Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Do Not Read

by J. E. Deegan


Approaching dusk and the gathering clouds of an approaching storm dulled the light seeping through the huge pointed-arch window, but enough brightness collected to allow Randy Dobson to find what he was looking for. He turned the padded Manila envelope over in his hands then read the words boldly written across it in black Magic Marker:

For You, Randy.

But Be Warned ...

DO NOT READ

"What, pray tell, is this?" he murmured behind a chuckle. "My, my, Aunt Kylen. Still playing your foolish little games, are you?"

The envelope obviously contained the subject of his aunt's last words to him, words spoken earlier that afternoon as attendants from the institution strapped her to a gurney in the hallway beyond the den. "The bookshelves in the den," she had coarsely whispered. "Something for you...second shelf...behind a sliding panel. But take heed, Randy...take heed." Her mouth then twisted into a crass yellowed sneer and her eyes burned with the macabre delirium that had occupied them frequently of late.

As the gurney creaked away toward the waiting ambulance, a sense of triumph had mushroomed in Randy Dobson's chest. But it was quickly smothered by a deep guttural laugh that echoed down the hallway and ate like acid into his skin.

Now alone in the house, he stood in the thickening shadows of the den and tore open the Manila envelope. Revealed was a three-hole spiral notebook with those same enigmatic words, DO NOT READ, scrawled across the front cover. Beneath them were additional words in smaller writing. He squinted and pulled the notebook close to his face to make them out: You Have Been Warned.

"Yeah, yeah," he said gruffly, "I already got that message." Thumbing quickly through the pages, he saw that only the first few were written upon. "A diary?" he asked of no one. "Some sort of journal?"

A thought took shape in his mind, and few moments' pondering convinced him that his aunt believed the threat implicit in her warning would ensure that he do the opposite. He laughed derisively, but his crude snicker was cut short by a sudden chill that made a highway of his spine. He twitched his shoulders, hoping to dispatch the odd feeling.

It retreated somewhat, but didn't disappear.

He stared again at the notebook and whispered through his teeth. "Whatever you've written here won't change anything, Auntie Dear. Your lawyer's already told me the agreement we signed will be honored." He tapped the notebook against his thigh while stepping to the hearth where a stubborn fire was slowly gnawing its way through a trio of thick logs. "Do not read? Okay, Aunt Kylen. Whatever you say." Smiling, he dropped the notebook into the twisting flames.

####

Randy Dobson was a scoundrel, a useless ne'er-do-well who had begged, borrowed and stolen his way through most of his adolescent years and all of his adult life. He preyed mostly on sympathetic or timorous family members, drifting from one to another for whatever he could exact from them. But time, disease, and a spattering of accidents had reduced the family to himself and Kylen Tage Korenek, his obscenely wealthy aunt who hadn't earned a dime of her own over the course of her life. Randy had heard the story of his Aunt Kylen repeated scores of times, for it was often a topic of covetous conversation within the rest of the family.

It was said by some that Kylen's parents, Gary and Elizabeth Korenek, accumulated their fortune through a number of questionable dealings with stocks and bonds. True or not, the Koreneks became quite wealthy quite quickly. They enjoyed their prosperity for a few years before vanishing off Cape Cod when a sudden and violent storm chewed their sailboat to rubble. They left behind twin eighteen-year-old girls, Kylen and Katrina, who inherited their parents' entire estate. But Katrina, devastated by the loss of her parents, soon signed her share over to Kylen and left for Europe where she joined a cloistered convent. That was nearly seventy years ago. As far as anyone knew, she was still there, if not dead then totally secluded from the rest of the world.

Twice over the years Randy Dobson had tried to con the reclusive, never-married Kylen Korenek as he had others, and each time she had turned him away without a cent. Desperation, though, can be a great motivator. So twenty years removed from his last attempt, he again knocked on her door and was escorted to the den by a rather attractive Hispanic woman who introduced herself as Anna, Ms. Korenek's attendant.

Upon seeing his aunt, Randy was immediately struck by the ruinous toll the years had etched into her. She sat in a wheelchair, shriveled to the point of emaciation. Her face seemed a nest of deep ragged furrows.

When her eyes locked onto his, he smiled. She didn't, which all but scuttled the faint hope he had been clinging to. She stiffly motioned him to a chair then sat rigid as brick, her expression cramped and sour. "Well?" was all she said in a voice Randy found stunningly strong.

He swallowed thickly, folded his hands on his knees and began his timeworn monologue about the unrelenting tough luck, bad breaks, and cruel twists of fate that had constantly sabotaged every progressive step he attempted.

She listened but briefly before letting loose a screechingly raucous laugh that melted yet-to-be-spoken words in his mouth. "Do you consider me a senile old fool, Randy Dobson? Or did you simply believe I wouldn't remember that you've peddled your ridiculous rubbish to me twice before?" She put one hand to her chest and fanned her face with the other. "I recall those occasions well, and you obviously haven't amended your despicable lifestyle and self-serving roguery since your last visit.

"But I thank you nonetheless. You've provided the best laugh I've had in years."

Anger bubbled in Randy like a hot spring, but knowing the jig was up, he smothered it and rose to leave.

"Hold on a minute!" she barked. "Do you quit on everything so easily?"

Randy stared at her, curious as to the intent of those words and wondering if she wanted him to beg. He would - he'd groveled before when he thought supplicating himself to potential donors might work to his advantage. A group of familiar acquiescent words began collecting in his mind. But before he could speak, she did.

"So you're again penniless, and you're entreating me to provide relief, eh?" She breathed a halting, noisy breath and stared off to the side. Moments seemed like minutes to Randy, and he began considering a quick, silent departure. When she turned back to him, Randy saw a look of devious curiosity in them. She put a hand to her chin; her fingers tapped an unsteady beat on the arm of the wheelchair. A wily smile moved about her mouth.

"Well, nephew," she said huskily, "your utter disdain for work and responsibility of any sort notwithstanding, perhaps you can be of some use to me. The grounds and gardens do require more attention, the outbuildings are in desperate need of painting and periodic maintenance, and Anna and I do need someone to run occasional errands." She looked inquisitively at Randy, who wasn't at all prepared for what he was hearing.

"If you're game," she continued, "in return for your time and labor you'll get room and board -- you can live in the guest house -- and I'll pay you a modest monthly stipend."

Given his present impecunious state and his unpromising future, Randy would have jumped at the offer had that been all there was to it. But that wasn't all. After a brief pause Kylen Korenek added, "That's the easy part. There's more. Upon my request, you will join me in the den after dinner, which I always eat alone, where you will serve my evening brandy and occasionally read to me from a book of my choosing."

She expects me to be her bloody slave! Randy thought as the blood in his temples began throbbing heatedly.

She glared at him with tight squinty eyes; a slight smirk stretched her lips. "Well, are you game? Or is my offer too far beneath you?"

Randy felt his skin tighten. At his sides, his hands threatened to become fists. His aunt's unabashed delight in advancing this humiliating proposal had him wanting to wring her scrawny neck there and then. Sure, he was a self-serving reprobate; he made no bones about that. But even miscreants have something akin to pride. He wasn't about to become one of her servants.

What she next said, however, quickly deflated his burgeoning ire. "One more thing...and listen carefully to this. Should you in writing agree to the terms I've presented, you'll receive a sizeable inheritance in my will. Does that help with your decision, nephew?" She stared quizzically into his eyes as his jaw dropped.

"Oh, pick your face off the floor," she scoffed. "I'm not being munificent, and I'm not the least bit sympathetic to your pitiful plight. Rather I see my proposal developing into a contest of sorts. You see, nephew, life for old birds like me can be quite dull. We need a challenge now and again, and you and your lifelong ineptness present me with one."

Her eyes took on a strange twist; she leaned forward and almost whispered. "There is one final condition, and you'd best consider it thoroughly before you decide.

"Should you refuse my proposal now, or should you accept it but back out before I die or go irreparably batty, you will get nothing from me. Understand that? Nothing." She leaned back and smiled thinly. "But I'd say the odds are stacked in your favor, wouldn't you? Look at me... I'm pushing ninety and growing weaker by the month. I can't last much longer, can I?"

She leaned back and waited for a response. None came; Randy Dobson's mind had become a tempest of conflicting thoughts.

Kylen Korenek leaned forward once more. "If you're still reluctant to accept this challenge, try looking at it this way. If you win ... if you, as they say, stick it out, you'll be able to resume your debouched lifestyle in a financially secure manner."

Those words immediately cleared Randy's mind. "This contest of yours would be an endurance test, right?" he said, his voice carrying a resolve he rarely employed. "And you'll be betting I can't outlast you. Is that it?"

"That's it precisely," she replied with her odd, twisted smirk. "But you already know you can't win. I can see it swimming behind your eyes. You can't win because you're a weak spineless coward who hasn't the guts for a challenge like this. Oh, you might last a few weeks, even months. But one day you'll realize that I have no intention of dying -- at least while you're here. Then your shallow resolve will shrivel up like a cheap suit and you'll sneak off with some of my silverware and a few candelabras stuffed in your coat."

Her laugh became gravel churning in her throat.

Randy barely heard it. His mind was totally absorbed with the very real possibility that he had finally found his ticket to Easy Street. All he need do was run a few errands, do some chores, and cajole this wrinkled old hen for a while. As she herself had said, she was almost ninety and quickly sliding downhill. She couldn't last much longer.

He accepted the challenge. Later that afternoon he and his aunt signed an agreement hastily prepared by her attorney.

####

Seven months later Kylen Korenek reached ninety and remained very much alive, and Randy Dobson remained shackled to his tedious chores around her estate. But with his sixtieth birthday approaching, his patience finally expired. He decided he had waited long enough to enjoy the opulence his Methuselah of an aunt had enjoyed her entire life. He began exploring ways of removing her.

He immediately dismissed the notion of killing her through some sort of unfortunate accident. That option was fraught with hazards he didn't dare confront. He had to find one that would shed not the slightest hint of suspicion on him.

Then came a night of drunken deliberation when he recalled something his aunt had said when presenting her proposal seven months earlier: until I die or go irreparably batty. Words to that effect were included in the agreement they had signed. Or go irreparably batty. That phrase gave rise to a possibly foolproof solution.

Three months later, painstaking Internet research, furtive trips to the library, and a passing understanding of chemistry produced a tasteless, odorless mixture of obscure drugs said to induce dementia if taken over a period of time. Thereafter, each time he refilled his aunt's decanter, he mixed this odious concoction with the brandy.

It took another three months to drive Kylen Korenek mad. The changes in her were subtle at first, but as time wore on it became increasingly apparent to all in contact with her that she was steadily losing touch with reality. Once her insanity was deemed irrefutable, her lawyer and personal staff of physicians determined that she should be institutionalized.

And now that she was, Randy Dobson would get all that was coming to him.

####

Night had fallen. Randy Dobson settled into the large leather armchair his aunt always preferred. The floor lamp to his left provided a soft cone of light, and the small table to his right supported a snifter half-full with brandy from a fresh but now half-emptied bottle. A distant roll of thunder snapped his attention to the window and the night beyond, where streaks of lightning were making brief but brilliant cobwebs on the sky. The storm was quite close now.

He looked at the notebook in his lap. It was somewhat singed from its brief stay in the flames but otherwise undamaged. He rubbed the soot from the cover and was surprised to see that the words written there had disappeared. Must have been the fire, he thought as he opened the cover and began to read.

So, Randy, you chose to ignore my advice. Well, the choice was yours, and you can't say you weren't warned.

Randy chuckled, took another healthy swig from the snifter, and leaned back into the chair to enjoy the warm comforting flush the brandy slowly spread through his veins. He continued reading.

Into the fire, Randy? That really was quite impetuous of you.

Randy blinked. A breath caught in his chest and straightened him in the chair. His mind promptly insisted that those words could not have imparted what his eyes had relayed, so he read them again. They said the same thing. The chill on his spine suddenly revived, but he read on.

My chair is quite comfortable, isn't it? And you are into my brandy, which is odd, isn't it? When I offered it to you a few months back, you said you had lost your taste for brandy... that it was too sweet. Isn't that what you told me?

But it's not too sweet now, is it?

Randy's eyes swung to the right and hung on the brandy snifter a moment before turning back to the page staring up at him.

It was blank -- not a word or mark upon it. It was as though what he had just read had never been there. He gasped then confirmed the impossible by intently studying the page in the floor lamp's glare.

But he had read something; he knew he had. Perplexed, his mind stalled. But beneath this bewilderment he heard a faint inner voice advise him to toss the notebook back into the fire. He considered doing so for a few moments, but then turned to the next page.

Was something written on the previous page, Randy? Are you absolutely certain? Perhaps you just imagined something was there.

Perhaps.

His hands drew the notebook closer to his chest, preparing to launch it toward the hearth. But he looked down at the newly-revealed page -- he had to look...

Into the fire again? Come now, nephew. You know it's much too late for that.

He turned stiff again. His eyes grew round and stuck to those impossible words. It took a few halting breaths before he could read on.

The approaching storm sounds ominous, doesn't it? Listen to the wind ... to the rumbling thunder. Much angrier now than earlier, aren't they? Look out the window again. Watch the bright, ragged streaks of lightning. The storm will consume you, Randy.

The one growing inside you, that is.

He glanced at the window, which blinked with brilliant light then turned coal black. Thunder growled ominously in the darkness, and the wind tore through the estate's trees in a whistling rage the thick walls of the house couldn't soften. His heart began to race. Sweat dampened his brow. Still he forced his eyes back to the notebook -- to another blank page. What had been there had vanished.

He stared groggily at the empty page. "Can't be," he whispered thickly. "A bad dream, that's all. Or my mind's temporarily off track. Just calm down...think rationally. You know this isn't really happening."

Concentration steadied his hand. He turned the page.

A bad dream? Your mind playing fiendish tricks? Only you know for sure, for you have brought this upon yourself.

But you know that, don't you.

Something is happening to you, Randy. You don't yet understand it, but you feel it, don't you, roiling like an angry sea beneath your confusion. What is it? What is that seething, swelling something consuming your guts?

It is fear... total and absolute. But fear is just the beginning. It's merely a precursor to something unthinkable that will steadily grow into a horror beyond lucid comprehension. Before this night is over, dear nephew, it will destroy your mind and annihilate your senses.

There is but one escape from it. Only one.

Madness.

And you know something of madness, don't you?

Randy's grip on the notebook book grew limp; his hands trembled and his teeth slammed painfully together. "Enough of this insanity!" he shouted as he rose clumsily from the chair and hurled the notebook against the door facing him. His eyes raced about the room, searching for anything that might apply sense to this nightmare. Nothing appeared. He grabbed the snifter, emptied it into his throat then refilled it at the serving table. He downed half of it before lurching back toward the chair.

"You think this pseudo-supernatural nonsense will break me?" he yelled, flailing his arms about. "Think again, Aunt Kylen! Think again! I've won! Despite these theatrics...despite this...this preposterous charade you've somehow conjured up, I've already won! I outlasted you! I have already won!"

That outburst plus the brandy helped. He felt calmer...steadier...more in control. He breathed deeply, retrieved the notebook from the floor then sank into the armchair. But before he could open it, a great burst of thunder shattered the night. The lights flickered, went out, then re-ignited a few moments later. He exhaled a great puff of breath and opened the notebook to the page he had just read. It was blank, drained of all writing. But he had come to expect that. He turned to the next page.

You have won nothing, nephew. The contest is not yet over.

Pseudo-supernatural nonsense? A preposterous charade?

Maybe.

Or maybe you have begun your descent into madness. Is that what is happening to you?

No, not yet...not quite yet.

But soon.

And you are ushering yourself toward the bleak, black nothingness of madness. I warned you to not read this book. But you didn't listen.

Look at your hands. They are shaking. And your breathing has become shallow and painful. You sit frozen with fear, trying to make sense of those dark, dreadful images colliding within your mind.

But you won't. You can't.

Hands shaking, chest aching, Randy forced his eyes from the page and snapped them shut as a brief but sane thought flashed across a panorama of dark, dreadful images swirling about his mind. It told him to bolt from this room, from this house, from this impossible horror. But he couldn't move. He was frozen to the chair.

Against his will his eyes opened and returned to the notebook. His shaking hand moved independent of thought and turned the empty page.

It is time to end the contest, Randy.

Did your villainous plot succeed? That's the question, isn't it? Did you drive me insane? Or did I uncover your scheme and deceive you into thinking you had? Was I mad when I lay strapped to the gurney this afternoon? Or was that just part of a hoax devised to dupe you?

Perhaps you were the one deceived.

Perhaps.

You will never know. You will be trapped in madness before the answer becomes clear.

Or will you?

Maybe not.

The answer lies beyond the door facing you, and it is moving toward you. Listen...you can hear it beneath the storm's furor. Go the door. Open it. The answer is there.

Find out, Randy. You know you must. But hurry...the storm is about to extinguish the lights...both within and without. Go to the door and learn if you have gone mad.

Randy's eyes shifted to the door, to the sound of something creaking across the wooden boards in the hallway. It was growing louder, and almost casually he wondered if the sound was in his mind and nowhere else. He looked again at the notebook in his lap as a deep rolling laugh rumbled in his throat. That last page, of course, was blank.

The hallway beyond the door grew silent. Randy Dobson's eyes grew wide and gleamed oddly as he pushed himself to his feet and staggered unsteadily toward the huge wooden door that opened upon the hallway. Halfway there, the lights went out in sync with a violent eruption within the storm. A broad streak of lightning filled the pointed-arch window and bathed the den in rich, creamy light. Thunder followed; great peals of it collided with the thick walls of the house.

Randy groped for the doorknob, unaware that his heart had become a riotous acrobat in his chest. He didn't feel that seething something in his gut spread to his limbs, shoulders and neck. But he did hear the deep guttural laugh that echoed beyond the door.

He pulled the door open as another brilliant bolt of lightning illuminated the den, the hallway, and a gurney with a woman strapped to it. Incredulity tried to construct a defense around his senses, but it was feeble and quickly crumbled.

The woman suddenly sprang upright. Her eyes glowed with a macabre delirium and her mouth was twisted into a crass yellowed sneer. In her hand she held a brandy snifter, which she hoisted toward Randy as if in toast. Her laugh was crowded with lunacy.

Randy Dobson didn't feel the last thin thread that linked him to sanity break, nor did he sense himself plummeting into the dark nothingness of madness. His mind quickly voided everything of reason. His eyes emptied and grew vacant. He sank to the floor with the notebook clutched tightly to his chest.

####

"Have a look, doctor."

Dr. Christopher Rogers, Chief of the Psychiatry Unit at Leishner State Hospital for the Mentally Ill, stood before a door on the hospital's seventh floor. Beside him stood Dr. Katie Michuda, his recently hired assistant, who was receiving her first tour of the psychiatric ward. She moved closer to the window to peer at a man who sat in profile to her, staring at his lap.

"Is he looking at pictures...reading something?" she asked.

"He believes he is. At least we think he believes he's reading something."

"Reading what?"

"Something in a spiral notebook. He sits there day after day, turning the pages over and over. Been doing that for nearly two years now. He had a death grip on it when he was brought here, and he becomes quite agitated if someone tries to take it from him."

"What's in it? I mean what does he think he's reading?"

"Nothing, Katie. It's blank...not a word or mark anywhere in it. He'll mumble something now and then, but only three words are ever coherent...do not read."

"Do not read?" Katie repeated. "And I take it no one knows what that means."

"We haven't a clue."

Katie leaned closer to the window and let her eyes sweep the room. At the edge of her vision they found an old woman slumped listlessly in a wheelchair against the wall. Her hair was silver-white, her face a sea of wrinkles, her eyes rheumy and vacant. But a thin smile sat frozen on her face.

Katie looked inquisitively at Christopher Rogers then back through the window. "The old woman. Who is she?"

"Kylen Korenek, Dobson's aunt. Quite a wealthy woman before this illness overtook her. In fact, for years she provided most of the funding for this hospital."

"Any hope for her?"

"None we can provide. She's adrift in a universe from which no one returns. But she's well past ninety. Her mind probably just gave out. That happens." Dr. Rogers scrubbed his chin with his hand. "Here's an oddity for you, doctor. Randy Dobson was committed the same day his aunt was. Strange, isn't it? Two relatives institutionalized within hours of each other."

"I should say so," Katie said, shaking her head. "Are they often together like this?"

"An hour or two a couple of times a week. We're still hoping something therapeutic will come of it. Dobson doesn't seem to notice that his aunt is there; he just stares at that notebook. But in an odd way, Ms. Korenek seems to enjoy their time together. It's the only time she smiles."

"Dr. Rogers!" The voice came from the far end of the corridor.

The two doctors turned toward an attractive, well-dressed woman who was walking briskly toward them.

Dr. Michuda turned to Dr. Rogers. The curiosity in her eyes asked the question.

"She visits them," he said, nodding toward the door they stood before. "Stops by a couple of times a month."

"She a relative then?"

"No, but you might say she's part of the family. Her name is Anna Gonzalez, Ms. Korenek's personal attendant for a number of years. Apparently, Ms. Korenek's will stipulated that if she and her nephew died or ended up mentally incapacitated, Anna Gonzalez would receive the bulk of the Korenek estate."

"I can see that she did," Katie said briskly, staring at the approaching woman. "A blue-fox stole? Diamonds dripping from her fingers and wrists?"

"You noticed that, huh? Yeah ... it seems she was very well provided for, doesn't it?

Christopher Rogers shook his head, looked off a moment then said, "And if that weren't enough, she married Ms. Korenek's lawyer, too."

THE END

This story previously appeared in The Absent Willow Review.


© 2008, 2011 J. E. Deegan

Bio: Mr. Deegan's work has appeared in various online and print magazines and anthologies, including Aphelion (most recently the horror story swodahS, April 2011). He has two short story collections in print, Limboland (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and When I Was A Little Guy (children's stories), both available through Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

E-mail: J. E. Deegan

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