Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#16


Once again, Tobias Veale, our very own "villain eternal", gets his comeuppance in this moody meditation set one stormy Halloween, when Uncle Max comes to call...

 

Uncle Max

by Jeffrey Blair Latta


 

Your name is Tobias Veale.

At age forty-two, your hair retains most of its original brown with only the occasional hint of grey in the sideburns.  Your eyes are a shade of blue which, you have been told, glints attractively in a good light.  You dress conservatively in muted shades and pinstripes, and prefer your wire-rim glasses to the contacts you bought last April.

You are a man of means.

The family business, which you have managed over the past year, brings you a healthy income, allowing you to afford the creature comforts of two cars, an indoor swimming pool, a two bathroom split-level and surrounding well-kept grounds.

Though you are a murderer, you are not a bad man.

The Bank of Montreal calender beside the landscape over the fireplace is open to October.  Little red crosses mark the days to the thirty-first.  The Casio digital mounted over the piano reads 12:00.  The witching hour on All Hallow's Eve and alone you sit, reading a well-reasoned if uninspired opus entitled, I, Boss.

The sixty-watt glow of the lamp beside the sofa throws twisted shadows across the velvet patterned wallpaper and reflects glaringly from the dog-eared pages.  You had hoped to finish this chapter but the light begins to burn your eyes.  Last week you asked your doctor for a new prescription but he said there was nothing wrong with your old one.  Your doctor, you believe, is senile.

Wearily you close your book and place it on the endtable where a jumble of papers perches on the edge, creating a sort of Burmese tiger trap with which to snare your cat.  The cat is senile, too.  You think.
 
You yawn.

Suddenly, a fiery flash of lightning burns through the bay window to your left.  You count: thousandandone, thousandandtwo, thousandandthr --

The panes shiver with the electric crackle of thunder.  The storm, which has been mumbling on and off all evening, is coming closer.  And, even with that thought, there comes the slowly swelling rush of rain on the windows.

At least the downpour has held off long enough for the trick-or-treaters to complete their rounds.  Over the radiator in the vestibule sits a large cut-glass punch bowl brimming with M & Ms, Hershey's Kisses and Peanut Butter Cups.  There it sits, as it sits every year at this time -- untouched.  For some reason the children avoid this house.  Why do you think that is, Tobias?  Is it possible they suspect?  About you?

About Susan?

You rise from the sofa.

Another flash of lightning, followed almost instantly by thunder so close that the Royal Doulton figurine creeps a centimetre across the top of your piano.  The thunder is deafening and it rolls on and on relentlessly, like a creeping barrage of mortars and howitzers blasting eight foot shell holes in the hedges, the driveway, the carport, the Mercedes.  Then, as abruptly as it began, the thunder fades with a final unsatiated snarl.

And the phone rings.

BUUUUURIIIIIIIIIING

Though the phone is in the hall on the table beside the newel post, it seems so loud it is like an echo of the thunder.  For a moment you consider leaving it.  But it is midnight.  Important people phone at midnight.

BUUUUURIIIIIIIIIING

You walk slowly into the hall, debate raging in your head like a tennis match.  Answer...Don't answer....Answer...Don't...

You lift the copper-plated Princess-style receiver and speak evenly into the mouthpiece.

"Hello."

For a moment there is only the hungry silence of an open line.  A crank call, perhaps?  You almost hang up.  Then a voice like the rustle of dry leaves over a heaped grave:

"I...aaam...coming...Tobiiie," it whispers, softly.  "And...I...waaant...youuuu."

Before you can respond, there is a click and a tone.  You hang up gently with two fingers, mystified.  You don't recognize the voice, do you, Tobias?  You would certainly know if you had heard it before.  Yet, just the same...

You return to your reading, having momentarily lost the desire for sleep.

***
Time flies.  You're having fun.

The clock reads 12:15 when the phone rings again.  There is no debate this time.

"Hello?" you say, tense and expectant.  You aren't disappointed.

"I...aaam...coming...Tobiiie."

"Who is this?" you ask brusquely.  "What do you want?"

You wince.  Wrong question.

"And...I...waaant...youuuuu."

"Damn it!  Why are you doing thi --?"

Click.  Breeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

You slam down the receiver, but that doesn't make you feel any better.  That voice is in your head; that dry crackling voice.  You fix yourself a shot of Old Tower and try to hear some brain cells die.  You open a can of cat food only to discover that the cat hasn't finished his morning serving.  (You're not surprised; the cat is senile, remember?)  You put away the newspaper, empty out the dishwasher and throw away the Halloween candies.  You do a lot of things over the next half hour, just so you won't do the one thing that matters.  And then you do that, too.

You start to wonder.

You wonder why the voice -- the one that sounds like dried bones grinding slowly under a pestle -- why it called you "Tobie".  Only one person ever called you that, isn't that right?  Only

(only?)

Uncle Max.

Like a commercial for Black Label, the memories flash past in a furious disorienting jumble.  You remember Susan -- sensuous, untouchable Susan -- and the night she came to you in tears.  Susan was a neuromotor disease to most men.  In her presence, they could only nod their heads 'yes'.

Gambling debts, she said.  She needed fifty thousand, fast, or they would do things to her.  Terrible things.  She had no one else to turn to.  She was so beautiful in that moment, so fetchingly desperate, you would have killed for her, isn't that right, Tobias?  Only she wasn't asking you to kill.  She was just asking you to embezzle from your family's company -- from Uncle Max.

Just that.

So you did it; you, the accountant and financial whiz-kid.  You doctored the books and transferred the money to a bogus account and covered your trail like a pro.  And when you gave Susan the money and she kissed you the way Grace Kelly kissed Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, you thought her love was more important than anything.  Certainly more important than fifty thousand dollars stolen from a man who could afford to lose a thousand times that much.

Only Uncle Max didn't see it that way, did he, Tobias?  When he came to dinner that Halloween (one year ago today, in fact, but let's not wonder about that just yet, eh?) Uncle Max didn't see it that way at all.

Tipping the scales at four hundred pounds, Uncle Max was imposing at the best of times -- truly a solid citizen -- and that was not the best of times.  That evening, beads of sweat speckled his forehead, his bloated cheeks tinted the luminous scarlet of the thoroughly distraught, and he spat his accusations between mouthfuls of steak, potato and assorted greens.

"You thought you were smart, eh, Tobie?" he bellowed.  "Well, I kept my own books."   Family?  "You're no family of mine!"  Mercy?  "I'll see you rot behind bars for this!  How do you like that, Tobie?  Eh, Tobie?  Eh, Tobie?"

In short, he limited your options.

Still, even then you hadn't thought to murder him.  You were moving in a daze as you prepared dessert.  (It would never have occurred to Uncle Max to call the police before dessert.  Say what you will, the man did have his priorities.)  It was ice cream and strawberries and Uncle Max loved both with sugar, lots and lots of sugar.

But, as you scooped a spoonful of sugar, you almost made a terrible mistake.  You nearly mistook the salt for the sugar.  Uncle Max, as you well knew, was allergic to salt -- fatally so.  A few grains could cause his throat to swell, suffocating him in seconds.  But you didn't pour the salt back, did you, Tobias?  No, you spread it generously over the dessert.  And later, when the police questioned you, you told them about your terrible mistake, confusing the salt for the sugar.  After all, it almost had been a mistake -- hadn't it?

The funeral was sparsely attended if measured per pound of departed and they buried Max in a plywood piano-crate marked: Nordheimer, This side up.

You took over the business and you waited for Susan to call.  But she didn't call, did she, Tobias?  She didn't call and she never would.  A little checking revealed that she had taken your fifty thousand dollars and moved to Cancun with a plumber named Ed.

Ed!

So here you are, Tobias, one year later, and a man phones who calls you "Tobie" and whose voice (in a brittle sort of way) does sound a bit like Uncle Max, and you can't help wondering -- no matter how hard you try not to -- you can't help wondering:

What sort of shape would he be in...

...after a year...

...in the ground?

He certainly wouldn't weigh four hundred pounds, eh, Tobie?

BUUUUUURIIIIIIING

You don't let the phone ring a second time.  It sounds too much like laughter.  You snatch it up and shout into the receiver, "Leave me alone, damn you!  Leave me alone!"

Almost immediately you realize your mistake.

"Hello?" says a new voice, clearly put off by this reception.  "May I speak with Tobias Veale please?"

As relieved as you are embarrassed, you salvage a little dignity.

"Speaking."

"Er, sorry to disturb you so late, Mr. Veale," continues the voice, uneasily.  "I work at Green Pine Memorial Park, and I'm afraid we suffered some vandalism tonight.  It seems that the rascals exhumed one of our, uh...patrons and absconded with him.  We have called the police but we thought the nearest relative should also be informed...for insurance --"

You slam the receiver onto its cradle and ram the knuckles of your other hand into your mouth.  That's to stop the scream building like a geyser.  Because no matter how hard you try to avoid it, your mind's eye still manages to conjure up the vision of a dark, ragged figure shambling purposefully through the downpour, splashing through puddles, occasionally illuminated by headlights.  Coming.  Coming.  Slowly.
Closer.  Closer...

Impossible!  Impossible!  A year in the ground!  A year in the --

BUUUUUUUUUUURIIIIIIIING

"Hello!"

"I...aaam...com --"

With a giddy scream of defiance you snatch up the phone and tear it from its jack.  For a moment, you raise the instrument over your head like King Kong crushing a biplane (only Fay Wray's sipping pina colodas with Ed, but never mind that) -- then you fling the instrument through the living room doorway.  It strikes the mirror over the sofa and lands on the velvet cushions in a shower of silvered glass.

Now your hands fall limp at your sides, and you stare dumbfounded at the jagged ruin hanging on your wall, then at the glimmering shards spread across the sofa and deep-pile carpet.  You feel a little foolish, don't you, Tobias?  After all, do you really think that Uncle Max has returned from the grave?

Remember what Ebenezer Scrooge said?  Just a bit of underdone potato.  More of gravy than of grave.

Bah, hum --

BUUUUUUUUUURIIIIIIIIING

-- bug?

Well, now.

There's a sight you don't see everyday, eh, Tobie?  A copper-plated Princess-style telephone perched on your sofa among the fragments of your mirror happily ringing away, in ignorant bliss of the minor fact that you have torn its cord from the jack.  Definitely have to get Ma Bell to look into this one, eh?  Someone must want to reach out and touch you something fierce.

One ringy-dingy

Two ringy-dingy

KUUUUUURAAAASH!

The crack of thunder and flash of lightning come together and sound so close you almost duck.

BUUUUUUUUUURIIEEEEoouw

The ringing stops at the same moment that the lights go out.  Darkness closes in and the rush of rain on the bay window is little comfort.  It merely serves to remind you that there are a lot of windows in this house.  A whole lot.

Suddenly, another bolt of lightning fills the room with a kaleidoscopic jumble of light and shadow that Doctor Caligari couldn't beat.  You see the phone on the sofa, the metronome on the piano, the barometer on the wall, and then darkness takes hold again.  But you don't wait for the next flash.  You move quickly, (too quickly, as your left knee obligingly tests the strength of the door frame on the way by), rushing out into the hallway, turning left, into the vestibule and into the closet.

This is where you keep the flashlight, the big pivoting lantern type with attached HeavyDuty 6 volt EverReady.  At least, this is where you are supposed to keep it.  But, strangely, in the past you have never been able to find it when it really counted.  And if there was ever a time it counted, now is it.

Try not to look around, Tobias.  It will just make you panic.  You can't see anything anyway.  To your right is the hallway, reaching into darkness black and concealing.  To your left is the front door with its full length window and fanlight above.  That's it.  On your knees.  Try not to look.  Feel your way.

Winter boots...

...umbrellas...

...shoes...

(ah hah)

...flashlight!

Frantically, you fumble at the switch, and a broad yellow beam slices the darkness, jumping from wall to stairs to ceiling and down.  Your breath comes in slow shuddering gulps and the sweat trickles into your collar.  But the light helps.  The hallway is empty (as you knew it would be) and you rise unsteadily from your knees.  Through the front door, you can see the lights of your neighbours across the street.  They still have power, so this isn't Hydro's problem.

It's yours.

You move down the hallway to the kitchen and thence to the cellar door.  The cellar stairs protest under your weight as you descend step by cautious step.  The stifling aroma of mould and dry rot rises eagerly to greet you.

From the bottom of the stairs you start toward the washer/drier combo.  Beside this is the fusebox.  But you don't make it that far.

You don't make it that far because you notice the open window.

The rain is flowing in over the sill, pooling blackly on the floor.  In looking at the window you notice something else, something you'd rather not have noticed: the telephone extension to the cellar.

The receiver is off the hook and dangles by its cord.  A tinny voice requests you to please hang up and dial again.  You don't.

KRIK

The sound comes from behind you.  You turn and direct the light into the dark depths of the cellar.

"Cat?" you whisper hopefully.  You can't remember the cat's name but it doesn't matter.  The cat, after all, is senile.

Anyway, it isn't the cat.

The eyes reflect your light like moist eggs, and the teeth grin widely, black and mossy.  You were right.

Uncle Max has lost some weight.

"I...aaam...coming...Tobiiiie."

You don't bother to run.  It's just a Halloween prank after all.  Just a joke.  And so you wait and you laugh.

"And...I...waaant...youuuuu..."

You laugh as Uncle Max delivers the punchline.

"wiiiith...suuugaaaaaar..."

The End.





Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger icon


Uncle Max is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)