a horror story

Mrs. Demmick was found gutted on her kitchen floor. The woman was old, a recluse, and generally thought to be a cranky, nasty bitch. She was infamous for bringing rude ends to jovial bonfires and tailgating parties held on the weekends by teenagers in the clearing adjacent to her property. Mrs. Demmick's cantankerous claim was that this spot was her property, although general opinion amongst thwarted revelers held that it was impossible to tell where the woods petered out and her unkempt yard began.

After her terrible death, there came the inevitable, inky flurry of newspaper articles, which always follows a tragedy, like ashes belched up by a volcano once it has exhausted its stores of molten rage. The details of her life were spare, and in the multitude of words devoted to the crime, little could be reported about her factual existence beyond her full name, date, and location of birth. Her first name was a source of surprise so subtle as to pass, felt but unrecognized, through every reader of every lurid little article. Mrs. Demmick's name, Isabelle, was lovely, soft, and—nigh unto miraculous in a small town such as this—totally unknown to every citizen until the birth of her posthumous celebrity.

Cassandra had delivered groceries to Mrs. Demmick on many occasions, but it was her coworker Ricky, a pasty boy with a face like a whipped dog, who found the old woman's corpse. Normally, the store—which was not a privately owned mom and pop affair, but part of a nice, clean, impersonal chain—did not deliver groceries to customers. But mean old Demmick had bullied the manager into making this concession. As a result, twice a month, some poor bagger or another had to cart a load of food two blocks to her small house on the fading edge of town. In the summer, they drew straws for the privilege of escaping into the sunshine for half an hour, and in the winter, they drew straws for the chore of slogging through the rain.

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This time Ricky got the short straw. He trudged out of the sliding glass doors with his bony shoulders cringed around the paper grocery bag in his arms, out of the top of which poked a package of adult, super-absorbent Depends. His tall, thin figure and pale face were dramatically framed by dark November clouds when, fifteen minutes later, he ran head-long into the glass automatic doors at the front of the store. He stuck to them for a minute like one of those goofy stuffed animals suction-cupped to the rear windows of cars. It was comical. Especially the high-pitched squeeeeeeee noise his nose and the palms of his hands made as he slid down the glass surface, unconscious.

Cindy, a chubby and rather witless bagger, pointed at Ricky and guffawed loudly. Directed by her imbecilic mooing, all heads in the vicinity turned at the same time to see the source of her bovine delight. There was a collective pause of incomprehension, as every person in the room struggled to register and process the sight of Ricky smooshed against the doors like some kind of demented gummy bear. Was he having some sort of fit? A seizure, perhaps?

The manager and one of the cashiers ran to the boy lying just outside of the doors—which were sliding madly open and shut in response to Ricky's weight on their sensors—and pulled him inside. It wasn't until after Ricky had been carried upstairs and stretched out on the sofa in the employee lounge that someone noticed the blood all over his shoes.

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The blood was a new source of bewilderment. Four different employees were stammering that they'd gone to school with Ricky their whole lives and had never heard anything about him suffering from epilepsy. Cindy added her own note to the rising tide of panicky babble by shrilly piping, over and over again, "Is it his? Is it his?" Even when Dale, the manager, snapped at her, "No, it's not fucking his!" she continued her high-pitched refrain, like a brain-damaged cockatoo.

Ricky's shoes were removed and it became immediately clear that the blood was not his own. Cassandra, one of a small group of people in the room who weren't panic-drunk to the point of stupidity, quietly called 911 and requested an ambulance. Will, a kid hired only a few days before, was the only person with the presence of mind to realize that the blood—though spattered across the sides of Ricky's sneakers and lightly speckling his socks—was almost entirely concentrated on the bottoms of the shoes.

He slipped past Cindy (who, maddeningly, was still squeaking, "Is it his?"), and walked down the stairs, into the store proper, and out through the Ricky-smudged glass doors. Will looked at the faint red scuffs on the ground, which grew heavier as they moved along the sidewalk, away from the grocery store. They became clearly discernible footprint shapes the further he followed them, until, within sight of Mrs. Demmick's house, they formed a vivid bloody trail pointed like an arrow at their origin. The house stood, lonely and isolated, at the end of the street, with nothing beyond but thick woods and the small clearing that was loved by teenagers, and jealousy guarded by Demmick.

Will was smart enough to know not to go into a solitary house at the end of a ramshackle street with an arrow of blood marching down its middle like a newly-growing spine. Cindy, unsurprisingly, wasn't.

Will, galvanized by terror, turned back and rushed towards the store. He didn't notice Cindy quietly standing a few feet behind and to the right of him, filled as he was with the urgency of fear. And so he didn't see the way she stared at the footprints, silent and enthralled. Or the way she looked up at the house and began moving toward it. He didn't see her stand for a moment in the open doorway, and then move a step inward with hesitant curiosity, as if responding to the sound of someone speaking her name.

He didn't see any of this, and was lucky for it, because if he had, he would also have been witness to Cindy being gutted too. Her blood splashed so high up on the walls that it got in the light fixtures and made the bulbs explode. Or at least that's what the gruesome rumors claimed, later.

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The only person with legitimate first-hand knowledge of the sight of the site of Mrs. Demmick's undoing was Ricky, who had a morbid obsession with food from that day onward. He said that Mrs. Demmick's insides were spread across her butter colored kitchen floor like jam. The kind with chunks of strawberry in it, still dotted with little black seeds. After that day, working in the grocery store was, for Ricky, something like what working in a daycare was for a pedophile. Dale tried to keep him out of the deli and away from the preserves, and pretty much isolated from any customers whatsoever, so poor Ricky spent a lot of time shining the produce and sitting alone on his lunch hour.

Frequently, the madness that spread from Mrs. Demmick's laid-open insides was funny like that. Like poor Ricky the melon-polisher, who was finally fired after being caught masturbating with a tub of margarine in the stockroom while on break. This was a source of much hilarity for the other employees, until two days later, when a three-year-old girl was killed by exposure to E. coli poisoning. The bacteria was traced back to cucumbers which had been purchased at the grocery and chopped up and put into a salad as a side dish for a family meal. How fecal matter could have come to be smeared—in trace, but clearly significant amounts—on cucumbers was a matter of great mystery for everyone in the town except, of course, the store employees, who were uncomfortably aware of the circumstances surrounding Ricky's dismissal.

Of course Ricky's fingerprints were all over the vegetables, but this did not itself constitute any form of concrete evidence against him. However, security tapes obtained by investigators revealed grainy black and white footage of poor Ricky, engaging in a twisted form of self-abuse with vegetables, fruits, and a variety of expensive imported cheeses. One police officer suggested that the department utilize the assistance of a lip-reader in order to decipher the words Ricky was shouting on the film (which lacked an audio track), his face twisted into a tear-streaked rictus of agony and pleasure. The officer maintained the belief that Ricky was probably howling out a hymn to the great lord Satan while he defiled the food supply of the town's innocents. This theory was soundly shot down (and the lip reader denied on grounds of budget limitations), but it quickly flourished into a lively and muscular rumor, which galloped around town, gaining bulk and momentum from every mouth that fed it.

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Ricky was unable to leave his house for fear of harassment from the good Christian neighbors who, convinced that he was connected to both an invisible Satanic cult and the grisly deaths of two women, now looked at him with the same sort of horror and disgust one normally reserves for the discovery of shit-smeared vegetables in one's house salad. He lurked in the basement, flinching every time the sound of his mother's disconsolate weeping carried through the heating vents. Unable to venture out to buy groceries of his own, and reluctant to face his parents (who were too grief-stricken to notice his absence from the kitchen), Ricky was forced to scavenge for what food he could find littered about his bedroom floor.

The bits and pieces of abused food that he could find (and wash thoroughly, of course) in his den of depravity provided but a few days' nourishment. It wasn't very long before Ricky was extending his search for sustenance beyond his darkened bedroom, including the old rec-room/basement in his forays. In desperation he even began examining the contents of the closet, in hopes of finding something edible (the plastic apples on his dead aunt Missy's best Sunday hat failed to fall into this category). In a large box full of Christmas paper and ribbons, he discovered an ancient, hardened fruitcake, and a tin full of peanut brittle.

Ricky devoured the fruitcake, ignoring the stirrings of his weirdly intertwined lust and traumatized psyche, because his hunger was greater than his need for self-flagellation. Wiping the last few dry crumbs of cake from his lips, he turned his attention to the broad, flat chunks of peanut brittle. He attempted to bite one, but it was so hard that his only achievement was sending pain lancing through his jawbone. The edges of the probably decades-old peanut brittle were quite sharp, and when he spit out the confection, his mouth filled with the tang of blood from a small candy-inflicted cut. Ricky crouched on the floor, his fingers pressed to his lips, and stared with wide-eyed wonder at the peanut brittle.

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Its sharp, yellowish edges looked glossy from his saliva. The light seemed to wink off of the sharpest point of its irregular shape, as if sharing a happy little secret with the unfortunate boy.

While Ricky lay on the cold cement floor of the basement, fading in and out of shock, he marveled at how large his penis looked once it was detached from his body. His vision was growing blurry, though, so perhaps it was an optical illusion. In a gesture so fitting that Ricky was able to shuffle off this mortal coil with a peaceful smile tugging at the corners of his lips, he stuck the bloody chunk of peanut brittle into his mouth and died.