Jan 06

Does Anyone Else Hear Screaming from the Culvert?

so: long story short, a friend of mine told me about a strange post a friend of hers saw on facebook and i decided to run with it and use it as a writing prompt. the end result was some kind of twisted love child of edgar allan poe and welcome to night vale and i'm hoping to record it and add sound affects at some point considering those influences. even i don't fully understand what i've written but here it is.

Roger Roydon lived in the tiny cottage on the very outskirts of Miltons Fancy, by the old beet factory and the always-swollen brook. He had a basset hound named Willie and would change one day to the next whether it was a male hound or a female hound: one day he’d call the thing he, the next she and he’d swear she’d always been a female dog. Apart from Mr Roydon and Willie, nobody lived by the old beet factory. No one wanted to, since it smelled so strongly of beets and the satellites didn’t run far enough to give the old place Internet connection. But Roger lived there all alone, and the people of Miltons Fancy hardly ever saw him. Every evening he would take Willie on a walk past the swollen brook and down the dirt road that led to the beet factory. Willie would sniff around by the edges of the brook, and would run around in circles in the vast open field behind the burned-out shell of the beet factory. Once the dog had run into the remains of the building. Roger chased after Willie, calling and calling, fearful that a beam would fall down or the dog would get so coated in ash as to disappear, but Willie only emerged from beneath a teetering, ash-covered staircase with someone else’s sooty tennis ball in his or her maw, and then Roger felt silly for having been concerned.

    Roger Roydon had no family. Rumor was in Miltons Fancy that he’d been married once, or maybe engaged, but whatever had happened, he lived alone now. His cottage was small and neat. The inside walls were whitewashed and the panes of the windows just a little bit too small to fit comfortably in the holes cut for them, so that when the wind blew they shook and rattled and made a frightful squealing. Then Willie would jump up and howl out the open windows, his or her jaw open wide and eyes rolling and white at the edges. But there were hardly ever storms in Miltons Fancy.

    Every Tuesday and Thursday, Roger would clean out the cottage. He tied Willie outside, opened all the windows--no matter what season it was, he always opened the windows--and pushed all the furniture into the middle of the room. He set mouse traps, took out dead mice, swept the floors, washed the walls, cleaned off the furniture, and organized everything meticulously. There was nothing he could be do about the ever-widening grooves he made in his floor by moving all the furniture twice a week like that, so he invested in a pair of rugs to cover all the open floor space. And then he had to add to his twice-weekly cleaning routine a good hour of taking out the rugs and beating them, so that any dust or dog hair that might have accumulated would blow away and fall into the brook, or join the blowing ashes over by the old beet factory. But he did it. Every day, he did it. If you looked inside Roger Roydon’s cottage on any day other than Tuesday or Thursday, you would have the impression that no one lived there permanently--apart from the man in the stiff armchair and the dog curled up in front of the pellet stove in some attempt at recreating a pastoral memory, the place was spotless, untouched.

    Roger Roydon unsettled the people of Miltons Fancy. He unsettled them when, once a month, he came into town to buy groceries and stared at everyone with wide, watery blue eyes as if he’d been away so long, with the dog and the burned out beet factory and the cleaning, that he’d forgotten what a fellow human looked like. He unsettled them when he delivered his groceries--a large bag of beef jerky, Wild Wolf’s Way dog food for dogs over ten years and under seventy pounds, two pounds of potatoes, a bucket of white paint, several packs of raw chicken breasts, and a mesh bag of tomatoes, the same thing every month, like clockwork--to the front desk of the Miltons Fancy General Store, paid in cash--always cash--and left. The rest of the day was just as unsettling to the people of Miltons Fancy, because Roger Roydon had entered town and after the strangeness of him being here, there was a large, prominent space where he now was not.

    And then they forgot. Because Roger Roydon was an old man with a dog and a monotonous appetite and watery blue eyes, and their lives went more smoothly if they forgot all about him.

    But yet they were just as unsettled on the January day, crisp and clear and unseasonably cold and exactly a month since Roger Roydon had last appeared, Roger Roydon did not appear. The cashier of the Miltons Fancy General store had set aside beef jerky, Wild Wolf’s Way dog food, potatoes, white paint, raw chicken and tomatoes behind the counter in anticipation of his arrival, hoping to make the visit as short as possible. But Roger Roydon did not appear.

    They said it was only natural. Said that maybe in the big storm last night he’d gotten lost, fallen into the old brook, chased Willie off into the woods behind the abandoned beet factory and fallen. Some people went and looked for him. But all they found in his cottage was an overturned chair, a half-empty bag of Wild Wolf’s Way dog food for dogs over ten and under seventy pounds, three spare buckets of white paint, and a flashlight with the batteries all spilling out across the wet rug. The windows, always a little too small to be secure, had blown through in the wind and bits of glass and metal framework were scattered on the floor alongside the batteries. Willie was not there, although his or her leash was. And Roger Roydon was not there.

    Even if you had told the people of Miltons Fancy what had happened to Roger Roydon, they would not have believed you. Because telling the people of Miltons Fancy what had happened to Roger Roydon, you would have had to tell them who Roger Roydon was, and what he had done. And they would never have believed you.

    There was an old culvert which ran from the small trickle of brook by the abandoned beet factory, and running under the dirt road which led to Roger Roydon’s house and let out just above the perpetually swollen brook. The culvert had not run water since the fire at the old beet factory, when the movement of the brook on the other side slowed to a tiny trickle. But when the rain started last night, the largest storm to pass through Miltons Fancy in fifty-five years, the trickle by the abandoned beet factory became a stream, and then a brook, and then a gushing torrent which broke through the dam of age in the culvert and caused the stream to burst its banks.

    Roger Roydon sat inside his house in front of the pellet stove, which he had kept well-stocked in preparation for this very storm. He sat next to Willie, who was a she again today, and held her around the front with one arm to make sure she would not be spooked. He sat there in silence, and Willie sat there in silence, both of them listening to the rain and the howling wind and the horrible squealing of metal window frames against cavities slightly too large to hold them secure. Every time the wind blew through the squeal would come again, and every time it did Roger’s teeth ached, and the hairs on his arms stood up in protest of the unnatural sound. It was cold, with drafts coming in through the cracks under the door, and the pellet stove did little to dispel the deep chill that the persistent squealing placed in both Roger and Willie’s bones. Willie did not howl at the rattling of the windows. She just sat, as close to Roger as possible, blinking occasionally. Waiting.

    The wind blew through the little cottage again, and again came that dreadful screeching of metal on whitewashed stone. But this time there was something different. Roger shuddered, his body catching on long before his mind realized there was something amiss. No window could make that sound, no matter how ill-fitted for its cavity. This was the sound of human screaming, of a voice crying at the top of its lungs, incoherent and afraid.

    The blood humming through Roger Roydon’s veins turned to ice. Willie lowered her head and whimpered, sensing his discomfort. Neither of them moved from their place in front of the pellet stove. After a pause, Roger asked Willie if she had heard that. As if he expected her to answer. Predictably, she did not.

    The wind came through again, and the screaming was louder again. Roger was on his feet before he could stop himself. Willie stood too, watching him anxiously.

    Trying to drown out the noise of the storm, Roger surveyed his options. He could go look. But the culvert was by the brook, and the always swollen brook had already burst its banks. He could be washed away. He could go to town, or call someone, but what would he say? Does anyone else hear that screaming from the culvert?

    He shivered. He didn’t want to look. He had a terrible sense that he knew what was there, what was waiting there. What had been waiting there for all these years. Every since the fire at the beet factory, ever since the brook dried up on that side. Since Clara…

Willie whimpered, sensing his discomfort. And Roger took a deep breath and reminded himself that it had been twenty-five years since Clara fell. Since he and his accomplice bundled up her body and shoved it into the culvert, stopping the brook from flowing through, and set fire to the beet factory behind them.  It couldn’t be her. Clara was dead.

    So instead, he tried to think. He couldn’t approach the culvert from his side, because the brook was too swollen and he would be drowned. His only option was to go down the road until he reached the old beet factory, and look into the culvert from that side.

    He took a flashlight. He put on his boots, and a mackintosh, and made sure that there were batteries in the flashlight. He considered tying Willie up so she wouldn’t follow him and drown, but decided she knew her footing--and if they went down, it should be together. So Roger Roydon and Willie left the house: Roger with his flashlight and his fears, and Willie with her ashy tennis ball from the beet factory and a vague conviction that she was following Roger to the wrong place.

    The wind whistled fiercely outside. Roger bent his head, squinting against the wind, and held the flashlight up before him. It illuminated only the raindrops already pelting his face.

    Faintly lit by the sinister pink glow of a sky with too much rain in it, the burned-out shell of the beet factory stood craggy in the middle of the field. The wind had caused several more support beams to collapse. Approaching it, Roger was struck with a memory of the last time he had watched the beet factory fall apart. The night he had set it on fire, the night he had shoved Clara’s body into the culvert.

    Remembering the culvert, he turned away from the wind to look at the rut where the brook usually trickled. It was full nearly to its banks, the water rushing by into the culvert. The screaming was quieter here, somehow, yet Roger instinctively knew that this was where it was coming from.

    He walked up the bank of the brook until he was looking right at the culvert. Bending down carefully, his old knees creaking--it had been twenty-five years since he last knelt here--he shone the flashlight into the culvert.

    It was empty. The brook was flowing through it, of course it was empty. No tarp-wrapped body, no human in distress. Just water, leaves and sticks, and a beer bottle washed away by the current.

    Roger stared. Willie barked several times, trying to get his attention, but he was frozen. Clara was gone. Where had she gone? Had she walked? She had been lodged there for years. For as long as he had lived in the cottage, for as long as the beet factory had stood ashy and abandoned.

    Willie barked again, and Roger shook himself. It was clear. The strength of the rain had moved Clara’s body, she had washed down into the brook. The brook ran out to a pond miles outside of Miltons Fancy, and she would sink to the bottom there.

    Unless she were caught on a rock, unless the storm stopped too soon and she washed ashore. They would open the case, and then what would they find?

    Roger Roydon got up, his limbs creaking. It had been twenty-five years since the last time he knelt by this culvert, staring into it as chaos raged behind him, frantically imagining every worst-case scenario. None of them had come true, until today. There was no reason to think any of them would, and anyways, she had been dead for twenty-five years. The police would find nothing on her body. And even if they did find something, he would never be implicated. He had not moved into the cottage by the beet factory until after the beet factory had been burnt down. There was no record of him having known Clara.

    He turned and started to walk away. “C’mon, Willie,” he said gruffly to the dog, and Willie followed his master.

    So the two of them, the dog with an excited heart and the man with a heart jittering for an entirely different reason, made their way back down to the cottage by the swollen brook. But as he walked, Roger could hear the sound returning, growing in volume and urgency. The awful screaming from the culvert.

    Willie turned his head, ears pricked up, wanting to chase after it, but Roger shook his head. He hunched his shoulders and walked faster. There was no one in the culvert, and he was too old to walk about in the storm trying to save someone who couldn’t be bothered being found where they sounded like they were.

    He returned to the cottage, blocked up the draft under the door with some rags, and put more pellets in the pellet stove. It was beginning to get dark now, so he fed Willie and took his place back by the stove, lighting a few lamps. It created a pleasant, homey glow. Between the drumming rain and the wind and the heat from the pellet stove, Roger Roydon could almost imagine he was inhabiting a happy, pastoral scene. But for the horrible rattling of the windows and the more horrible still faint sound of screaming, from the culvert.

    He stared at the flickering flame of the pellet stove, trying to imagine that the screaming was only the windows against their frames, nothing to worry about. He let his eyelids lower, willing himself to doze off, and indeed he had almost drifted away when he saw that Willie’s ears had pricked up and he was looking with interest at the door.

    Roger turned to look as well. The door looked much the same as it always had. The rags stuffed underneath it were beginning to come loose from the wind, but they still effectively blocked out the draft, so there was no reason Willie should have been so fascinated by it.

    Then came the sound. A dull, flat knocking.

    Knock. Knock. Knock.

    Roger froze. He stared at the door. He waited. He did not move.

    Knock. Knock. Knock.

    Willie whimpered, his tail curling around his body as some kind of unsufficient protection.

    Roger thought about calling out, ‘Who’s there?’ but he decided that would be foolish. Instead, he got up and went to the window. He pulled aside the curtains and peered out, but the windowpane was slicked with rain and leaves blown off the trees and he could see nothing.

    Again the sound came.

    Knock. Knock. Knock.

    Roger muttered incoherently to himself, trying to slow his heart and dispel the chill which was settling, ever deeper, in his bones.

    Knock. Knock. Knock.

    There was nothing else for it. He would have to see who it was. Maybe it was one of the townspeople. Coming to see if he was all right. They worried about him, he knew. All alone in his cottage with only Willie and the brook and the beet factory for company.

    He took a tighter grip on the flashlight  in his left hand. He stepped forward and, with one foot, pushed the rags underneath the door aside so that he could open it with less effort.

    He opened the door.

    The wind and rain blew furiously into his face. A leaf, dead on the ground for a year or more but raised by the storm, plastered itself across his eyes and by the time he could see again, there was no one outside of his door. Only the wind and the rain and the stand upon which he beat his rugs when it came time to clean them.

    More paranoid than ever, Roger Roydon shut the front door. He waited several moments for the knocking to come again, but it did not. Whoever it was had gone away, but that did nothing to settle Roger’s nerves.

    He turned to return to the pellet stove, hoping to take another nap and wake up when the storm had passed and all of this unpleasantness was done. But there, sitting in his chair by the stove, was Clara.

    She sat up straight, straighter than a skeleton should have been able to sit. The tarp he had wrapped her body in was pulled around her shoulders like a shawl, covered in mold and dirt and dead leaves. Her face was blackened by age and nearly all of her hair had fallen out, but her eyes were bright and angry and stared directly at him. She was covered all over with muddy pond weed and something green that must have been algae, and Roger thought for a wild panicked moment that she resembled a kelpie, a carnivorous mermaid, some monster crawled in from the sea.

    Clara pointed a bony green finger at him, her eyes still staring. A gurgling came from her throat, as if she were going to speak.

    And then Roger blinked, and Clara was gone. Where she had been was only a pile of dead leaves and a chill hanging over the entire room. The pellet stove had gone out, as well as most of the lights. Electricity had been lost. Willie stared at the place where Clara had been, a faint wheezing growl in the back of his throat.

    Roger Roydon stood there for a long time. And then he went over to Willie’s bowl and put more food in it, as well as a piece of jerky. Dogs were not supposed to eat jerky, but it settled Roger’s nerves to feed the dog something he wasn’t usually allowed.

    And then he spread a blanket over the chair Clara had been in and sat back down on it himself, trying to ignore the dampness spreading through it. A cold, briny dampness that could as easily have come from the storm as anything else, but he knew what it was all too well.

Years later, they found Roger Roydon’s body inside of the culvert. He was wrapped in a tattered blanket covered all over in muddy pond weed and something green that must have been algae. His skin was beginning to blacken with age, and most of his hair had fallen out. To the panicked explorers, he resembled a the victim of a kelpie, a shipwrecked body washed to sea. No one ever quite knew how he had gotten there; whether he had wandered out, delirious, to lie down himself, whether he had been placed there by a vengeful memory raised by the storm, whether he had returned to once again address the screaming in the culvert and fallen in himself; they guessed and speculated, but came no closer to the answers. No one ever knew what became of Willie.

    The abandoned beet factory still stands deserted, bits of ash spreading to gently coat the entire field. The swollen brook is still swollen. Roger Roydon’s windows no longer rattle, because the cottage where Roger Roydon lived no longer has any windows. Its furniture has not been touched, but a layer of dust and rust and rain and mold has settled on everything. Age has tinted everything faintly green. To those bold few who, egged on by friends, peered in the windows, it looked like a drowned refuge, a wrecked ship with no treasure. Someplace a kelpie might live, only to depart in the swollen, screaming chaos of a storm.

    The people of Miltons Fancy no longer wondered what had become of Roger Roydon. They no longer spoke of or thought about Roger Roydon. The Miltons Fancy General Store no longer carries beef jerky, Wild Wolf’s Way dog food, or uncooked chicken--rotisserie only. They were unable to stop carrying potatoes, tomatoes or white paint, as other people needed to buy those as well. In fact, the people of Miltons Fancy no longer recognized the territory by the old beet factory to be a part of their town. It was easier to cast it all away.

    When it rains, if you stand close enough to Roger Roydon’s old cottage, you can still hear screaming from the culvert. But no one ever dared get that near to the culvert.