Short Story: DIANE’S WAY OUT, Part 1

The first section to a horror story I wrote about a year ago. An homage to Shirley Jackson, with a bit of cosmic dread thrown in for good measure. 

DIANE’S WAY OUT

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The chicken, pink and raw, squelched when Diane pressed her nail into its surface. Too soft, she thought, and no blood. She retracted her nail and, shivering, wondered where that thought had come from. She dropped the mauled chicken onto the pan and listened to it burn.

Upstairs she heard one of her children scream. Her spine shuddered and she clenched her teeth against it. The scream must have come from Ty – still youthful and piggish, not yet fully human. Caroline was taunting him again, she was sure, pinching him or spitting at him. “Caroline, stop it!” Diane yelled, and the sound jarred her head into a dull throb. One day, I swear, one day… She pressed down on the chicken with a spatula until the juice sputtered in boiling snaps. They would complain about the chicken, and maybe the mashed potatoes, too. John would want something heartier – more exotic, he would say. She didn’t know what he meant by exotic. But the chicken was already in the freezer, and she did not have time to go to the store, not with the children tearing at each other in the back seat the whole ride. Let them complain.

“DADDY!” The scream rooted in Diane’s brain and she thought her head might rupture. John was home. A thin coil of dread unwound inside her.

The laughter, too, made her intestines cringe. It reminded her distantly of witches cackling before the sacrifice. She stared into the pan and tried to fill her ears with the juice’s sizzling. The stabs of their voices still came through – Caroline was telling her father about some contest she had won at school, as Ty squawked over her to be picked up. Bit by bit, their words blended together until all she could hear was a merciful drone; and then John said, “Where’s your mother?”

They betrayed her without a thought. “In the kitchen! In the kitchen!” She held the spatula like a knife as his careless footsteps crunched toward her. His frame, rectangular and silhouetted, appeared in the doorway.

“Dinner’s not ready yet?”

“No, I had a lot to do today. It won’t be much longer.”

His shape remained for a moment, glowering, then turned to the stairs and crunched away. She shot daggers through her eyes and wondered, too late, what would have happened if she had thrown the pan at him. The chicken, bubbling in the grease, had started to look like hardened skin.

It wasn’t so long before the meat was cooked through and the potatoes were mashed. In the pasty kitchen light, the potatoes looked like opaque sludge, the chicken like petrified flesh. She smiled at this notion, though she knew they would complain all the more, and today, she didn’t know if she could hold back. There was a dark sphere surrounding her when she took the platters into the dining room, where John and the children were already waiting. They glared at her from their places and she widened her smile until her sight blurred.

John waited only an instant before grumbling, “Chicken again?”

“There was nothing else. I didn’t have time to go to the store.”

“Didn’t have time,” John said to himself. “Didn’t have time. What was it that you did all day?”

Diane’s throat closed. She fumbled in her thoughts for the proper response, but it would not come. “It doesn’t matter, John, I’ll go tomorrow. We can enjoy this, can’t we?”

“I hate chicken,” Caroline said, and the words were needles in Diane’s ears.

“You will eat your chicken, you must. Now, let’s all sit down and have a nice dinner, all right?”

“But I don’t like it!” Caroline shouted.

Diane took her seat forcefully and served the chicken over Caroline’s yelling. Ty was inspired by his sister to laugh, a toad-like sound that could have been a strangled man’s last cries. Diane could not rid herself of that image. She wondered if there were any bones in this chicken, bones that could get stuck and scratch away, until the laughter turned to silent gasps.

“Overdone,” John muttered through his food.

She looked at him and saw that his plate was nearly empty. Hers remained untouched. It looked worse than before, dry and wrinkled, rotting.

—-

“Diane. I will let you out.”

The voice was in a dream, but when she woke, she found that the presence was real. It had filled the room while she slept – an alien heaviness across the ceiling. John slept on, breath rattling in his nose, without acknowledging the voice. She waited for another word, all the while wondering why she was not afraid.

From the air she heard, “Follow me.” Then the presence shook away from her, and as the door opened, it blew into the murk of the hallway. The air became light again, but it was now cold, and Diane new she had little choice but to, indeed, follow.

The hallway was still, except for the murmur of the children’s breaths drifting from their room. They had been resistant to the idea of sleep, as they were most nights, and Diane had barely been able to stop the screams without beating them into silence. Even when she had lain down, next to John’s sweat-stinking body, the screaming had threatened her with the possibility of its return. Her appetite had come back by then, but she refused to pay it attention – John had already thrown out her chicken in a fit of mute disgust. For her, sleep had come reluctantly and without grace. But she was awake now, facing an unseen intruder. That was the wrong word, of course, because this presence had made itself welcome. Diane was unafraid for the first time in a long, long while.

“Yes, Diane, you have no cause to fear me,” the voice cooed, smooth as black velvet. “I am here to make you happy again.”

That word sent a pulse of electricity into Diane’s skull. It was an awful suggestion, because she word was forbidden in her vocabulary. Yet, this honey voice was assuring. She knew, somehow, that it was not lying to her.

“How?” she whispered to the darkness.

“By granting your wish,” the voice laughed. “I know how long you’ve been calling. You thought no one was listening. I listened. And now, you will be free of your sorrows at last.”

Free. Diane felt weak. She leaned against the banister and closed her eyes. Against the lids, she thought she could see the projected image of her guest – a halo of white glow, surrounding the lightless impression of a smiling and inhuman face, carved out of the darkest shade. The first stab of dread went through her. What kind of face is this? she thought. She opened her eyes and the impression stayed, but only for a moment. The hallway was empty.

“What are you?” she said. Her voice was high and weightless, like a child’s.

“It would be difficult to explain to your ears,” the voice said carefully. “You may not understand. It is better if you do not, in fact. Let us just say that I am here to give you what you want.”

What I want, she thought. What is it that I want?

“Why, you want a happy life! You want to be rid of the people who take away your freedom! Is that not what you want?”

Each word ripped into Diane and she thought she might sob. Yes, she told herself, that is my terrible dream. She hated the intruder now, coming into her home like this, stealing her private thoughts, and resurrecting her want. What right did the intruder have? Her tears did not come, but she had to grip the banister to keep her knees from failing.

“You musn’t cry,” the voice said. “No one would blame you for dreaming of this. In fact, any other might not have been able to withstand it as long as you have. Day after day, enduring the screams and the crying, holding back when you just want to scream at them yourself so they understand how you suffer? Slaving away at meals that get thrown out and scrubbing the house clean only to watch them ruin it so gleefully; all this, and never a word of thanks, of kindness. You’re watching them make jokes, long and cruel ones, and you are the punch line. They never see you as a member of their family – you may as well be a prisoner of war. What person deserves this life, Diane? Not you, not anymore.”

—-

Stay tuned for Part 2 of DIANE’S WAY OUT tomorrow, 1/6!

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