When I started this blog I knew I’d have some weeks where it would be a struggle to come up with content I feel passionate enough about to post on. I have a post written, but it doesn’t feel like quite the “right” time for it, so I am going to hold onto it for a bit longer, tweak it, and wait for its time to be born into the blog.
For now, I wanted to share with you all another piece of my fiction writing, this time from my collection of short stories Menagerie of the Weird.
I love this story, I wrote it in college for an assignment and it is my ode to my all-time favorite Poe story, The Masque of the Red Death.
When I first read the Poe story I was instantly entranced by the ideas of the different colored rooms, the rich and powerful thinking they can hide in opulence from disease, and realizing that no amount of wealth can help when it comes to the plague.
Here is my story, I hope you love it like I do.
“The Color of Death”
by JL Metcalf
“There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
~Edgar Allan Poe
She sits on the orange couch surrounded by orange walls. Her hands bunch and clench in her lap, unsure what to hold onto. She gazes at the young police officer standing over her and he speaks but the words are lost in the buzzing in her ears. Someone is screaming. She shakes her head and looks away from him. The orange rug is dirty now. All the people walking in and out of her apartment had left footprints. She hated when the apartment was dirty.
She put her face in her hands and tries to understand what happened. How had it all come to this? She can’t concentrate, there’s too much screaming. Then she smells the blood, the coppery rich smell of blood and remembers that it’s on her hands. It’s all over her. She had touched the body.
Dear God, there was a body in her apartment.
She sobs and looks back up at the police officer who stares down at her with obvious sympathy. He hands her a Kleenex and she wipes her face, bright red blood on the white tissue. She must look a fright, her face and hands covered in blood. She tries to pull herself together.
“Ma’am? I need you to tell me what happened here.” the Officer’s voice starts to break through the fog and she looks at him.
“Yes. Yes I do.” she said, her voice soft. She looks up at the Officer, “I killed her. I did it.” she said and the Officer stared at her, speechless. The woman smiled at him in a kindly fashion, she understands that this is all very overwhelming. The blood and the tears, the screaming woman. It’s all very overwhelming.
The Officer turns away to find his superior, this is turning into a huge mess. The woman remains seated on the orange couch as more people march in with a stretcher. They make their way to the back of the apartment. Is that for the woman wailing in agony? Someone really needs to shut her up. She thinks to herself and then she realizes, she is the woman wailing in agony. She is the woman screaming. The stretcher isn’t for her.
It’s for the body. The dead body.
Four Years Ago
“You like Poe? I love him!” Stephanie says and grins. Cindy tentatively smiles back at her. She is slightly overwhelmed by this woman.
“His short story, “The Masque of the Red Death” is one of my all-time favorite stories. I love all the colored rooms.” Cindy says quietly, her cheeks flush with color but Stephanie doesn’t laugh at her, she claps her hands together and nods her head.
“I know! It’s an amazing story.” Stephanie says and takes her hand, “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” She quoted, smiling. Cindy looks down at their joined hands and smiles in return. This is nice. This woman Stephanie is stunning and Cindy cannot believe she’d be interested in her. She’s so plain, mousy brown hair, brown eyes and pale skin. Nothing remarkable about her figure or her personality. She always thought of herself as rather bland. As someone not to be noticed.
Stephanie on the other hand, she was vivacious and full of life. Her short hair was blond and she had bright blue eyes. She wore a lot of blue to accentuate them she had admitted earlier. She was tall and curvy and gorgeous. Men stared at her with lust and women stared at her with obvious jealousy. Cindy felt suddenly proud that this fantastic woman would stop to talk to her, much less hold her hand in public and quote Poe.
“Cindy, do you want to have dinner with me tonight? This has been so much fun but I have to get to class now.” Stephanie released Cindy’s hand with obvious reluctance and stood, gathering her book bag as she spoke.
They had met in a lecture on the role of horror in literature. They had struck up an instant friendship, chatting about books and movies. Actually, if Cindy was being honest, Stephanie had started and carried most of the conversation. Cindy had been too stunned to say much of anything. She wasn’t used to beautiful women talking to her like she mattered.
“I would love to.” Cindy said and smiled at her new friend.
Cindy was never what you would call popular. She had friends and she had boyfriends but she never felt truly connected to the world around her. Her boyfriends had been few in number and she had never had sex with them, they had all been short-lived affairs that ended in their tears and Cindy’s indifference. She never found much solace in other people. She really only felt peaceful when she was alone and writing.
She decided she was gay when she was about sixteen but knew she couldn’t come out to her parents until she was older. They wouldn’t understand that it wasn’t a choice she made, it was simply how she was. So she kept her secret and pretended to be like everyone else. It wasn’t too hard, no one paid much attention to her anyway.
She finally came out in college. Her parents were horrified but cautiously optimistic that it was just a stage even though Cindy insisted that it wasn’t. She allowed them their falsehood because it kept them in her life. They never talked about her sexual orientation again after that day. Cindy was relieved. If she was honest with herself she’d admit that she wasn’t all that interested in her own sexual orientation either.
As Stephanie walked away from their table that afternoon Cindy realized that if she and Stephanie began dating, it would be her first relationship in college. She had spent time with a couple girls and had even kissed one of them, but she never felt moved to go any further. The relationships eventually withered and died. The girls left feeling a weird mixture of confusion and relief. Cindy never suffered much at the end of any relationship, she moved on quickly. She was often indifferent to the pain of others, or so she was told by the girls she briefly dated. Stephanie was different, Cindy didn’t know why she felt this way, she simply knew that Stephanie would be someone very special.
That night at dinner was wonderful, they flirted, they laughed and then, when all was said and done, they made love. Cindy admitted afterwards that it had been her first time and Stephanie was blown away. It was a beautifully tender and romantic night.
Cindy felt like a different person with Stephanie. She felt more alive. More in touch with the world around her. More in touch with herself. Or, who she thought she was anyway. Stephanie helped her see all the colors of the world. Cindy pretended to care deeply about them.
Cindy would refuse to admit to herself that even with Stephanie’s love, she still felt empty. She felt alone. She ignored the fact that sex made her feel ugly and dirty and that it did nothing for her. She forced herself to do it because Stephanie seemed to enjoy it so much.
They quickly fell in love, spending every moment together and Cindy couldn’t get enough of Stephanie. She fed off of her light and her exuberance. Years passed in the blink of an eye. At their fourth anniversary Cindy took her out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. She had planned the night in intricate detail. As they sat sipping champagne Cindy noticed that Stephanie seemed distracted.
“What is it?” she asked.
“What? Oh…it’s nothing.” she said and smiled.
“Tell me Steph.”
Stephanie sighed and shook her head, “I don’t want to do this here, not on our anniversary. It seems…wrong.”
Cindy felt her stomach drop and she put her champagne flute down onto the table. Reaching forward, she clasped Stephanie’s hand and met her eyes.
“Tell me.” she said, her voice rough. Stephanie put her glass down as well and put her other hand on top of Cindy’s.
“I’m…I’m not happy Cindy. We’re not good for each other…” she paused and picked her glass up again, breaking contact with Cindy by taking her other hand and laying it in her lap, “We haven’t made love in months and you barely even speak to me…this dinner is the first time we’ve been alone in weeks.” she guzzled the rest of her champagne and looked at Cindy nervously.
“I see.” Cindy said and stood up, “Come with me. Let’s go talk somewhere private.” she said abruptly and Stephanie nodded in agreement. She looked anxious and while part of Cindy wished she could ease her fears, she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts to bother. She was fascinated at her lack of emotional response to Stephanie’s words. She had felt fear and sadness but no surprise. None of it was a surprise, for months now Stephanie had been making snide comments about their “boring” life and getting angry at everything Cindy did. Cindy ignored most of it, figuring it had nothing to do with her. But now she saw that it was all her fault.
She had allowed her indifference to permeate their relationship. She had allowed Stephanie to experience who she truly was. She had allowed Stephanie to see that she was an empty shell and Stephanie was rejecting her.
Stephanie was going to leave her. Cindy couldn’t allow that.
They spoke little on the drive home and when they walked into the apartment Cindy turned to her, “Drinks. We need drinks. I’ll get them, you relax.” she said and touched Stephanie’s face, “I do love you…let’s really talk about this.” she said and Stephanie smiled, looking relieved.
“I love you too Cyn.” she said.
Cindy stepped into their blue kitchen and looked around, this apartment was bizarre to her, she had not understood Stephanie’s desire to color-code the rooms. When she asked about it Stephanie had looked offended before finally saying, “It’s an homage to our favorite Poe story…”The Masque of the Red Death” …I thought you’d like it.” she sniffed before locking herself in her office.
Cindy sighed and made her way to the fridge where she pulled out a bottle of wine. Looking behind her she heard Stephanie turn on some music in the living room and sit down with a sigh. Cindy quickly dashed across the hall to the bathroom.
Where Stephanie kept her sleeping medication.
Crushing the meds into the glass she filled it with wine and went back to join Stephanie in the living room. They sat down on the orange couch and sipped their wine. Finally, Cindy sighed and drank the last of her glass before putting it down.
“So…we need to talk…” she said and Stephanie nodded as she nervously sipped her wine. “If I’m being honest Steph…I’m not happy either.” Cindy said and watched the relief spread over Stephanie’s face, she took a big gulp of her wine and nodded. Stephanie blinked a few times and rubbed at her eye with one hand. She suddenly looked tired.
“What can we do to change things?” Cindy asked her.
“I-I think we need to…we need to…be…more…” Stephanie’s eyes were closing and she looked sleepy, she looked at her wine glass and at Cindy, “What…you do…what did you?” she slurred and leaned forward to put her glass on the table, she missed and the glass crashed to the carpet, spilling its last drops of wine onto the orange carpet. Cindy looked at it in disdain.
“Look what you did. You know I hate when it’s dirty in here.” she said angrily and stood. Stephanie watched her, helpless to move as Cindy walked over and slapped her face. “You can’t leave me Stephanie. I forbid it.” she said as Stephanie’s eyes closed and she fell into a deep sleep.
As Cindy and Stephanie fell in love Cindy discovered Stephanie’s fatal flaw. She was desperate to please and she very rarely stood up to anyone. Cindy found that she had an aggressive side to her and could easily force Stephanie to her will. She thrived on making Stephanie do what she wanted and ignored her when Stephanie tried to enforce her own will upon their relationship. Cindy also found that Stephanie did best when steered with a firm hand. If that meant a few slaps or punches here and there, than so be it. Cindy knew what was best for Stephanie and eventually, Stephanie came to the same realization.
When Stephanie woke up she found herself handcuffed to the bed. Cindy sat beside her, reading a book.
“Ah. Your awake. That was quite a nap you took my love.” she said, putting her book down.
“What’s going on? CIndy?” Stephanie pulled at the handcuffs locking her to the bed and glared at Cindy with anger in her eyes. Cindy laughed.
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” Cindy quoted from Poe’s work and smiled at her lover. Stephanie stared at her, unbelieving that the woman she loved could be so far gone.
“What the hell? Cindy, you have to let me go!” she cried out. Cindy laughed again.
“You know…that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you truly angry. Bravo Steph! Now, we have to discuss some changes. I don’t think you understand that I simply do not care if you’re unhappy. You are here for me and only me. Do you understand that? You are going to marry me and we are going to live a nice, normal life.”
“Hush up.” Cindy punctuated this statement with a slap to the face.”You will do as you are told or face punishment.”
“Screw you Cindy. Let me go!” Stephanie said, suddenly defiant. Cindy laughed and stood up. She surveyed the pristine white of their bedroom, sad to think it was soon to be soiled. The bedroom had always been her favorite room in the apartment. Something about the pristine white appealed to her. She turned and bent over to root through a small bag at her feet. She pulled out a pair of large pliers and turned to Stephanie.
“Do you now what these are for?” she asked. Stephanie said nothing. “No idea? They’re for removing your toenails and fingernails. One at a time.”
Stephanie screamed when the first toenail was torn off. Cindy had to gag her to keep the neighbors from hearing. By the time she finished, the quilt beneath her was bloodied and Stephanie was passed out. Cindy put the pliers away and sat back down, picking up her book once more.
She kept Stephanie tied to the bed for weeks. During that time she removed all her nails, shaved all her hair and tortured her in a myriad of unpleasant ways. The bedroom was no longer white, the walls and floor were spattered with blood, some fresh, some dried to a crusty brown.
“This room smells rather…unpleasant…I think it’s time to clean you up.” Cindy said and unlocked her hostage from the bed. Stephanie had lost her strength a few days ago so Cindy wasn’t worried about her escaping. She had lost a lot of weight even though Cindy fed her. Her once perfect skin was scarred and scabbed over and many people had called looking for Stephanie. Cindy told them all in a tear-filled voice that Stephanie had left her for good and she didn’t know where she had gone. They all believed her and it made Cindy realize that Stephanie’s unhappiness was far greater than she had imagined. She had clearly been discussing it with their circle of friends. In the end though, it made Cindy’s life easier. Everyone believed her story.
She carried Stephanie into the bathroom and laid her in the bathtub where she lay unconscious. Cindy went into the bedroom and surveyed the damage. It was really beyond cleaning, she might as well burn everything. She grabbed some trash bags and was going about stuffing bedding into them when she was suddenly hit it the head. She cried out and fell onto the bed, when she turned over Stephanie stood above her, holding the frying pan in her hands.
“What are you doing?” she asked, touching her head and feeling the wetness of blood she glared at her former lover with fury.Stephanie started to laugh hysterically, her face a mask of madness.
“…who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him –that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” she cried out, quoting Edgar Allan Poe as she brought the frying pan down again. And again. And again. With a cry of rage Stephanie slammed it into her face one last time. Cindy’s legs jerked and were still. Dropping the pan Stephanie fell to her knees and through her tears she screamed, “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death!!!” Then she began to laugh hysterically.
“I did it Officer. I killed her.” Stephanie sobbed and held her hands out towards the Officer who stepped back, his face a mask of horror. Then he turned and went to look for his Captain as the woman collapsed back into herself. When the Officer and the Captain returned the woman sat stiffly on the couch, staring into space. Her wounds were gruesome and deep but she wouldn’t let the paramedics take a look at her. Every time they came near she started screaming again. The Captain eyed her cautiously and turned to his Officer.
“She’s clearly been tortured or beaten, we gotta take her in to get checked out.” The young Officer nodded and they stepped up to where Stephanie sat on the couch, an orange blanket from the couch wrapped around her shoulders.
“Miss…” The Captain sat in front of her on the orange coffee table. The woman didn’t move for a moment but then her gaze shifted over to him.
“My officer says you have admitted to killing Miss. Jones. Is this true?”
“The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood.” Stephanie quoted and the two men glanced at each other as Stephanie nodded, “Yes…”the redness and horror of blood” …have you ever read Poe Officers?” she asked, eyeing them with the eye not swollen shut.
“Um…can’t say I have Miss.” The Captain said, his forehead creased with worry.
“Oh, I love Poe,” she mused, “…there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise –then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.” she smiled wanly at the men who were left speechless at her recitation.
“Uh…Ma’am…” the Captain said but was struck silent when Stephanie stood and looked him directly in the eye.
“Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” she quoted loudly and walked out of the apartment, the Officer quickly following. The Captain stared after her, his face an unreadable mask as a paramedic walked over to him.
“Where did she go?” he asked and the Captain shrugged.
“Officer Smith is going after her, I think she’s lost it man.” he said and the Paramedic peered at him.
“Why? Cuz of the screaming? That’s normal after so much trauma.”
“No man, she won’t stop quoting some Edgar Allan Poe story.” he replied and the Paramedic looked at him incredulously as the Captain repeated himself, “I think she’s lost it.”