Fiction by Christian Shuck
August 27, 2016
The house phone rang. It was an odd, high-pitched jingle. One of several iterations of ringtones Edward Winter heard evolve over time. He watched as Terri Thomas walked across her living room floor to pick up the handset.
“Hello?” she said after the chirp of the power button on the handset. Ed still marveled at the idea of a cordless telephone. He thought how easy it would have made busy days in his shop. As Terri cradled the receiver between her shoulder and ear, he pictured standing at his butcher block, cutting a side of beef while taking an order at the same time.
“Oh, hi!” Terri exclaimed to the caller on the phone. “I know, we were able to get everything set up quickly.” Smiling, Ed thought about the fact that a cordless phone was hardly the most fascinating piece of technology to come out of the last half century. He’d heard about it all second-hand, of course, through the residents of the house that came and went. Some of it he’d seen, but didn’t really understand. He took note of Terri’s attractiveness for a Saturday morning, then moved over to the stairs.
It had not been necessary for him to use traditional floors, stairs or even walk since 1951. Often he didn’t bother, but sometimes it made him feel better to just go through the motions. As he moved his right foot onto the bottom step, he imagined the creaking sound the wood plank might have made, had his shoe actually met the wooden surface. He knew, if he hadn’t gotten over the absence of the sound by now, he never would.
Rounding the turn in the stairwell at the first landing, Ed turned to walk up to the second floor. In the room directly in front of him, the Thomas’ boy, Todd, sat in front of a television. In his hands he held a red contraption with a bunch of buttons and two sticks that he moved around with his thumbs. As Todd pressed the buttons and manipulated the apparatus, the actions on the television screen responded accordingly. Ed shook his head, wondering why a child would want to stay inside on a bright sunny day staring at a screen, instead of playing outside with his friends. But then he reminded himself, Todd had just moved to the house, and so probably didn’t have any friends yet.
With nothing else to do, Ed walked over and sat on the couch next to Todd. Of course he couldn’t really sit. He just sort of hovered over the place where he would have sat down. And even though he couldn’t touch it, he made sure to sit on the cushion without the chocolate stain on it. Todd jerked his arms to the side, trying to direct the action on the screen with his motion, rather than the controller in his hands, then sighed when his character disappeared.
Do you want to continue? Flashed on the screen. Todd sighed, pressed a button and waited as a picture of a man with grey skin and red tattoos appeared on the television, and the word Loading flashed in the bottom of the image.
As the game began again, it was all Ed could do to keep up with what was happening. Chains flew out of the grey character’s hands, striking what he assumed were supposed to be demons or ghosts, and they evaporated to leave glowing little balls that the grey man would collect. As Todd directed him, anyway. Ed thought it was incredibly violent for a ten year old boy. The images were horrifying.
For a moment, Ed wondered if his own children ever thought the butcher shop was terrifying. The first time he’d allowed his son Luke to help him butcher a lamb, Luke hadn’t been much older than Todd. That, he thought, was certainly different than what Todd was doing. It was supposed to only be a game. Cutting up an animal to provide food for a family, that was survival. A necessary life lesson, even for a younger boy. A sharp noise came from the screen and Ed looked up to watch the grey man pick up another character and tear it in half. Red stuff, presumably blood, spilled out all over. Ed shuddered.
Quite suddenly, Todd pressed a button and the word Pause appeared on the television. Todd looked at the screen, and slowly turned his head toward the spot where Ed was sitting. Ed looked at Todd, and when their eyes met they both jumped. Ed found himself floating in the air, a few feet away from Todd with his back to a wall. Todd was leaning away from the space Ed had just occupied, but still focused on the couch.
Impossible, Ed thought. It had been decades since anyone had acted like they’d seen him, and even then he was sure the girl just had a nightmare. She hadn’t really known Ed was there. Todd’s chest rose and fell quickly, he was obviously startled. If Ed had had a chest, it would have been doing the same thing. He watched apprehensively as Todd shifted to sit upright again, then reach out to the side of the couch where he was sure he’d seen something. Todd felt around in the air for a second, then shook his head as if to clear it. The boy looked at the TV, back at the couch, then pressed a button on the controller and the screen went black. He started for the door but paused to look back one last time. Ed found himself trying to hold his breath, as if he could make a sound that Todd would really hear.
Ed hovered, staring at Todd. In all the days since his passing, through all the people that had come through the house, no one had ever looked at him the way Todd just did. Mr. Bendermen had assured Ed that no one would ever see him, and up until this very moment, Ed had taken him at his word. He watched Todd head down the stairs. Rather than follow, Ed floated up through the ceiling, into the attic.
What was once Ed’s own dedicated space, the attic was now Todd’s bedroom. The room had been finished after Mrs. Schluneker passed away, before the Thomas family purchased the home. An entrepreneur, not completely unlike Ed himself, renovated the home very well. The kitchen, the attic, a bedroom and a bathroom all received a healthy makeover prior to the Thomas’s moving in. While Ed was sad to see his own space change, it didn’t bother him much. He enjoyed having a roommate. And because he didn’t sleep, Ed spent most nights admiring Todd’s unique toy collection. He especially liked the building bricks.
He perched himself on top of the bookshelf to take a moment and think. There had been several times over the last sixty years when occupants of the house seemed to be aware of Ed’s presence. None of them, though, ever stopped what they were doing to look directly at him. It took much, much longer than a week for any of them to begin to take notice. Todd had done it in a matter of days.
“I told you,” a voice came from the stairwell, “you were not to directly interact with any of the occupants of the home.”
At once, Ed recognized who it was. The voice alone, slithery and just above a whisper, was unmistakable. He watched as the top of a bowler hat appeared over the edge of the top step, then a face, and soon after the 5’5” frame of a man wearing a grey suit with pink pinstripes stood in the doorway to the room. Mr. Bendermen’s face contorted in a smile that somehow managed to elongate his already football shaped head.
“Don’t you remember me telling you that, Mr. Winter?”
It had been sixty-five years since Ed first met Mr. Bendermen. He was surprised, not to see Bendermen, but at the feeling of relief that washed over him in their reunion.
“I…I…” Ed stuttered. There had never been a reason to try and speak since 1951. He wasn’t sure he remembered how.
“Take your time, Mr. Winter.” Mr. Bendermen spoke with a tone that fell somewhere between reassuring and condescending. “We’re not in a rush.” He tucked one hand into his pants pocket and leaned on the wall.
“Didn’t,” Ed managed.
“What was that?”
“I, I didn’t. Try to interact. With Todd. I, I didn’t.”
“Well he certainly seemed to think you did.” Bendermen raised an eyebrow.
Ed floated down from the bookcase to the floor and took notice of the fact that Mr. Bendermen’s feet seemed to be actually touching the carpet. His shadow fell across the wall on which he was leaning.
“You’re, you’re here,” Ed managed in a curious voice.
“‘Course I am, where else would I be?”
“But, you’re touching the floor. And the wall. How are you doing that?”
“I can touch anything I damn well please, thank you very much.” Bendermen stood up and walked toward Ed. “I can touch you too.” He poked Ed between the eyes.
The sense of touch was all but lost on Ed, and he staggered backward at the shock of the sensation. As if Bendermen had just attached him to a car battery.
“Look at you,” Bendermen smiled, and tipped the front of his hat up with his finger. The pin stripes on his suit seemed to glow slightly. “You’ve followed the rules the whole way through, haven’t you?”
“Of course,” Ed said as he straightened himself. “You promised that if I followed the rules, you would leave my family alone.”
“I did indeed, and so I have.” Bendermen tucked his hands back in his pockets. He rose off his heels slightly in a gesture of pride. Then, with a solemn voice, “Your dear wife did pass, though.”
Ed stared at the funny man.
“Oh no,” Bendermen held up his hands in defense. “All natural, there was no pain. She lived a happy life. And she never forgot you, no sir.”
Relaxing a little, Ed asked, “And my children?”
“Luke turned out to be alright. Maisey…” he trailed off.
“What about Maisey?”
“Well, she developed a thing for the bad boys. She had it rough for a few years, but she came out alright in the end.” Bendermen waved a lackadaisical hand. “Has two grown kids of her own now and three grandbabies.” The man in the hat approached Ed and started to put a hand on his shoulder. Ed jerked away, afraid of being shocked again.
“Everyone turned out just fine, Ed. You did the right thing.”
As if the past six decades had never happened, Ed suddenly found himself enraged.
“The right thing? I should’ve burned this house to the ground when I had the chance. You pop in and out as you please, stealing the lives away from people who don’t even know what they’re walking into. This cursed house should’ve stayed empty when Schluneker died.”
“Ah,” Bendermen said, backing away. He adjusted his hat to sit properly on his head. “But it didn’t, did it? And even so, burning the house down doesn’t make me go away.”
“You stay away from that boy, d’ya hear me? You stay away from him, you’ve had enough.”
“Why should I? What are you going to do about it anyhow? You’re stuck here, Ed. Until your lineage dies out, you’re stuck here. That’s the price you paid to save your family. You chose them over generations of others. Are you going to go back on your promise?”
For years, Ed had sat with nothing else to do but think about his decision. He watched as families moved in and moved out of the house. Early on, he’d struggled with his regret. Feeling like an executioner each time a child came into the home. Knowing that each and every one would perish early, so that Mr. Bendermen could continue to exist. Over time, though, he became numb to the fact. The occupants of the house on Jefferson Street simply became a hobby to Ed. Because he never had to see the children die, he eventually forgot about the long-term consequences. Now that Bendermen was back, Ed felt as if all that time, sitting, waiting, pondering and observing, was worth it.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’d say to you if I ever saw you again.”
“Yeah?” Bendermen asked, intrigued. “What did you come up with?”
Cautiously, but with a little more confidence, Ed stood up straight. “Wasn’t so much about what I’d say.”
The stripes on Bendermen’s suit glowed bright. “Oh, so you are going to do something?” He laughed.
“While you were always focused on how many souls you could feed on, I was focused on what those souls brought with them.”
The two slowly circled each other in the middle of the room. Like two cowboys in a western.
“Please, spare me your lecture. You don’t know what I am!” Bendermen raised his voice. “I transcend time, I was here long before any of these people and I’ll be here long after. There’s an order to things. I don’t live in the cycle of life and death, I am the cycle. I am the Wendigo, the Bone Man, Adze, the Balor the light and the dark. I am the fire and the ash! My task is malice but it is a necessary toil. And you, you stupid old goat, will eventually fade away like a distant memory. Lost and forgotten.”
Like so many things he’d left behind, Ed quickly rediscovered fear.
The man in the suit inhaled deeply. “I can smell it on you.” Then he raised a bony hand and pointed at Ed’s chest.
“It might surprise you,” Ed said between pulses of what would be adrenaline. “That I’ve learned quite a lot about you.” Their circling slowed as Bendermen listened. “There are many stories about you. You have far more names than that.”
“I do, my influence is far. My influence has altered the very course of history.” He stopped, and began to laugh, hysterically.
“What’s so funny?” Ed asked.
When he’d calmed himself, the man in the hat said, “Look at us, circlin’ around like a couple of cowboys. I’m glad I kept you around, Mr. Winter. I don’t get to have much conversation.”
Offended that the demon would take him so lightly, Ed continued.
“All those stories, you get beaten in them, almost every one.”
Mr. Bendermen cocked his head to one side. “Stories are all the same stories, since the beginning of time. Names change, places, but the tale itself is all that matters.”
“You don’t care how you were beaten?”
“With bravery, I suppose.” Bendermen rolled his eyes. “That’s such an old gag. Used to make children sleep better at night. There’s nothin’ they can do to stop what’s comin’ after ‘em.”
“You’re right, actually. The ghosts come back to those they haunted when they’re adults and they have to be brave again, in a whole new way.”
Bendermen laughed. “See? The same story gets told over and over again, even by the same writers. Creativity is dead.” He frowned. “Pretty sad, really.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been here? Since we made our deal?”
“Of course I do. Wouldn’t be good at my job if I lost track of all the agreements I’ve made in the last few hundred years.”
“Do you know what I’ve been doing all that time?”
“Sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself? Don’t feel bad, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Saving one’s own family at the expense of countless others is a heavy burden to bear.”
“For a time,” Ed shrugged, “I did. You’re correct. But I’ve also been thinking. A lot. And have had occasion to take advantage of the resources all of these people who lived in the house brought with them. And you know what?”
Bendermen squinted, confused.
“I realized something. That’s all that I am to you. So long as I stay here, and my family keeps living, you’ll have an endless battery here to charge you up.”
Bendermen flopped a hand out in a gesture to wave off Ed’s statement. “That’s not entirely how that works, but good on you for thinking it through.”
“Really, that’s not how it works?” Ed smirked.
The man in the grey suit now appeared worried. He took a step back from Ed. But before he could take another, Ed reached out and grabbed the lapel of Bendermen’s coat. He struggled, but Ed’s grip was tight.
Ed pulled him close and said, “Let’s find out.”
With that, he grabbed Bendermen by the throat and let the sensation of the electric charge flood his arm. It was unlike anything Ed ever felt when he was alive. Bendermen seemed to fade slightly as a pink-ish red aura appeared around his face. Ed’s hand began to glow slightly blue as an unfamiliar pain began to creep through his fingers into his palm.
“Stop! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Bendermen screamed.
“No. More. Children,” said Ed through clenched teeth.
Within seconds Mr. Bendermen was all but transparent. Ed clung tightly to the man’s throat, absorbing all the energy he could. He was determined to end the cycle then and there. He glanced down to see his other hand was no longer holding anything. The suit jacket had disappeared and it seemed as though Bendermen was about to go with it.
“Please, you don’t understand!” Bendermen cried out again. But it was too late.
In a flash of clear red light the figure disappeared. Ed found himself clutching the air, and stood up, surprised. He held his hands out in front of him to see they were a pale grey. Then he saw the black sleeves covering his arms. Sleeves with light-blue pinstripes. He stepped back and looked down at himself. Bright, freshly-shined black shoes, suit and vest. A silver pocket watch chain hung out of his waist coat pocket and attached to one of the buttons near the center of his belly.
He laughed, excitedly, and danced around the center of the room. “It worked!” he shouted, overcome with his own bewilderment. After a few more moments of celebrating, he stood proud. Then he saw a black bowler hat, laying on the floor. He picked it up, twirled it in his hand and landed it deftly on his head.
“Well now,” he said to himself. “Let’s see where we can go from here.” And with that, he snapped his fingers, and disappeared.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.