Late this year will see the release of my new novella JACK & JILL, which I can only describe as a corrupt subversion of the classic nursery rhyme which tackles sensitive subjects I have avoided to this point but felt compelled to study now in light of real-world events suffered by people close to me. The signed limited hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications was printed to order (in other words, the publisher only accepted orders during a preorder window, and so no more copies will be produced). I will, however, be releasing a digital edition (cover above) which will be available for preorder in anticipation of the book’s December release date.
To whet your appetite, here is the first chapter…
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My brother and I stand on the verge of one of two graveyards that swell up from hallowed ground to form lofty cross-studded hills overlooking the town in which we have spent most of our young lives. It has never been explained why the dead are buried at such a height, for surely it would make more sense to secret them away in some gated meadow in the valley rather than in plain view of the townsfolk, who could live quite happily without the reminder of what awaits them.
Mayberry has seen its fair share of tragedy. The people walk slightly stooped as if shouldering the weight of loss, their eyes cast downward to avoid registering the twin verdant rises that obscure the sun at dawn and dusk. There is a peculiar smell to this place, like a coat that has been hung up wet and discovered in a closet years later, a sense of age it is not old enough to have earned.
Gothic churches stand sentinel on street corners, facing taverns and pizza joints, and intimidating no one. The houses sag and creak in the shadow of gnarled branches that look like the arthritic hands of apathetic mothers. At the bandstand, stubbornly holding court between a Romanesque town hall and a bank, and looking out over a concrete lot long awaiting development by a planning committee who no longer cares, sits a violinist, who makes up songs as she goes. Her music fills the air, and she never repeats a tune.
This is our town.
I am twelve, John is nine, and we have not yet learned of death. Pain and horror however are kindred. They visit us nightly, and take away little pieces of our soul. We live in nightmare and escape during daylight. And we do it here, in a cemetery that reaches in supplication to the sky, its base ringed with dark mausoleums.
We stand atop the hill, looking down at the long steep slope devoid of graves which leads to the road, and beyond, to the low-slung form of a prison that awaits us in a scant few weeks—the elementary school. We come here every day, and we engage in a ritual so childish and uncomplicated, it allows us to remember who and what we are, or at least, what we’re supposed to be. What we wish we were.
“Ready?” John asks, a wide smile on his pallid young face. The breeze makes his sandy hair dance. He is wearing his navy-colored dress pants and a light blue shirt rolled up at the sleeves. A navy tie hangs loosely from his neck. I am wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots and my white Mary Janes. Mother calls these outfits our “Sunday Best” and she will not be happy when we ruin them, but neither of us care. Mother has been too selective in the things that concern her, and the guilt of that will lessen the severity of any reprimand.
“Ready,” I reply, and in tandem, we take a few steps forward.
I am vaguely aware of a man, little more than a hunched shadow, sitting down there on the wall that separates the grass at the bottom of the hill from the road. His back is to us, his attention fixed on a newspaper, as unconcerned with us as we are with him.
We drop to the ground. The grass is still damp from the morning dew. As mother fretted after we exited the church earlier, our skin and clothes will be stained, but this is welcome, if only to obscure the invisible, more permanent stains of which we are always so intimately aware.
We lie on our backs, our feet almost but not quite touching, arms close to our sides.
“Go!” John yells, and we roll down the hill. Though my brother’s name is John, and mine Gillian, between us we are Jack and Jill. It is a fantasy, an escape, a secret identity no one can touch, further strengthened by this weekly ritual.
I can never understand why, when we start out together from the same place, John somehow always manages to get ahead of me.
Today is no different.
Faster and faster we go, the world spinning crazily in my vision, which is little more than snatches of green and sky and flashes of light and dark blue as John shrieks with delight. Here and there the ground is unpleasantly stonier as I tumble over rocks half-buried in the earth, bruising my elbows and knees and scraping my skin. I don’t care. I feel nothing but elation. My flesh tingles, the grass whispers against my face. Dew wets my lips. I close my eyes and it is as if the world is moving and I am lying still.
It goes on forever, dream-time stretching to delay the imminent horror.
And then it comes.
I reach the bottom and stop. Lie on my back, breathless. Moisture seeps through my dress as I look up at the whirling sky, which has grown darker since we began our descent. Ugly gray clouds seep over the hill, infecting the blue, and with it comes a chill.
An involuntary moan escapes me. It makes no sense in the dream, for I have not yet discovered the source of the latent dread. Perhaps it is my adult self protesting the direction in which my subconscious is bound.
My skin crawls, but for now I can do nothing but watch the darkening sky, which seesaws over and back as my vision tries to settle.
A sky-spittle speck of rain hits my cheek. My heartbeat thunders in my ears, competing with the hollow sound of my own breath bellowing in and out of my lungs.
I tell myself this is why I can’t hear John.
Gradually, I roll over on my side. I look at the school. The windows are black, neither reflecting the world nor showing what might exist within. I feel a vague tightening in my gut at the thought that soon it will consume us. To the right, I note that the man is gone. Further right, John is sprawled on his back, arms splayed out as he too stares up at the sky.
Unsteadily, I get to my feet, black sparks pulsing in my vision. I fear I might be sick, but close my eyes and allow the last of the disorientation to pass.
“You win,” I call to John, because even though I’m not sure which one of us reached the bottom first, it is safe to assume it wasn’t me. Besides, there is no competition here. There never is. I love John more than anything else in the world. Alone, the events we’ve been forced to endure would have destroyed us. Together, we can find solace in a world that seems to shun it.
There is blood on the grass.
I stop walking as more rain pats my face, not yet able to fully register the long thin shadow that edges its way into my periphery as the man I thought was gone reappears.
The blood, an odd color, more like bad movie blood than anything I have seen in real life, forms a thick wide ragged carpet leading from halfway down the hill to where John lays unmoving three feet away.
The man waits, in no hurry for me to discover his handiwork, and I am in no hurry to look upon him. I know who he is.
I step closer to my brother.
Ferocious agony locks my chest and I drop to my knees in grief. I’ve been here before, though the horror never gets old. I know all too well the pattern of this malignant dream and my throat closes, trapping a scream. My breath catches. I try to close my eyes, and find that I can’t.
The stump of John’s neck paints the grass crimson.
My heart crashes against my ribs. Bile fills my mouth.
Fear and terror turn to rage, as I finally look to my right, to the thing awaiting my attention. I do all of this because it has been rehearsed, practiced a thousand times over twenty-odd years of dreams.
The man is tall and thin, and though a clear plastic bag has been wrapped tightly around his badly decomposed head, I recognize his face.
It is my father, and his mouth is wide open, filled with maggots that tumble free only to be trapped again in the folds of the bag. They move languidly against the plastic.
He is wearing a funeral suit stained with dirt. His white shirt and bare feet are spotted with my brother’s blood.
I weep and bring my hands up to cover my eyes, but they too are made of plastic and hide nothing. Certainly not the gruesome gleeful bobbing of my father’s suffocated head, nor the senseless fact that he has rusted clothes hangers for hands. Like a fish, John’s head has been hooked through the roof of the mouth on one of them. His handsome little face now looks like a poor imitation, absent in death of everything that made it beautiful in life.
Finally the scream escapes, a train of utter anguish that plunges free into the cold air. It is mimicked by a peal of thunder as the sky splits and the rain falls in sheets that have more weight than is natural. I am soaked in an instant. Rising from my knees feels like I am struggling to stand underwater.
The plastic bag turns a foggy gray as hurried, excited breath obscures my father’s face. Behind and above him, darkness rushes across the gravestones, creeping down the hill like spilled oil.
He raises the unburdened clothes hanger to show it to me and I hear his voice inside my head. Such a good girl. Do you remember how it felt to have it inside you? Twisting? Turning? It takes guts to know, and I know your guts. Such a good girl.
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