Sunday, November 2, 2008
How to Tell a Scary Story
Over a Hundred Years Ago
This story begins over a hundred years ago, in 2008.
(“But it’s only 2009!”)
(“Shut up. That’s how you start a story.”)
On a cold Halloween, in a college town somewhere.
(“That doesn’t matter. The best scary stories don’t happen anywhere in particular because they could happen anywhere!”)
(“Shut up. Fine, it’s somewhere in the mountains. It’s going to snow, okay?”)
Toni was a vegetarian, about twenty-five years old, thin and beautiful in the way that the mystically-attuned sometimes are, like a partly-wasted nymph. She read palms, tarot cards, clouds, handwriting, just about anything. But her favorite was tea leaves, for two reasons: One, it’s easier to fake relations between the prophecies and the leaves than between the other things, because they were just blobs anyway. (She wasn’t a fake, you have to understand. She just read people, and channeled it through things to be more impressive, so people would believe her.) Two, she could get free tea that way, as way of cheap payment. That Halloween, she was sitting in a coffee shop just off campus
(“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?”)
doing readings for free (well, for the cost of two cups of tea, one for herself, one for the customer) to drum up business. It was about noon, and she’d been doing it since 9 that morning. She’d had 6 cups of tea; two black, two green, one herbal, and one white. Between readings, she was reading a book about conflicts between Jungian and Learyan theories. It wasn’t particular clever.
At twelve-ten, a young, pale, tall, fair-haried man walked into the coffee shop.
(“What was it called?”)
(“The Friar’s Best Roast”)
(“No, the book.”)
(“What? I don’t know. That’s a stupid question. Shut up.”)
He looked around the lobby, eyes fixing on each individual; the slender brunette woman, the vivacious blonde practically giving her boyfriend a hand job and fingering her girlfriend in public, the nose-ringed spikey-haired man reading Kerouac, the black-haired wolf with a laptop secretly full of rape porn and Hanson, less-secretly filled with dethmetal, the barista trying to catch the eye of the androgyne sipping a blueberry-tinted latte… And they final settled on Toni after reading the sign with her offer. He approached her table and, standing right across, asked in a soft voice, “What kind of tea?”
“Whatever you like,” Toni said, with a sharp smile, teeth whiter than the paper of her book. He smiled a toothless, nervous smile back, and returned five minutes ago with two cups of an Oolong tea, which she could tell by the smell before he said anything.
“Just drink it, slowly, at your leisure. When you’re done, I’ll see what I can read.” She was already reading him, in truth—his aura was wobbly and fascinating, lying between two somethings she wasn’t sure of. That was happening a lot today. She hoped it would, but was fairly certain it wouldn’t, clarify in the tea leaves in a different way from the last two.
After a silence of two minutes that was for her comfortable and for him uncomfortable (as all silences were to him), and several sips of tea, he dared to speak. “Whose side does the book come down on?”
“Leary’s, of course. I don’t think anyone’s bothered finding the conflicts between the Psychedelic folks and the Traditionals who didn’t buy into the stuff that works best when you’re already on acid.” She folded the book on the table and smiled her sharp smile again. He smiled back.
“And whose side are you on?”
“The Traditionals are more believable, but the Weirdos are more interesting, and easier to work with.” He smiled wider, and took a big gulp of his tea. “What are you studying?”
“Psych and Philosophy,” he said with a grin in his voice. She laughed. “I’m a junior, but I still live in the dorms.”
“No one to move in with, so I became an RA.” Sip. “Are you a student at all…?”
“Only of the dark arts,” she said in a dark voice, and hadn’t even finished the last word before she burst out laughing. He grinned. “No, no. I graduated from here four years ago—straight philosophy—and spent about a month in grad school before I was out of money and had lost my scholarship for some embarrassing reasons. I had to drop out, but I couldn’t move back home because… well, anyway, I ended up opening a Psychic Private Insurance practice in town. You’ve got no idea how profitable that combination can be.” Sharp smile, and he laughed. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“You don’t know already?” he asked, in mock astonishment.
“I read the future, not minds. If you insist, I’ll guess you as a… Jerry.” They laughed together.
“How is that close?”
“There’s an R in the middle.”
She laughed. “So there is.”
He sighed suddenly, staring into his mug.
“What’s wrong, Arnold?” she asked, more sympathetic than usual, because she knew what was coming—not in this conversation, just soon.
“I’m already done with my tea.” He smiled sheepishly at her. “This is the best conversation I’ve had outside of the internet in two years.” She smiled sympathetically, this time purely for him in the moment, and lay her hand over his.
“You’ll have better,” she said, warmth flowing from her long hand into his. He blushed, not aroused, not embarrassed, but for some reason that he couldn’t quite tell. “Very soon. I’ve already seen that much of your future.” She paused. “I also see that you won’t be talking to anyone online after tonight for… several days, at least.” Her smile faltered, and he could see in her eyes a sadness, a worry, an uncertainty. He suddenly pulled his arm back, but not very far, and managed to keep it on the table, beneath hers, that human connection giving him some sort of strength, a temporary power to take fight over flight, though when he spoke he stuttered the slightest bit.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“I’m not sure yet. Let me see your leaves.” He put the cup on the table in front of her, shaking a little (she still had his hand, so it would be okay for now, okay for now, okay for now…). She pulled the cup closer with her free hand, and at her first glance she curled her hand all the way around his, squeezing tight, to make sure that he stayed, and to make sure he… well, she wasn’t sure. It made her feel better, at least. She gazed at them for a few more seconds, just to get the full extend to what his timeline had forced into them.
“What is it?” And he almost shouted, but instead he wrapped his fingers around hers crossways and squeeze back, “What is it?”
“What building do you live in?”
“Derrida?” He offered, stunned.
“Okay, do you know people there named Noreen and Tim?”
“There are t-two Tims on my floor, and I think Noreen r-reported some vandalism once?”
“Alright. As soon as you get back there, I want you to find them, and, I don’t know, team up with them, or whatever you want to call it.”
“They’re in m-my leaves?”
“No, they had the same leaves as you.”
“Just listen! You three need to—prepare, somehow, you need to get that building protected, you need to watch anyone new there very carefully and try not to let them go off completely alone with anyone.”
“But it’s Halloween! That’ll be impossible!”
“That’s why I said try. I don’t know, throw an impromptu party, step up patrols—and you know what, tell all the paranoids too, they’ll believe you.”
“Tell them what?” Their fingernails had begun to dig into each other’s hands. She looked up from the cup and looked into his eyes, her own dark with severity and a strange sort of care. She bit her moist red lip, her sharp pink tongue darted out through her teeth, and she finally brought herself to tell him.“Everything’s coming up vampires.”
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“Okayokayokay,” one of them spat, “it’s my turn again!”
“Oh, enough!” he finally shouted in a rough voice. The girls snapped towards him; the more dominant (the one with the worst stories, goddamit) glared at him with the unrelenting ire of a seventeen-year-old girl who still wasn’t’ quite sure if she and her boyfriend had done The Thing yet, who told all her friends that she was wise in the ways of the world, but also told them that of course she was still a virgin, what was she, some kind of slut? Another face glared at him in much less impotent rage; if he tried anything, she’d mace him, and then stab him, and cut his balls off, oh yes she would, it was all right there in her purse (with its chains and spikes, which she’d use if she had to), And then he’d never hurt another little girl again, now would he? Another face stared at him in fear; he was probably a cannibal-rapist with a taste for gingers, oh god, don’t let him take her first—no, if he was going to take them, definitely her first, or maybe second, but don’t let him take them at all! A fourth stared at him, trying to glare, trying to be one of the Big Girls, but really she was afraid; not of him, he was just some smelly indie guy, probably knew how to play the guitar but not very well, no, no, he was safe, or at least irrelevantly dangerous (and kinda cute anyway); no, she was afraid of the Big Girls, the ones who would make her go away any minute now, and never let her hang out with them again. The fifth one stared at him through cloudy eyes; she just wondered if he was going to share some of his hooch or pot. She could totally go for another hit of something. And if he had something he’d share he couldn’t be that bad. He was going to share something, right?
“You girls don’t know what fear is. You’ve never been afraid of anything real in your life.” He paused, hiccupped, and added “Don’t know how to tell a fucking story, either.”
“Yeah?” The first girl said. “You ever been through high school?”
“Bitch,” he shouted, “I ‘been’ in college, and that’s not even the scariest part.”
“College isn’t scary,” the fourth girl, Mousy he’d call her now, said; she finished her admissions essay last night, and with a GPA of 4.5 was sure she wouldn’t get in, oh gawd, and she’d end up at McDonalds instead of… of… in college.
“Not on its own but—look, I lived in—Dammit, I’ll tell you, and you’ll sit there and listen, you got it?”
Something in his voice made all five of them nod. Just nod.