pocket. But he’s too late. The cat bats the cord and a small little popping sound comes from the computer as it goes blank. Pocket coos as she runs from the room.
Dan quickly plugs the computer back in and depresses the power button. The computer’s fan issues a high whine and the monitor flickers with a blue flash then a faded black glow. He thinks for a moment he can see her body shake on the screen, a shadow in the dark, but then his wallpaper pops up. He quickly opens the video files on his desktop, searching for his china girl…but she’s not there.
Dan clicks around in anger, “What the fuck!” he screams at the monitor waving his left hand in disgust, “Come on you stupid piece of shit!” He slams his fist on the desk in anger and sits back. “where the hell?” He takes a deep breath and relaxes. So what? So what if when Pocket knocked out the cord the video got erased? Maybe he didn’t even save it on his desktop in the first place. There’s still that beautiful network which served billions. She would still be on the internet!
He navigates to youtube and types in his password which redirects him into his moderator screen. It should be in the recently viewed column. Even the memory of it would be there, a name at least. But when he searches he finds nothing. The username of the person who downloaded it isn’t even there. The last video it says he’s watched is of a cat getting hit by a car.
Scared, Dan stands. He gazes into the screen perplexed and more than just a little bit worried. Was he delusional? Could none of this have happened? That dance though. Sexual and sensual, torrid and disturbing. He couldn’t forget her hazel eyes. The way her breath felt…
“wait…” He snaps out of his reverie. Did I imagine her breath? It was a video. He knows none of it was real, and yet he can feel the memory of her breath on his face, smell the sweet staleness as she leaned down and began her dance with her breasts sagging ever so slightly and her hair brushing his chest.
He stops thinking and blinks twice. Hard.
“You need to get to sleep, that’s all.” He says and is scared by his own voice. He realizes just how quiet it’s been in the room and he feels constant eyes in every corner. He looks about quickly securing all shadows and promptly turns on the lights. He flips the TV on, thankful for the resounding echo it creates in the small room and lets its soft waves lull him into complacency. Then he dreams.
Here she is again, swaying in front of him, although this time she looks wet. Her white shirt is clinging even tighter to her youthful stomach and he can easily see the blood stained bra beneath. She moves in stop action jerks and mouths over and over again. “Find me. Find me. Find me.”
She looks deep into his eyes and he’s lost in her sea of hazel. Mystified. Compelled. He sits up and shudders as the absolute coldness of the room embraces him. Then he remembers something. Something from his childhood. Its reflected in her eyes. He finds himself putting his hand over his heart as he did so many times as a child, recalling the Pledge of Allegiance and that other time he used to put his hand over his heart, when his uncle took him fishing out on Lake Meneloua. He remembers promising he would never tell…cross his heart…as they would pass a big red arrow pointing at an angle up to the heart of the lake. His uncle saying This place is dangerous. Never come alone and always let someone know you’re here. No one really comes around here anymore. He remembers the boathouse where they stored their supplies. He remembers the sign on the door to that shed. It said “Danger, heavy pollution” in hazel letters. He knows where she is. He has to find her.
The red arrow is still as shiny and glossy as he remembers it being. Almost as if the paint were still wet. The arrow zips by as his Tercel glides down the road and Dan fidgets in anticipation as the lake gets ever closer.
He thinks back to his time on the lake with his uncle. The depth and murkiness of the water like a primordial soup, thick and teeming with small unfamiliar creatures. He remembers feeling both distinctly disgusted and slightly exhilarated when his Uncle caught a big fish and rocked the boat, nearly sending little Danny into the lake. To sink in there is to never be found again.
He drives past the boathouse where they kept their fishing equipment and he smiles despite his anxiousness. If old Uncle Walt weren’t dead he’d probably love to be here with me, he thinks.
There’s a beach on the lake about a quarter mile more down the road. It’s a deserted beach now, but twenty years ago it was bustling with activity. Children played in the soft surf as their parents lounged and tanned by the afternoon sun while a lone lifeguard would watch over the lake waters from their sole tower. The lake has since been deemed too polluted to be a place of recreation, so gradually over the years people stopped going. This is where he’s headed. To find the lifeguard.
He’s able to get most of the way to the beach before the road becomes too overgrown and he has to ditch the Tercel. He’s taken aback at the beauty of the place. There are rays of sunlight beaming through the tree tops and casting an almost holy glow about the overgrown road lending the shade an almost picturesque totality. He can feel the onslaught of a sneeze coming as the pollen from the unmolested flowering buds slowly falls on him. He lets it go with remarkable furiousness making his head feel like it’s going to explode.
He covers his nose and mouth with his hand trying to block pollen from entering his system when he comes to the clearing of the beach. The white sand goes on for a hundred yards and is cradled by the tree line, making it feel like a secluded oasis. The lone lifeguard tower stands halfway through the white dunes and is painted red just like the arrow on the road.
Another sneeze rocks Dan and he groans as he stands on the precipice of the beach. Terrified to move forward, he hopes he’ll find the girl, but he also feels deep instilled dread of what he might find. He feels his knees shaking and tells himself it’s from sneezing, but he knows it’s his fear. He can smell it. Dank and bitter.
He takes a shaky step forward and his shoe sinks into the warm white sand. He imagines for a moment he’s on a deserted island, trying to dissolve his fear, but then he looks out onto the lake and sees the familiar bowling pin shaped buoy floating in the water. He used to try and cast his reel at the buoy, practicing his fly fishing while his uncle looked on smirking.
The memory brings him back to reality and he closes his eyes as he takes deep breath; then sneezes again, bellowing echoes around the small enclosure.
Shaking his head he moves forward and takes out his phone. If there is even a chance of seeing a dead body he wants to be on the phone with the police immediately. He’s not sure how he’s going to explain it, but it’s better than being out here alone with a corpse.
He’s half the way down the beach when he sees her. She’s lying face down in the wet sand half in the water and half out. He can see her hair splayed about her head in a halo and flashes back to her dance. That beautiful hair brushing up against his chest. He immediately knows it’s her. He dials 911 on his phone and takes a few steps forward trying, against his better judgment, to get a better look at her.
He gives the dispatcher the location and explains that he found a body on a walk. He gives his name and phone number and hangs up, despite the dispatchers protests and looks back to the body.
She’s wearing corduroy pants and a jean jacket. Dan almost snickers despite himself, imagining her walking around in some early nineties move like “Singles,” but is brought back home when he gets a whiff of her smell.
She must’ve been out here for days; the smell attacks his nose, like a forgotten steak on a counter. He can hear a soft buzzing sound and knows it’s flies convening for their feast. Her legs are lost in the soft surf and he can only imagine what two days in contaminated water would do to a decomposing body. Bloated and white, slowly sloughing off to the bone.
Dan reaches down and taps the back of her head; a playful tap, as if he’s tagging her IT. He’s not sure why he does it, he knows she’s dead and yet he has a morbid curiosity to feel what it would be like to touch her. It’s almost as if he’s testing himself for what he has to do next.
He’s found her, but he doesn’t feel she’s done with him quite yet. He’s not sure what it is, but he gets the nagging suspicion he’s being watched. As if her ghost followed him here, out through the computer screen and into this world. He whirls around in an effort to see her, to figure out where she’s hiding, but there’s nothing; just him and the shining white sand with the lone red aerie of safety.
He turns back to her and grabs one shoulder without really thinking about it, turning her to her back. He’s surprised at how stiff she is, rigor mortis freezing her body into shape.
The first thing he sees is her eyes. He’s surprised to see that they’re brown and only shells, merely reflectors in the afternoon sun. They show no resplendence of their own. Then he sees her chest. There is a thin hole with something shiny protruding through the red stained blouse she wears. When he leans in closer he finds it’s a butter knife. Damn near buried to the hilt. Right through her heart.
Dan covers his mouth in disgust and feels another sneeze coming on. He can feel bile rising in his throat and he turns away from her lifeless eyes.
The sneeze builds in his nose and he fights it, fearing that if he does sneeze, vomit will come with it. So he stands there for a moment pinching the arch of his nose until the sneeze subsides and he slowly turns back to the girl.
Her body undulates with the soft surf and he stands transfixed until he hears something from the woods behind him. A powerful sneeze and a rattle of leaves.
Dan whips around peering out into the woods and there, by the clearing is a small Asian man pointing a gun at him.
“Whoa, man whoa!” Dan wants to say something evocative and powerful, but the sight of the gun takes the breath from his lungs.
“What you do here!” The man says with an almost rodent like squeal. “You not supposed to be here!”
“I’m sorry! I know, I’m sorry! Please!” Terror grips Dan and he looks down at the dead girl next to him. At that moment he’s sure he’s not going to get out of here alive.
“No sorry! No please! That what she said! Fucking cheating slut!” He points to the corpse on the ground for the briefest of moments with the gun and Dan’s heart flutters with hope.
“I’ll just go. I didn’t mean anything…” He tries to make his voice soothing, but when he hears it, it’s slow and hitching like he’s going to start crying.
“No. Go!” The man actually takes a deep breath in between the two words and screams “GO!” like a child throwing a temper tantrum.
The gun trains back on Dan.
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry.” Dan takes a step back and feels the cool polluted waters ofLakeMenelouasurrounding his feet. For the first time the shit like smell of the lake hits his nostrils as it mixes with the rot of the lifeguard’s corpse, gagging him.
The man moves a few steps toward him and Dan notices he’s filthy. He has leaves in his hair, his clothes are covered with a fine layer of pollen and his shins are inundated with wet sand and mud. His outfit matches hers. “You lay down with her! You fuck her?”
The question catches Dan off guard.
“No!” is all he can say, as he moves knee deep into the poison waters ofLakeMeneloua. He feels the water rush around him and he swallows bile as the water bubbles with pollution.
“You fuck her I know you do!” The man takes a few steps forward bobbing the gun at Dan. Dan inches backward farther into the water. He thinks back to a time in his childhood when he used to swim here and remembers a shelf in the sand just a few feet away from the shore. Maybe five. After that shelf the sand drops. If he could get to that point maybe he could swim away…
“Don’t you move you…” The man stops in mid sentence and sneers, shaking his head rapidly, then sneezes fiercely snapping his head and rocking his body. Great, sneeze your brains out you crazy bastard! Dan thinks, then inches himself further backward into the water. He feels something slide along his leg in the shallow surf and retches, projecting vomit into the water. While he’s doubled over he looks at the girl, stares into her brown eyes and swears he can see concern in her death mask.
The man recovers and moves forward a few steps cocking the gun, apparently done with cordialities.
“Wait, when I saw the body I called the police! You should leave!” Dan yells when he hears hammer click back.
The man pauses for a moment, looks confused, then sneezes again. Dan takes a few inches back into the water praying the ledge isn’t too far away. The man raises the gun to him again, contorts his face and screams “You lie!” Then sneezes one more time.
Dan takes the opportunity and jumps backward, using every bit of agility he has and lands on his back in the water. He can feel the ledge with his hand, but he didn’t quite make it.
“You fuck!” The man yells and shoots the gun three times in rapid succession. The first shot buries in the water to the left of Dan, the second in front of him and the third to the right.
Without thinking Dan throws himself back again and slides over the ridge sinking into the putrid lake. He hears more gun fire, he thinks three more shots, and swims away from the edge. His skin burns as he strokes through the murky water and he imagines the smell permeating his skin.
Finally Dan can go no further and preferring to be shot rather than swallow the lake water he surfaces and is disappointed to realize he’s only gone twenty feet. The man is at the edge of the lake, actually standing over the girl, and he raises the gun to Dan’s face. Dan takes a deep breath of the rancid air and goes below again, hearing the report of the gun fire three more times. That was nine wasn’t it? Dan thinks and desperately swims toward shore hoping the man would have to reload before he could fire again.
Dan gets to the shelf in the water and springs up, pushing with all his might from the bottom of the lake and re-surfacing directly in front of the man. Everything smells so bad that Dan imagines little cartoon wisps of stink floating off of him.
The man jumps back and sneezes in surprise as Dan jumps on him. The man screams, though Dan imagines it’s more from the stink than from anything else, as Dan grapples him.
It’s a short match, Dan wrenching the gun away from the man and sitting on his chest, giving him one great punch to the nose, relishing the snap he feels beneath his knuckles. He’s about to do it again when he hears someone shout at them.
They both look up and see two policemen with their weapons drawn and trained on the two of them. Dan sits back and gradually stands with his arms raised. Ever so slowly he steps away from the man on the ground.
“You, on the ground! Stand with your arms raised!” The alpha cop says, while the other slowly circles around to the right.
The man on the ground sneezes again, and then looks at the girl lying next to him. Suddenly the air seems to get thicker and everything slows down. The man on the ground lunges for the gun, and Dan can hear the alpha cop yelling something, but he’s so amazed at this little man’s audacity that he doesn’t understand. Dan falls to the ground as the little man pops up and points the gun. Dan can hears three distinct resounding explosions in the little oasis, then hears a thud as the man hits the ground next to him. Dan looks at him, into his brown eyes, and watches as the light fades.
Dan thinks back to what his uncle said as he stares into the dead man’s eyes. This is a dangerous place. Never come alone and always let someone know you’re here. “Thanks for looking after me Uncle Walt.” Dan says under his breath.
The cops walk over to Dan, still training their guns at him. “Who are you and why’re you here?”
Dan turns over and looks up at the policeman, puts his hands above his head and says “My names Dan. I just thought I’d go out for some fishing.”