Exclusive Excerpt: The Unfinished by Jay B. Laws

Excerpt:

So why in the world did he always feel reluctant to open the front door and step inside? Why this sinking heaviness, almost like sadness, stealing into his heart. It wasn’t fear, exactly. More a growing wonder over what might happen next.

He had barely completed that last thought when a shadowy, amoeba-like shape rippled across and up his front door. Jiggs rubbed at his dilated eye and blinked. It didn’t go away. Whatever it was moved like a heavy liquid, fingers of it spilling upward toward the eaves of the roof. Without being aware he was doing it, he squinted shut his left eye. There—again, the elusive shimmer of heat-fanned waves as it curled and seemingly reabsorbed into the boards of the house.

He took a moment, not knowing what he should do. He could run up the street to Kate and Susan’s, but what then? Tell them about these hunches, these intuitions, these visions which might possibly be just a trick of his eyes?

His hand trembled as he turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. Almost instantly the hairs on his arms stood on end. His skin went clammy. The interior hallway was dim, despite the midday brightness of the sunny afternoon. As he stepped inside he was suddenly, absolutely sure he was not alone in the house.

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Jiggs curbed his impulse to shout, “Hello?” His breathing grew shallow as he shut the door. The sensation of someone watching from a hidden corner latched onto him and would not loosen its grip. There was a pregnancy to the stilled air, a heaviness that stole light. Something was thickening the air into syrup.

God, this was crazy. Crazy. Where was he going to live, if he was afraid of walking into his own house? He forced himself to walk down the hallway and stare into his living room.

The rocking chair was moving. Back and forth, back and forth. The leather seat sagged under an invisible weight, and something unseen pressed against the pillow strapped to the back of the chair.

Jiggs stumbled backward, and may have even cried out in surprise. He felt shot through with an electric jolt, sure that every hair on his body now stood on end. His vocal cords were paralyzed; it was all he could do just to swallow. While he watched, the rocker began to slow its rhythmic back-and-forth movement. It came to a gentle halt. The cushions sprang back to their normal shape, as though a weight pressing against it had lifted.

He cleared his throat. “Don’t mind me, guys,” he whispered, hoping his voice was souffle-light, masking his tension. As soon as the words fled his lips he was struck by what they implied: a kernel of belief that suggested not something in the house, but someone.

A breeze rustled his hair, accompanied by an abrupt drop in temperature. A biting cold moved through and around him—a meat locker cold, like something frozen solid pushing past. If Jiggs had been shaken by the sight of the rocking chair moving by itself, his fear then was nothing compared to finding himself enveloped by this Arctic blast. The silent wind tugged at his hair and clothes and seemed to want to burrow into his gaping mouth; he snapped his jaw shut in reflex. He was afraid to breathe, afraid he’d see his breath plume out in frosty, ghostly defiance of reality. He sucked in a breath and tasted a horrible gravelly sludge in his mouth. The pebble-and-mud taste made him gag and his stomach revolt. His eyes clamped shut. He raised fists next to his ears. Very clearly he heard the scrape of a shovel as it skimmed across metal.

His eyes blinked open. Something was above him. He tilted his head further back and saw a shovel hanging in the air. Poised above his head, it tipped. All at once a sludgy muck splattered onto his face. 

“Hey!” Jiggs cried out. His hands flew to cover his face. The cold released him. The stunning image of the shovel released him. His mouth still reacted to the taste of whatever it was, bitter and rocky. He peeked through webbed fingers and lights danced across his vision, lights that warned he’d better plant his behind onto a chair before he passed out. His legs were loose and wobbly. In one fluid motion he collapsed onto the couch.

It was only much later, as he tried to put the experience into perspective, that Jiggs realized he had heard the shovel dig its cargo from the wheelbarrow.

It was the first sound he had consciously heard in over twenty-two years.

* * *

Sometime in the dead hours of that morning, when night wielded its tightest grip, a car horn shattered the silence. Jiggs came awake with the blare of the second horn, and sat upright in bed, heart in his throat, with the shrill of the third blast. His hands gripped each other, as though the pressure would assure him he was awake.

Awake, and that he had heard a horn. Actually heard it.

He threw his legs over the side of the bed. He was definitely awake, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and if he heard the car horn one more time he was going to spring from the bed and investigate. He didn’t dare to think what it could mean.

He waited. The silence with which he had made an uneasy truce over the years spun on and on, uninterrupted.

But the mystery nagged at him. Jiggs got out of bed and padded over to the front door. He tugged back the flimsy curtain covering the peephole window. Beyond the gate, sleek in the moonlight, waited the limousine. With his face nearly pressed against the cool glass, he thought he could actually hear the chug chug chug of the limo’s exhaust pipe. He felt his testicles crawl into hiding at the sight—and sound—of it. His skin erupted into gooseflesh. This isn’t happening. But the illusion moved. A back window glided open on electric skates. The interior was a black maw against the gleaming white, with no hint of what lay inside. Until the arm appeared.

It was shaped like an arm. Jiggs saw the crook of elbow, and stubby fingers spread wide as though in signal. It just didn’t look like an arm. It was covered with something viscous and gray. Blobs of it dripped onto the side of the car as the hand motioned for Jiggs to step out of the house. It reminded him of bird droppings.

“No,” he whispered. “No.” He could hear the engine of the great machine idling, but he could not hear his own voice. The insanity of this pulled him away from the curtain. He could look no more, and double-checked the locks with trembling hands.

But he heard the limousine shift out of park into drive, as it rolled away into the night.

Blurb:

Jiggs, a hearing-impaired gay man tortured by the recent death of his parents, moves into a long-vacant San Francisco apartment. The apartment is revealed to be haunted by the Unfinished, spirits whose lives ended prematurely through tragedy, violence or betrayal. Jiggs’s initially adversarial relationship with his spectral housemates soon becomes a partnership when both parties see each other as instrumental to ending their own suffering. The stories unfold via visitations by three Dickensian ghosts offering accounts of their deaths. In one story, a man dying from AIDS confronts the limits of his vanity when he realizes the terrible price of his wish to recapture his looks. In another, a car mechanic’s soul is left to ponder how his weakness led to his murder.

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