The Only Safe Place by Joshuo Osto
From the mountain, or at least the ridge road, you could have seen the city lights go out. One minute they were on, tracing the contours of the valley and lines of the roads; the next minute they were out and the mountain range appeared to drop into a lake of featureless, silent dark. The road, the only road out of the city into the mountains, twisted upward out of the dark, looping back on itself until it crested the ridge. Once onto the ridge it wobbled unsteadily, like a tight-rope walker, until after three miles it dropped over the range, down into the wooded valley on the other side. This was where the house was.
It had been a clear night, with only one or two wisps of cloud, high above, lit by a waxing moon. No one at the house would have seen the city lights go out. It would have been like nothing had happened.
The exits from the city had been squeezed shut by military road blocks. As people had tried to escape there had been the sound of heavy gunfire, and screaming. The man had waited, hunkered in a basement, until the sounds from outside had quieted and the sun had gone down. Choosing his moment, he scuttled across the city, from hiding place to hiding place. Most other people seemed to be travelling South or West, toward other big cities, but the man reasoned that chaos would head that way with them. He chose North, into the mountains and the isolated woodlands beyond. All of the guards at the road block were dead, or gone, but the barriers and trucks were still in place; no one had driven out of the city this way.
He came to the house the evening of the following day, tucked back amongst the snow-topped firs along a half a mile of hard dirt track. The tire tracks of a large truck had frozen into patterned ditches with high, sharp crests at the sides. There were not many clear tire markings, as if the track was rarely used. The man stumbled along, wishing he had thought to bring a torch. On the mountain-side the moon had lit the way. At that time the biggest problem had been the ice wind, particularly as he made his way along the ridge and any shelter disappeared. The two lanes of the road had seemed narrow and he feared a gust would rip at him, carrying him over the edge. At times it blew so hard that he felt safer when he went down on his hands and knees, the cold tarmac scraping his palms. As he moved down into the trees the wind ebbed but the darkness fell. There were unusual noises in the quiet forest, coming from uncertain directions, caused by unknown events.
He had started to feel vulnerable and exposed on the road, with the yawning black of the forest either side. He thought he saw a light through a break in the trees. He tried to gauge how far it was by the landscape that lay between it and the road, but the formless shadows meant that the distance was inconclusive. He left the road, stepping on to the track, and then moved cautiously along the track to the house. There had been no sign of any people or traffic since he had left the city. In some ways this was good, but in most other ways it was terrifying. He might be the only person living from a population of nearly two hundred thousand.
There was a light on in a downstairs window.
The man edged closer, going down again on his hands and knees, moving towards that warm light. He passed a post-box, the name “Rufus Spugg” scrawled in green marker pen on the side. The cuts on his palms were opened again by loose stones that poked out sharply through the hard, cold ground. There was a smell in the air, a taste on the wind, which suggested to him that a blizzard was on its way. He needed to get inside. He reached the window and peered in; the cold was one thing, but he needed to be sure that there was nothing inside like what he had left behind, in the city.
At first the room seemed empty. There was a fire burning in the hearth, evidently built from a stack of logs piled in a loose pyramid against the wall. Next to the logs, propped against the same wall, was a shotgun. There was nothing necessarily sinister in that, the man reasoned. He would have kept a shotgun nearby, easy to hand, himself. A light went out somewhere else in the house, a sudden darkening, and an elderly man in a dressing gown walked into the room. He looked as if he had been crying; for everyone there was something to cry about now. The old man did not look dangerous, or affected, he looked like he had found somewhere to hold up until the crisis passed, if it passed.
Outside, the man moved out from under the lintel and stood up, walking towards the front door.
Rufus Spugg squirted adhesive onto the plate of his dentures, then slid the rough, plastic contours onto his gums, fixing the plate to the roof of his mouth. He liked to look his best before heading downstairs. He opened the bathroom cabinet and swapped his denture cream for a pair of tweezers, then set about yanking the excess hair jutting from his ears and nose. Tugging at the small hairs until they tore free from the skin; his pale, rheumy eyes started to water. He tugged again, and again, until there were no errant hairs visible. A thin tear from the pain rolled down his cheek, and he wiped it away. He turned his head one way and then the other, checking himself in the mirror, before leaning his head back to look into his own nostrils; he was satisfied. He offered himself a smile. The clean white of the denture teeth pleased him.
“Nice gnashers,” he said to his reflection, and laughed merrily at the sound of his own voice.
He switched off the bathroom light and walked into the living room, where he had left the fire burning. He pulled his chair closer to the grate and sat down. Next to him on the small table was the paperback he was reading, Philosophy in the Boudoir. He slid off his slippers and held his bare feet to the flames, warming himself from the bottom up, then plucked his book from the table and held it up to read.
Before he could find his page he was interrupted by a loud banging on the door. He set the book down slowly, placed his feet back into his slippers, and stood up. His shot gun was leaning against the wall by the mantelpiece. He picked it up, tucking the butt under his arm, and cocked both barrels.
“You’ll be wanting to move along,” he said quietly, under his breath.
The banging on the door came again, this time accompanied by a man’s voice.
“You need to let me in,” the man outside was saying, some kind of urgency in his voice. “I’ve seen you. I know you’re in there.”
“Shit,” Rufus muttered. After a few seconds the banging came again, and he called to the man outside. “I’ve got a gun,” he said, more loudly. “I’ll shoot ya if ya don’t stop yer bangin’.”
He waited, his head leaning on one side, until the banging started again.
“You don’t want me to open this door,” he called to the man. In truth he was terrified. It had been some months since anyone had been down this road, the last being a young girl on a hike in the mountains that had lost her way. A pretty young girl with gold hair and a tie dyed T-shirt, like a hippy. He had told her the way to the city and had given her a glass of lemonade with some gingerbread. But that had been two or three months earlier, and since then the world had left him alone.
Rufus was not a hermit, as such, but he had his reasons for wanting to be apart from others. Most people he had known had wanted to hurt him in some way, or just found him disagreeable – and these were sentiments that he generally felt about them in return. It was just easier to be apart from them. And now here was a man, not even a woman or a girl, banging on his door and insisting on being let in. The man might want to hurt him. Why should he let anyone in?
He moved forward towards the door, his hands shaking. He would open the door, he decided. He would not shoot a man through the door of his own house.
The banging came again.
“It’s dangerous out here,” the man said. “Everyone in the city is… we need to stay away from the city.”
Rufus was at the door now, his heart beating high in his dry throat. The man could be here to rape him. He had read stories about men that did that. There might be other men outside, also wanting to get in. Maybe they wanted to steal all of his things and rape him. He hesitated, his hand quivering near the door knob. Maybe it was best to stay quiet. The man would go away eventually.
“I know you’re there,” the man said. “There’s nowhere for me to go. This is the only safe place.”
“Bah,” Rufus muttered. This sounded like a lie, but then there had been those stories on the radio – people dying, the military called in, scientists mouthing off like fools and trying to guess what was happening. He had not really paid attention, and he preferred the stations that played old fashioned jazz standards. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing a duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was his favourite, but he liked Glen Miller and Sarah Vaughan a lot too. The big band music from the war sent him back to his childhood, the innocent part of his childhood, before all the trouble. He generally turned over when the news came on, but he would still pick up parts of the headlines – snatches of meaning. Thousands flee. Hundreds dead. Curfew imposed. In truth, living out here in isolation for so long, he had begun to wonder if he might have been imagining it.
“Please,” the man outside was saying, his voice starting to break. “Please. There’s nowhere else. I’ll die out here.”
The man was weeping. It did not sound like he was faking.
Rufus gripped the handle, pulled the door open, and took a step backwards, raising the shotgun butt to his shoulder.
The man outside was pale and painfully thin. He had several days’ stubble on his chin, and the whites of his eyes had a strange, yellow tint. His hands and shoes were dirty and, as he broke into a broad, hopeful smile, Rufus could see that he was missing several teeth.
“Thank you,” the man croaked, hoarse with crying and fatigue.
Rufus pulled the trigger and the shotgun roared. The man was not pushed backwards; he was standing so close that the force of the shot blew a hole through his stomach while leaving most of him unmoved. He swayed and dropped forward in a heavy, uncoordinated mess. His skull, empty of anything except non-functioning matter, cracked loudly against the stone step.
I hear banging upstairs, a violent crashing sound that I do not understand. I retreat into myself again, as I have learned to do, into the safe place that exists inside the darkness that oozes up toward the bright lines of the doorframe, suspended above me; that exists inside the darkness inside the bars of the cage in which I am kept, inside my body and mind, so deep inside myself it ceases to be me except in an innocent, primitive sense. This safe place is beyond time and space, beyond any individual personality, simply a quiet place full of calm light at the centre of all things, that will allow me in if I agree to remain still and calm myself. Once inside I do not even flinch when I hear the gunshot and the sound of someone hitting the ground. I do not allow myself to hope.
I have been here, in this basement, for months. In this easy, forgiving space I can regard my situation with something approaching objectivity. I was lost in the woods, unsure of the way back to the camp site. I knocked on the door, and an elderly man with lips that sunk deep over toothless gums opened the door. He smiled a ridiculous, spongy smile, and held the door open for me to step inside. He poured lemonade, offered me cookies, and then went into the bathroom to put in his false teeth.
When he returned he had a brilliant white, toothy smile.
“My name’s Rufus Spugg,” he said. “And what would be yer name, little miss?”
The cookies were drugged. By the time I woke up I had already been raped. I felt the bars before I saw them. There is no light down here until the door above is opened.
The door opens. Spugg has a man under the armpits and is dragging him to the top of the stairs. I do not move. The light from above is piercing, hostile, and I can only look in short blinks at what is happening. Spugg works slowly down the stairs, taking a pause after each step, leaning the torso of the man against his legs. My eyes adjust, and I see the blood running down the cement. There is too much blood; the man must be dead.
Spugg is saying something to himself, quietly, the same thing over and over again. I cannot make out what it is. Somehow, I am still calm. Eventually Spugg drags the man to the base of the stairs, that last hiss and plop of the dead man’s legs dragging over the final step, and his feet dropping to the floor. Spugg stretches and puts his hands on his hips, arching his back. He looks at me and smiles, and I see the white of his dentures more clearly than I see his dark, crumpled face. I do not react or look away. I radiate calm.
“Got you some company,” he laughs, and heads back up to the bright rectangle of the doorway.
But he forgets the blood on the steps and, when he is nearly at the top, he slips. His old legs lack the strength and agility to arrest his fall, and his flailing arms find nothing to hold on to. He turns, trying to throw his arms up to protect himself, but he catches the corner of one of the high steps in his eye. There is a squelching sound, and then a cracking sound, and he bounces clear. His arm bends the wrong way as he drops to the basement floor, and there is a sound of splintering bone, tearing muscle. He screams, high pitched and without power, and falls against the bars of my cage.
He is breathing heavily; the drawn-out, ragged breaths of a man fighting unconsciousness. I can see the string around his neck, off which the key hangs. I take one deep breath myself, in through the nose and out through the mouth, then reach forward and take the string in both hands. As I expected, he starts forward, but he has no strength and I have a tight grip now, so I pull his head back against the bars. As he pulls forward the string cuts into his throat, cutting off his air, so it is only a few seconds before he falls back again and stops struggling.
Keeping the string in my left fist I unfasten the knot with my right hand. Carefully, patiently, I push my hand between the bars and loop my arm over his shoulder, searching his chest with my fingers until I find the key. I draw it up then. His good arm flaps weakly but I have taken a good grip so that the key will not fall. I place it in the lock and turn it slowly, making sure that I still have the string tight around Spugg’s neck. The lock clicks and the door swings open. I release the string and step out into the basement, standing up straight for the first time in untold weeks.
I do not rush up the stairs, but stay against the wall and move upwards slowly. The blood is warm and slippery still, under my bare feet. I wait until my eyes adjust to the light and then move into the kitchen. I search the cupboards for a knife until I find one, testing the edge against my thumb to make sure it is sharp. With the knife in my hand I descend once again into the basement and move over to where Spugg is still half-sitting, half-lying, against the bars of the cage he kept me in.
From my safe, calm place, I see that his right eye is ruined and that the skin across his skull has come unfastened above the socket. His left arm is mangled and there is bone protruding through the inside of his elbow, a jagged break pointing upward at the ceiling. His left eye is glazed and does not focus on me, but as I approach his breathing grows more rapid. I take another cleansing breath, and then thrust the knife into the centre of his face. I do it again, and again, churning up the flesh. It catches on bone but I wrestle it free, taking my time. When he stops breathing I stop stabbing and stand back. There is no face any more, just churned flesh and a wet hole out of which his dentures are sliding.
I do not look at the dead man behind me. I must stay focussed only on myself.
I find the bathroom and wash myself, careful to avoid with my eyes any sign of the man that lived here. I stay inside myself – inside the cool, bright chambers of my inner sanctum. I find a map on the bookshelf, which will help me get to the city. There will be people in the city, good people, and order. There will be food and freedom and dignity. I just have to get my bearings and then find my way to the ridge, then back down into the city. I will be safe there. I make myself some cheese sandwiches for the journey.
Using the fire irons I knock still-burning logs out of the grate, onto the rug in the living room, which quickly catches light. I take Spugg’s gun and some ammunition, then let myself out. As I leave I see the bloody marks on the doorstep and spread out in a cone along the ground, where Spugg must have shot the man. It is dark but the blood glistens in the fire behind me. I allow myself a moment, turning to scream at the house as it burns, I surface and scream at the fire, at the corpse, at the cage. I watch it burn, and then I turn and head for the city.
Thanks for reading The Only Safe Place by Joshuo Osto in the horror genre. To read the winners in the other genres, please click the link below:
Contemporary Fantasy “The Giant Project” by Kirstin Pulioff
Horror – “The Only Safe Place” by Joshuo Osto http://danielledevor.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/the-only-safe-place-by-joshuo-osto/
Historical – “Him” by S.R. Mallery
Paranormal Romance – “Music Box Dancer” by Julia Long
Romance – “The Personal Ad” by Ceci Giltenan
Young Adult – “Turning Point” by Momoko Oi
Mystery – MAMA CHIN’S LAST GREAT BEAR HUNT by Conda V. Douglas
Click here to vote for your favorite! ( http://maerwilson.com/golden-shorts-poll/)