Guilt, madness, and loneliness sometimes have a way of reaching down and touching our past. Mr. Tim Tobin tells us exactly how that can happen in Chuckles. Do read and enjoy.
By: Tim Tobin
Mr. Tobin holds a degree in mathematics from LaSalle University. He retired five years ago from L-3 Communications after more than forty-years as a project manager and software engineer. His speculative stories have appeared in Separate Worlds Magazine, Marco Polo, The Mustache Factor, Burial Day Books and Micro Horror. His western stories and poetry have appeared in the Rope and Wire Web. His crime stories have also appeared in Darkest Before The Dawn.
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By: Tim Tobin
At seventy-years old I am tired and alone and desperately lonely. Over the years there have been a few women. Nothing serious ever developed. How could I possibly explain that I am a convicted murderer, guilty as hell, and on the run? I am afraid of what old age will bring. Death certainly, but sickness and perhaps dementia as well. Who will care for me? Who will care at all? The question on my mind lately is should I surrender? I would go to jail for the rest of my life, or maybe even be executed but I would no longer be alone and so afraid.
I ran on a whim. There was no plan or grand design. A deputy turned his head and I took off, penniless, with no identification and wearing an orange jumpsuit. That was thirty-one years ago. I am still on the run but at least I am free, sort of. Memories of the early days of my freedom are vague but I stole and did worse to stay alive. One thing I had going for me was my trade as a carpenter. Early on I hooked up with a handyman and learned his business and to this day that is how I get by. With no identification or social security number, cash is definitely king. I get paid in cash, and I pay for absolutely everything in cash. I have never had a bank account, have never written a check or used an ATM card. After a few years I had enough money to buy an old clunker. Since then I’ve moved up a bit and now drive a ten-year old Jeep. With no driver’s license I drive very carefully. Generally I have lived in rooms and cheap apartments and, of course, I paid in cash.
Fear brought me to the mountains of Wyoming. I now live in a shack I made myself in a remote section of a desolate mountain. The good news is that no one has any idea I am here. The bad news is that a hunter, camper or a hiker could discover me at any time. The one-room shack was built using trees from the forest. I have plenty of supplies to last the winter. My freezer is a box in the woods, stocked with meat kept frozen by the winter cold and ice. Canned fruit and vegetables make up the rest of my diet. Occasionally I drive into the nearest town for supplies. Money is not a problem. I have money saved and hidden in the forest. There is a gas generator that I use from time to time, but mostly I depend on lanterns for light and my fireplace for heat.
Rugged? You bet. Moving back into a town is an option. My money would last me for a few years in a town. Up here, it will last forever. At seventy-one I can still fix almost anything, but my days on roofs are over. So, that brings me back to the question of whether or not to surrender.
Today, it was cold and it snowed a lot. Tonight, I have straight bourbon in hand and am standing on the front stoop of my shack. Nothing more than a big rock, really. My clothes are warm and the bourbon warms my insides. The forest starts about twenty or thirty yards from my front door and becomes dense quickly. My Jeep is snow bound at the moment sitting next to the shack. I start it every day to keep the battery charged. That nearby town is not so near on foot.
There are creatures in the forest, large and small. I have seen a couple of bears and the wolves howl someplace nearby. Tonight, the wind has drowned out the sounds of the forest. The view from the stoop is almost black with large white flakes horizontal in the wind. Are there human souls in that black expanse? I wonder. Souls lost on the mountain, given up for dead by family and friends perhaps. Souls that endlessly wander the mountain searching for a way out. Nonsense my head tells me. But my fear and my loneliness conjure up childish ideas.
I find myself thinking of that night so long ago. Thinking of the rage and the blood. And of her screams. And I remember policemen and handcuffs and a courtroom with a jury of my peers. Guilty! Of course I was. Of course I am. What a relief it would be to walk into a police station. Tell them my real name and go to jail where it is warm and there would be at least a guard to talk to. So, have I decided? No, not yet but I am thinking about it, standing on my stoop in the blowing snow and drinking bourbon.
Out near the edge of the forest I catch a glimpse of white. Blowing snow? It must be. Nothing else would be out tonight. Unless it is a lost soul. Again my head says nonsense. But there it is again. I look and I look but my eyes won’t focus on an object. Just a bit of white. Solid? Can’t be. There are no white animals in the forest. A person? Ridiculous. A person would freeze in minutes. Am I drunk? On a single bourbon? A lost soul? Nonsense.
I stare at the woods for a long time. The white does not reappear. Finally I am cold and step inside. I toss another log on the fire and sit in my chair facing the window and look towards the forest. I don’t think sleep will come easily tonight. Yes, I am afraid most of the time but not of the dark. Not of a lost soul. Carefully my eyes scan the darkness but the only white I see is the blowing snow. I guess I fell asleep in my chair, because when I looked out the window the snow had stopped and the wind had lessened. A bright moon now lit the distance between the shack and the forest. My wristwatch read four o‘clock. A wolf howled. A lost soul appeared and dissolved into the forest. My scream reminded me of then.
When the sun came up I dressed in my outdoor gear and walked towards the forest. What was I expecting? To see the lost soul again? Really! Footprints? After all that blowing snow? So had I seen an actual human being and not a lost soul? My head really wanted to believe that. Was a hunter lost? If so, why didn’t he approach the shack? So my head told me, no, what I saw could not have been a person. Impossible. But so is a lost soul. OK. I can say it – a ghost. Whatever it was there was no sign of anyone or anything this morning.
Weeks passed and no ghost appeared and neither did a lost hunter. I had hiked the trail back to the access road and found no sign anyone had been there. My radio had no stories of anyone lost on the mountain. So, it had been just my imagination. Thank goodness! That evening I was foraging for firewood in the forest. I was about 20 yards in but I could catch an occasional glimpse of my shack. And there it was again. White against the dark wood of the cabin. Damn! The trees were in my way and I could not get a good look. By the time I reached the edge of the woods the white had dissolved into – what? Nothing. It was just gone. My load of wood was heavy and I stumbled trying to hurry home. I dropped the wood next to the stoop and looked for footprints. There were none.
But there was blood. Jesus! A lot of blood on the stoop. The grey stone was red. The blood ran into the snow turning it red also. The scream gurgled up in my throat but somehow I stifled it. It had to be an injured or wounded animal. But there were no tracks and there was no blowing snow to cover them this time. Stir crazy. That’s what it is. Being alone and afraid up here is driving me nuts. But I didn’t feel nuts, however that would feel. But I decided to drive the Jeep back to town. Impossible tonight. I would drive into a tree or off of a cliff. The drive would have to wait until daylight. That meant another night in the chair looking for the – ghost.
But the ghost did not come back that night. By the next morning the blood on the stoop had dried. At least the blood was real. It took me hours to dig out the Jeep. During the day the forest was alive and the sounds spooked me. but there was no ghost. Finally, I was ready. I put some money in my pocket and picked up my shopping list and headed out to the Jeep half expecting to see the ghost behind the wheel. The Jeep was empty. I carefully pulled the Jeep onto the snowy trail through the woods towards the access road. I asked myself again whether I should surrender in town. No answer. The access road is about five miles from the shack. In truth, the access road is just a dirt trail made mostly by me. The access road eventually runs into a county road and then down the mountain and into town. Under the best of circumstances the drive is long and tiring. In the deep snow, it was formidable.
Oh dear God! There it is again. White something against the trees. Swirling, shifting, disappearing and reappearing. The Jeep’s brakes locked and I slid into a tree. A chuckle? No, No, that just could not be. A ghost does not chuckle. My seat belt saved me from injury but the Jeep was a mess. The airbag deployed, the front end crumpled and the radiator hissed. Could a hiss be mistaken for a chuckle? So, now I was stranded miles from home in the bitter cold and snow. And my only choice was to walk back to the cabin. I had started in the morning so I had most of the day to get back.
Before starting I carefully looked at the woods trying to see…something. The walk was exhausting. The snow was deep. I tried to walk in the Jeep’s ruts but they quickly got covered by drifting snow. But I knew the direction and plowed ahead with a determination born of desperation. If I failed to get to the shack by nightfall I would die out here.
I had walked for hours not really looking ahead or behind. Slowly I became aware of a presence next to me. I looked up to see the white dance away from me. Another chuckle. Then I heard my name. My real name, unspoken for thirty-one years. Spoken softly, a whisper really.
“Who are you?” I said almost to myself.
Another chuckle and the white was gone.
There was a warmth where there should have been none. Between my legs. Oh hell, I had pissed myself. The fear now took charge and I ran and ran until my legs cramped and my lungs froze. Can a ghost perform miracles? I was home. I burst through the door and there was the white, floating on my chair and chuckling. I asked again.
“Who are you?”
The response again was my name.
By now, panic had given way to acceptance. Either I was crazy and so nothing else mattered, or the white was real and nothing would ever matter again.
The door to the shack closed behind me. A small white thing hovered near it. Then yet another small white thing drifted from the chimney and into the room. More chuckling. Me, I was laughing hysterically. And then the voice.
A female voice called me by name and said to me that they would like to keep me company. Why of course, I thought. Why not? Chuckling.
The voice. Familiar but not really. Then the voice screamed and I knew that scream. My wife as I killed her. Then the two small whites screamed. My children as I killed them. My dead family was here. Why? Revenge? Why now after so long? Do the dead sense the passing of time? Maybe I had killed them yesterday? Or this morning? Oh God, I hope I am hallucinating. “Please let me be crazy,” I pleaded.
“No, you’re not crazy,” said the voice of my wife.
“Maybe once, but not now. Your family is here and we are going to keep you company.”
Jesus, she could still nag as a ghost.
Slowly the white of my wife shifted and a shape began to emerge. My dead wife sat in front of me. The wife I murdered sat there looking at me. There was a rustle behind me and my children stood in my shack. Five and seven-years old when I blew them up with a shotgun. Chuckles.
“Are you afraid?” the voice asked me.
“Oh, yes,” I replied.
“So was I,” she said.
The chuckle became a sob. My children were bleeding lifeless lumps lying on the floor. Was that then or is it now? Memory and reality merged. Fear and rage became – what? Oblivion.
My next clear thought occurred as I walked into the police station. Oh yes, I confessed. I begged and pleaded for the solitude of death row. Anything to get away from my dead family. But they were gone. Where? I spent time in a jail and then in a prison. After months of court appearances and arguments over the death penalty, I was moved to death row. The two guards who led me to my cell were talkative, pleasant fellows.
Waiting for me in my cell were three shimmering whites, a large one and two small ones. The guards were astounded when they had to drag me the last few yards to the cell. I was howling and dragging my feet.
“Please, no, no!”