A Bedtime Story

by Kírk Barrett

She fingers the voodoo doll and looks past me out the window. Ocean waves rise and fall in the listless light of evening. Autumn breezes taste of salt and anticipation. I don’t often have guests, but it’s not unheard-of for devoted fans to find my beach-front alcove far from any other house along the shore. They come to meet the reclusive author who writes weird and disturbing stories of other worlds so closely resembling our own.

“They’re like bedtime stories,” Kira tells me, and we both laugh at what sort of kids might read my stories at bedtime.

Those condemned to some accursed fate, perhaps.

“So you stick pins and stuff in this thing, Mr. Stout?” she asks, holding the scarecrow figure of stick and straw wrapped in soft fabrics of gold, green, and purple. Seven pins with colored plastic heads stick out of the voodoo doll at odd angles: this one red, that one blue. “Isn’t that like–I dunno–karmically bad or somethin’?”

I eye the young girl’s fingers and pose a smile.

“Call me Cully. Sticking pins in voodoo dolls is only as bad as the intentions that guide the action. Besides,” I tell her, “my interest in a particular subject shouldn’t be confused with belief in it.”

I cast a half-hearted yet dramatic glance around my workspace. The clutter of religious paraphernalia and spiritual trappings represents most regions of the world: an authentic Aztec calendar which once held the flow of sacrificial blood hangs on the south wall; a brass statuette of the Zoroastrian winged lion perches atop the eastern bookshelf; a jadeite green dragon from the Han Dynasty watches from the northern window sill; and placed on my writing desk is a small glassine oblong sphere that may–or may not–be a World Egg. Each item is a memento of a particular time or place or person. Some are gifts; others come to me from less direct sources.

These fetishes inspire, remind me of what has come before, and warn of what can happen when dealing with these forces. I pay great respect to the origins of each, and even though I do not subscribe to the spiritual belief associated with them, they all have guided my own cosmology.

“If you don’t believe in voodoo,” my young guest asks, “why do you have a voodoo doll with these pins stuck in it?”

“I don’t need to concoct hoodoo potions to know it’s a really bad idea to go around invoking Baron Samedi.”

Kira glances out the window behind me again, staring at the dimming beach and lazy surf. “You sound kinda like an old boyfriend of mine,” she says.

The girl doesn’t look to be more than 19 or 20 years old, so I wonder how much of an old boyfriend she could possibly have.

“He talked a lot like you sometimes, except–” she turns the doll in her hands, fingers brushing over the seven pins. I shift uneasily, but she doesn’t alter their positions.

“Except?” I prompt her to continue.

She looks down from the window to the doll in her hands as if just noticing it was there.

“Except that he was full of shit. He liked trying to cast spells from that stupid paperback book, the Necronomicon.”

“Ah, the Simon-penned comedic version of an old classic,” I say, stifling a laugh, “certain gateway for childish trouble.”

“Yeah.” Her voice trails off and her eyes drift back up to the window behind me.

I don’t keep the question at bay any longer: “You expecting someone out there on the beach?”

The young girl startles.

A cute, brief flash of surprise blushes her face. Her laugh is just as nervous as her fidgeting hands. She sets the voodoo doll down on the corner of my writing desk strewn with manuscript pages like broken shells across a stormy beach.

“Uh, no. Yes. I dunno. I thought–“

–I know what she is going to say–

“–I thought I saw something out there in the waves. But when I look, nothing’s there.”

“Eh, trick of the light,” I tell her. “Probably nothing.”

She giggles, looking directly at me, salacious smiles in her dark eyes. “Like the light in your story, ‘Abandoned Plan of Dreams’?”

I nod, and quote the line she’s thinking of: “‘There is a Sacred Light that shines forever, and an Infernal Glare burning without warmth.'”

That is truth. I have seen and felt both.

I swing my chair around to look out the window. The view is much the same as it has always been since I took up residence here. The gloaming of stars, sand, and ocean.

I always wanted a house on the beach, a writing room that faced the waves. I was granted this place as part of a deal I made. I am allowed to remain here so long as I keep my part of the bargain.

To achieve a great desire, an equal sacrifice must be offered.

I swing back around in the chair to face her. I know what is likely to happen. But she has to suggest it. It has to be her idea.

Some things are governed by rules that cannot be bent or broken.

A flicker of anticipation flutters behind her eyes. Another blush blooms across her face and she looks away.

I wait from her to continue.

Her blush sharpens her smile. “Want to go for a walk on the beach?”

For a moment, I wish she hadn’t asked, that she had stayed for a while with me inside and then left without stepping foot on the beach. Once her feet touch the sand, I would have to–I would have to keep my part of the bargain.

“Sure,” I say, and take the voodoo doll from her hands and place it back in its particular place on the southwest corner of my desk.

“Is the water still warm enough for a swim?” she asks as we pass through the dim house, the veranda, and on outside.

It’s late August. The air is warm and lush and the seven stars of Ursa Major perch just above the glimmering sea. Even after dark, the ocean is still pleasant. I tell her as much, and lead the way down the narrow path among the sedges and marram grass. It’s not far to where we need to be.

She runs ahead of me over the dunes to the wet sand where the high tide has retreated from the beach.

Her footprints sink deep then are engulfed by the waves as she dances and plays in the dusk light of eventide. I enjoy the sight of her splashing through the waves, bare feet kissed by the foamy surf before it pulls back into the sea, and wish again, for a moment, that she could stay here with me for a while.

But I could not remain here for long unless I do what is needed.

She spins and dances and we walk along the beach. The night creeps in over the eastern sea.

The young girl doesn’t notice seven crustaceous figures emerging from the receding tide. The creatures’ skin glistens green-gray in the dusk light; opalescent eyes shine from the tips of prehensile stalks and fix on her. A single serpentine leg propels them quickly through the surf and six webbed claws on each snap open and closed as they anticipate their feast.

My agents.

My neighbors.

This is just the deal we made.

The beach is theirs. They allow me to live here, in the sand dunes of their backyard, and in return, I bring them provender for their strange rites.

I have tasted their Light Eternal and smelled the rancid decay in the place where Light Never Warms. Never do I want to sink into those depths again.

I uphold my part of our bargain.

Even when I falter with regret.

The girl splashes deeper into the surf, but never sees the seven briny, gilled things until they are upon her.

She howls until her screams are cut short. I must wait until I no longer hear the slow, wet gurgles in the crimson froth staining the blood-rimmed tide and my neighbors slink back into the wine-dark sea.

They have their offering and I have another story.

A tale from my most recent guest.

Something beginning with a voodoo doll, and I try to remember the young girl’s name, but can’t quite think of what it was.

Not that it matters. This one will be hers.

A bedtime story: She fingers the voodoo doll and looks past me out the window . . .

The End

Kírk Barrett recently moved to the coast of North Carolina.  His fiction took 3rd place in the 2008 Writer’s Digest Short-Short Story Contest, and he currently has a Southern Gothic novel submitted to several agents and publishers.  He is a chief interrogator at a kitty Gitmo prison where he specializes in the stretching-purred stress
position.  His website is awaiting a long-overdue update, so until then, he could be found on Facebook.