Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Coils in the Dark

by M. N. Tarrint

Ziebowski had been standing at the bus stop for nearly fifteen minutes and was starting to get bored. He had already read the independent local paper from the news stand next to him the day before, but since he abhorred boredom and needed something to occupy his mind, he picked up a copy of the paper discarded by an earlier passenger on the bus stop seat beside him.

The chill breeze carried the weight of water with it that promised rain, probably that night. A swift finger of the breeze flipped pages forward below Ziebowski's nose and he cursed as he often did until the pages rested at the back of the newspaper where the majority of the classifieds and smaller ads were consigned. In red ink, a particular advertisement grabbed Ziebowski's eye. A notice to auction off the contents of some storage units that had gone unpaid was just what he had been looking for. Already, his mind was weighing the possibility of turning a profit by reselling these items, regardless of the fact that he had none of the auctioned articles in his possession as of yet, nor even knew what they were.

In any case, Ziebowski's weekend was open so attending the auction would be no problem. He had few friends and could never maintain his alter ego long enough to secure a third date anyway. Neither had he any intention of impressing anyone by picking up the pizza boxes and other refuse that littered his apartment or by storing away the other endless items he had collected. A hyper intellectual such as himself would have to remain above such petty concerns, he reasoned, and his acquisitive mind began to hum with the imagined possibilities of Saturday's auction.

Saturday morning arrived bleak and dreary with a gray drizzle. Ziebowski had arrived with a rented moving van for the day prepared for the event that he won anything of substantial size. He had attended this sort of auction before and knew that if he were to bid on an entire storage container, as he would here, he would end up with a blend of the strange and mundane -- things that had once been a part of someone's very personal everyday life. Sometimes things that a person may have preferred left undiscovered, but that was part of the charm for Ziebowski. It was a little like peeking through a window into someone's private world and they couldn't do a thing about it. Without removing his black trench coat, he took a seat at the end of a second row and stretched his long legs into the center aisle.

The auction began. Ziebowski successfully bid on a middle sized container but was not allowed to examine the contents as closely as he liked until after the auction, so he pulled up the collar on his trench and went outside for a smoke break. He began to grow bored and flicked the smoking butt of his cigarette into the grass of the non-smoking section. The prickly feeling that he was being observed alerted him, so he looked up across the parking lot to see that he was being watched by what appeared to be an old Asian lady. He couldn't figure out how she might have arrived. She stood alone, no car nearby. He could see her gray hair in a bun and the blue pants and quilted jacket that she wore. She held a bag and umbrella so Ziebowski assumed she must have ridden the bus. He shrugged, grunted and went back inside to wait out the auction.

Finally the storage unit was his and Ziebowski's nose was greeted with pungent and unfamiliar smells of spices and incense amid a heavy coating of dust across the contents of the unit. Ziebowski noted the large iron wok sitting on an upended couch in the corner. One of the boxes contained rice bowls, chopsticks and tea cups but the most impressive items to Ziebowski's mind were a large wooden screen with the detailed carved relief of a forest scene and a piece of furniture that appeared to be an ornate cabinet about four feet tall. These two notable items were what Ziebowski thought would bring the most money. He decided to look at them more closely when he got them home and then jumped when he felt someone tap him in the middle of his back. Slightly annoyed, he quickly turned to look down at the elderly Asian woman he had spotted in the parking lot earlier. Her hair was coarse and gray above a face netted with wrinkles but her eyes glinted at him with black intensity. Ziebowski wrinkled his nose at her slight scent of body odor and stale cooking. She was speaking rapidly in a language he could not understand and pointing emphatically at the cabinet piece. He assumed that she wanted it for herself.

"No way in hell, lady! You're going to have to pay for that if you want it!" Ziebowski figured that the piece had either belonged to her or maybe to a relative, but he wasn't about to hand it over. "Does anyone here speak Chinese or whatever?" he yelled in general to the people milling about the containers.

Nobody responded and the lady kept up a steady stream of monologue in her native tongue until Ziebowski felt she was getting on his last nerve and finally asked security to remover her. He considered giving her his contact card in case he could actually sell the cabinet to her but then thought that she wouldn't know what to do with it anyway. He shrugged and watched security escort the old woman out as she shouted and pointed at him.

Ziebowski's living room was filled with his purchases while the evening news blared from the TV but his attention was focused on the cabinet in front of him. He normally did a little research finding similar items in order to get a general idea about pricing his own before selling them, but he was finding nothing immediately that resembled the cabinet, although if he was to go by the example of the wooden screen, the former owner of his purchases might have been southeast Asian, perhaps Cambodian.

Ziebowski thought that the cabinet was probably an antique. He rubbed dust off of the face revealing a vivid dark red with gold detail and a stylized carved flower motif that repeated from the bottom to the top. The base of the item was wider than the upper two thirds and had small drawers that contained incense sticks and a shallow oblong ceramic bowl. The upper two thirds was mostly the body of what Ziebowski referred to as the cabinet and it was locked with a small padlock and chain. He wasn't worried; a set of bolt cutters would make short work of that, he thought, and then ran a hand across the top of the cabinet which sent a cloud of dust sailing over the living room. He coughed and looked more closely at the top. Intriguing relief carvings wound across the surface , except in the middle where there was a wide shallow depression.

After wiping the top with a damp cloth, Ziebowski could see the carvings much more clearly. He could see that the carved flowers were repeated along the border but the interior was a complicated mass of winding serpents. Four of them, from what Ziebowski could see by counting the heads. After one clip with the bolt cutters, the chain and lock slipped to the floor and Ziebowski expectantly tugged open the doors.

He was surprised by a musky smell as if he had stumbled upon an abandoned wild animal's den rank with old bones and waste. Coughing, Ziebowski switched on a floor lamp for additional light to get a closer look. Crumpled up in the corner was what appeared to be a large amount of old crepe paper. As he pulled it out of the cabinet, he found that the material was very light weight and had a strange texture that raised the hair on the back of his neck.

"What the..." Ziebowski's voice trailed off as the usual string of expletives failed him. He began to unfold the crepe-like material and found that it kept expanding and unfolding. Moreover, to Ziebowski's horror, large scales were discernible to him now. Ziebowski held the unmistakable shed skin of a very large snake.

Later that evening, Ziebowski sat and stared down at the twenty five foot long ghostly skin stretched out on the living room floor and ignored his dinner. Apparently someone had kept an enormous exotic pet, but unless it was a very skinny snake, Ziebowski couldn't see how a snake that long could fit into that cabinet space. Could snakes even get that big? He wondered.

As Ziebowski was getting ready for bed he glanced into the living room at the cabinet on his way through the hallway and paused. The cabinet doors gaped open even though Ziebowski clearly remembered shutting them. They were a rather tight fit and shouldn't have swung open on their own. He reached for the hallway light and froze as he detected a dark shadow massed around the foot of the cabinet. Ziebowski blinked hard. Nothing. He switched on the hall light to view the cabinet sitting plainly in the living room. Rubbing his eyes, he shut its doors, turned off the light and went to bed.

The late hours of the night slid into the dark hours before dawn and Ziebowski shifted restlessly in his sleep. He stood in the moonlit driveway of his parents' home, staring at the blackened windows and the unlit porch littered with dead leaves. Behind him, a breath of wind tossed up the leaves that lay scattered across the yard and sent the ones on the porch into a miniature skittering whirlwind. Ziebowski's dream self became frightened and as the vague desire to escape began to bloom, a rustling sound behind him compelled him to quickly turn. It was not the leaves but something shifting underneath them and moving towards Ziebowski that caused the desire to escape to turn to panic and Ziebowski to run towards his parents' deserted house. His fist struck the door and a resounding boom issued from the black void revealed as the door swung wide.

Ziebowski felt his body jerk violently and his eyes flew open scanning his environment for anything recognizable. Upon realizing his surroundings, he breathed a sigh of relief and reached over to the night stand for a glass of water. He had decided not to switch on the bedside lamp on account of a stupid dream when with the glass at his lips, a slight dry whispering sound reached his ears. Feathers being dragged over old newspapers came to Ziebowski's mind and he paused in confusion listening to the unfamiliar sound. His momentary attempt at bravado failed and he switched on the lamp. Immediately the noises stopped. Ziebowski waited several long and tense minutes for them to return but only the sounds of the air blowing through the heating ducts and the hum of the refrigerator could be heard. He shut the bedroom door and fell asleep with the light on anyway.

Two months passed and February blew in miserably cold. Ziebowski stood inside the foyer where he hung his coat but despite his heated apartment, he shivered as if the wind outside had swept the warmth from his core. Sleep which had once come so easily to him had become a scarce commodity since he had resorted to sleeping with the lights on. With bloodshot eyes, Ziebowski glared resentfully at the red cabinet that he had shoved into a corner of the living room. Nobody wanted to buy it, it seemed, although he had lowered the price on it once already. Three people had even dropped by to take a look at it, one woman and two men. The woman and one of the men stated that the price was too high and the second man, although intrigued by by the carved serpents, told Ziebowski that the cabinet wasn't quite what he was looking for.

By now, since the cabinet doors wouldn't stay shut, Ziebowski had restored the lock and chain and had thrown a blanket over it. If the cabinet didn't sell soon, he would have to let it go he decided reluctantly. He hated taking a loss but the lack of sleep was beginning to show at work.

Where the hell was Louis, Ziebowski wondered. Earlier that day at work, one of his few friends had agreed to hang out at the apartment over some beers, pizzas and a movie, but Louis was running late this time. Ziebowski was just going to call him when a knock at the door announced his friend's arrival.

"Sorry I'm late man. Had a hard time finding the stout." Louis hefted the case of beer onto the foyer and unzipped the coat that covered his prominent belly. "Son of a bitch, it's cold out there; the wind blew my car all over the road on the way over."

He tossed a movie onto the counter while Ziebowski stored a few beers in the freezer for a quick chill.

"I guess the pizzas will be here soon. I ordered them a half an hour ago and I hope you don't mind the ancho..."

Hey, where's that cabinet thing you were telling me about? I wanna see it," blurted Louis. He stood looking around the room scratching his belly through the radioactive waste decal on the front of his black t-shirt.

Ziebowski paused. The cabinet was covered constantly now and even though he knew it was there, he really didn't feel like looking at it again. It didn't matter, Louis had already found it and at that moment, was uncovering it. An uncharacteristic silence followed while Louis stared at the object and ran a hand over the top. He pulled out the drawers and found the ceramic dish which he took out and examined. Some prompting inspired him to place it into the shallow depression in the top. Ziebowski blinked. Why hadn't he thought of that before?

Louis swore softly. "Man, this is old. You need to get this appraised in China town. What's with the lock?"

"What do you think about the, um...the top part, you know, the carvings," stumbled Ziebowski, evading the question.

Louis looked up at him. "You're not your usual smart assed self tonight. I dunno, looks like some kind of altar to me - makes me wonder what somebody was praying to, I guess. Come on, pop the movie in and let's get some beers. You need to relax, Z."

After four beers and several slices of pizza, Ziebowski had begun to relax. He reached for his pack of cigarettes on the coffee table only to find two left. "Crap. Almost out of smokes. I'll be back in a minute, Louis. I'm going to the corner store."

"Here, pick up a pack of my favorites too," said Louis and thrust a ten dollar bill at Ziebowski who stood at the doorway hesitating as if he wanted to say something.

"Right," said Ziebowski and stepped out into the the cold night for his brief errand. The wind had not died down whatsoever and if it wasn't for the threat of a night without nicotine, he would not have bothered.

Errand accomplished, Ziebowski was on his way back home when a loud bang and bright flash ahead indicated a blown transformer. Immediately all surrounding street, traffic and building lights extinguished and what traffic there was on the road came to a slow crawl. Good thing home was just around the corner, thought Ziebowski. And then another thought dawned on him -- no lights! Maybe they would come back on soon, he hoped frantically and lit up a cigarette to calm himself.

The city seemed post apocalyptic in the unfamiliar encompassing darkness, and Ziebowski did not enjoy the sensation. Police lights and sirens flashed behind him and then flew by. He breathed a ragged sigh and continued slowly home.

Ziebowski arrived to see neighbors bundled up and standing outside of their apartment doors talking to one another, prompted perhaps by a need for reassurance from the unsettling event. He opened his own door to find Louis curled up on the couch with a flash light and a couple of lit candles on the coffee table.

"Shhh.. Listen, Z..."

Ziebowski felt a chill dread in his stomach but said nothing. A faint familiar dry whispering sound issued from the hallway just out of reach of the dim light in the living room.

"Do you have rats?" Louis asked bluntly.

Ziebowski hesitated. "No... I have this," he stated and went to the red cabinet, unlocked it and held something out to Louis.

"What the hell is it?'" exclaimed Louis. He held the pale mass before the flashlight which shone up at him illuminating his face like a camper telling a ghost story. His under-lit expressions exaggerated the effect as Louis unfolded the mass and realized what he held.

"My God! Are you kidding?" Louis' face revealed a mix of fear tempered by incredulity.

Ziebowski couldn't help but snigger, and then an uncontrolled bray escaped him.

"Oh! Real funny, Z! That's the smart ass I know and love."

Ziebowski regained his composure. "I'm serious. It's real. I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. Your face was just so funny and I don't remember the last time I laughed. I haven't told you what was so weird about the cabinet. All you knew is that I thought it was a hell of a find and that I could turn a profit on it. Do you want to know what's really been happening?"

Louis nodded. Ziebowski proceeded to describe details he never imagined himself discussing, but after months of built up tension, words flowed like water from a broken dam and Louis' eyes grew wider in the eerie illumination of the flashlight. Louis shined the flashlight down the hall and Ziebowski idly noted that his friend's t-shirt decal glowed in the dark. A large shadowy mass on the floor shifted its bulk away from the light towards the unlit bathroom.

Louis jumped up and began to shove his friend towards the door.

"What -- Where are we going?" asked Ziebowski.

"What do you mean? Anywhere but here. Did you want to stay here with that thing?" Louis shoved him out of the door and the two shivered in the cold night air on the walk way.

"So how long is that snake skin again? Twenty five feet? My God! When was the last time your little buddy ate?"

Ziebowski stood stunned and speechless. He hadn't thought of that horrible possibility. The two of them, armed with two more of the neighbor's flashlights reentered the apartment, grabbed the beer, pizza and cigarettes and made a hasty exit for the evening.

The next night, the two men returned with a parcel tightly wrapped in butcher paper. Ziebowski pulled the blanket off of the cabinet and pulled it out towards the center of the living room. With nervous hands, Louis unwrapped the parcel revealing a mass wrapped in a plastic bag. A slice with a pocket knife deposited a freshly killed rabbit onto the ceramic dish that he set into the top of the cabinet the day before. Then the two men turned off the lights and left Ziebowski's apartment to its phantasmal resident.

The next morning, Ziebowski and Louis returned before work intensely curious to see if the rabbit was lying where they left it, and both were horrified and thrilled to see that it was gone. Not a trace remained.

"I strongly suggest we get another rabbit or two," stated Ziebowski.

Ziebowski continued to purchase a rabbit a day for an entire week before the rabbits quit disappearing. "I guess it's not hungry anymore. For now, anyway," he said.

"You know, I don't think it would matter much if you got rid of the cabinet", Louis remarked. "I mean, how would you get that thing back in it? How would you know if you were even getting rid of the snake just because you gave the cabinet away?"

"Well, buying rabbits is expensive," noted Ziebowski. "Maybe we could find a stray dog or something next time until we figure out what to do."

Time passed and the unwelcome resident seemed to disappear. Ziebowski and Louis forgot about buying rabbits and Ziebowski had begun sleeping with the lights off again until one night he was awakened by the sliding of his bedroom window. The silhouette of a figure eased through like a slinking cat and Ziewbowski's breath froze. The figure held a handgun at one side and a sack of some kind in the other. It paused before Ziebowski's bed and the hand holding the gun rose. The thought of hurling himself at the intruder occurred to him, but he never got the chance. The blast from the gun seemed to burst Ziebowski's eardrums at the same time a red hot explosion of pain pierced his left side. Something in his mind snapped like a broken piece of china and once again he heard the gunshots that left his parents lying dead on the living room floor while Ziebowski hid in the hall closet, still small enough to hide behind his father's coat.

He looked up, caught between past and present, at the shadow delivering his death and then became aware of a familiar subtle sound. A rising undulating bulk emerged from the murk in the corner of the bedroom and became a horrible form of darkness with two cold glinting sparks behind the thief. Faster than thought, the man's head and torso were seized in heavy coils of primeval shadow silencing an insignificant attempt at a scream. As a horrific thump followed by cracking told of crushed bones and smothered life, Ziebowski cowered gasping in terror, blood and pain under the covers while the thief slowly disappeared.

The cabinet still stood in the corner of the living room, but without the blanket to cover it, its deep red color and gold accents shone beautifully in the lamp light. Ziebowski had removed the lock and chain two years ago after getting out of the hospital and no longer concerned himself with keeping the doors closed. It didn't seem to matter anyway. Ziebowski half consciously rubbed his left side where the bullet had pierced him. Sometimes the pain still bothered him and his breathing at times seemed insufficient with part of his lower left lung now gone. He had put on a few pounds since then too, which he attributed to the injury slowing him down. But he was alive. Ziebowski lit a stick of incense beside the dead rabbit and turned off the light.

The End

© 2012 M. N. Tarrint

Bio: M. N. Tarrint is a pen name for Brandy King, a resident of Arizona, where the snakes are smaller, but poisonous.

E-mail: M. N. Tarrint

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