Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Free Halloween Story -- And So She Asked Again,

This story first appeared in Reel Dark by Blackwyrm Publishing. 

“For whom do you wait?” he said, and I answered, “When she comes I shall know her.” 
—Robert W. Chambers, “The Studio,” The King in Yellow 

And so she asked again, “Are you still waiting for that woman?” 

Reed looked up from his tablet, stopped typing on his wireless keyboard, and grinned at the girl across the counter. “Yeah, I guess so.” 

“You do know she’s dead, right?” the girl tossed her hair back, flicking a solid streak of purple amid the unnaturally dark black. “Besides that, she wasn’t real. She’s a movie character.” 

“What do you know about String Theory, Gert?” 

“God, I hate that I got stuck with that name. Why couldn’t my mom have been a hippy instead and named me something less stupid, like Sunshine or Rainbow?” 

Reed ignored her, and traced the Hello My Name Is Gert on her cockeyed name tag with his eyes, then let them dart over to her breast for the merest of moments. “Or even better, M-Theory.” 

“Gertrude. What a name to stick on a kid. I mean really. Gertrude. It sounds like throw up in my mouth. Try it,” she rambled at him. “Geeeeeert. Ruuuuude. Ugh. Sounds like vomit, right?” 

“I’m not a physicist, obviously. I’m just a writer.” 

“You’re just a guy collecting unemployment, technically.” 

He glanced at her above the top of his glasses, irritated, but her smile and the dazzling white of her teeth convinced him to relax. She didn’t mean anything by it. “Anyway,” he started again. 

But she interrupted. “Anyway, you’re not listening to me.” She wrinkled up her otherwise pleasant, roundish face and shook her head. 

“Gertrude. It’s awful, and you don’t even care. I thought you writers were supposed to be gentleman and sweep us ladies off our feet with your spectacular wit.” 

“Then I’ve got a biography of Hemingway you need to read. Besides, I’ve never heard you go by Gertrude a day in your life, and I’ve been coming to this diner for seven years if I’ve missed a day. Your name is Gert, as in pert, and it suits you. You’re perky and friendly and if you don’t mind me saying, talk a little too much when I’m supposed to be working. And to use your own logic against you, she can’t be dead and be just a movie character at the same time.” 

Gert propped her arms on her sides and sighed. “The actress is dead, you dope. You know what I meant. And I’m a woman, in case you haven’t noticed—” 

“I’ve noticed. I’m not blind.” 

“I was wondering. But as I was saying, I’m a woman, so don’t use logic against me. Don’t you read Cosmo? We women are feeling creatures, driven by our emotions, not by the coldness of logic.” 

“I’m pretty sure you’ve never read a single issue of Cosmo, Gert.” 

“Okay, you got me. And thank you.” 

“Thank you? For what?” 

“I’m sure I heard a compliment somewhere in all that cold logic.” 

“Whatever you choose to believe.” 

He laughed and shook his head at the girl with the purple streak in her hair, the girl mom would never have approved of, the girl who obviously wasn’t from the right kind of family, and the girl who probably actually used her breaks to smoke cigarettes and not just get away from the stress of waiting tables in a small-town diner. 

She returned the laugh. 

“So how’s the movie coming?” 


“Sorry. Screenplay. How’s the screenplay coming along?” 

“Reworking the intro. Something at the beginning of act three threw the rest of it off and now it doesn’t work.” 

“It’s her, isn’t it?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“The heroine. You’re basing her on that girl, the one you keep dreaming about.” 

“Barbara Steele?” 

“I guess that’s her name. All I know is she’s the girl with the long, black hair and the eyes like frozen metal.” 

He nodded. “That’s actually not a bad description.” 

She smiled. It seemed forced to him, but it wasn’t his business. He tapped his mug. “Can I get a refill?” 

“Regular still or are you ready to switch to decaf so you can sleep later?” 

“I’m a writer. I don’t know what sleep is.” 

“So, regular it is then.” She turned from the counter and took two steps to the coffee pot against the back wall. The banging of metal clanked through the thin wall, and Reed knew that was just Walt cooking to 1980s metal bands and playing the drums along with it on the pots and pans that hung from the ceiling. Gert grabbed the coffee pot with the orange rim and turned back to refill Reed’s mug, but he cupped his hand over the top. She grinned at him. “It’s cool, cowboy. It’s regular. We treat the orange around here like yellows on the traffic lights. Nothing but suggestions, and we ignore them more than half the time.” She leaned in and he moved his hand away. “The truth is,” she whispered, “I’m just too damn lazy today to wash out one of the other carafes.” 

Once the mug was full again, she put the pot back and surveyed the diner to see if the other customers needed anything. Of course, at two in the afternoon, there were no other customers in a blue-collar town like Hattsville. Lunch was firmly between 11:30 and 1:00 and then it was back to the grind, like so many gears in so many old-fashioned watches. 

“That’s your problem,” she said after the long silence. 

“What problem?” 

“The problem with the movie.” 


“Whatever. You’ve idolized this woman for so long that you just can’t get the distance you need to see the truth about her. Hell, they’re may not even be any truth about her anymore.” 

“So, when did you add writing coach to your list of skills along with waitressing and counseling?” 

“And don’t forget karate. I’m still taking that down at the Y.” 

“Noted. But back to the point, I don’t have a problem.” 

“Did or did you not just tell me you have to rework the beginning because the ending screwed it all up?” 

“Yep, but that’s normal.” 

“Sure, a normal problem for writers, I’m guessing. But in this case, it has less to do—and this is just my opinion, mind you—with your skills as a writer than it does with your infatuation with a woman who doesn’t exist.” 

Reed started to respond when his cell phone rang on his hip. He jerked it from the belt clip, stared at the name displayed there, then apologized to Gert with his eyes and took the call. 

“Yeah. I’ll be there. I’m just leaving now.” 

After a few seconds of saying goodbye, Reed hung up and pushed the full mug away from the tablet. He smiled, folded the tablet inside its leather case and rolled up the keyboard. 

“My aunt,” he said. 

“She’s a sweet old lady,” Gert said, wiping away the sweat from where the leather case had been. “And you’re a good nephew.” 

“She’s a witch,” he said. “If only you knew.”

And so she asked again, “Are you still waiting for that woman? I mean, waiting for her to fix the ending of your movie—sorry, screenplay.” 

“We never did finish our discussion about M-Theory,” Reed said. 

“No, we didn’t. How’s your Aunt?” 

“In this universe she’s the same, but in another—” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“M-Theory. It used to be the kind of nuthouse talk that could get a physicist kicked out and laughed out of a university as reader of too many comic books, but now even respected quantum physicists acknowledge the possibility, no, the probability or multiple universes strung together by strings or flat up against one another like the layers of an onion.” 

“Wow, do all writers have days like this or did you just take a crazy pill this morning with your usual vitamins?” 

Reed slammed his hand on the counter, and Gert jumped back with a start. “You’re not listening. I knew you wouldn’t. She told me you wouldn’t.” 

Gert bit her quivering lip, but fought through the fear and leaned in close to Reed’s face in spite of herself. “Reed, are you okay? I’m concerned about you.” 

“Damn your concern. Now listen. If universes are really onions and they can touch the layers of the two adjacent to us, then surely there’s room for bleedover from one to the next. It’s not just a theory.” 

“Listen, Reed. Do you want me to call a doctor? Or maybe your Aunt?” 

He did not resort to violence, but his eyes flashed red and told Gert he would if she pushed him further. “No. Not her. She’s the blasted cause of all this.” 


He grabbed his tablet and keyboard and glared at her, then turned around and stomped to the exit. Only he stopped before opening the door to leave. 

“I’ve seen it,” he said. “I’ve seen her.” 

Then he pushed open the door with his boot and left, leaving the little bell above tinkling in odd, dull clanks. 

“Are you—” Gert asked weakly into the phone after her shift ended. 

“No,” Reed answered, his voice calm and rational. “I’m not waiting for anyone anymore.” 

“I was going to ask if you were okay, but that’s good to know too.” She paused and listened to his breathing over the line. Loud enough to hear but not so loud that she feared for his health. “Because I have to be honest here. You kinda scared the hell out of me earlier today.” 

He said nothing. 

She waited. 

“Well, I’ll let you go. I just wanted to know that you were—” 

“Listen. Gert?” 

“Yeah?” “I just want to apologize about today. I wasn’t myself. I could tell you about the stress that dealing with my aunt has put on me and the pressure I’m putting on myself with this screenplay, but those are just excuses, and you deserve more than that.” 

“Um... Okay.” 

“I know you’ve been a good friend to me for all these years I’ve been writing at the diner for lunch, and well...” 


“Well, I wanted you to know that I’m taking a night off from writing and a night off from taking care of my aunt. I’ve hired a nurse for the evening and he’s going to watch her for me.” 

“That’s good. I’m sure you need a night off.” 

“Not just that. I wondered...” 

“Yes?” she responded, failing to keep the lilt out of her voice. 

“Well, if you’d like to go with me on a late-night picnic or something? I could bring the DVD player and we could watch a movie just the two of us, overlooking the town at the Pointe.” 

She wanted to yell out yes, but something stopped her. “I don’t know, Reed. If you had asked me anytime before today, I would have practically wet myself saying yes. But after today, I just don’t know.” 

“I said I didn’t want to make excuses, but I guess I am going to have to make one. Remember how I told you my aunt is a witch? Well, she gave me something this morning that she only told me after the fact. She said it was supposed to release me from the world and let me channel ideas from one world to the next. She said a lot of things, but I think all it did was make me really angry and a little out of control.” 

“A little?” 

“Okay, a lot. But the point is. I’m pretty sure that’s all out of my system now, and I’d really like to apologize to you by taking you out to the Pointe for a picnic. You’ve fed me for years, and it’s about time I returned the favor.” 

She stared at the phone before answering. “I do like picnics after dark. Will there be champagne?” 

“The cheapest money can buy,” he said. 

“And no crazy.” 

“No crazy. I promise.” 

“Okay then.” 

“Okay what?” 

“Okay yes, silly. I’ll go on a date with you tonight.” 

It was Reed’s turn to pause. 


“Sorry. Was listening to the nurse about something. Good. I’ll pick you up at eight at your place?” 

“Sounds good.” 

They said their goodbyes and hung up. Gert grabbed her hoodie from the countertop and was putting it on when the phone rang again. 

“Hello. Walt’s Place.” 

“It’s me,” said Reed. 


“I forgot to ask where you lived.” He laughed. “Unless you just want me to pick you up at the diner, that is.” 

She returned the laugh. 

“You don’t, do you?” he asked. “I mean, after today, I wouldn’t blame you not wanting me to know where you live.” 

She laughed again. 

“My address is in the phone book, silly. Not to mention all over the freakin’ Internet.” She gave him the street number. “Eight o’clock then?” 

“Eight o’clock. And thanks again, Gert. You’ll never know what this means to me.” 

“Me too,” she said and hung up. “Me too,” she repeated to the emptiness of the diner. 

And so she asked, “So you’ve finally given up waiting for the impossible-to-find woman?” Gert asked as she took a sip of champagne. 

“I’m tired of impossible things,” Reed said, then took a bite of salad and crunched it more loudly than he would have preferred on a first date. “I need real things. Things I can touch and feel.” 

“Well, let’s not be in too big a hurry.” They laughed together, then she added, “I’ll never be her. You do know that, right?” 

“I don’t want her.” 

“But you want me now? Gert like in pert, all perky and purple?” 

“Didn’t say that either. I don’t know what or who I want now. I figured why not try and find that with somebody who already proved she wanted to be around me in spite of myself.” 

“So, listen...” 


“If I ask you about your aunt, will you go crazy again?” 

He shook his head and loosened the paisley tie around his neck. “I feel overdressed,” he said. 

“Don’t.” She reached out and helped him with the tie. The back of his hands burned warm against her palms. “Hot-blooded, huh? I’m freezing.” 

He unbuttoned his cardigan and wrapped it around her shoulders, then leaned back and gave her plenty of room. “She’s fine,” he said. 


“You were asking about my aunt. She’s fine now.” 

“Now? Was she feeling ill?” 

“Not so much feeling it but she was very sick.” 

“So she’s...” 

“Sleeping. She’s trying a new sedative, and it seems to be helping where the others didn’t.” 

She downed the last of her champagne and poured another. “This is pretty good for the cheap stuff.” 

He smiled. 

“I’m glad she’s better.” 

He shook his head again. “I doubt very much that she’ll ever get better, but at least she’s resting and not in pain. I suppose that’s something.” 

She sipped from the champagne and nibbled on a turkey and Swiss sandwich while she watched him chow down like a man who hadn’t eaten in days. “Thish ish goo,” he mumbled, still chewing. 

“I guess it is.” 

“She made it for me.” He suddenly stopped chewing. 

“Who? Your aunt? I thought she was sleeping.” 

His expression dropped and took on dark tones. “Damn.” 

She backed away a half scoot, trying to pass it off with a grin and a weak laugh. “And you told me you wouldn’t go crazy.” 

He didn’t return the laugh. “I’m not crazy. I’m saner than I’ve ever been.” 

“Okay, Reed, you’re starting to freak me out again.” 

“I’m sorry. That’s not my intention. I only brought you here to introduce you to someone very special.” 

She stood up quickly and smoothed down her skirt over her black tights. “Okay...” 

“It’s me. I’m Reed Brannerd.” 

“Yeah, I know. We’ve known each other for years.” 



“No. I only just met you this week. You see, I’m not the Reed Brannerd you know. That’s why I kept asking you about M-Theory. I’m a very different Reed Brannerd indeed.” 

“Reed, I think you’re sick. I think all the dreaming and writing has affected you somehow. Let me take you to the doctor. Okay?” 

“I assure you I’m not sick, but the other Reed Brannerd was. He was very, very sick. Palsied of the spirit. I did him a favor by taking his place. You see, when the membranes touch, we can get through, but not every part of us. What you call the spirit, the essence of a creature, the soul if you must be religious about it, can cross over with ease, but it needs a host body if it is to stay. And I decided to stay.” 


“Yes, to stay. To take the sickly creature’s place in his own body. Sure, even in his weakened state, he fought me, but I finally got the upper hand last night. He’s gone for good now.” Reed tapped the top of his head twice, softly. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Not Reed. Not anymore. Goodbye and good riddance.” 

“You’re not making any sense, Reed.” Gert glanced around for something she might use as a weapon, but aside from a small twig or two on the ground, nothing revealed itself. 

“I’m making perfect sense,” he said, stepping toward her. “It’s just that you aren’t ready yet to comprehend what I’m telling you. Sharing Reed’s body—your Reed, I mean—this week has yielded me so many new dreams and sensations. So, unlike your sick-spirited friend, I acted upon them. I searched my world and found her, the woman he so longed to be with.” 

“You’re talking crazy! Take me home now! This date is over.” 

He shook his head violently. “This date is only beginning, my dear. You’re not listening to me again. 

“I needed a body. She needs one too. And sure, my aunt was ready and willing to use her paltry spells to open a connection, did that old bat really think I wanted to let a jewel as precious as my love be housed in such a decrepit estate?” 

Gert ran past him to the car, hoping to find the keys inside. Instead, in her haste to search beside the seat, her sleeve got caught on the trunk release, and it popped open. A faint, putrid odor slithered into the night air. 

In spite of her fear, she ripped her sleeve loose, tearing a long gash in the thin fabric, and stumbled to the back of the car. Inside the trunk lay the body of an old lady. There were no wounds and no sign of struggle. But she wasn’t breathing, and judging by the stiffness of her limbs, hadn’t been for quite a few hours. 

“You said she was resting! But you killed her, you bastard! You fucking killed her! 

“Semantics,” he said. “That’s a word we writers use, Gert who’s pert. You would also probably want to know that your Reed did have feelings for you, but was—” 

“Yeah, sick. I get it.” She slammed down the trunk, but it didn’t catch and snapped back up a few inches. “But you’re sicker. You’re crazy sick. And I can prove it. If we’re on one onion and we’re touching another onion, when why are you the only person who can see the ghosts from that other membrane?” 

He stopped approaching and grinned wide. “I’m not. You just weren’t ready to see yet.” 

A branch snapped behind her and Gert jerked around. Staring into her face, mere inches away, were two blazing cold eyes of steel. 

Something hard cracked against the top of her skull, and she fell into the soft, damp grass. 

And so she asked again, “Are you still waiting for that woman?” She tossed her head and let her hair dance around her round, freshly painted face. “Or should I let my hair grow out? I do think I’ll keep the purple streak though. I quite like it.”

“No,” he said. “Like I told her, I’m tired of impossible things. I want someone I can touch and feel.” 

She pressed against him, the heat of his chest warming hers. She brushed the purple away from her eyes. “Then touch me,” she said, her cold eyes shining almost as black as the light fading from the room.

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