A barmaid closing up for the night stopped polishing a glass when a telegram dropped through the slot of the front door. She picked up the envelope marked “urgent” in red and unearthed a manila slip with a single typewritten line. “mechanism operational,” it read. “ascent at 0600. signed, the cable company.”
The barmaid raised an eye at the silhouette lingering outside. She threw open the door and stepped onto the rainy cobbles, looking both ways down the deserted street. She was quick to lock up for the night, but instead of her usual route home, she walked up the street in the direction she thought the person might have gone. The town was quiet as people slept. Shops were shuttered, streets shined with dew. An intersection split in two directions and the barmaid took the path that led through the woods to a remote clearing.
A few crows congregated around a bench where an older woman sat, face turned away. The barmaid came around the far side of the bench and found the gray-haired woman was unable to move her head. Her eyes darted in a panic. As she came closer, she saw the woman’s jaw had been pulled from its sockets and an iron cable protruded out of her throat into the sky.
“Quite a bind you’re in,” the barmaid called.
An unintelligible murmur resonated against the cable. The barmaid dug the telegram from her pocket and waved it in the air.
“Was this you?” she asked, inching closer.
The woman thrashed around on the bench and finally gave up, exhausted. The barmaid thought it was a plea for help, or that she might be trying to tell her something important.
A loud grinding began in the clouds overhead. The whir of scraping metal grew closer until a heavy bang slammed down around them, echoing across the park. The crows scattered into the surrounding trees. The woman heaved with panic. She pled for the barmaid’s attention, leading her gaze back to the cable, which was now humming with vibration.
The iron threads creaked with tension as the cable began to crank forward. The skin on the woman’s throat stretched as she was pulled off the bench. She knelt with the cable in both hands, pleading. Her chest pulled forward, shoulders spread back. The cable jerked violently as it dragged the woman across the ground and lifted her into the sky.
Again, the barmaid walked in the direction where the woman disappeared. She climbed into foothills dampened with thick mist until the rocky terrain grew difficult. She quickly got turned around and lost her way. Her head was pounding from the constant drone shredding the air. Fatigued, she stopped on a ridge to catch her breath and looked down into the valley. Hills dotted by dark patches of green sloped into the clearing where a distant bench sat at the edge of a winding path.
When she reached the clearing, she was so overcome with relief she wasn’t sure why she had wandered off in the first place. Searching for someone, but whom? She couldn’t remember. She collapsed on the bench, breathing heavy, stretching the sore muscles in her shoulders. Shocks of pain shot up the back of her neck into her skull. She wavered on the edge of the bench and hung her heavy head.
She felt herself being watched. The barmaid raised an eye to find a dour young woman standing in front of her on the path. She didn’t attempt to help in any way, she just stood there with her hands tucked into her jacket.
The barmaid summoned the strength to stand, but an inner weight pinned her to the bench. Her muffled screams died against the mass of metal growing in her mouth.
The young woman thought the woman on the bench was trying to tell her something. She came forth and crouched beside the barmaid, staring at her bulging neck, watching as her jaw was pulled past its sockets. The young woman staggered back as a taught iron cable was strung between her and the horizon.
A thundering crash rang throughout the park, the cable began to crank forward. The barmaid pled with the young woman, her cries silenced by the cable. The barmaid fell from the bench clutching the cable as it dragged her across the grass. The vibrations pulsed through her until she was weightless and numb.
The manila envelope fell from her pocket, floated between her dangling shoes, and landed in the grass below. The young woman picked up the telegram and read it a few times, hoping to understand. She looked at her wristwatch, just after six. When she glanced up, the barmaid was gone. Telegram shoved in her pocket, she walked into the hills.
About the Author
Jarret Middleton is the author of the novel Darkansas and the novella An Dantomine Eerly. He was the founding editor of Dark Coast Press and the classics library Pharos Editions, an imprint of Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Shelf Awareness, The Quarterly Conversation, The Weeklings, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, and HTMLGIANT, as well as appearing in the print anthologies The Breadline Anthology; Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices; and In Heaven, Everything is Fine: Fiction Inspired by David Lynch. He lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias
Altered image: deneli, morguefile.com