MIKE BOCKOVEN

Short Story – Kick The Door Down

Feb
06

This short story contains elements of sexual assault and brief animal abuse. Please take care of yourself.

-Mike

You don’t know where these things start or where they come from. How could ya? If I had to guess, the earliest memory I have of this sort of thing was sitting around a campfire when I was a Cub Scout…I think it was as a Cub Scout. I definitely wasn’t a full bloom Boy Scout yet cause I remember the leader took a shine to me when I was about 10 and…well, yeah. I’m sure you read all about that. Happened to a lot of kids I knew. I wasn’t special. 

[9 seconds]

Anyways, I’m 8 or so, sitting around singing Kum By Ya or some shit, and this frog hops straight into the campfire. Stupid fuckin’ thing. Just hoping along, hop, hop, then right into the center of the fire. I look around to see if any of the other boys has seen it and, nope. Not a one. This is a show just for me. I keep my eyes fixed on the fire round about where the frog jumped and, like, two seconds later it jumps out. It’s one fire and it hops twice toward me before stopping behind the logs that we were sitting on.

I’m looking around like “who else is seeing this shit” and no one is. So I watch the frog. It’s on fire, it’s twitching, all sorts of things are going wrong. One of its legs had burned off so it wasn’t do much more hopping in a circle but I remember thinking, real clear like, that if this thing I was watching wasn’t so sad it would be beautiful. The frog was changing, right? Changing from something alive into something dead but in, like, the most beautiful way I can think of. The oranges, the reds, the yellows, all just flickering around and changing as the frog went from green to white to black. Couldn’t take my eyes off it. Watched it all the way until the fire went out and the frog was nothing but a smear on the ground. I swear to you, sir, I remember that frog as clear as I remember anything in my life.

[13 seconds]

That? Yeah, that’s the big one. That’s the cough that’s going to do it. That’s the cough that moved in and brought his wife and kids and uncles and cousins and is staying for the fucking duration. Docs just sort of laughed. Nothing they can do, at least nothing they can do for a man as wickedly incarcerated as I am. I’m never getting out and the sooner I kick it, the better as far all are concerned. Hell, I might even count myself among them. Not to sound like I don’t have any remorse but, um, I’ve had my time. Plenty of it.

[6 seconds]

So, yeah, after the frog. Well, you gotta understand, I did not grow up in a good spot. My mama was poor, my daddy wasn’t around and when he was it was worse. I got teachers beating on me and Boy Scout leaders sticking their hands down my trousers. Not an excuse, just a fact. I was unsupervised and pissed off which ain’t great for anyone. That’s the long and short of it. I also wasn’t a hit with anyone in particular. Didn’t have a group, didn’t have a pack I ran with. Was kind of alone so I spent time outside in the woods and in abandoned places by my lonesome. And, yeah, I started setting things on fire pretty early. Got real good with a lighter. I remember one time my mama found a lighter in my pants and was convinced I was smoking and beat me real good because of it. But I wasn’t, at least not at that point. I had the lighter for recreational purposes only.

What’d I set on fire? Shit, man, what didn’t I set on fire. Started with stuff that burned easy like cardboard and paper. Dried leaves in the fall, that was my favorite. They would crackle and do that beautiful dance I was talking to you about, then they’d just disappear into almost nothing. They smoked real good, too and the smoke sort of had this sweetness to it. Hard to describe but you know it if you smelled it. I also loved books because of the way they burned. Each page got a turn if you did it right. The spine would splay open and then each page would give it up and blacken. Then I started learning stuff about fire, like, both through experience and through research I guess? If you can call a 12 year old idiot combing through books, looking for anything he can find about fire, then you can call that research.

I learned about accelerants. I learned about how to build a proper fire and contain it. I learned about what fire does when it wasn’t contained. Then I’d try it out in the woods and, not to sound big about myself, but it kind of became something I was good at. Something I knew and no one else did. Made me feel good at a time when not a lot of things did. Figured at some point maybe I could become a firefighter because I knew all this shit. That didn’t work out. Obviously.

[15 seconds]

Sorry about that. The first scare I ever had…OK, there was this building out in the woods. Like, an old shack but most of it was gone so it was a lot of rotten wood and stone that had been worn down by years out in the woods. One day, when I’m about 16, I decided that particular building had been around long enough and I was going to burn it down. I get out there and I’ve brought some gasoline, which was my first love if I’m being honest with you. Goddamn, I love gasoline. The smell of it, the way it’s kind of it’s own special kind of liquid. I mean, when you look at gas, you know you’re looking at gas. No one is going to mistake that for water, that’s for dame sure. I bring this big can out with me, I set up what I want to set up and just when the sun sets, I light it up. Whoosh. Everything goes exactly to plan until the wind picks up. 

I remember watching, all proud of myself, then seeing the top of the flames start to lick at the trees around me and thinking “oh shit. I just did something bad”. Because once you flick the lighter or light the match or whatever, you’ve let the fire loose and it’s going to do what it’s going to do. You have no more control over it than you do the wind or the rain or running across some piece of shit who sticks his hand down your pants when you’re too young to fight him off. Just one of those things, so when I see the fire going faster and further than I thought it was going to go, I remember getting that hole in your stomach that you get when you really fuck up. And then I remember something else. So, all this is a very long answer to the question “where did this start”. The thing inside me, that thing that made me do what I did, that part of me that went from a kid who likes fire to what I became. That was where it started. Because…

[9 seconds]

Because….

[7 seconds]

Shit. Sorry. That was gross.

Like I was saying, because on top of that empty feeling was something else and it was impossible to ignore, let me tell you. When I realized I had maybe just burned down the forest, maybe just lit up hundreds of trees and maybe burned down some people’s homes, maybe scared the people in my town shitless, it’s the first time I remember feeling powerful in my life. I mean, I’d felt power, but there’s a difference between feeling power and feeling powerful. It’s a big difference, don’t let anyone tell you different. The difference? Scale, I guess. I mean, you can beat up a kid in your math class and have power over him, but that don’t hold a candle, no pun intended, to what I felt that day in the forest. It was something bigger than me as a person.  It felt…I don’t know, Biblical. Like I was on the cusp of doing something really, really big. I ran away that day and nothing else burned, but that was it.

That’s where it started. That’s where I think the demon got the AOK to take me.

Look, I ain’t got a lot of education but I’m not telling you an actual demon sits inside me. That’s not it. What I’m telling you is I started a dialogue with something. Something would whisper in my ear. Something would stay away for a while but other times it would get super fucking loud and just be screaming at me, “burn something! Burn something big!” To the point where I couldn’t ignore it. And I tried to ignore it, don’t think I’m the sort of asshole who went looking to cause as much pain and suffering as I could before I kick the bucket. That ain’t me, no matter what you think. I know who I am.

[15 seconds]

But this voice, I guess I always thought of it as a demon. Like, with a forked tail and horns and red skin and the whole get up, but not, like, in a cute way. Like, in a “run as fast as you can” way. A way that would make you shit your pants if you saw it. A way that…I guess, if I have to think about it, made me feel powerful. So I graduated high school, got me a job and kept lighting things up. No reason not to. One real big reason to keep doing it.

What’d I burn down? I’ve been thinking about what to tell ya. I mean, you hear me losing more and more of my lungs over here. I’m on the way out. I ain’t never leaving this damn place. Thing is…I don’t think, you’re gonna believe me and what I want to tell ya, I can’t prove. No way. I mean, you can go back and check but if I heard what I’m about to tell you, I’d call bullshit. So do I tell you? Do I keep it to myself? What do you think?

OK, then. Here it goes. When the demon in my head would come knocking, I figured I needed to burn something down and then he’d shut up for a month or so. Sometimes it was two weeks and sometimes it was two months but he always came back and, let me tell you, demons don’t knock. They kick the door down. So, when he came around I always made time. Planned it out. Looked around, picked my spot. By then I’d figured out more about accelerants but gas was still my first love. Plus, it was the easiest to make look like an accident. Everyone has gas in their shed, oily rags in their garage. If that’s where you start it, 8 times out of 10 no one is going to figure it out and 9 times out of 10 they ain’t gonna call it arson. 

I’m 62-years-old. I started burning down stuff once a month or so since I was 18. Do the math.

Yeah, I had to move around a lot. Good news is folks always need a janitor, am I right? I don’t mind keeping to myself so it wasn’t that hard and if I ever lit up a place that wasn’t empty and I killed some folks, well, it was pretty easy to pack up and head to the next town. Get a job. Get an apartment. There are thousands of folks who live like that, moving from place to place, job to job. Nomads, sort of like. It ain’t the easiest life but it was what the demon needed.

[24 seconds]

How many people did I kill prior to the big one? Well, damned if I know. Damned either way, am I right…

[6 seconds]

Shit, man, I don’t know and I’d never really given it any thought. At least, I didn’t until the big one. I burned down houses, I burned down buildings that seemed empty or that I knew was empty, I burned down a few businesses. A church once. While it was happening I never saw anyone get hurt and afterward I didn’t want to know. I never stuck around to read the papers afterward because that wasn’t what stopped the demon from knocking. I would usually sit and watch and that usually took care of it. After that it was like it never happened, far as I was concerned. 

So, the big one. Yeah. No good. That was what? Four years ago now? Five? I lose track in this fuckin’ place. 

The demon knocked so I started looking around. This was in Omaha. Shit hole of a town if you ask me but no one does. I tend to like to stay away from businesses, especially ones connected to other buildings ‘cause if it jumps and burns down three or four buildings that’s the sort of attention I don’t need. But something about this building was calling to me. It was an old used book store, right? The owner had just abandoned it and no one had taken most of the books out so I figured the place was a tinder box, just waiting to go up. An empty book store was too big a temptation, man. Thinking about all those books burning. The demon was knocking hard. So, I scope it out.

I broke in a few nights before I did it, looked around. The building seemed like it was in good shape and I knew enough to look for firewalls and it seemed like this business had them. I mean, it was a little risky but the way I did  it, I had a decent sized fuse. I could light it and be 8 blocks away having a beer on a rooftop when it went up. If the building next to it went up, I’d pull up stakes and move on to the next town. That was the plan. Any fire department worth their salt could save the buildings around them. Looks like we’re all lined up.

[11 seconds]

So, I go in, I set it up, I light the fuse and already things are going wrong because I clock a guy clocking me coming out of the back of the building. Just some preppy looking kid out having a smoke. I see him see me and he seems me see him see me. But what can I do at that point? The fuse is lit. I head to my rooftop and by the time I get up there, the building is already up. Ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. And I start getting that pit in my stomach that I got the first time I lit up a building – I’d done something wrong, something bad. It overpowered the demon which was…new. And worrisome, right? I get my binoculars out to get a better look and could tell, right from the start, that something wasn’t right. Then the first explosion hit.

Books wasn’t the only thing that bookshop owner had abandoned. Apparently you can make meth out of all sorts of things and this asshole had flammable shit just lying around. Sure, I missed it but I wasn’t looking for it. Didn’t know to. And, while a good firewall stops fire from spreading a good explosion will blow a firewall apart real good. Then where you at?

About 46 dead people. That’s where you’re at. Before the cops came I saw a few of them run out of the buildings. Two of them were on fire.

It wasn’t like watching the frog. Not at all. 

[17 seconds]

Of course that little preppy asshole outside the store followed me and called the cops. And, of course there wasn’t a prosector or a judge or anyone who didn’t want me to breathe free air again. Thing of it was the second the first explosion hit I knew. I could see the rest of my life laid out in front of me and there was fuck all I could do about it. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’ll put it like this. You ever drive on icy roads, you start to slide, you’re heading toward a mailbox and there’s a good two good, long, drawn out seconds where you know you’re gonna hit the mailbox. Like, it’s already happened but it hasn’t happened yet. That was me after the first explosion hit. I knew the preppy asshole had called the cops. I knew I’d end up here or some place like here. And I knew I’d never light another fire as long as I live.

This cancer, that’s new, though. Sucks worse than I figured it would.

Have I heard from the demon? Ha! Good question, sir. Good question. The second he saw what my future was I could almost feel him leave. He packed his bag, grabbed his hat and made out to the next sorry son of a bitch. He knew he was done.

I knew I was done. Like I said, I had my time. A lot of it.

[24 seconds]

Maybe too much.

Short Story – High Resolution

Oct
28

Here’s a little spook story for the spooky season. Hope things are going well. News soon!

-Mike

HIGH RESOLUTION
by Mike Bockoven

It’s not about skill. Anyone with an attention span and gear can do what I do. It’s not about talent, whatever that is. It’s about recommendations. Good, old fashioned, networking, my man. That’s how you do it. That’s how I got my very own ghost story. 

Networking isn’t hard, either, if you want to know the truth. I’m not much of a people person but I can hold a conversation and once you learn the basics, that all you need. Learn a bit about sports, learn how to be “appropriately innapropriate”, be friendly and interested. Then, once people know what you can do and how you do it, all sorts of people come calling. I never even had to put out a shingle or do anything crazy like go to Rotary meetings or join a golf club. I hate golf. I hate most people who golf but that doesn’t matter cause all I had to do was a few jobs for the right people and -pop- I was in. More work than I could handle. More work than I wanted. But the money…damn. So good. 

I didn’t even go to school for this! I spend 40 plus hours a week filming and uploading and editing and color correcting and audio correcting these videos and I didn’t even know what I was doing for, like, the first year. I sort of tinkered around the edges. Watched YouTube videos. I love tech, I’ve always loved tech, so this wasn’t a huge stretch, but it was still something new. I know people who went to school, spent four years and received, like, excellent tutelage, who aren’t as successful as I am. And you know why?

That’s right. Recommendations. Networking. I got in with the right people and they told their friends and suddenly I’m the guy who does filming and editing for all the rich people’s passion projects. Every one. Oh, you need something for YouTube, darling, call Rick. He’ll make it look gorgeous.

Esmerelda, she was the first one. Weird lady. She was a beauty queen in a former life and really liked it. Like, really liked it to the point where she built her identity around it. You’ve seen beauty pageants, right? You know that part where they answer questions like “how will you use your position as Miss Upstate Illinois to bring peace to the Middle East” and you have to listen to grandiose answers about how we’re all one human race and we all need to give peace a chance? You heard those? Esmerelda, God love her, she talked like that all the time. 

Pretty? Yeah, kind of. She’s attractive enough and I never saw her not made up to the nines, full jewelry, make up, hair, the works. Not once. I mean, she was in her late 40s which made it even weirder. There aren’t seniors tour for beauty queens. But, yeah, if you squinted you could see the beauty queen she used to be. I don’t know where she got her money, though I can guess, but she was loaded and she used the money on herself. The first time I was in her house the first thing I noticed, and the first thing anyone with eyeballs in their head would notice, is all the pictures in her house are exclusively of her. There’s a giant photo of her hanging over the fireplace, there are smaller framed photos of her all over the house. No friend, no family, just her. No childhood photos, either. All of them are glamour shots and they must have all cost her tens of thousands of dollars.

Right, so I ran into her at a podcast conference. I was flirting with audio engineering at the time and might go back to it now that I have the time, but that’s where I met her. I was messing around with this camera I had just bought and the split second the camera landed on Esmerelda, she smiled and started posing for me. We struck up a convo and she asked if I produced video. I don’t know what made me say it, God knows I wish I hadn’t said it, but I said “yeah”. Before I knew it, she was going to pay me $1,000 for an “initial consultation”, whatever the hell that was. Turns out, what it meant was I go over to her house, ooh and aah over her photos and get an idea of the sort of videos she wanted. Easy stuff. A livestream of her podcast, a few promo videos, and a couple of what she called “mood pieces” which are just her standing around a few locations, looking elegant, set to music. Why? Good question. Near as I can figure she liked the idea of being filmed and having some sort of product produced, right, so when no one had a camera on her she hired a camera to be on her. All this was fine with me. The work was easy, the pay was damn near extravagant…I almost felt bad taking so much from her. Almost. She was happy, I was happy, what’s the problem?

Her podcast. Ha! OK, buckle up. Her platform from her beauty queen days working with the elderly. She called her podcast “ELF” which stood for the “Elderly Love Federation” which sounds mildly pornographic now that I think of it. Her podcast was just her talking about whatever article she read about elderly care and then more of her just musing about shit for another half hour. You can still find all the episodes, I don’t think anyone took them down after what happened.

So, one of the things I learned real quick is when you’re dealing with rich people, there are always hangers on and those hangers on will do whatever they can to stay close to the source of the cash. Esmerelda, she didn’t seem to have any boyfriends or girlfriends, but there were certainly people hanging around who gave me some real hard looks the second I came through the door. There was Jackson, who was this tall blonde dude who was about as gay as gay could be. He didn’t like me at all or if he did he had a weird way of showing it. There was Carmen, who was a make up and hair lady, near as I could tell. I never saw Esmerelda before she was camera ready so I can’t say for sure. Those were the main two but there were always contractors or consultants of some sort coming and going. Like I said, lots of hangers on. I’m white, kind of nerdy, kind of tech-y, so it’s weird that I was part of that circle at all, but Esmerelda loved me. Better than that, she recommended me to all her friends and before I knew it, I was the videographer of every rich person in the tri-county area. But Esmerelda, she was my priority. She said “come film” and I always said “yes”. Without hesitation. Sometimes with very little notice.

I’d been filming her for around a month when the calls started. The number was always local and I have a lot of irons in the fire so if the number is local I usually pick up. The first few times I picked up it was just heavy breathing. Not in a perv sort of way, just enough breath to let you know someone was on the other end of the line listening to you. I’d always do the same thing – I’d start by saying “hello” and say that a few more times then hang up. At that point there were about two a week or so, not enough to be concerned but definitely enough to notice. 

That changed after a week or two, I can’t exactly remember. Instead of heavy breathing it was like being dropped in the middle of a play. A voice, usually a guy’s voice but sometimes a kid’s voice, would be pleading for help. “Please help me”, “they’re going to kill me,” “why am I here?” “I can’t see, it’s too dark”, those sorts of things. Every fifth call or so was just a kid, a boy, asking “Daddy?” Over and over, like it was a question. I don’t know why, but my brain always conjured the idea of a small boy, alone and lost in the dark. That was the one that spooked me the most but they were all deeply creepy. And they escalated after a while. I remember, really clearly, once picking up the phone and a man yelling “stop, it hurts!” Over and over. Creepy as hell. 

The calls picked up a bit, maybe four or five times a week, always from different numbers, at all different times of the day. They happened more at night. I’d shut my phone off at night, turn it back on and have 6 or 7 messages clogging my voicemail, each message running the maximum length of a voice mail which was six minutes at the time. That means someone was taking a half hour a night to send me creepy messages for no reason I could discern. All of it was this weird…pre-torture kind of stuff. That’s what I called it, pre-torture. Because of what came next.

Yeah, man, I tried everything I could think of to stop the calls, but at the same time…how do I put this without sounding too bad? I wasn’t that worried. That make sense? I was working with weird people so I figured one of these weirdos was doing some sort of performance art piece or social experiment or something. I would have bet a thousand dollars Jackson was behind it, trying to rattle me. Even though it was people asking for help, it didn’t seem real. It was well done, but I figured I live clean. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet, swear to God. I’m not running drugs, I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m a nerdy white guy in a mid sized American city, man. It was either a mistake, or, frankly, someone was fucking with me and I wasn’t about to let them live rent free inside my head. I treated it as an annoyance.

Things changed the night of the seance. Esmerelda was, of course, had a passionate and abiding interest in the occult and asked me to film a seance she was hosting on the night before Halloween. I guess “the veil” was thin enough the night before. Not a big believer in that crap, but she called, so I showed up. I knew the check would go through. 

When I showed up there were seven people there, all of whom I’d seen around. Jackson, of course. Carmen the make up lady. One of Esmerelda’s two trainers, this one named Marlowe. A dietician who’s name I didn’t know. Then there was Nikki, who I was meeting for the first time. She was Nikki “from the club” which could have meant six or seven different things, near as I can figure. Six people around the circle, me filming, my phone on silent. Esmerelda never really gave me direction on what to film, but I sort of knew. I trained one camera on her, put a microphone near her so I could get some decent audio and, just, went around grabbing material to cut in. I figure I could get some b-roll later. 

Like everything she did, Esmerelda did the seance up big. She had bought lighting equipment, or someone had done it for her, and the room was this eerie red shade. She didn’t offer much by way of explanation, no “this is why you’re here”. She just launched into it, man. “Come spirits, hear our calls to commune.” “Come spirits, bless us with your presence.” Now, I’m in a unique position, right, because everyone else has to play along, closing their eyes and joining hands, but I get to see everyone and I can tell who’s down for this and who is just here for the paycheck. And I’ve got my eye on Jackson because I figure he’s one who’s just playing along but he’s really into it. His eyes are dancing under his eyelids…you ever seen that? Like, when someone is in a deep sleep? His eyes were moving fast even though he had them closed and as Esmerelda got to her crescendo…

Let’s just say the police were glad the tape was rolling. 

First, I heard that kid asking “Daddy?” Heard it clear as a bell. That was the first thing.

Second thing is Jackson just lets out this spray of blood from his mouth, a good two cups worth, at least. It was like he’d been bleeding a lot all the way back into his stomach and throat and chose the highest moment of the seance to douse the middle of the table in hemoglobin. To my credit, I kept filming. Caught the whole thing, man. Every bit of it. Of course, everyone lost their shit the second the blood hit the table and most everyone just freaked out, screaming and running around. For his part, Jackson kept retching and bleeding. I think, having seen the tape a bunch of times, at one point he was trying to scream. I can’t be sure. That’s how it looked.

Can I confess something to you? It was kind of awesome. I mean…that sounded terrible. Let me put it this way. I understood, like, war photographers a lot better after that night. Once you capture something truly terrible on camera you want to do it again. If I can brag on myself for a second, the moment where Jackson went off like the fountains at the Bellagio, I was in perfect position. I got it. The whole thing. I showed it to Esmerelda and she was all excited in a weird way. I remember she put her hand on my shoulder and said “if anything’s bothering you, you can come talk to me.” It was such a bizarre night. 

An ambulance was called, Jackson is carted away, I show off my footage, head home and that night the calls just start coming and coming. Twice and hour, three times an hour, different numbers, same message. This time, whatever was happening at the other end had progressed and now…shit was going down, I guess. Lots of screaming and begging. Banging noises. It all seemed to be the same person on the, um, receiving end, I guess, but it’s hard to tell the difference between voices when someone is screaming for their lives. 

It got so bad I went to the phone company to try to figure out what was up and the best solution they could offer me was to get me a different number. I couldn’t do that because, like I said, I didn’t hang out a shingle. I didn’t have a storefront. My business was all person to person. If my phone number changed I was suddenly unavailable to everyone I knew and if I sent my new number around, chances were great that whoever was doing this would just get that number, too. Nearest they could figure, whoever was doing this was generating random local numbers and calling from them. So I changed my voicemail to strongly suggest email, let my inbox fill up and didn’t answer my phone that much for about a week or so.

At that point, I don’t mind telling you, fear was starting to creep, man. At least once every day or so I would just wonder what would happen if I let the scene play out, just listened to the torture for a while and…I can’t really describe it right. I never made it. Whatever was happening on the other end of the line was so urgent and realistic, it got to that deep, little kid part of you that was scared to go into the basement. It started to gnaw on me a bit.

I know this sounds stupid, but my solutions was to go to Esmerelda. 

I know. She’s fake as fake. She’s rich and out of touch. But I went to her. I live by myself and…I keep trying to tell myself I didn’t want a woman to tell me everything would be OK but if I said that I would be lying, OK. Sue me. 

She was made up, of course. She always was, but it was toned down a bit and she seemed happy to see me, beyond the fake way she usually was. We sat in her overstuffed parlor and I told her all about the calls and a few seconds later, the phone rang. I couldn’t have planned it any better. She kind of nodded, gesturing for me to put it on speaker phone and I did.

There were two calls. The first one was the creepy kid asking “Daddy?” Over and over, once every two seconds or so. She got this horrified look on her face and so I hung up and the second I did, the phone rang again. This time it the other kind of call – screaming, terror, wet thumps, some electric hum in the background. I’m watching her and she just starts convulsing, like, shaking really hard. I hang up, obviously, and run over to her. She’s thrown herself back on the couch and I am able to get my hands around her shoulders and the second I touch her – poof – she snaps out of it. I immediately let go of her, I mean, you never touch the client, right? But she was cool. Shaken, but cool. 

Esmerelda immediately starts apologizing to me, like she did something wrong. “I’m sorry, Rick”. “I brought this to you, Rick”. “It followed you here, Rick”.  According to her, there was a spirit or some such following her around and it was trying to hurt me.

I feel the need to reiterate for you, I don’t believe in any of this shit. Seriously, that ain’t me. Ghost hunting is bullshit, psychics are for idiots and science is right 99 percent of the time. But, at that moment, I was just about ready to believe her.

Until I saw the camera.

It was a GoPro Max, red light blinking, just over Esmerelda’s shoulder. It’s this nondescript black box that could, easily, have been home decor or part of the WiFi or something, but I recognized it. I have one, myself, and they ain’t cheap but they’re excellent for this kind of work. I don’t know this for sure, but I guarantee you there was another one trained on her over my shoulder. She wouldn’t blow coverage like that. 

I didn’t confront her. Not right then. But I had a good idea of where the calls were coming from.

A friend of mind is a Private Investigator and I called him and had a really late night drinking coffee and laying out the facts. He agreed with me, did a little bit of legwork and the next morning, after brunch, he and I went over to Jackson’s house on the edges of the rich part of town. He invites us in, like an idiot, and tries to shut the door with the recording equipment and automatic phone dialing device, but we both see it and he sees us see it. And he spills. And I mean he spills. The seance was for my benefit, the blood was fake, the police were fake, which was a really nice touch, and the calls were coming from inside this asshole’s apartment. They were filming with hidden cameras the whole time and they hoped I was going to get a lot more scared then I was. They had men hired to follow me around but, get this, I never left my house. I didn’t let it change my life nearly as much as they thought it would, so their little game ended up being a lot more boring than they were anticipating. Ha! I beat them by being boring and I didn’t even know I was doing it. 

The long and short of it was Esmerelda was trying to get on TV. She was hoping I would flip out, she could exorcise the evil spirit, or whatever, and she could cut together a “proof of concept” reel with the hook that she was the real deal. Or that she was charming enough to get morons on tape believing in evil spirits that manifest hell through the phone or whatever. 

That’s just it! I sued them all! Esmerelda is worth more than $75 million and is bored, so I gave her something to do. She was so pissed off during discovery and settled when she realized how screwed she was. I toyed around with suing Jackson and some of the rest of them, but with what I got from Esmerelda, that was enough. I’m set, brother. How much? Let’s just say she is not worth $75 million anymore. Guess networking really does pay off, right!

Yeah, the calls stopped. Of course they did. The cops even played them for me to make sure it was the same sort of messages. There was the screaming and the torture and all that.

But the crazy part? Of all the recordings in Jackson’s place, and there were hours and hours of them, there wasn’t a single recording of a kid asking for his daddy. Not one. They listened, I listened, as best I could, and it just wasn’t there. Whatever those calls were they were something else. I’ve run them through audio software and there’s nothing definitive about it, but it’s just super duper creepy.

Well, I told you I had a ghost story, didn’t I! I wasn’t lying. Wait, you want to hear it? I have a recording of one of the calls on my phone. 

No, man, just listen to it. It’s creepy.

Here it is. It kind of got buried behind other stuff.

OK. Listen.

Short Story – Music of the Gods

Mar
14

I originally considered this short story, which has been gestating for a long time, as a full length novel. After messing around with it for a while and realizing there’d have to be a lot more meat on the bone than my brain could come up with, I abandoned ship and finally wrote it as a short story. Hope it works for you. Thanks for reading it.

-Mike

Music of the Gods
by Mike Bockoven

I don’t like being looked at.

It goes back to when I was a little girl. Like, real little, two or three or whatever. My mom told me when I was a child I would shy away when adults were around. I was so good at hide and seek that it scared people. I know all the spots no one would look for me because I had already sought them out on my own – between the upside down couch in the garage, behind the toy chest in the living room – all those places. I knew where I could go so no one could or would find me. It made me feel safe which made me feel happy. I don’t think I was ever happier as a kid than when I was tucked away, knowing no one was going to find me for as long as I wanted to stay there.

I think that explains why I chose a life in the pit.

That sounds cooler than it is, don’t get excited. I’m not a dominatrix or anything. “The pit” is shorthand for the orchestra, right? When you “play in the pit” you’re providing live music for whatever is happening on stage. That’s what I chose to do with my life, quite consciously and I’m still glad I did, even with everything that happened. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I was really, really good at it, I was making a living in the arts and music, doing good work, and literally no one would see me. Even if they were looking. It was perfect. The best chance an audience member had of seeing me was during the curtain call at the end when the lights were on full, but at that point no one was looking at the pit. All eyes were on the stage. Where they should be.

I was on my fifth production when it happened. I had done a bunch of touring shows, which is where you kind of start out. I’d been in the pit for “Book of Mormon” and “Waitress” and “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Phantom of the Opera”…Jesus Christ that show…when I got called up. I was asked to be on Broadway proper after being a road rat, for a new show. It was called “Music of the Gods”. If “Phantom” was nothing but spectacle, and trust me, as a musician it is nothing but spectacle, “Gods” was even worse. It was big, loud, bombastic, the music was kind of boring to play, to be honest, and featured to biggest special effects in the game at that point. It was worse than Les Mis.

But it had buzz and who was I to argue with a steady paycheck, a show with buzz and an indeterminate amount of time in New York City? I signed up willingly. I loved New York, especially in the fall. I would spend way too much time just walking in Central Park, feeling the cool air. I even met someone, which was rare for me. But while life was going great outside of the pit, it didn’t take long for the cracks to start to show in the production. They bring in the orchestra late into the process, when everything should be worked out and things were not worked out. Very far from worked out. Miles and miles from being worked out.

The producers of “Gods” were tech bros, loud and boisterous and new to the game and unwilling to grasp what it was they were trying to do. They were the kind of guys who threw around phrases like “‘no’ is just a word” and “there’s nothing we can’t do with time and money”. Well, my good bro, yes, there are things you can’t do, like safely set a stage on fire as a 30-foot-monstrosity built out of servos and metal stalks the stage. “No” isn’t “just a word” when what you’re doing is inherently dangerous. You can do a lot on the stage like build King Kong or recreate battles but at some point it goes too far. Hello, did these dudes not remember “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark”?

No one asked the opinion of the double reed player in the pit. If they had asked, I wouldn’t have given it to them. I was just watching, hitting my cues with mathematical accuracy, playing the notes as beautifully as I could. Any good double reed player will tell you that tone is everything and I had tone. Always did. Not so much anymore. 

The show, itself, was this conceptual mish mash of Greek mythology and hip hop and Godzilla movies, all framed with this Lovecraftian monster nonsense. In theory it sounds very cool but from the standpoint of the pit, it was a lot of building quarter notes, a lot of set up for the people on stage, a lot of nothing. Not that I hadn’t been there before (hello, Phantom?!) but it’s one of those shows that was trying to be more grand and important than it was, trying to prove to the audience how “impressive” theater could be. At the end, as if two hours and fifteen minutes of stomping quarter notes hadn’t driven their point home, “Gods” ended with the reveal of “The Monster”, which was our 30-foot star made of metal and fire. It really was a technical marvel. The first time I saw The Monster, it legit scared me. It was huge, legit huge. In the pit, we started calling the monster “Liz”, which came from the fact that one time one of the stage techs uttered the word “Godzilla” and one of the tech bro producers screamed at him for 15 minutes. So “Godzilla” became “Zill” became “Liz” for some reason. It was a decent short hand, a fun inside joke and it stopped the screaming from the producers for a second.

Jesus Christ, those producers loved to yell. Despite all their talk about “vision” and “team” they were in charge and were anxious to let everyone know they were in charge at every opportunity. They screamed about things that went wrong, they screamed about things that went right, they burned through the best stage techs in town before previews, no pun intended. Once, one of the actors was in the middle of her solo before the end of Act I and the producer with the blonde hair flew out of his seat and screamed at her, literally screamed three inches from her face, until she broke down and cried and we had to shut everything down. Her sin was not showing enough passion and I guess he wanted to show the professional actress how to convey passion. Even though they weren’t yelling at me, it set a tone, clear as a bell. 

Since it was a tense production, old habits kicked in. Before rehearsal one day, I started taking a good look at our space in the pit. We were in an older theater so things had been built and then rebuilt on top of that and then rebuilt on top of that. Nothing is ever good enough the way it is. I was looking around, scraping at one of the wooden panels that looked out of place behind where the conductor stands and the entire thing gave way. It made this huge noise, too, that made me concerned that I was going to get yelled at, but despite the monster noise, nobody seemed to notice or care if they did. I was glad because what the panel was hiding was a crawl space. It was this beautiful little cubby between the actual construction of the stage and the pit…it’s kind of hard to describe but I thought I could fit in it. I would have crawled in their, too, if other people hadn’t started showing up. I heard everyone coming so I was able to get the panel sort of back on before anyone noticed. I really wanted to crawl in there and see if I fit, but didn’t get the opportunity.

Of course, as we got closer to opening night, the screaming got worse. Particularly to backstage crew. It all came to a head a week before opening night when Liz came out for her big scene and the fire effects only about half worked. She was supposed to start as this crawling creature with tentacles flying all around the stage, and then the tentacles were supposed to lift her up and fire was supposed to rise from underneath her until she was standing in her full glory. It was super impressive and, even though we were below the action and heat rises, we always got a blast of pretty hot air in our faces during measures 165 and 180 of the title song. You just got to expect it. It’s weird what you get used to. That day, the blast wasn’t as hot and the producers and director, who was basically a puppet of the producers, shut the whole thing down, started screaming and didn’t stop for half an hour.

They were brutal. It wasn’t just “this didn’t work”, it was “you all don’t understand what we’re trying to do” and this time, the pit was brought to the party. He yelled at us for lack of “passion”. How was there supposed to be this impressive, paradigm smashing scene when the violins and percussionists were just going about their job, not caring how it sounded? Which was bullshit, of course. They were professionals and were doing their job as well as I’d ever heard it done. To be honest, there’s not that much of a difference between a pit on the road and a pit on Broadway, but these guys were good. I knew enough to know that. 

While they were going on and on and on and on I fantasized about crawling into my little cubby hole I had discovered. I pictured the producer’s voice getting more and more muffled until I couldn’t hear it at all. That fantasy took me through his rant until he shut down the rehearsal. The next day more tech people had quit and one of our percussionists had as well. Can’t say I blame them, but the new guy they had found was solid. There are a lot of solid musicians in New York.

There’s not another meltdown like that before opening night but they never do a full rehearsal with Liz. The word around the campfire is they are working with that part of the show after everyone else goes home and to be prepared for a few new bells and whistles on opening night. Everyone talked about it with a mix of “this is a bad idea” and intense curiosity about just what the hell was going to happen. On the road, you may mix up the cast from night to night but every cue, every entrance and exit, every piece of music is scripted and practiced and executed with ruthless professionalism. There’s no room for error. What I’m getting at is this was weird. Super weird and, in an odd way, kind of exciting. Once I had drinks with a group of people including a backstage tech for “Spider-Man” who told the story of that guy breaking his leg or whatever it was and everything gathered around like he was a rock star. Part of me thought, if something goes horribly wrong I can be the poplar girl at the bar with the great story.

I remember opening night, vividly. The crowd was talking, which is a good sign. If people have to shout over others to be heard it means there’s excitement for the show. Electricity, right? The place had been spiffed up, all the smells of sweat and take out food and bodies had been scrubbed away and was replaced with disinfectant that smelled like chemical flowers. The producers gave us a “pep talk”, as it were, which basically consisted of their same yoga babble about how we were all in this together and how we were going to shift the paradigm and how this night was going to be remembered for years. Damn right it was, dude.

The first act goes off without a hitch. Better than “goes off”, I guess. The actors are really killing it. Our new percussionist, he’s not missed a step all night. Things are good. The loud talk is back after intermission, another good sign. I heard one girl in the front row, who came to opening night with this bright red dress and her hair up (which must have thrilled the people in the seat behind her), talking about “seeing the creature”. People knew Liz was coming out and they were ready to be wowed. I was even a little excited when were started the title song. “Music of the Gods” was in 4/4, hell, everything in this show was in 4/4 practically, and started from this slow little melody played by the violins and grew and grew into a giant wall of sound where everyone was just playing as hard as they could go. Then, Liz bursts through the wall of sound right at measure 165. That’s when her hot breath would hit us. It was easy to play but the effect must have been really something from an audience standpoint. From the pit, it was just hot wind. You can’t see much by way of what’s happening on stage from the pit which is why timing is so important. 

Measure 160, everything is great. We hear Liz coming, as tons and tons of metal tends to make noise when you move it around. Measure 162 or so was when I got the first inkling something was wrong, because even through this wall of sound, I heard yelling. That’s not right. Not yelling. It wasn’t the sort of tone we’d heard from the producers. It was someone screaming because they were hurt, but I didn’t dare take my eyes of my music. Not for a second. My department was producing the wall of sound for Liz to bust through. The techs, they had their own thing they were doing and if one piece stopped for another piece’s problems, the whole thing would topple over. But I heard the screaming. Definitely. Then, measure 165.

It’s going to sound weird, but the first thing I noticed wasn’t the heat. It was my pages turning black. For just a moment before the fireball hit the pit, my pages started to curl and turn black and that’s the first thing I noticed. It didn’t even take a second but it was long enough for my brain to say “huh, that’s weird,” and then I remember my face feeling very hot before the fire got to me and everyone else. 

I don’t know how to describe what being on fire is like other than it’s loud. I know, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but here’s what I mean – the pain isn’t what I remember. It was the screaming and the crackling and the roaring, all the sounds associated with what was happening. A second before I had been making sound, putting sound out and it was like all those sounds I was putting out had suddenly turned around and were desperate to get in, even if it meant destroying me along the way. Yes, there was pain but it was secondary to everything going wrong, both to me and around me and the noise. Jesus, the noise. I saw a violinist with her hands up in the air and so much fire and smoke that I couldn’t make out her face but I could hear the noises she was making. Not screams but cries and gurgles. I don’t know, to this day, who it was. There were 5 female violinists in black total and it could have been any one of them. I saw our conductor, who was closest to Liz, never had a chance. He had been knocked out or possibly…I don’t know…breathing in when the fire hit so he was face down, fully on fire. And I saw the skin on my arms starting to bubble. Again, it’s weird, but I wasn’t screaming in pain. My brain said to itself “huh, that’s weird.”

Then another part of my brain, the part beyond the screaming and the sounds of fire consuming everything, said “go, be safe” and I knew where I was headed. My fellow musicians were either completely panicking or trying to put themselves out, but the fire never stopped and they never had a chance to escape. It all happened to fast. None of that was occurring to me at the moment. I don’t know why, but my brain propelled me forward, to my little cubby hole I had discovered the previous week. It was primal, not strategic. Not at all, I wasn’t thinking about survival or stopping the pain or escaping. My brain just…moved my body forward. The panel had already fallen off because of the fire and I was able to pull myself inside, ducking low and then just falling back on my butt, my legs still outstretched. It was very snug, but I fit and by the time I pulled my legs in, I had a perfect view of my colleagues as they burned and screamed and died.

There was still fire, pouring from the stage above me into the pit and, to my horror, into the first few rows. I couldn’t see beyond the pit but the wall of flame would subside for a second or two and I would see there was another entire wall of fire projecting out into the audience. They had more room to maneuver and run but…yeah. It all happened so fast.

After, probably, 15 or 20 seconds in the cubby hole, I passed out. I don’t know if it was the lack of air or the horror or just my brain going “yep, we’re done” after witnessing my colleagues suffer the worst death imaginable in front of me, but I know I woke up to a world of pain. I had second and third degree burns over about 55 percent of my body, including my face. I woke up as firefighters were digging me out of the cubby hole and I didn’t realize what real pain was until they had to move me and parts of my skin that were charred to the wooden beams inside the cubby hole stayed while I moved. I screamed then. I screamed later during the various procedures where they had to scrub dead skin off my burned arms and face. I screamed and cried when I finally saw myself and realized that my hair was gone and my face was…burned. It would never be the same. I was always “cute”, you know? Enough to get by. Those days are done, I’ll never be the popular girl at the bar with the story. I screamed when I saw the footage of what happened for the first time, how they had tried to make Liz’s entrance even bigger to make the producer’s “vision” come true and how one of the tanks holding her fuel had exploded and set the others off, releasing about 20 minutes worth of fire meant for very specific cues into all directions all at once. That screaming I had heard backstage, that was one of 17 crew members killed that night. I screamed when someone showed me a YouTube video taken from the 25th row or so, showing that girl in the red dress and the big hair fun up the isle, on fire, one of 20 or so people in the same terrible situation. I screamed when my mother, who came to my side and helped me so much, read to me that the producers were being held civilly responsible but not criminally responsible because one of their father’s had contacts in the current Presidential Administration.

I screamed the most when I tried to play again. I tried. I swear to God, I tried, but my mouth my lips…they’re a different shape now. I’m trying a few things but that first time I tried…it feels like I screamed and cried for hours. I’m not giving up my pit just yet. There’s a music professor at NYU who is trying to train me to play again, post “Music of the Gods”. A local news station even wanted to come do a story on me. 

I told them “no”. Like I said, I don’t like being looked at.