“Mediocre Company” – Fiction by Michael Seymour Blake

Eggs in an Egg Crate - Mary Pratt, 1975
Eggs in an Egg Crate – Mary Pratt, 1975

In the spirit of the Halloween season, we present “Mediocre Company,” Michael Seymour Blake‘s uniquely disturbing haunted house story from our Fall 2016 issue.

{ X }

IT STARTS WITH EGGS.

A few weeks after buying the house, a little two bedroom in suburban Long Island, my husband Marc and I feel like we’re starting to take control of our lives. We spend most of our time setting the place up, settling in, dealing with all the inconveniences of owning an older home. Our savings deplete faster than we’d planned, but we find a way to stay afloat.

Then, there’s the eggs.

Marc has always been in charge of cooking eggs because I can never get them quite right. Eggs are trickier than you’d think. Weekday mornings, he scrambles us some for breakfast, then we go about our business.

One morning, Marc’s eggs come out hard and rubbery. “Sorry, hon,” he says. I tell him he’s losing his touch and he fakes getting angry with me.

But the next morning, it happens again.

Marc says it could be the stove. The stove came with the house so who knows how old it is or how it’s been treated. He opens it up and looks around as if he knows how to fix a stove or even tell if it needs fixing. “Weird,” he says, “everything looks fine.”

The following day, Marc wakes up early and starts preparing breakfast. By the time I get to the table, there’s a mountain of eggs stacked on one of our biggest plates. Marc tells me they’re all bad. We eat the next batch he prepares. Rubbery eggs. Tasteless eggs. Not Marc-made eggs. We load them down with salt, but it doesn’t help much.

That night, I prepare some pasta for dinner. The noodles come out sticky, stiff and undercooked. If anything, I left the noodles boiling for too long. I forget about things like that. But no, they’re undercooked.

“Goddamn stove,” Marc says, throwing a crumpled napkin at it.

We have Marc’s dad’s pal, Ted, over to check it out. Ted knows about things like fixing stoves. He unscrews stuff, opens other stuff, nods.

“Seems perfectly fine,” he says, turning the burner on and off.

We make some small talk. He asks me how my yoga classes are going.

“I almost had a full class last week, seven people. If that keeps up, one day I’ll be able to make it a full-time job.”

Ted says, “Wouldn’t that be great.”

“And my YouTube channel is starting to take off,” Marc says.

Marc had been uploading videos of himself singing popular TV theme songs on YouTube. His last one received 150 likes. He wants to go pro someday.

“Lots of people get their start on the internet these days,” Ted says, washing his pudgy hands, “you guys are too cool.”

The stove continues to under/overcook things, but other little problems begin to arise and distract us. One morning, I can’t find my left shoe. I thought I’d left them under the bed because I wanted to wear them for work. Black velvet pumps that are crisscrossed at the vamp. Love those pumps. I ask Marc, but he’s busy trying to figure out how one end of his work pants suddenly became slightly higher than the other.

I look under the bed, in the closet, under the sofa. I look in cabinets, trash bins, the front porch.

The shoe is gone.

“Aren’t you gonna be late,” Marc asks, fishing a tape measure out of the junk drawer.

I grunt in response, checking the refrigerator and freezer.

During breakfast the next morning, Marc mumbles something, then dumps our tasteless eggs into the garbage. I let him.

He shuffles through the cabinets for a box of Kashi Go Lean, places two bowls on the table, and gets the almond milk. He dumps some cereal in each bowl.

“Tell me when,” he says, pouring the milk.

“Marc, look.”

The milk drops out in lumpy plops, thick and grainy. A warm, bitter stench shoots right up my nostrils.

“I just bought that milk on Tuesday,” I say, shielding my face with a placemat.

Marc checks the expiration date. “Should still be good,” he says.

We inspect the other food in the refrigerator to see if maybe it lost power overnight or something. I find a moldy slice of pizza wrapped in tin foil, but everything else looks fine.

“Guess we’re skipping breakfast,” Marc says, marching into the bathroom. I hear him opening the cabinet. “Why didn’t you tell me you finished the toothpaste?”

“There was plenty last time I used it,” I say.

“Guess it just squeezed itself out and ran away, huh?”

I know we had half a tube left.

 

My friend Julie says the place is haunted. She swears she has “the gift,” but her cousin, Brandon, is more in tune with the spirit world than she is. I tell her I don’t believe in hauntings or ghosts.

“I thought you loved horror movies…”

I tell her I do, but real demons and ghosts don’t grab at you from under the bed, or creep out of your closet at night, or move things around the room; they attack from within—cancer, disease, sickness, hatred, failure. Those have always been the monsters in my world.

After a dinner of delivery pizza swimming in a pool of grease, we decide to have some dessert with coffee. Julie opens a brand new package of sugar cookies and puts them on a plate. I brew some coffee and meet her in the living room. We eat the stale cookies in silence and sip at coffee that somehow turns bitter and cold within seconds.

 

I have a feeling something’s wrong when my period is late. My periods are usually the most punctual thing about me. I get the test and, of course, I’m pregnant.

Marc holds the test in his hand. He gives it a shake like it’s the neck of someone who got me pregnant. “How the fuck? How the actual fuck?”

“The doctor said it’s not as uncommon as you’d think for someone using birth control to get pregnant. One in one hundred or something like that,” I say.

“That can’t be right.”

“I don’t know, but we’re pregnant. I did another test to be sure.”

We discuss abortion, but decide to keep the baby.

I call Julie and ask for Brandon’s number.

 

Brandon is twenty-two. He sounds enthusiastic on the phone and says he’ll look into our situation for fifty bucks, “and that’s a deal cause you know my cousin.”

We set up a date and time for him to come.

 

Brandon takes one step in the house, adjusts his fitted baseball cap, and says, “Oh, yeah, I’m feeling this.”

“Feeling what?”

“Ghost shit.”

Brandon has his partner, StarZ (never learned her real name, but she insists on the capital Z at the end), walk around the house holding a microphone hooked up to a portable stereo. “That baby is vintage 80s,” Brandon tells me. It is a beautiful stereo. Brandon takes lots of photos with a disposable camera, which I didn’t know you could still find. “Old stuff tends to be better for picking up paranormal activity,” he says.

“Spirits hate new tech,” StarZ says.

After an hour, StarZ tells me they have a lot to work with and it was a pleasure doing business with me. Brandon tells me they have some research to do and he’ll be back next week. I pay them. When I go to shake their hands, StarZ says, “We fist bump. It’s more real.”

 

In bed, I run my hand up Marc’s thigh. He pushes me away. “Not tonight.”

“Not ever,” I say.

It’s been three weeks since we’ve even tried. The last few times, he couldn’t get anything working for ten minutes, and then once he got going, we couldn’t find a comfortable position. We would try me on top, me on bottom, from behind, laying side by side, standing, sitting. Something always went wrong. I would pull a muscle in my leg, Marc would throw his back out, I would start farting.

“Sorry, babe, just don’t have the energy tonight,” Marc says.

We’re better off not trying anyway.

 

Brandon shows up one Sunday night without any warning.

“What we have here,” he says, nibbling on a stale cookie from our cabinet, “is a weak-ass haunted house. It’s got enough power to influence the place, but not enough to do much actual harm. I did some research and it looks like this land was owned by a farmer in the 1800s. After he died they found a bunch of paintings in his shed. Neighbors said he sold one painting in his life to his own mother, and she paid him in bread. Miserable guy. Other owners included an insurance salesman who wanted to be an actor, a mechanic who wanted to dance professionally, and a toy store manager who dreamed of modeling. None of them achieved their goals. All died here.”

He hands me newspaper clippings, tiny notebooks filled with wild handwriting, and some blurry, gray photos printed out by what looks like one of the first printers ever made.

“So, we’re being haunted by a bunch of losers?”

“I’m not here to judge, ma’am. As a professional, I’m only here to give you the facts.”

I look at one of the printouts, the toy store manager, Rodney Smuck. He’s not smiling in the photo, and his cheeks sag almost to his chin. “What do they want with us?”

“Maybe they’re bored, maybe they’re bunch of douches, or maybe they just want some company in their mediocrity. No way to tell at this point.”

“Is my baby in any danger?” I touch my stomach as if to drive home my concern. This baby. The one inside me.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I’d test out food before it eats and make sure your, uh, milk is healthy and shit. Don’t give the kid anything it can choke on. No exposed outlets. Should be fine, though. This haunting is less a horror and more an annoyance.”

Marc sighs. “Is there anything at all we can do?”

“I know a few rituals. I could give you some crystals or whatever. Honestly though, with these kinds of things, it’s either a permanent problem, or it will resolve itself eventually for one reason or another. Truthfully, we have little control. Never know what the spirits really want until they get it, yo.”

I ask what the rituals entail.

“Oh, just some candles, sticks, hair and blood. Sex stuff too, but not much and it’s just towards the end.”

“How much are the crystals.”

“Ten bucks a pop.”

“We’ll take twenty,” I say, reaching for my purse.

“Sweet.”

 

By the seventh week of pregnancy, I’m puking like crazy, day or night, rain or shine. Puke, puke, puke. The lights in every room start to burn out every few days, so we stockpile a bunch of bulbs in the hall closet. I’m usually left stumbling around in the middle of the night puking and peeing in pitch black when I finally find the toilet. Our phone chargers, when they’re working, take hours to get the battery levels moving at all. Our phones are dead most of the time we’re home. We buy new chargers, but it’s the same deal. I bring one to the office and it works fine. Placing crystals near the outlets doesn’t help.

I put my yoga classes on hold—I just don’t have time for them.

Marc and I both squirm and shift on the couch, and the bed gives us backaches. There’s a crystal under each, collecting dust. We can’t find a comfortable position anywhere in the place. When Marc’s laptop decides to delete a flawless rendition of the Duck Tales theme song, he asks if we should move. I tell him he’s crazy, that we can’t afford it.

“We could stay at my dad’s place then.”

“I’d rather be haunted for the rest of my life,” I say.

 

We name the baby Bell. Bell keeps us up most nights. We’re both living in a dream-world. Marc’s YouTube channel loses more followers every day. In desperation, he tries to pump out more videos, but his singing voice breaks and squeaks. He surrounds his laptop with crystals and even has one made into a necklace, which he wears tight around his throat to help with the raspiness.

I start my yoga classes again, but the only person who shows up is an old woman who keeps asking, “Will this help me orgasm harder?”

 

“This kid is killing us,” Marc says.

“Don’t!” I say, holding Bell to my chest. Even as I press her tiny head against my breasts and rock her back and forth, I can feel it—a dark resentment rising inside of me. I keep having dreams of feeding her, but my milk is hot tar and it’s burning her from the inside and I can’t stop laughing as she screams.

 

Marc deletes his YouTube channel. He says there are too many singers out there anyway. He gets into Reality TV.

“There’s always something to watch,” he says.

I decide to cancel my yoga classes. It’s no big deal. Every few weeks I have to pop a few Xanax because I feel like I can’t breathe, but my doctor says it’s normal and that most people do the same thing, so it’s OK.

Julie asks about my classes over dinner. I tell her they just fizzled out, you know how it goes.

“What about you, Marc? Post any new songs?”

Marc sucks in a mouthful of undercooked spaghetti. “Forget that shit,” he says, “we have enough singers in the world. Speaking of, Voice Masters is about to start. I’ll be in the living room.”

As we’re cleaning up, Julie tells me the garbage is full of crystals.

“It’s fine,” I say, “just dump your trash on them.”

 

Marc and I discuss moving, we even save up some money, but we blow most of it on vacations and restaurants and stuff for Bell. Our conversations usually start and end with one of us saying we should move, and the other saying, “Yeah, we should.”

I keep thinking about something Brandon said, how the ghosts want company in their mediocrity. Marc’s on the couch watching Sing or Die, Bell is taking a nap in her crib. I do some stretching, then get bored.

“Hey ghosts,” I say, looking up because that’s usually where people look when talking to ghosts, “looks like you got what you wanted.”

One morning, Marc makes us eggs again. I take a forkful, bring them to my mouth and chew. They’re fluffy, seasoned well, not too hot.

“Marc… ”

“Worse than before?”

“No,” I say, “they’re perfect.”

Our lightbulbs start working again and our phones keep their charge. My spaghetti is still bad, but at least it cooks. Marc doesn’t sing much anymore, except to Bell sometimes. I could tell the passion for it is gone because he keeps his eyes open. He never used to do that. I browse yoga forums once in a while, just to keep up on the latest trends. I block a few instructors I know on Facebook because their braggy posts make me sick.

Julie tells me I’m depressed. People use that term all the time. Depressed. It’s meaningless. The truth is, I’m OK. Marc and I are lucky to have decent-paying jobs. Bell is healthy. What else can you ask for? Julie says having goals is important. “Better yourself,” she says. “You should pick up yoga again, or some other hobby. Marc, too. Who knows where it can lead?”

I tell her, “Yeah, we should.”

{ X }

CARTOONMEbiosmallerMICHAEL SEYMOUR BLAKE is the author/illustrator of 12 Days of Santa Crying. His work has appeared in Entropy, Paper DartsPeople HoldingAutre, and Reality Beach, among others, and he has work forthcoming from Fanzine and Hypertext. He has painted various murals around NYC, including one that was prominently featured at Silent Barn in Brooklyn, home to the new Mellow Pages Library. He lives in Queens. www.michaelseymourblake.com

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