Throwback Thursday | An AFTER THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER Excerpt: “Company at Last” by Brian H. Seitzman

Mr. Krimbret was a man of his word. Etta picked her head up when the phone rang minutes past 10:00 AM. Krimbret had arrived at the Odalin manse and gone over the items bequeathed to her. He was ready with his bid.

“I can give you $6,500 for the lot,” Krimbret said, “I’m not interested in the Hepplewhite-style chair or the chest, but I’d be happy to bring them back to Worcester for you at no charge, Ms. Odalin.”

Etta agreed as reflexively as the jerk of a hammered knee. She decided in that moment that she could use another chair and she could find use for an oak chest. She cast her eyes about her unkempt dwelling and thought of what she might store in the trunk.

“You have a deal,” she practically squealed. Her inheritance had turned out better than she’d hoped. The boon would be a much-needed supplement to the monthly pittance paid her by the government.

In fact, Etta whispered to herself as she put down her phone, it was one of her best days ever.

***

When the delivery driver had come and gone, Etta had her check in her pocket and antique furniture in her cramped living room. She decided that she would move the chest into her even smaller bedroom to use for storing her linens. The gorgeous, finely crafted chair would stay in the living room directly across from her television. The check needed to get inside an ATM; she had never had so much money in her account before.

Joyfully reeling, Etta decided to spend extravagantly on wine of a vintage she had never been able to afford previously. She would toast the memory of Michael Odalin even if she couldn’t remember what her benefactor looked like.

Today was meant for celebration.

Etta walked as erect as she could, always looking straight ahead, into a liquor store where she selected a bottle of 1996 Duval-Leroy Cuvée Femme champagne, an investment of $150, as suggested by a helpful, friendly clerk. She left the shop with a brown bag full of extravagance in hand.

She would have danced in the street had her body been capable of it.

A rare smile was riveted to her face, but nobody could see it beneath the floral cotton scarf concealing her mouth.

Arriving home, Etta went eagerly to her refrigerator to chill what she was sure would be a bottle of the best thing she had ever tasted. She settled onto the black upholstered seat of her new chair, resting her feet on the chest that came with it. The elegant woodwork of the chair back pushed hard against her spine and the edges of her shoulder blades. This would never become a favorite chair for comfort, but its beauty as a crafted piece was undeniable.

After her meal, Etta inspected her new possession more closely.

Such elegance.

The feet of the chair were carved into long, thin digits clutching spheres, as were the ends of its arms. The arms and legs were threaded with fine, dark, leafless vines that continued onto the frame supporting the seat. The back was glorious, carved and molded into loops and bends such that there was not a single sharp angle. The delicate patina on the varnish rendered all of the wood a glossy, warm fawn.

Etta was intrigued with the black threads, no thicker than a few hairs, which wound their way throughout the wood. They looked natural, as if they had grown there.

The upper edge of the back swooped upward to a graceful circle carved at the summit into the face of an animal that Etta did not recognize, its eyes shut as if asleep, its mouth broad, its snout shallow. She ran her fingers over the carved visage and wracked her memory.

The beast was familiar, yet she could not name it. She felt the pride of possession and wondered why Krimbret had not wanted to buy such a unique and lovely chair as this. It was the most aesthetically appealing item in Etta’s otherwise spartan, utilitarian dwelling.

She treasured it.

***

Days passed as they always did for Etta: in isolation. There were books; there was the Internet; there was television. Most of all, there was white-hot emptiness for which she did not pity herself. Etta had moved past dejection as a teenager when she had given up the idea of a normal life. She preferred to occupy her mind with knowledge for its own sake. Given her appearance, she was sure it was for the best.

Still, she wished for company. Having someone to talk to, a companion to lift the curse of silence if only such a thing could be bought.

***

One day more than a week later, after a supermarket outing that left her fatigued, Etta collapsed in exhaustion into the heirloom chair. She read for a few minutes until her chin slumped onto her chest and the book fell from her hands. Etta dreamed wild dreams of dashing exuberantly through caves and chasms. She awoke from her nap an hour later, panting and sweating as though the exertions of her reverie were real.

As Etta gripped the chair’s arms to rise from the seat, she noticed bumps in the elegant wood. She was certain these hadn’t been present before. When she inspected the places her hands had gripped she found a number of blackened wooden blisters. Casting a broader eye, Etta found such blemishes on every upholstery-free part of the chair. Panic rose, a burning lump in her throat. What could this be? What was wrong with the wood? Was her prized possession rotting away before her eyes?

She searched the web for clues to the cause of the carbuncles, but nothing adequately described the disheartening phenomenon. More disappointing still was that when she turned back from her computer, the lumps were noticeably larger and darker than they had been a mere hour and a half before. Etta scrutinized the wooden tumors and noticed that they were connected to one another by the network of dark threads throughout the wood. The lumps, too, were becoming more prominent by the minute.

Etta retrieved a steak knife from the kitchen and probed one of the now pea-sized bumps on the back of a chair leg. It was as hard as she imagined the wood to be. She tried scraping some of the blemish into a cupped hand. When disjoined from the mass, the sample was like charcoal. She crushed it easily between thumb and index finger into fine black dust. She tried similarly crushing the lump she had scraped; it was as refractory as the wood itself.

Despite the unsightly imperfections, the chair still felt as solid as an artisan’s masterful product should.

Etta was at a loss.

Then she thought of Krimbret; surely a man so experienced with antiques could guide her to an answer. She phoned his shop once more.

“I’m having a problem with the chair I inherited. Can you help me?”

“I’d be glad to try. What’s the problem?” Krimbret said.

“There are bumps popping up all over the wood. They’re turning black, and when I scrape them off, they turn into powder.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Krimbret, “Are they wet or dry? Is there a smell?”

Etta squatted next to the chair so that her meager nose practically rested on an arm. She inhaled deeply.

“They’re dry, and there is a smell. It’s faint, but it reminds me of old paper and rubber.”

Etta spoke with Krimbret for some time, but he had no good advice for her. Whatever the wooden bumps were, there was nothing he could tell her about them.

She decided to try an experiment; she would dig one of the lumps completely out of the wood. She looked for the lump she had scraped minutes before but could not pick it out, as if the pimple had healed the wound she had inflicted. She chose a different bump on the back of the same chair leg.

Etta pushed the sharp tip of the steak knife into the rim of the wart, where the black body blended into the surrounding wood. She carved the discoloration’s edge in a motion not unlike coring an apple. She dug and pried until the dark blemish fell to the floor. She picked it up; it was dry and rough, and it broke into bits when she squeezed it. It didn’t feel like something capable of growth.

Etta was preparing to prize out a second lump when she realized that the hole she had left in the wood was filling with the black mass of a new blister. When she looked closely at the healing wound, there were tiny beads of black liquid around its edge. She smeared the juice on a fingertip and it reeked of spoiled meat and vinegar, nose-wrinklingly unpleasant. She wiped her finger on the waistband of her pants, streaking it with black.

The nodule swelled quickly to overflow the cavity in the pale wood, forming a new verruca.

Not knowing what to do to save the chair and fascinated by events, Etta turned her office chair to face the heirloom. She perched in worried silence. The bumps pushed outward gradually. After an hour, they looked like black fingertips all over the wood. She cautiously touched one rubbery knob.

When she sawed a piece off, however, the fragment became hard, dry, and crumbly. Again, the irregularity she had wounded healed and caught up to its fellows in length.

The black protrusions elongated in perfect slow-motion unison. After a couple of hours, they grew four inches. Then they seemed complete, their length maximized.

Etta gingerly grasped a digit and flexed it about. The cylindrical appendage moved in any direction and bent until its tip touched the wood from which it had sprouted. When she let go, it languidly straightened, like plastic with memory of its shape.

She waited, but the fingers did not meet her expectation by moving.

A jolt of astonishment coursed through Etta’s chest; the eyes of the beast that crowned the chair were open. She was sure they had been closed before. Now they were flawless black beads, polished but unreflective.

What explanation could there be?

She bewilderedly traced the visage with a finger. The corners of its wide mouth twitched.

She snapped her hand back from the chair. Her mind fumbled for a reference to such a thing in the multitude of books she had read. The living face of Dickens’ Marley manifested in Scrooge’s doorknocker in a film adaptation of A Christmas Carol she’d seen. A note of amusement was added to the chord of her fear; perhaps three well-intentioned ghosts were on their way.

The frog-mouthed wooden beast whispered. Etta couldn’t make out words; it sounded like someone speaking through static on a radio, his utterances small and metallic, distorted and windy.

A will not her own bade her to sit in the chair. Etta had many times worried about the tenacity of her sanity in the face of her sempiternal alienation from the society of the normal, but never before had she felt so certain that she had skidded into madness as she did at this moment. Looking at the seat that surely must have escaped from someone’s nightmare, her inclination to sit in the thing made her doubt the reliability of her judgment.

Nevertheless, what had she to lose?

Slowly, carefully, breathlessly, Etta lowered her hindquarters onto the black upholstery of the outré seat, then settled her back into position against the flexible protrusions and hard wood. She rested her arms and noted that the rubbery black fingers on the armrests bent out of the way of her forearm, then looped themselves gently along its length from hand to elbow. The projections in contact with her back, forearms, and legs vibrated subtly.

The chair was trying to soothe her.

Etta’s fear abated.

She relished this; the touch of another was as rare as a precious stone in her life.

Calm uncoiled in her mind and tension left her muscles.

When Etta was fully relaxed in this chair, with which she was falling in love, the beast spoke again. Its voice was clearer now, stronger, deeper, and came from close by her lobeless ear.

“Daughter,” said the voice of the wooden countenance, “Why lock yourself away? Why are you alone?”

The black fingers caressed her more emphatically now, a massage from a dozen hands. A lump formed in Etta’s throat.

“People fear me because I am so ugly. I fear them because of their loathing,” she said.

“They are not your people. Men are no more than cattle for your brothers and sisters. You have not yet traveled far enough.”

“I don’t understand…” Etta trailed off, too much at a loss to formulate a question for the weird wooden face.

“Henrietta Odalin, I am your thrice-great grandfather. My son was Charles Corbett, and I am Horatio Corbett. The child of Charles Corbett was adopted by Sarah Corbett, wife of James Odalin, when your progenitor left the human world. You are not an Odalin; you are a Corbett.”

 

 

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Brian H. Seitzman is a horror author with a background in biology. He shares his home in Worcester, Massachusetts with a hedgehog and an anthropologist. When not writing horrible things, he can often be found looking for mushrooms or exploring old cemeteries – sometimes both at once.

 

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