Short Tales of Terror (2): Granny Mat Station
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 21 November 2005, 8:29 am
Short Tales of Terror (2): Granny Mat Station
It has been said that for a book to be written concerning the dos and don'ts of outer space, the dead would need to author it. But there is no such book and thus men travel space by the cold, merciless laws of trial and error; ignorant of the bends, dips and eddies in the river of existence. If, however, the dead were able to publish such warnings from beyond the grave, they would doubtlessly devote an entire chapter to the subject of games. For the dead know that in certain regions of space, some games do more than dispel boredom: some games kill.
Something about the setting made it right for a bit of fear. As many soldiers can tell you—some with a smile, others with caution—deep space is a strange and sometimes disquieting place that sets an eerie tone that no wilderness campfire can match. Granny Mat Station had the distinction of being humanity's most distant outpost. As one of the twenty-eight small, sparsely crewed detection facilities forming a ring around the surviving colonies, it had a single mission: report any possible Covenant activity within their operational grid. The station and its three-man crew orbited a Mars sized planet that had a jet-black surface and a classified name. Since their equipment had detected nothing more threatening than an asteroid during their two-year deployment, they busied themselves with staying busy: telling stories and making up games to pass the time.
Kale sat in the small, dark room, looking from face to face as his eyes slowly adjusted to the low light. It was Thursday and that meant it was his turn to pick the game. And since it was Kale, it also meant the game would be scary. Neither Scott nor Chris would admit it, but Thursday was their favorite game night. After all, in their cramped little prison, fear was the only roller-coaster that they could ride; and nobody did fear better than Kale.
"Guys, I have three easy questions." A smile twisted across his thin white face. "And I guarantee, after you've answered them, you'll want to sleep with the light on. Now, whoever goes first will be at a big disadvantage, since he won't know where the questions are leading. Which of you is brave enough to start?"
Scott waved his hand in the air like a grade-schooler. "I'll start, as long as everyone swears that they will play. I'm not getting stuck like last time." After the other two nodded their heads in agreement, he looked up at Kale and smiled. "Okay, do your worst."
"Here's the first question, and if you lie to us, may your corpse rot on the black planet: what is the worst thing that you've ever done to somebody?"
Scott suddenly looked as if he'd seen a ghost. "I'll have to think about that," he said. But as his head drooped towards the floor it became clear that he knew exactly what it was. When he finally looked up, it was as if facing a hostile jury.
"Until I was nine years old I uh, lived next door to a girl named Kara." He took a deep breath. "She was a year younger than me and she did everything she could to drive me crazy. Seriously, I couldn't go outside without her calling me names or throwing rocks at me from the other side of our fence. It went way beyond irritating; it was maddening. I swear, she was that bad."
"We believe you," Kale said, suddenly wishing that they had played something else.
Scott looked at the floor. "What made it even worse was that her brother Nick was my best friend. So no matter where I went or what I did it seemed that I couldn't get away from her. Whenever I tried to get back at her I got in a lot of trouble because Kara was . . . because she was confined to a wheelchair. She had a serious birth defect and her legs were smaller than her arms. But believe me," he looked up again, eyes pleading, "that did not make her any less of a jerk."
"Look," Kale said, not wanting to hear any more, "Let's forget about it. This was a dumb idea."
Chris shook his head emphatically. "No, he promised. Besides, if he doesn't finish, I'll always imagine the worst. I'm holding him to his word." Scott shifted his gaze back to the floor and then continued.
"It was my birthday party and she had come with my friend. I mean, she came just to bother me. Kara was even more hateful that day than usual and she was ruining my birthday. I became desperate for her to leave." He stopped for a moment, as if gathering the courage to continue. "She was allergic to peanuts, so I mixed a little peanut butter in with her ice cream. I thought that it would only cause her to break out in sores or something like it usually did, but it uh, it . . . " Kale was holding his breath, "it caused her throat to swell shut."
"My God," Chris whispered, inwardly kicking himself for making the game continue. Scott lowered his head even further and then spoke in a barely audible voice.
"Her face turned blue and her eyes," he took a deep breath, "her eyes bulged out in fear. And she died, just like that, right there in my kitchen. Nobody ever knew it was me."
The room suddenly filled with a paralyzing silence, and the air seemed thick and hot. What do you say when your friend admits to murdering a wheelchair-bound little girl? After several agonizing moments, Scott finally looked up.
"What's the second question?" Kale, who had completely forgot about the second question, nearly fell out of his chair.
"No, when I thought this up I had no idea that—"
"Don't tell me 'no'!" Scott interrupted in sudden anger. "I did not go through that for nothing! Give me the next freaking question!" Kale had no idea what to do, so he just blurted it out.
"If that person were to die and then return from the grave this very night to exact vengeance, what would they do to you?"
Scott looked at them with lifeless eyes. "That's easy. She'd strangle the life out of me, just like I did her. You know, her parents made her use a hand-powered wheelchair." Now his eyes were distant, as if watching a movie of his past. "They said that it would be good for her; make her stronger. And they were right, too. Her bony little hands could grip like iron." As an eerie, humorless smile spread across his face, Kale felt a chill run down his spine. "What is the third question?"
"Come on, Scott, this is no longer a game! I'm not going to sit here and use the greatest tragedy of your life for amusement. For God's sake, let's do something else."
Scott spoke with barely controlled fury. "What was the question, Kale? It's way too late to back out of this."
Kale pursed his lips in frustration, shook his head, and then replied in an angry voice. "Fine. For question number three you have to choose a time: 1:00 am, 2:00 am or 3:00 am."
Scott looked confused. "A time for what?"
"I can't tell you that until after you pick."
"I'll take 3:00 a.m. Now tell me what the heck it means."
This game sucks. "It means that tonight at that time, the one you wronged will come to your room," Kale had to look away, "and deliver the vengeance spoken by your own lips."
Scott sat silently, trying to mask his growing fear. Whether it was the effect of deep space, the prolonged seclusion or just plain guilt, he could not shake the feeling that he was now in danger.
Over the next fifteen minutes, Chris and Kale took their turns with the three questions; but since neither of them had murdered a little crippled girl—or anybody else for that matter—it was all rather anti-climactic. If the worst came true for the two of them that night, Chris would get sucker-punched at 1:00 am, and Kale would get his fingers stuck together with crazy-glue an hour later.
"Wow," Scott said, once they had finished, "I feel a lot better now. You two were a real menace to society." Kale was not amused.
"Scott, do us all a favor and shut up! I gave you a chance to back out, but you didn't take it. For God's sake, why didn't you just lie?"
"Because I'm not a liar; I'm a killer."
Chris' face twisted in disgust. "Was that supposed to be funny?"
"Sorry guys," Scott said apologetically, "That was crass. It just feels freaky, you know, finally telling someone what happened. I've been carrying that around for a long time, and somehow keeping silent has made it impossible to move on. I didn't like Kara, but I didn't want her to die. I was just a mischievous nine year-old who had a prank go bad." He paused a moment, and then spoke as if receiving a sudden, unexpected revelation. "I'm not evil."
For the first time since the beginning of the game, Kale smiled. It was time to cut Scott some slack. "Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. The way you clean me out playing poker, I figure you've made some sort of deal with the Devil." Chris leaned over and gave Scott a friendly slap on the back.
"Don't worry man, that story won't leave this room. But, dang, morbid or not, it sure put our stuff to shame."
Suddenly, something banged into the room's metal door from outside, causing all three men to jump. A moment later, they heard the metallic squeak of something rolling down the hall. They all sat silently as the strange noise became faint and finally disappeared. The room seemed darker than it had a moment before, and Granny Mat Station suddenly began to feel sentient and menacing. It began to feel evil.
Ten minutes later, they sat in the main living room on the other side of the station. With every available light switched on and a cheery movie playing on the vid screen, they talked about happier things. Hours passed unnoticed as they guzzled coffee and lost themselves in purposely-pointless discussions. The fear that had oppressed and suffocated earlier in the night now seemed weak and distant: a shadowy remnant of silly paranoia that had no more basis in reality than a bad dream.
"Did you know," Kale said to Chris, trying to keep a straight face, "that if you bite down on one of these mints really hard, it makes a spark?"
Chris raised an eyebrow. "A mint sparks?"
"Yeah," Scott said, nodding emphatically, "it's true." He scooped one out of a bowl on the coffee table and tossed it to Chris. "We'll turn off all the lights and you can stand in front of the mirror and see for yourself."
After searching their faces for signs of insincerity, Chris stood to his feet. "Okay, I'll try." He turned and walked towards the mirror on the wall behind them as the other two switched off every light in the room.
"Okay," Kale said, his ear-to-ear smile hidden by the darkness, "Now!" An incredibly loud crunching sound filled the darkness, followed immediately by the thump of bodies hitting the floor.
"Guys?" Chris said, but instead of a reply he heard hisses and soft gurgling. Suddenly the fear he had experienced earlier came back in a violent rush. Trying to stay calm, he felt his way along the wall to a light switch, flipped it on—and his mouth dropped open.
Both Scott and Kale lay on the floor clutching their stomachs and trying in vain to breathe . . . as they convulsed in fits of tearful laughter.
"Maybe . . . maybe you didn't bite down hard enough!" Kale said, and then dissolved once again into incoherent chuckling. Scott tried to say something too, but only managed to hyperventilate. It wouldn't have been so funny, except that they had nailed Chris with the same joke only a year before.
"Cute," Chris said with a red face. "I guess it doesn't take much to get you two going." Finally able to breathe normally, Kale stood to his feet.
"Hey, it's just a joke. You should be proud; that was a lot louder than the last time. I bet you almost did get a spark!"
Chris glared. Joke or not, he still felt the sting of fear and embarrassment. He glanced up at the clock. "It's almost midnight guys and I'm heading to bed. See you in the morning."
"That late?" Scott said, turning to take a look for himself. "Dang. Yeah, I guess I will too. Who has first watch tomorrow?"
Kale smiled. "You do, 0500 sharp."
"That's great. I'll try not to wake you guys up," Scott said, suddenly feeling exhausted.
As Kale turned on some music and searched for an action flick, Scott left the warm bright room and headed down the hallway to his quarters. Movies, music and conversation had been more than enough to take his mind off Kale's ill-conceived game. Sitting in the living room, fear had seemed so far away that it was almost impossible to remember or imagine. But as he walked down the dim corridor, the lights and sounds of activity lessening with each step, his security was slowly consumed by darkness and silence.
Suddenly he heard a metallic squeaking sound, like a wheel that needed to be oiled. It was coming from somewhere behind him—and it was getting louder. A paralyzing chill slithered up his spine. It took all of his courage, but he finally stopped and looked backwards.
But the sound became louder still and Scott quickened his pace. When he finally arrived at his room he turned on the light and slammed the door shut. Without bothering to change clothes or turn off the lamp, he jumped into bed and buried himself under the blankets. He we nine years old again; hiding under his covers and tucking in every edge, lest a bony little hand find an opening to exact revenge.
But as powerful as his fear had become, Scott's fatigue was stronger still, and he was sound asleep within minutes.
Bright sunlight spilled into the living room through the large window, painting the wispy white curtains a fiery gold. Young children ran here and there wearing party hats and playing games. Nobody heard the doorbell—nobody that is, except Scott. After all, it was his birthday party. He turned nine today.
He opened the door to a smiling boy holding a large, wrapped present. His best friend had finally arrived.
"Thank God, Nick," he said, waving him in, "We're about to cut the cake. What took?" His friend stayed on the porch and smiled weakly.
"Sorry, but Kara took forever getting ready."
"Kara?" Scott felt as if he had been punched in the gut. As if on cue, he heard the familiar metallic squeak of her wheelchair coming down the driveway.
"Sorry man, but my mom made me. She'll probably just leave after—" He was interrupted by a shrill voice.
"You have enough friends to throw a party?" Kara jeered as she wheeled up to the porch. Since she was allergic to bright light, she wore long sleeves, gloves and a hood over her head that made her look like a miniature Grim Reaper. "Hard to believe." From underneath the brown hood, she glared hatefully at Nick. "Wait 'til I tell mom that you left me sitting outside!" She then spoke to Scott in a strange and chilling voice. "And wait 'til I tell her what you did to me!"
Nick gave his friend an apologetic glance. "Could you help me lift her?"
"Like I have a choice." The boys descended the three steps, stood on opposite sides and picked the chair up by its arms. A foul odor suddenly assaulted his nose. He remembered smelling it once before—at his Grandpa's funeral.
"You smell like trash!" Kara yelled, turning her hood towards Scott. "You'd better hope that you don't make my wheelchair stink!" He ignored her comment and, with great effort, lifted the chair to the top of the porch. Thankfully, she disappeared into the house the moment the wheels hit the ground.
Scott looked at his friend with weary eyes. "Why did she come?"
"Probably just to bother you. Ignore her. Besides," Nick picked up the present and smiled, "you are going to love what I got you."
"Scott!" his mom called from inside, "It's time for the cake!" The boys hurried through the now empty living room and into the dining area. All of the lights were off and everyone surrounded a rectangular table where nine candles burned on a round, three-layer cake. His mom looked at him and smiled.
"Blow them out before we have a riot!" Pushing two kids out of his way, he walked up to the table, leaned over and took a deep breath. But just before he blew, Scott glanced up at Kara, who was sitting directly across from him. Light from the candles flickered on her hooded face, illuminating only her mouth, which was twisted into a creepy, evil grin. Scott froze for a moment, but then lowered his eyes and let the air explode from his lungs. Kara spoke with disgust.
"Yuck! You spit all over the cake!" She looked up at his mother. "Do you have ice cream? I'm not having any cake."
"Yes, dear," she said, and then turned to her son. "Scott, go into the kitchen get Kara some chocolate ice cream." After giving his mother a blistering look, he stormed off. He had just put two scoops into a disposable bowl, when a thought invaded his brain.
She's allergic to peanuts. He stopped for a moment and thought about the little witch breaking out in a thousand little angry, itching sores. Just a spoonful of peanut butter and Kara will go home crying. Just a spoonful and she's gone.
After glancing to his left and right, Scott grabbed the small jar of peanut butter sitting at the back of the kitchen counter and spooned a little bit out. To his relief, it disappeared into the chocolate ice cream with only a few stirs. Stuffing his nerves down enough to pass for normal, he walked back into the dining room. His mother was adjusting some decorations on the wall, but Kara was nowhere in sight.
"Mom," Scott said, holding the bowl away from his body as if it were a ticking bomb, "where'd she go?" He suddenly noticed that the house had become empty and silent.
"You mean Kara?" his mother said with wide eyes and a crooked, spooky smile that made his heart skip a beat. "She went looking for you." All of a sudden he could hear the metallic squeaking of Kara's wheelchair coming from somewhere in the house. "Can't you hear her, honey? She's right outside your door."
Scott woke with a jump. Once his eyes were able to focus, he checked the clock next to his bed.
As the last tendrils of sleep finally fell from his mind, Scott tried to escape the terror of a nightmare that had seemed all too real. Once again, exhaustion overcame fear and his eyelids became heavy. He pulled the covers up under his chin, took a deep breath—and heard a noise that almost made him faint. Something was rolling down the hallway with a familiar metallic squeak. As it came to a stop just outside his door, Scott's eyes turned to his clock.
He stared at the doorway as all the blood drained from his face. It seemed that electricity shot through his entire body, causing every hair to stand on end. Was this someone's sick idea of a prank?
"Chris?" he said in a weak voice to whoever was on the other side of the door?
"Kale, is that you?" Again, there was no response.
The doorknob began to turn.
Scott now gave himself wholly to panic, and did the only thing that seemed to make sense: he dove under his covers like a child and quickly tucked in every edge, lest a bony little hand find an opening to exact revenge. He heard his door swing open and his entire body began to shake. Suddenly the putrid smell of formaldehyde saturated the room with such force that Scott nearly threw up. The lights went out and the metallic squeak of a little girl's hand powered wheel chair crossed the floor with cruel patience, finally stopping next to his bed. Acting on a sudden urge despite everything within him that warned against it, Scott lifted his blanket just enough to peek out.
Both Kale and Chris were woken by the scream, but since Kale had fallen asleep fully dressed, he arrived at Scott's room first. He flicked on the light—and his mouth dropped open in horror. Chris arrived a moment later, shattering the silence with a whisper.
Scott's corpse lay on the bed with a sheet twisted tightly around the neck. Eyes bulged out of his sickeningly blue face, clearly conveying unimaginable fear. Worst of all, the sheet that had strangled Scott's life out of him was held above his head with his own two hands. Kale shut his eyes tight and turned away.
"I killed him with that stupid game."
"No," Chris said, placing a hand on Kale's shoulder from behind, "it wasn't you, it was his own guilt. You can't keep a secret like that locked away for years without it eating you hollow.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Deep space can mess with your mind." Chris shook his head sadly. "Heck, if he'd told the UNSC the truth, they never would have let him leave Earth."
After muttering a heart-felt prayer for Scott's family, Kale walked away from the room, followed closely by Chris. Although neither of them mentioned it, they both understood that certain facts concerning this terrible night would be left out of their official report. There would be no mention of Kale's ill-fated game, nor would they reveal the tragic story that Scott had told. But there was one thing that would be kept the most secret of all—so secret in fact, that aside from an exchange of knowing looks, they had not even mentioned it to each other.
How did the smell of formaldehyde get into Scott's room when the nearest supply of the chemical was light years away? It, like so many other questions that night, was best left unasked.