The scream hit me like a slap from a wet rag. I opened my eyes with a gasp, expecting to see the morning light struggling through my bedroom curtains. Instead, I saw myself staring into the grinning jaws of my work laptop.
The laptop was in a sleep mode. I moved the mouse, and a half-finished article leaped onto the screen. I must have fallen asleep while I was typing it. And the scream must have been a soundtrack to a bizarre dream.
I was alone in the newsroom: Andy the sports guy was probably chasing soccer players for an interview. A cell phone was lying on the tiled floor by his desk. The door to the editor’s office was open. The office was empty.
The subtropical sun struggled through a misty sheet behind the window, and my pale face reflected on the laptop screen. My oily forehead shone through a sprinkling of zits. My prematurely worn out eyes were wide open as if something had scared me.
As I frowned at the outline of my shoulders, which were too wide and round for a girl, the screams came again. “What have you done to me, you dykes? Where are my panties? What’s going on?”
The screams came from downstairs, from the realm of Jenny the secretary and five advertising girls. I recognized the throaty voice of Hellen.
I sprang to my feet and rushed to the stairway to investigate. As I set my foot on the first step, I heard sirens blare all over the town. Was there a fire? Or had the volcano erupted?
A nightmarish image materialized in my mind’s eye: thousands of people stampeding down to the port and fighting like beasts for a place on rescue boats to leave the island; helicopters taking away the rich and powerful, and the boats taking away the fittest, while the rest of the population—shmucks like me—stayed behind to die in a toxic cloud, earthquake, or tsunami.
I ran to the window to scan the parking lot and the crumbling warehouses behind it. As I was on the third floor, I saw all the hideous, peeling buildings that clustered behind the warehouses and the volcano that squatted on the other side of the island. Neither the buildings nor the volcano belched fire.
Sighing in relief, I went downstairs to the advertising department. I staggered when I saw Hellen.
Ever since she’d started working here a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking I might turn lesbian. She was so ravishing that—even though she was dumber than a perfume commercial—she’d become the paper’s biggest asset. Her long legs, small but rounded bum, generous boobs, and a face that could be both slutty and innocent convinced every local businessman to advertise with the Enquirer.
Hellen was ravishing. And it seemed she’d also been ravished.
She’d stopped screaming and slouched on her swivel chair, with her legs crossed, and with tears gushing out of her beautiful dark eyes. Her blouse was unbuttoned; her miniskirt rumpled.
The other girls bent over her, fanning her drenched face with this week’s issue of the Enquirer, squeezing her hands, and cooing her like a flock of doves.
“What the hell happened here?” I asked.
“She was assaulted, the poor soul!” said Jenny the secretary, pushing her thin blond hair away from her thick black eyebrows.
“What do you mean?” I asked, even though I’d feared as much. “Where did it happen? In the parking lot? Or in one of the warehouses?”
“No,” Jenny said. “It happened right here.”
“Right here?” I balled my manlike hands into fists. When I’d come to the office a few hours ago, every girl had sat at her desk and everything had seemed normal. “When?” I asked. “Where? How? Had the bastard been stalking the bathroom or what?”
“No! It happened right here on her desk!” Jenny said, shaking as much as Hellen did.
“Right here?” That information felt like a burst appendix. “And nobody came to help her? Was the bastard armed or something?”
“I don’t know.” Jenny’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “Nobody knows.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“None of us saw it, all right?” Jenny burst into tears. The other girls joined in a chorus, making the room look like a funeral parlor. “The creep must have drugged us. Maybe he’d released toxic gases through the vent to put us all to sleep. We all blacked out—God knows for how long—and suddenly we were jolted by Hellen’s screams. That poor soul was lying on her desk with her skirt up and her panties gone.”
That explained the yelling that had slapped me from my own slumber. But who did it? And how? And how far had the sleeze gone?
“Did he…?” I asked, unsure of how to continue.
“She doesn’t seem to have been penetrated, praise the Lord,” Jenny said. “It was probably just her panties the creep had been after. Must be some sick fetishist.”
“And you don’t remember anything?” I asked Hellen, who sobbed too hard to speak. “Nobody remembers that happening?” I turned to the other girls, but they shook their heads.
Jenny said, “Hellen says that one moment she was painting her nails at her desk, and the next she was lying on the table.”
“How is this possible?” I asked. “What’s the last thing you guys remember?”
“I was talking on the phone with a client,” said Julia, the graying head of advertising. “And suddenly my phone was lying on the desk and Hellen was screaming.”
A small bell went off in my head. My mind flew to the cell phone lying near Andy’s desk. I realized it wasn’t Andy’s but mine. And I remembered I’d also had a phone call—and an episode of memory loss.
The call had come while I was writing the article. I had glanced at the cell phone display and seen a nonsensical jumble of letters and numbers. Even though I hadn’t pressed the green button, I heard heavy wheezing slither out of the earpiece.
“Hello?” I’d said. “Who’s that?”
The caller kept breathing like an asthmatic old man, and I could not only hear him but also smell him. I can’t explain it, but I swear it’s true! The stench that had puffed from the earpiece was unbearable. It reminded me of the rotten breath of Johnny, my German shepherd that had died of stomach cancer a year ago when I had still lived on the mainland with Mom. It was as if poor old Johnny phoned me from his backyard grave. Worse, it felt as if a hundred poor old Johnnies phoned me from doggie hell, and as if they’d also crapped all over my cell phone.
Not even when the phone had slipped from my hand had the stench abated. The last thing I remembered was glancing at the window and seeing thick smoke coming from the presumably dead volcano. Then I woke at my desk to the screams of Hellen.
Had the volcanic fumes knocked us all out? How long had we been unconscious? And what had happened in the meantime, apart from the assault?
“Has anyone called the cops?” I asked. The sirens kept blaring, and I hoped one of the cruisers was coming our way.
“All the emergency lines are jammed,” Julia said.
“And Chubby-Dick never picks up his cell phone,” added Jenny, referring to Richard, our overweight prick of an editor who gained his nickname because his parents owned a whaling company.
“Well, keep trying, will you?” I said. “I’ll go report it.”
The humid heat hugged me like a friendly sauna-goer as soon as walked outside, and I was glad the police station was only a few blocks from the Enquirer. Our dead-end street was quiet but the blaring of sirens got stronger as I walked toward Main Street. The throughway was in turmoil. People ran up and down like a bunch of frightened mice, shouting and yelling.
“What happened to my gold?” an elderly jeweler cried in front of his shop, his face purple like a turnip. “All my gold is gone!”
The shop window didn’t have a crack, and the door and its lock were intact. It was almost noon, and the sign on the door said the shop opened at nine. I was about to ask him when the gold had disappeared. Then I remembered Hellen and kept walking.
I took a few steps when I saw a cruiser coming. As I raised my hand to hail it, the cruiser halted in front of me. Two cops got out. I opened my mouth to tell them what had happened, but they ignored me and rushed toward the jeweler.
“Rape!” I shouted as they followed the jeweler to the shop. “There was a sexual assault at the Enquirer!”
The cops halted and turned around. “I’m sure it wasn’t you who was raped,” said the thinner one, and they both laughed.
The insult jabbed me like a hot needle. I’d been called ugly ever since I was a little girl. Did I still have to take this crap now, and from cops on top of that?
The memory of Hellen’s tears made me swallow my pride. “Please listen: one of our advertising staff has been sexually assaulted. And I do think it’s considered a crime, even on this island. Can you—?”
“Listen, lady,” the fatter cop snapped. “We’ve got our hands pretty full, all right? Plus, we’ve got our own problems. We both lost our wallets, and somebody tried to torch our station. So why don’t you—”
The thinner cop’s radio crackled. A croaky voice bellowed something about a burglary on Littoral Avenue.
“I’m on my way!” the cop exclaimed as he ran back to the cruiser and drove away, while the fatter one disappeared into the jewelry shop.
I waited at the intersection for Fatty to leave the store when another cruiser dashed past me. Thankfully, it went straight and halted with a squeal by the Enquirer building. One of the officers I’d talked to must have been nice enough to report the assault. Hellen would be taken care of, then, and I was free to focus on the bedlam on Main Street.
What was happening was unprecedented. As the senior reporter of the island’s best and only newspaper, I had the duty to cover it.
I had left my large Nikon in my office, but my reporting fever burned high, and I didn’t want to go back and lose precious time. The small point-and-shoot camera that hung from my belt would have to do. Fortunately, I always wore a small notebook and a pen in the back pocket of my pants. I expected to take a lot of notes today.
I realized that Main Street had suffered a tidal wave of thefts and burglaries. Some people stood bewildered in the middle of the throughway, patting their pockets in search of their wallets. Others were sitting on the curb, crying over their stolen purses. Police cruisers stood in front of pricey shops.
Feeling as if I were walking through a nightmare, I forgot about my mission. The uproar coming from the bank jolted me from my trance, though, and I snatched my camera and rushed in.
About a dozen customers were shouting at the tellers, who ran around the lobby like headless chickens, doing nothing useful. However, the pretty teller at counter number three hadn’t stirred from her chair. Sobs rattled her body, and her blouse was missing a few buttons. She clenched it together with both hands while her wet eyes flicked from one man to another as if she were afraid someone would jump over the counter and grab her breasts.
Angry tears forced their way into my eyes when I realized this poor girl had also been molested. My soul filled with hatred for the bastard who had caused all this havoc. I’d gone through an anarchistic phase in high school, and I still thought robbing a bloated bank wasn’t a crime. Pickpocketing was more serious, though, and a sexual assault was the most heinous felony, comparable only to murder and child molestation.
The sight of the teller triggered dreadful college memories. My best friend, Kassinda, had been raped on the campus. Even years afterward, she had nightmares whenever she fell asleep and flashbacks on the occasions when she tried to have sex.
And now poor Hellen and the teller, and who knows who else, was to go through the same ordeal. How can men be such scumbags? I’d never had a boyfriend, and I doubted I would ever have one. Not after this.
How had the sleazeball managed to pull this off? I approached people and asked questions, but a security guard chased me away as if I was the perpetrator.
I walked down the frenzied throughway, taking one shot after another. The few people who were willing to speak to me told me the same story: one second they’d been going around their business, and the next they’d found themselves stripped of their undies or possession. Everyone who’d had a view of the volcano said it had started to burp smoke just before the madness struck.
Had the volcanic fumes doped the whole town? That was the only explanation. But how come the raping and thieving swine hadn’t passed out like everyone else? Had he been wearing a gas mask? How could he have known the volcano would erupt, though? That didn’t make sense.
“It all Chighwo’s doing,” said an old man who sat on a bench in front of the library, wrapped in a woolen poncho. Judging from his long, raven black hair and the tribal scars that crisscrossed the dark skin on his cheeks and forehead, he was one of the island’s last natives.
“Chigh-wo?” I asked, sitting down beside him. “Who’s Chighwo?”
“Lady is new here, no?” the man asked. He had no teeth, and the accented words came out chewed and salivated like Johnny’s favorite tennis ball.
“I came three months ago.”
“Three months ago!” He chuckled and shook his head. “And lady never noticed nothing weird about island and town and people?”
“Not until today,” I said with a shrug.
With its volcano rising from a dense subtropical forest, and with its virginal beaches stretching behind it, the north of the island was a chunk of paradise. However, this cluster of hideous, rundown buildings that sprawled to the large, grimy, industrial port, was like a wart on a beautiful face.
The streets grew eerily quiet once the shops, schools, and offices closed. People spent most of their free time at home, and I had the beaches to myself. That suited perfectly to a nature-loving asocial geek like me, though. I’d never wondered about it, until now.
The only thing I’d always found strange was the lack of birds. The gulls did come in enormous and noisy flocks from time to time. They only stayed a day or two, though, and always in the town and the port, not giving a white shit about the volcanic north. Other beasts—the locals included—seemed to shy away from the forest as well.
“I knew this would happen,” the old man said with a self-satisfied grin. “My grandma always say Chighwo can freeze time on the island whenever he please. And he done it. He really done it! And obvious, someone taken advantage of that.
“While everything and everyone frozen in time, a person or a group of persons—Chighwo’s priests, maybe—were untouched by spell. And they went on rampage, raping and looting, and creating chaos, on which Chighwo feed. And when time thaw, they gone hiding. Hell, they not even had to go hiding. They maybe among us, pretending to be so stunned and robbed like everyone!”
I looked the man deep into the eye and felt he was serious. I would have never believed such tales, of course, but everything he’d said made sense. Something uncanny had happened, and statis, or complete time freeze, seemed to be the only explanation.
“So who is this Chiwa— What was the name again?”
“Chighwo,” the old man snapped like a teacher addressing a dumb pupil. “Chighwo is master of island. Is the highest deity of local tribes, god of time and greed and lust and chaos. Is ancient force dwelling inside volcano.”
As he said this, I recalled my last month’s visit to the volcano. I’d been attracted to the place ever since I landed on the island. I kept postponing going there for two months, though, as if I was trying to muster my courage. Everyone I’d told about my planned trip said I was nuts. And it didn’t seem to be just their aversion to the outdoors what had made them say that.
I admit I’d felt nervous as I’d sat on my bike that Sunday and headed out of town. I pedaled along a dry riverbed where the stones and potholes nearly shook my soul out of me. Having reached the foot of the volcano, I got off and climbed.
The slope was full of loose stones and prickly thorns. It got so steep I had to climb on all fours like a mountain goat, grabbing at the branches of stunted pine trees and dwarf fan palms so as not to tumble down.
Although the volcano was said to be dead, the temperature increased. By the time I reached the summit, the heat got unbearable. Not a sigh of smoke escaped out of the volcano’s jaws, though. When I stuck my feverish head over the edge of the crater, I saw nothing but scorching blackness. A blend of relief and disappointment flushed over my sweaty body, even though I couldn’t have expected anything else.
Then, as I was about to leave, I perceived an enormous shadow wallowing in the depths. I could never explain this. The blackness inside was absolute, yet I felt something even darker moving inside the crater. And then I saw something else: a couple of large, fiery spots.
I thought it was magma flaring up in a draft, but then I realized it was a pair of eyes. They stared from the dead volcano like burning eyeballs from an incinerator. A whiff of stench rushed from below. Although it was gone in a second, it punched me like a giant fist and made me gag.
The memories of my descent are blurry. I remember falling and sliding down the thorny slope on my ass, and then scrambling up to my feet and staggering a few yards, only to fall and roll and slide again until I found myself lying at the foot of the volcano, wheezing and bleeding from dozens of scratches.
I had taken a cab back home and spent the rest of the day and the whole night in the bathroom, screaming from stomach cramps. I’d often felt dizzy, feverish, and nauseated since then, but I’d been too cowardly to see a doctor.
My mind had blocked that adventure. But the old man had made memories gallop back into my mind in all colors.
Could I have seen the eyes of Chighwo? And could I have smelled him as well? The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced the stench coming from the volcano was the same stench that had come from my cell phone: the smell of hundreds of wheezing and pooping Johnnies.
I thanked the man and kept walking. My heart throbbed at the sight of the superstitious fear groping over people’s faces. They knew uncanny forces lurked behind this madness. Rape and robbery were bad enough. But the idea of these crimes happening with the help of a malignant, chaos-hungry deity frightened me.
How long had the island been frozen in statis? An hour? Twelve hours? A day? It could have been as much as a week or more if there had been just one perpetrator. And it could happen again.
A cruiser stood in front of a supermarket. I heard the balding manager whimper to a weary cop about bills disappearing from the cash registers. This place must have also been hit by the sleeze… The sleeze who did not freeze.
The Sleeze who did not Freeze. I liked that! As I kept walking, I decided to use the moniker in my column.
I knew this would be a long day and night at the Enquirer. We had to get a special issue out as soon as possible. This would be the most fantastic edition in the paper’s history. My stories would be surely reprinted all over the mainland, and most likely internationally. Less than half a year after my graduation, I’d soared to the pinnacle of my career. I hoped Chubby-Dick’s clumsy editing wouldn’t squeeze too much juice out of my articles.
My excitement turned into fury when I stood in front of the senior high school. Seven or eight girls sat on the front steps, crying and hugging each other for support. The mothers wept along with their daughters while the fathers stomped around the front yard, clenching their fists and roaring for justice. The blouses of the girls’ uniforms were missing buttons.
“Those poor things,” whispered an old woman who’d halted beside me, her eyes flashing with indignation. “How could someone do this to them? I hope he’ll rot in jail!”
“Prisons are too expensive for the taxpayer.” I quoted my column about a child molester. “The death penalty, on the other hand, costs a pittance. I hope they’ll do the bastard in—just before they cut off his balls.”
“You’re right!” the woman said. “Listen, aren’t you the new reporter for the Enquirer? You should write a column advocating the death penalty for this monster.”
“Oh, I will, don’t you worry about that! And I hope the authorities will listen. With multiple sexual assault charges and so many robberies, there’s no other way, is there?”
“But the trials take forever,” she said, warming up to the idea of a quick kill. “The best thing would be if the cops beat him to death right after catching him. Am I right?”
“Oh, they just might!” I exclaimed, having heard dozens of stories about the Gestapolike brutality of the local police “The mainland cops who are convicted of unlawful killing don’t always lose their jobs: some of them come over here. I wouldn’t like to be in the bastard’s shoes. If I saw the cops coming for me, I’d climb the nearest roof and jump off!”
“That’s what he should do right now,” the woman said as she lumbered away.
I took the camera to snap a few pictures of the crying girls. The fathers shouted and galloped toward me, though, so I let the camera slide back into the case and hurried on.
Back at the Enquirer, I rushed to the newsroom without stopping at the advertising department to check on Hellen. I needed to start writing now when the details of the havoc clenched my brain and outrage roared in my soul.
Andy the sports guy hadn’t returned. Chubby-Dick was there, unfortunately, stomping around his office and yelling into his cell phone as if he were possessed. I gathered that the Sleeze had scuttled his parents’ whaling ship.
Spotting my cell phone on the floor, I wondered who’d called me before I’d blacked out. Had the call really taken place, or had I dreamed it? I picked it up and pressed the ON button. The phone was dead.
As I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus over Chubby-Dick’s shouting, I decided to go upstairs. I often did my writing in the attic, which offered an old desk and a swivel chair, beautiful ocean views, and silence.
Andy always worked at his desk, listening to music on his earphones, and as Chubby-Dick was too fat and lazy to climb up there, I always had the attic to myself. I was the only one who had the key, which I kept on a ring along with the key to my small, lonely apartment.
I grabbed my laptop and walked upstairs. I could still hear Chubby-Dick shouting when I reached the morgue (the place where we keep old issues of the Enquirer) on the fourth floor. However, his voice had grown to the buzzing of a fat mosquito. It faded out when I climbed the last flight of stairs.
As I reached into my pocket to take out the key, I touched something soft. When I pulled it out, I gasped when I realized it was a pair of panties. They were pink, lacy, and transparent like a net curtain. And they weren’t mine.
I leaned against the door and whispered, “Hellen?”
I had occasionally seen the top of Hellen’s underwear when she’d bent over her desk, and this was the kind she wore. But how the hell had her panties ended up in my pocket? A vague horror burrowed its fist into my stomach. Had the Sleeze played a joke on me while I was unconscious? What else had he done?
I fought back tears when I imagined a pair of hands fondling my breasts. Then I recalled the cop saying that nobody would rape me. I hoped the insensitive bastard was right.
As I unlocked the door and walked into the attic, I heard voices down on the street. I put the laptop on the desk and rushed past stacks of old invoices to the window. Jenny the secretary and the advertising girls stood in front of the building, facing Main Street. Even though I opened the window, I was too high to hear them clearly. But I thought they were saying, “They’re coming!”
I saw three police cruisers pull into the parking lot. Their sirens were off, but their lights flashed like Christmas trees. The Sleeze had to be hiding in one of the warehouses. And they were going to bust him!
I had known it wouldn’t take long to identify him. Unless he was wearing a mask while going around his sleazy business, he had to be caught on the bank’s and shops’ CCTV images.
I imagined the Sleeze entering a bank full of breathing statues. The footage would show him jump over the counter to pull at the handle of drawers in search of money and walk to the counter to pull at the nipples of the pretty teller. The mental image was clear and insistent.
The cruisers stopped in front of the Enquirer. Was the Sleeze hiding here? I turned around to run downstairs and investigate when I noticed a backpack. Large and bursting with a fat load, it leaned against the wall near the window. I staggered when I saw the crouching Spiderman sewn to the pocket. The backpack was mine. But what the hell was it doing here?
I had last seen it was while unpacking the stuff I’d brought from the mainland three months ago. I’d shoved it under my bed, where it had been collecting dust ever since. Or so I thought.
With shaking hands, I undid the clip and pulled the top flap open. The backpack tipped over. A pile of wallets and wads of bills rolled out, sprinkled with golden rings, watches, and bracelets—and more pairs of panties.
Sickness gnawed at my stomach when I understood.
It had really been the eyes of Chighwo I’d seen glaring from the volcano. His unclean breath must have turned me into his puppet. And he had mesmerized me with the fumes he’d sent through my cell phone and sent me to sow chaos.
The cops got out of the cruisers and talked to the girls, who pointed upstairs. Nobody would believe that I was another victim rather than the perpetrator. And how could I ever overcome the remorse over the pain I’d caused?
Puke rushed out of my mouth and splashed over the booty. I groaned in terror as I walked to the wooden ladder that led to the roof. I grabbed the ladder. My hands shook so much the ladder rattled as if an earthquake had really struck the island. But the tremor was only in my soul.
I climbed up, opened the hatch, pulled myself through the skylight, and put my feet on the hot shingles. The breeze made me stagger as I walked to the edge of the roof.
I heard the cops’ footsteps in the attic. Thirty yards below, the pavement spread like a pair of inviting arms.
As I jumped, I wondered whether those who fell under Chighwo’s spell could ever die.
SEPTEMBER 2020 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords Press
An award-winning author, P.C. has always had a vivid imagination. When he was in kindergarten, he convinced his classmates that his grandma was a tribal shamaness. Then he learned his letters, and kidding his friends no longer seemed adequate—so he started to write. P.C. has published two standalone novels, 'Deception of the Damned' and 'The Priest of Orpagus'. His latest project, 'Celts and the Mad Goddess', is the first installment of 'The Deathless Chronicle'. His stories have been featured in various publications, and 'A Wandering Corpse' has received an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. In September 2020, he was Spillwords Author of the Month. P.C. has lived in six countries and on three continents. While it burned a hole in his bank account, the seminomadic lifestyle has inspired most of his stories and novels. He has settled with his wife in southern Spain, where he goes swimming and cycling whenever he isn’t too busy writing and teaching English.