5,900 words. Written with this prompt: A happy horror story with a wooden shoe. Plot being a fight between two people for one open job position.
I chew the back of the pen. A bad habit, I'm aware, because this pen is used by everyone and I know at least one other person in this department shares my habit. With the same pen. I feel remarkably detached from the possibility that I might catch something, and it has nothing to do with the reassurance that I've had my flu shot this year.
Andre Fearonce walks into my office. He leans against the doorframe and sips on his coffee loud enough I hear it burble over his tongue. I breath in. Out. In. Chew on the back of my pen.
"How go the reports?" he asks.
I hunch my shoulders to stifle the wave of cringes popping up and down my back. "Fine." Single word responses are best. Any more than that and too many words will link together to form phrases that will make his French ancestors spring to life just to wave the white flag of retreat.
“Need some help? I’ve already turned mine in.”
It’s not Christian to hate Andre just because we’re both up for manager position that holds only one of us. Phillip pitting us together for the “may the best man win” battle royal, and my only weapons are office politics and breakroom bravado. Thrown in a Gladiator ring against Andre with nothing but my boxer shorts and sword would have been easier. More manly too, with my wife watching on and ogling at my naked arms that haven’t seen the gym in two years. What happened to those days where your worth was proven by the strength of your arm and not by the inner office dramatics of whose turn it was to brew the coffee?
“I’ve got it. Thanks.” Too many words together.
My brusque responses where I didn’t turn around once clearly alerted Andre that I didn’t want to talk to him. He leaves without another word. He’s smart, Andre. But he stands in my way for an extra thirty thousand a year. I wish Andre showed hostility toward me. I can deal with open hostility far easier than silent plotting.
I wrap up my report and dump it in Phillip’s box on my way out of the office.
Andre has me riled, though his greatest offense was stand in the doorway with his atrocious coffee imported from France. The man’s never been to Europe. His ancestors came to America two hundred years ago yet he seems to still have some affiliation with France despite he doesn’t even speak the language.
Enough about Andre. No need to bring him home with me.
My heavy diesel chucks to life. I’m determined to leave work at work. I need to change my focus. My wife. Her smile always brightens my day. I need that right now.
I pull into Aromatics & Antiques. The truck shudders as I kill the engine. I jam the keys in my pocket and walk inside under the dingle of a bell. Ancient relics from other parts of the known world vie for attention to my left and right. It smells of wood and ancient things. Amber’s big into collecting such things not relevant to America. The further away and deeper underground it was found, the better.
Nobody else is in the store. Not even the store owner, apparently, as he is not at his counter.
I’ve no idea what to look for. I’ve come in with Amber who’s browsed the shelves as if looking for something specific, though ends up walking out with an African flute or an arrow head claimed to have come from the Middle Ages. If she has a method to what she buys, I can’t see it.
The floor creaks and I turn to see the store manager coming out of his office on crutches. He’s missing his right foot. Has he always been missing his right foot? He’s always been sitting down when me and Amber have come it.
He hurries up his pace to get behind his counter.
“He-hello.” He smiles. Sweat beads on his forehead. “Can I help you find something?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Just a surprise for my wife.”
“Oh, she’ll love this.” He grabs a wooden shoe and sets it on the glass table top with a concerning thwack. “From Denmark. Got it three days ago.”
“Just the one? Don’t shoes come in two’s?”
“Just the one. It’s a very old shoe. Dug up when they were plowing a field, so they told me. Anyway, it’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
“Sure.” I take it from him. It’s small, like for a child. Completely made of wood. Remnants of a blue paint cling in the dry cracks. I’m not sure what Amber will think of it as is, but she could re-paint it herself if she feels so inclined. Wanting to get home and relax before I battle with Andre tomorrow, I pull out my wallet. “How much?”
The man releases a breath I didn’t realize he was holding. “Two-two dollars.”
He seems a lot more jittery than I remember. But then I’ve never spoken to him before. Amber’s always been the one to exchange money with him. The owner thrusts my change at me. I take it and he grins wildly. “All sales are finale.”
“K.” I scoop the shoe off the counter and walk out, certain his gaze follows me.
I breathe easier back in my car. I’ll pick Amber up a rose next time. This store made me more nervous than walking into Victorian Secrets.
I’ve forgotten about Andre by the time I pull into my drive, thinking of Amber’s bright smile when I hand her the wooden shoe, which she graciously rewards me with perfumed hug.
“I’ll add this to my collection,” she says, and sets the shoe on the book case by the door and spins toward me. “I’ll get the lasagna in the oven.”
“I’ll put something in your oven,” I say, not sure why, except Amber has a way of loosening me up no matter how much I’m irritated with… what was his name again?
She slides her arms around me. “Before or after dinner?”
O O O
I wake up because I hear crying. I pull the covers over my head and blame the cat. The crying continues. And then the cat speaks. It’s coming from the living room.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.” It cries harder.
It’s just the cat. It’s just the cat. It’s just the cat.
My body temperature rises with my pulse, though I won’t stick my leg out of the blanket to cool down. The cat might grab it.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger…” the voice has moved from the living room to my wife’s side of the bed.
Honor as a man and husband, I dare a look out from under the blankets. It’s not the cat. It’s a transparent little boy missing both arms, staring at my wife. Crying. All thoughts of Gladiatoring from earlier shrink, and I cling to the top sheet in a white-knuckled grip, too frozen to even do the sign of the cross, all the while thinking, how the hell does Amber sleep through this?
“JEG LEDER, FAR, JEG SØGER!” It shrieks. It vanishes.
I don’t blink for a full minute, heart thudding. Amber snorts and rolls over, pulling my half of the blankets onto her side. I panic and yank them back. If that boy comes back, I want more than just my boxer shorts on.
I lay awake the rest of the night, pee, shave, dress, and drink my coffee without ever thinking about the looming question: What the hell was that? I keep hoping I dreamed it, or imagined it, except I can’t place what language it was speaking. In all my twenty-seven years of living, I’ve never dreamed or imagined another language.
I go to work like it’s a normal day in my normal truck, talk to normal people, and do my normal job.
Like a ritual, Andre leans into the doorway of my office, the smell of his European coffee reminding me of the foreign language I heard the ghost boy speak.
“Phillip looked at our reports,” he says, holding longer onto the s then needed.
“Huh.” I chew on the end of my pen. Same pen from yesterday. It stinks.
“There are some things I can show you, to keep your numbers organized. It makes a huge difference. I’m willing to show you, if you like.”
“No thank you.” I hunch over my paperwork so Andre won’t see my disorganized columns and feel compelled to champion me to greatness with a method that apparently has been desired by Phillip, from the tone of his voice.
I can’t stop hating Andre. The smell of his coffee, the shine of his shoes, his willingness to help me even though we are competing for the same position all combine into a single, unfounded force. It equals hating someone because they wear their watch on their right hand instead of their left. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s massively irritating.
Andre takes his cue – another irritation, since he’s not giving me solid reason to hate him – and leaves. Willing to help me even though I constantly give him the cold shoulder and he knows it. Thoughts of standing in a Gladiator ring in my boxer shorts with Andre warms me again.
Barbie Girl chims from my cell phone. I answer it. “Hello Amber.”
“Bryant…” She’s sobbing. “Something’s wrong with my ankle.”
“I don’t know… it hurts really bad.” She sniffles. “I felt it shortly after I got dressed. It feels like something is chewing on it. It looks like something’s chewing on it. I literally see teeth marks.”
“Are you able to drive?”
“Go to the doctor. I’ll meet you there.”
“K. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I hang up and rush to Phillip’s office. Andre is in there. Sharing his expensive European coffee with him. I have this anxious feeling to go back to Antiques & Aromatics and pick up some European trinket to give to Phillip just to rival with Andre, creepy shop owner or no.
“Yes, Bryant?” Phillip looks up. Andre makes an exaggerated swing of his body to face me.
“I’m meeting my wife at the doctor’s office. I shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.”
I make it to the doctor’s before Amber. She parks and steps out of the care, limping. I rush to her side. She’s still crying. I look at her ankle and blanch. Chewing is right. Looks like something took a chunk out of her skin.
“It’s getting worse!” she wails.
I scoop her into my arms and rush her inside, worried I should have told her to go to the ER.
I explain to the receptionist what’s going on, the urgency amplified by my wife’s tears, and the doctor comes out within minutes.
I support Amber under my arm who leans heavily into me. I sit her down on the bed in the room.
“What’s going on today?” the doctor asks.
Amber shows him her ankle. It looks worse then it did in the parking lot. The doctor leans closer. As we all watch, the flesh on her ankle vanishes and a slightly deeper depression appears. Amber screams.
“It feels like something is chewing on it!”
You know you’re in trouble with the doctor panics. He slaps his clipboard on the counter and rips a box of gauze out of the drawer. He stuffs the cotton into the wound; Amber doesn’t flinch it must hurt so bad.
“Lay her down,” he directs me.
I do as commanded, spinning Amber around to lay her legs lengthwise across the bed. For good measure, I remove her shoes so there is no obstruction getting in the doctor’s way to making her feel better.
Amber covers her eyes with an arm, whimpering. The doctor secures the gauze with tape, looking at me.
“When did this start?”
“She said just after she got dressed for the day.”
“Has she been overseas recently?”
Between the Danish wooden shoe and Andre, I’m about tired of hearing about anything outside America. “Never.”
“Does she have any diseases that you know of?”
“Any idea at all that can help me identify this?”
“How you feeling?” Doc asks Amber. She’s stopped crying so hard now, and hasn’t screamed so I hope that’s a sign the Doc’s magic bandage worked.
“I still hurt… but I don’t feel the chewing anymore. I think the bandage helped.”
The doc picks up his clipboard again and makes notes. He hands me a slip of paper.
“Prescription for anti-biotic and pain. I want to see her tomorrow. Come back sooner if it worsens.”
I give the doctor a big roger and assist Amber with putting her shoes back on. No sooner had I done so then she screams again. I take the shoe off so the doctor can resume his magic unobstructed. Amber relaxes.
“I felt it again. The chewing.”
“You feel fine now?”
“Yes…” She looks dangerously at her sandal in my hand. “I wonder if it’s my shoe?”
“Worth an experiment at this point. Stand up.”
Amber does so, putting tentative pressure on her right foot. “Nothing.”
“Hand me the shoe,” he tells me.
I do so. The doctor slaps on two pairs of gloves on each hand before taking it from me, like it’s a major biohazard that’s now all over my hand. I rush to the bottle of hand sanitizer on the counter, praying it’s 99.9% positive it will kill whatever funk was on my wife’s shoe that transferred to my hand.
I turn around to find the doctor sealed the sandal in a bag labeled “biohazard”.
“Where did you buy these sandals?” he asks.
“…Four months ago?”
He asks her a bunch of other shoe questions that I don’t see are relevant, since the simple act of wearing a shoe should not promote a chewing sensation on the ankle. In any case, Doc biohazards her other shoe as well. He shuts the patient room behind us at the conclusion of our visit. I pretend I don’t see him making the sign of the cross over him.
“You okay?” I ask Amber.
She’s teary-eyed, but more stable than when she arrived. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
“No… I’ll be alright. Thanks. I love you.”
I don’t leave the parking lot until she does. I watch her drive out of sight.
I walk back into work. Andre still in Phillip’s office. Phillip laughs at something Andre told him. It’s infuriating brown-nosing is a sure shot to success, but I could never bring myself that low to try it. And because of that, Andre’s going to pass me by on that promotion. Because I prefer to secure my goals the right way.
The scare with my wife, Andre, and my lack of sleep last night has me gnawing on my pen again until the hour hand slaps the five o’clock position. I scoop my cellphone off the desk and leave.
Amber smiles when I walk in, though I’ve known her long enough it’s just a mask to cover up something else that’s bothering her.
“You feeling okay?”
“I picked up the medication. The pain pill is helping.” She looks mournfully at her bandaged ankle. She’s barefoot. Not even socks.
I don’t understand it either. I’m glad she falls asleep before I do. Though I’m exhausted from lack of sleep last night, I want to catch the ghost boy if he returns, because I’m certain now that somehow he and my wife’s feet are all connected.
I’ve got my cellphone in both hands, finger hovering over the Google Translate app I installed today.
I fall asleep. I wake up instantly when I hear crying – a repeat of last night. Heart thudding, I wait.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.”
Sweaty finger tips slap the app. It takes me 3 tries to finally get it pulled up on my screen. The microphone center of it pulses, waiting. Please be an exact repeat of last night.
Google Translate is going to get bored and shut me out.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.” The armless boy appears on my wife’s side of the bed, crying.
I tear my gaze off him and back to my phone to see Google Translate thinking about whether or not it’s a real language. English words spread across the screen. I hold my breath: I’m looking, father, I’m looking. Auto-detect says it’s Danish. Like the wooden shoe.
“JEG LEDER, FAR, JEG SØGER!”
Amber jerks and sits up, screaming as she backs away from the apparition on her side of the bed. The ghost vanishes.
I hold her. “It’s okay. It’s gone.”
Her whole body shakes. “You saw it too?”
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.” I don’t tell her it was in here last night.
She leaps across her side of the bed to the lamp on her bedside table, flicking the bulb on and blinding me.
She’s shaking. “I want to sleep in the living room.”
“But I’m right here. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“I’m scared. I don’t want to be in here anymore tonight.” She scoots to my side of the bed, crawls over me, to get to the door. She’s parked her slippers beside the door. Stuffing both feet in them, she flips the light on and shuffles out.
Now that I’ve seen the boy once already, and know he won’t come back, I could sleep. But I’m the attentive husband, so I slide my legs out from under the sheets–
I run for the door so hard I crash into the wall, spinning about awkwardly to get my damned body through it. I find her on the kitchen floor, clutching her leg with the bandaged ankle. Both slippers have been kicked off. I kneel next to her, noticing that a fresh chunk of her leg has disappeared about the ankle, a spot not covered by the bandage. Red muscle flexes beneath, blood dripping onto the linoleum.
Is it the act of wearing shoes that makes this happen?
Amber doesn’t protest when I take her to the ER. When admitted I tell them it was a dog bite. I ask if they can hold her so I can go home and take care of our rogue “dog”. They clean the fresh wound, shoot her up with pain pills and a muscle relaxer. She falls asleep.
I drive home in a fury. I stomp into the living room and snatch the wooden shoe off its shelf. I get back in the car. Drive to the river with a gallon of gasoline.
Headlights blare across the tree line. I park next to the campsite and dump the shoe in the cold fire pit. I haul the gasoline out of the trunk and set it down, patting my coat pocket for the lighter. I panic. The lighter must have fallen out. Maybe it’s between the seats. I’m in just the right mood to rub two sticks together to burn the haunted Danish shoe to damnation.
I kneel on the seat and dive my hand between it and the center consol. Maybe it fell under. I get out to squat and look and feel a sharp pinching sensation on my right ankle. I leap back and shake my foot, thinking something crawled out of the forest. It’s dark and hard to see. The pinching sensation begins again, more intense, and I brace against the truck, shaking my foot and screaming but it continues. I limp to my headlights and pull my pant leg up. A thick chunk has been removed from flesh and muscle. Blood streaks down my white skin.
Trusting my theory that shoes is what causes this, I kick both of them off and stand on the river bank barefoot, gritting my teeth, sweating with panic and pain.
The ghost boy appears in front of me. He’s shrieking, in more of a panic than I am. “Jeg har næsten fået skoen, far.”
My phone in my pocket makes the tell-tale beep as Google Translate, still working in the background, catches the phrase. I yank it out and stare at the screen. The English translation reads, “I've almost got the shoe, father.”
For a brief moment I don’t feel the pain. The boy stands so I can see him and the wooden shoe together. I notice for the first time his missing left foot. I look at my shoe, recall the doctor’s office where Amber’s wounds seemed to be activated when she wore those shoes. She was fine all night long until she put on the slippers. Why was Amber effected? Why am I being effected now? Does it matter who touched it last?
The greasy smile of the antique store owner, his crutches, missing foot, add up. The ghost boy is looking for his other shoe. Missing arms, he’d have nothing but his teeth. Why he doesn’t take my shoes on the ground in front of me, why he waits until someone puts the shoes on to then attempt to chew off their leg, why whoever touches it last gets bitten, or why he only appears at night and not during the day, I’ve no idea. I don’t know why ghosts do the things they do.
I pick my shoe up and throw it at him. “Take it!”
My shoe passed through the boy. He stands there, catatonic.
I can’t find my lighter. I’m the last person who touched the wooden shoe so I can’t wear shoes, otherwise the chewing will continue. I’m hesitant to wear socks. I can’t go shopping (because of that “no shoe, not shirt” crap). I can’t do anything. If I were an American Indian riding horseback in a loincloth and barefoot, you know, two hundred years ago, that would be normal. I can’t show up to work tomorrow barefoot. Phillip’s already comparing everything about me to Andre, everything from which way I comb my hair to if I sniff my coffee before I take the first sip.
Andre. Andre is proud of his European heritage. I’d bet he’d love a relic from Denmark. I could go so far as to claim it French. Andre won’t show up to work shoeless, and he can’t afford to not show up at all.
The devil slides an arm across my shoulder. “It’s okay, Bryant, you’re only human. It’s okay to be weak, it’s okay to revert back to your basic survival instincts and conquer those who stand in your way to greatness. No one is perfect. God doesn’t expect you to be perfect. If you are willing to challenge Andre to a Gladiator fight, isn’t giving him a wooden shoe a more kind gesture? It’s not you going to be chewing off his foot. Andre doesn’t have to wear shoes, and he doesn’t have to show up for work. All you do is give him the shoe. You are not responsible for what Andre does afterward.”
Oooooh, the Devil’s good.
I scoop the wooden shoe out of the fire pit, grab both of my shoes and the gasoline, and slump back in my truck. Pain throbs in the aching hole in my ankle. The ghost boy is gone.
I arrive at the hospital barefoot. They patch my ankle up and buy my story about our rogue dog who took a bit out of me before I got a bit out on him.
Amber is drowsy and sleeps all the way home, wakes up long enough to protest she won’t sleep in the bedroom, and falls asleep on the couch with all the lights in the house on.
I sleep in the bed with my eyes covered. My alarm dings two hours later. I’m vibrant with scheming so I don’t feel the fatigue of last night.
I kiss Amber awake. She rubs at her eyes. “You’re up early.”
“Want to get to work so I can finish up the reports. Trying hard to get ahead of Andre for that promotion.”
“I left my shoes outside last night. Air them out.”
“I’m scared of that ghost boy.”
“I think I know what’s going on and I’ve got a plan to fix it.”
I see the hope in her eyes that that will fix all her worries. I’m not about to tell her I gave her a haunted European relic in a gesture of love, which then summoned a ghost to chew on her ankles. “Yes.”
She nods in relief and I kiss her before I leave.
I stop by the gift shop and buy a box, wrapping, and ribbons. My black socks match my pants so at first glance it’s not obvious I’m not wearing shoes. I make it out of there without detection. I pull in to work with 10 minutes to spare and wrap up the cursed shoe in the box with the ribbon. I hand-jam a, good luck on the promotion, Andre, on the note.
I walk to the front door with shoes in hand, avoid the elevator and take the stairs since modern convenience has everyone else waiting thirty seconds for the elevator when you can walk two floors up in fifteen. No one notices my shoes. If they do, they don’t say anything.
I hustle into the office and hid my feet and shoes under my desk. Guilt for what I’m about to do hasn’t hit me yet. Terror overrules it for what will happen to my life if I can’t wear shoes.
Why didn’t you burn the shoe instead of give it to Andre? A reasonable voice asks.
Maybe it can’t be burned. I’ve seen the horror shows. I’m certain the shop owner would have tried to burn it too, once he figured out what it was doing to his ankle.
Fine. It can’t be burned. Why not get a priest to perform an exorcism on it?
I shut the reasonable voice down and wait anxiously for Andre to walk into the doorway, lean against the frame, and sip his coffee.
“Hey, Andre. I was hoping you’d stop in. Come here.”
His eyebrows raise in hesitation, sort of like an opponent might do when asked to make the first move. He comes in, stands beside my desk.
I push the ribboned box toward him with a smile, and now I know why the store owner grinned at me so wildly. “You will make a fine manager, Andre. I want you to know that if you get the position, I support you a hundred percent. I… found this at the antique store on fifth street and thought of you.” I shrug. “Not sure what you’d think of it, but I know you are a fan of everything European, and the store owner said it was dug up in a French field, so…” I trail off as he lifts the lid to the box, heart thudding so hard in my throat I swallow. He lifts the shoe out of the box. I breathe easy. That is, hoping my theory was right about the last person to touch the shoe gets chewed on.
“Oh?” He turns it around in his hand, and dons an expression we all fake at Christmas that says, thanks for the gesture, but the gift sucks. And just like Christmas, you take the gift anyway.
He nods once. “You are a great man, Bryant. Thank you for your gift and your support.” He places the shoe back in the box and smiles at me. “Good luck to you too.” He tucks the box under the arm not holding his coffee and leaves my office.
I put one shoe on. Wait a minute. Put the other shoe on. Nothing happens. I stand up as if I’m walking barefoot on glass. I walk by Phillip’s office, pretending to mess with the copy machine while casting glances at Andre whose telling about Phillip about the new sushi he tried last night and providing his recommendations.
I don’t rightly know when the ghost boy decides to start biting. He didn’t bite me all the way home from the antique store and didn’t bite Amber until around noon the day after she touched it. Maybe it takes a day. Maybe I’m wrong about all of this.
O O O
Amber and I get a full night’s rest. Her on the couch and me on the bed. The ghost doesn’t appear and I feel safe to wear shoes again. Amber won’t wear shoes yet, not until the priest arrives in 3 days. So I’m in charge of bringing home the groceries after work.
I arrive to work with fingers crossed, shoving aside my Christian inhibitions which attempts to warn this is a malicious thing to do to another Christian. But thirty thousand extra dollars a year if I get promoted…
Sitting at my desk, clicking away at the computer, thirty minutes lapse before I realize Andre hasn’t made his usual appearance to harangue me over XYZ. I perk. Maybe he didn’t show up to work today…?
I scuttle to Phillip’s office. Andre’s not there.