Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
We're so pleased to publish this eerie story by former Derailleur Press writer Eirini Melena Karoutsos. This brilliantly eerie short story about the discomforts of intimacy is perfect for fans of Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and may just keep you up at night!
Keep an eye on Derailleur Press's social media for upcoming announcements on our chapbook releases, and of course keep an eye on The Rail for more brilliant writing each week.
- Derailleur Press
We were driving to his grandmother’s house. He wants me to meet her, while there is still time. Mark told me before we left that she had practically raised him. So, we were going over the river and through the woods except the woods are just miles of farmland and the river is a ditch that runs along the empty highway.
I can’t remember what time we started driving and my head aches from a hangover I don’t remember earning. Yesterday, Mark spent 45 minutes showing me the house on Google Maps. I watched the clock tick in mild awe of his feat, and yet the name of the town escapes me. I can’t ask, and Mark doesn’t have the GPS on.
I try a few conversational gambits, but each dies in the sort of way that forced conversations tend to do when you don’t actually want to have them: painfully, and seemingly dragging away a piece of your soul with them. The silence between us is both familiar and oppressive, private and yet perverted. When Mark quotes a John Mulaney joke for the third time, I want to jump out of the car, but then I feel guilty for my extreme reaction. Instead, I fiddle with the knob on the radio again, searching for music. It spins under my fingers, making a faint clicking sound until I find a classic rock station, which feels wrong in winter, but eventually it too goes to static. Mark jumps and turns the radio off. “You might as well give it up.”
Startled, it takes me a minute to realize he was talking about the radio.
“I mean,” I respond, slightly flustered, “I’m sure there’s at least an oldies station somewhere.” At this point, I wouldn’t even have minded some Evangelical screaming about damnation, burning, and “the queers.” It would have been something new to talk about, or at least background noise.
“It’s like a radio dead zone,” he says, and adds, “There’s absolutely nothing,” as though reading the fleeting thought on the tip of my tongue again.
Had he told me about this? Would I have still come if I had remembered? “I feel guilty,” I say with a light tone, “but I can’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t use a radio. I used to listen to them when I couldn’t sleep as a kid.”
“Really first world problems,” he says with a snort, “I still don’t understand how a radio would scare away a monster.”
“Sorry,” I exhale in a slightly embarrassed laugh, “did I already tell this story?”
Mark nods, his eyes still on the road, “I like hearing you say it. Tell me again.”
I smile at him against the wave of pity and disgust rising within me, my guts physically recoiling from his words. I must be nicer to Mark, at least for this trip. After, at a coffee shop near his apartment, I would do it. I could go on this one pre-planned trip, I could hold out for a weekend. Over the river and through the woods to a place where I don’t need to feel like this.
I tell him the story again, complete with the queued jokes, although he must have heard those as well. The story of my brother and I, a man named Jason, and the confused belief that as long as music is playing, the monster could not jump out at you.
I try to still make it funny, “I took it everywhere with me. Even the bathroom. I once scared the absolute shit out of my Mom, cause I fell asleep listening to an old rock station. She woke up at like 2 am hearing the thump of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man coming from her basement. Almost threw me out of the house.”
He laughs, “That’s crazy. What would you do when the radio broke?”
“It just never did.” Hasn’t he heard this story before? “At least, I don’t remember it ever breaking.” I can’t remember when I stopped carrying it with me. After a certain age, the silence isn’t as scary as being noticed.
“Imagine,” he continues, as if I hadn’t spoken, “A monster who would only come out in silence. He’d never catch a single thing. You just would have to scream your head off when he did and-” he gestured with his hand, turning his fingers into a magic trick, “poof, he’d be gone.”
“Yeah,” I force out another laugh. What the hell am I supposed to say here? No silence is more deafening than a joke falling flat.
“You should have heard the stories my cousins would tell me. Mass murderers under the bed, teenagers diced up in cars like Thanksgiving dinner.” He shakes his head, still smiling, “You wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
“No, I would not.” I respond flatly, and then with a sudden surge of wit, “But they must have really scared you if you still remember the stories now,” I note.
“Well, there is this one about a woman.”
“A woman? What, like the girl who hitchhikes and leaves her jacket in the car?”
“No, no,” He peers into the distance as if the story is written on the windshield, “It is this really freaky one about a woman walking alone at night. And she’s walking down this highway, then this car goes by. The car pulls over, it has black windows and she can’t see into it.”
“I think I’ve heard this one before. The car ends up being, like, the devil’s car right? Snatches you up if you don’t give it the right answer?”
"No, not in Dan’s version. I doubt you are thinking of the right story.”
Annoyed, I ask, “What do you mean?”
“At the end, when the car slows,” Mark continues, “at first the girl doesn’t get it. It drives away and comes back again. She still doesn’t get into the car, but it just keeps getting darker and colder on the road she is walking down. Then, the third time,” his fingers flex on the steering wheel. There’s silence in the car for a moment, but then Mark continues,
“I remember Dan sitting me down in his clubhouse behind the house. It is really the perfect place for trying to scare your cousins with scary stories. It smelled like cheap wood and the other boys that hung around, like you were in the wilderness. It was always really hot there since there wasn’t any way to bring in a fan or even cover the windows. We’d just go in there sometimes and cook until it was too hot to move. Anyway, Dan sat me down in that clubhouse one day and told me the story. Wait, I remember it!”
“Yay,” I say with forced enthusiasm. I glance at the clock, wondering if he will reach a new record for talking without interruption or self-awareness.
“Okay, so it is really cold that night, and the girl is walking home from a party or a club and is wearing clubbing clothes so she is already shivering. Makeup is smeared, ripped stockings, the whole shebang. There’s snow everywhere and she has to try to move with the snow up to her knees. No other cars come down the road. She is all alone and the car is emitting so much heat, and it looked so inviting but she didn’t approach the car.
“The engine covered all the sound so the world felt like it was only the girl and this thing in front of her. The world was narrowed further by the bright headlights that blinded her and left the rest of the world in darkness. The engine seems to growl at her, waiting for her to approach, but instead she turns on her heel and runs away, turning into the endless fields next to the highway. But she never really had a chance did she? The snow is so deep and she is so cold and so small. The car follows her as easily as if it is chasing her down on the pavement. She screams, screams for anybody to hear her. She screams so loudly but the only sounds were the sound of the engine revving and the crush of the snow beneath its wheels.”
I shiver, uncomfortable by the joy I could see crossing Mark’s face. Mark sometimes got like this, when he got into telling a story or making a point: intense, isolated, with just a hint of aggression toward whoever he is talking to. I have been dating Mark all semester, but it wasn’t something you got used to. It had once made him seem hot. I start to pick at my bottom lip, stripping the skin off my chapped mouth. Twenty-one days to break a habit, my ass.
Lost in the story, he continues, “So, she keeps running and then all of a sudden she falls. Blood gushes from her knees and palms and she tries to get up. She tries to keep running but then the car catches up to her.”
He is quiet for a moment. The winter chill feels closer than ever.
“And then she opens her eyes and she is back on the highway, walking, and a black car passes.”
“What?” I feel a cross between relief and disappointment. No one likes a bad ghost story. “That makes literally no sense,” I point out, incredulously. It is a terrible story, even by Mark’s standards. He is right, though, this story would have definitely freaked me out as an eight-year-old.
“Creepy, right?” He is still smiling. He doesn’t think it is a creepy story, maybe he never had, and is just trying to relate to me.
I don’t know how to respond, but I nod and turn to look out the window. The trees are bare, gray sticks against a white sky. Outside, the wet March slush has turned the side of the road into a slurry of mud, salt, and water. Periodically, small animal tracks-turned-puddles would blur past. Probably rabbits or deer that drift near the road when it is empty. Once I would have been able to name all the kinds of deer or rabbits that lived around here, but that information had already drifted away when I wasn’t paying attention. I am cold now and I feel achingly alone in the silence.
Mark flicks on the radio and the fuzzy static whispers out of the speakers. He knows I’d take this over the silence now. I am an adult woman, scared by a children’s story, but that is okay with Mark. Mark watches me out of the corner of his eye and smiles when he sees me looking. His teeth are crooked and stained. I feel my insides recoil again.
An hour ticks by like that before, finally, I can see the outline of a familiar farmhouse. It looks brighter than it did on Google Maps, but the distance had actually been more flattering for the structure. It is a squat ranch style, with freshly painted yellow trim over clean white shutters. It is hard to make out the brick paths that snaked through the overgrowing garden. The ugly wildness of the yard looks bizarre against the pristine and fresh looking house, as though a child had dropped a dollhouse in the middle of nowhere, and then left.
“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” I sing as we pull into the driveway. We need to wake up a bit before we go in, put on our happy couple masks and stretch our jaws.
Mark does not join in.
“I mean, yeah,” he says, turning off the car.
Sarah, drunkenly, had once called Mark the “killer of all conversations” and she was right. He could have sung along, or made a joke, but Mark would just agree. Just like that, a weekend with him and his grandmother feels so much bigger than time counted in hours or days. It would be time counted by the energy that leeches out of me with each passing word.
I jump out of Mark’s truck and when I finally look at his grandmother’s house in person, I am surprised to feel absolutely nothing. No familiarity, no wonder. My boyfriend of three years was raised here his entire life and I couldn’t care less if it burned down in front of me. God, Mom would ask when my imagination became so violent.
Mark reaches out a hand and smiles at me, closed-lipped this time. He has a round face, the kind that makes you think of All-American boys and baby fat.
“She’ll love you,” he says with a soothing tone. Had I looked nervous?
I smile and squeeze his hand. Love is the only reason people don’t notice sweaty hands. Without that, it is just a harsh reality of life, and the squelch of sweat between our palms is audible as he squeezes me tighter.
We walk across the gravel driveway and onto the path where we have to let go because it is too narrow. I wipe my hand on my leg as casually as I can and realize how badly this path has been maintained. Large stalks of grass and weeds brush against my bare leg. I try not to think about ticks.
We don’t even reach the top step before the front door is flung open. This is how I meet his grandmother. She asks me to refer to her as Grandmother, not Grandma, not Mrs. Sheffield. She is very tall, and standing below her on the steps, I feel like a villager below a giantess.
“I’ve had the name longer than my husband, but it doesn’t feel right for me.” She smiles down at me, a warm and happy smile that fills me with hope, and then guilt. Her teeth seem oddly white, like she tried bleaching them and left the cream on too long.
At dinner, I can’t remember how many glasses of wine Mark had poured me, or even when we had sat down. It takes a second to remember it was only two, but Mark likes the sweet kind so I have a headache. I take another sip, trying to find something beyond the cakey-feeling of the wine sitting on my tongue. I should be nicer about it really; free wine is free wine, and I am the guest, after all. I am just hungry, I think, and I can’t remember eating anything that day before the car ride either. My therapist tells me that memory problems are common with sleep disorders and I shouldn’t worry about it.
“How do you spend your time in the city?” Grandmother asks, scooping mashed potatoes out of a bowl and onto her plate. Grandmother always has a slightly vague look on her face, as if she is always thinking about something more important than whatever you were saying. She splatters some potatoes on her blue dress, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her dress is the same floral print as the table cloth.
“I read books mainly,” I say, giving her a rehearsed answer and trying to ignore the mess. “And then I write about the ones I like for a few magazines.”
“It’s always so good to hear that people still read magazines,” Grandmother replies, still putting even more mashed potatoes on her plate.
“I’ve had it up to here with the electronics.” She swings her spoon up to her eyes, splattering white along the wall to her right. “Letting all those evil things into your house.”
Some of it seems to cover the eyes of a portrait of a pre-teen Mark before a birthday cake. I notice now that the walls of Grandmother’s dining room are lined with photos of Mark. Only Mark. “Most of our traffic is online now,” I say, half-apologetically.
“Won’t have them in my house. I won’t have them in my house.” She says the last part directly to Mark, who looks back at her impassively.
He sighs, and looks at me with a shrug. Mark works as a scientist in a lab at the university. He works with physics, or at least he works with physicists doing complicated math questions I can never understand. He says he loves his job, showing me complicated formulas but never explaining how they work. He loves standing on the very edge of the present and leaning over the side to look down into the future, or at least that’s what it says on his website. So, how could he have come from a radio quiet zone with a technophobic Grandmother?
“I told you not to go near the stuff. Look at what it did to me. Look at what it did to all of us.” She gestures at me. I look down at my food.
“Yes, Grandmother. I know. ” He smiles like a cheeky child.
There is a moment of silence, heavy in the way that makes you want to claw out of the conversation, the room, your own skin. I take another gulp of the wine and nearly gag before I swallow quickly. I want to believe the more I drink the better it will be.
Then, Grandmother gets to her feet, and I am reminded of just how very tall she is. I am a mouse standing before a bulldog. She leans past me and points the spoon at Mark’s stupid, smiling face.
“Look here you little shit,” she hisses across the table, “I’ll kill you before I let you do that to me,” Grandmother says, “You little shit, you think you are so fucking smart, just because-”
“Everyone just calm down,” I stand up now too, my chair falls and slams on the floor. Grandmother and Mark jump and look at me. “It’s okay.” I say, “This isn’t worth fighting over.”
Grandmother pulls her shoulders back, and looks at me as though she forgot I was here. There is a moment, a kind of twitch in her right arm, that makes me believe she might slap me and I flinch. Instead, she glares at Mark one more time and storms into the kitchen. There is a crash, like a plate had shattered on the floor.
Mark rolls his eyes, “She’s always like this.”
“Always?” I ask, keeping my voice low. Had he warned me about her? Should I be more worried about Grandmother or about his nonchalance at the violence the situation implied? Mark drums his fingers on the table in front of me.
“Don’t worry about it,” touching his fingers to mine for a moment. I am surprised to find I am reassured. “She doesn’t stay like that for long. Just watch.”
I nod to him. I want to offer some kind of sympathy, but I can’t seem to find the words. Instead, I take another gulp of the sweet wine. It tastes better now.
“Really, don’t worry. She won’t remember.” He lifts his hands away from mine and points at the door. As if she had been waiting for her cue, Grandmother strolls back in with a plate of pork chops. She doesn't look angry now. In fact, she looks lovingly at Mark with a wide smile. I notice one of her teeth is missing.
“I just mean,” he says, leaning back as his Grandmother carefully places one slab of meat onto his plate, “It will just happen someday, whether she likes it or not.” He speaks as though his Grandmother isn’t standing next to him. She reaches out and strokes his face with the back of her hand.
“You shouldn’t force her to change when she feels so strongly about it.” I scoff, eyeing Grandmother and waiting for her to react to the conversation. For a moment, I wonder if she is high. She looks even more vague now than when we had arrived. Grandmother does not sit down after serving Mark. Instead, she smiles at me and reaches over and picks up Mark’s white napkin from the table. Mark leans back and pitches his acne-scarred chin up, giving her access. Grandmother tucks the napkin into the collar of his white t-shirt and I hear the scrap of her skin against the stubble on Mark’s chin. Then, she pats the top of my head and says,
“One day soon,” Grandmother looks dreamy as she says this, “you’ll be cooking all his meals like this.”
I feel nauseous.
Mark cuts into the doomed silence with the awful scratch of his knife against the plate as he digs into his pork chop, “God, this is my favorite.”
Grandmother smiles wider and speaks. She’s missing a tooth, the one behind her canines, a bicuspid. Responsible for holding up your face. I read that somewhere but couldn’t remember when or where. “Well, isn’t it nice that you are back. Missed having another woman around.” She nods to me and begins to eat her own dinner. I have food in my mouth when she says this, and it saves me from blurting out that I have never been here before. She is old and memory fades, hair and teeth fall out. That’s the only reason I can think of for this, and why no one seems startled when a chunk of hair appears in her palm in the middle of dessert.
That night, Grandmother puts us in separate rooms and says goodnight while it is still light outside. I can see the sunset’s color peaks under the dark curtains. I am happy I didn’t have to share a bed with Mark this weekend. It is one of the reasons I had agreed and pushed through with the trip.
She places me in Mark’s old room. I want the guest room, but she insists I should not think of myself as a guest. I am not surprised when I see that Mark’s childhood bedroom might as well be a guest room for all the personality it contains. The bed is a twin with a thin quilt tucked in tightly under the mattress. There are no posters or electronics or any indication a teenage boy once lived here. Just a small bookshelf of books written in languages I don’t recognize and faded knitted carpet over an unfinished floor. Mark only spoke English and offensively bad Spanish as far as I knew. The most memorable thing in the room is sea shells. They are scattered along the windowsill and on top of the bookshelf, and there is even a small pile of them in the corner near the closet. I don’t recognize them all, but I see cone and moon snail shells, conchs, things I picked up at a beach long ago with my family. There is no beach near this house, I think. Maybe they are all souvenirs, but the lazy way they are laid out makes them seem like forgotten toys. Some of the shells on the windowsill even appear to have shattered or been crushed.
I lock the door behind me before moving deeper into the room and feel something relax in my back and face. I unhook the back of my bra and take a deep breath. I want to text Sarah, but there is no service in the room, in addition to no outlets. Luckily, I have games and things to read saved onto my phone and I play with it for two hours before sneaking into the bathroom to charge it. No one knocks, and I brush my teeth twice while I wait. I might as well be alone in the house. I go back to the room, down the hallway. There is no light. I keep one hand pressed to the wall, willing myself to remember the layout Grandmother explained.
I hear something behind me and turn around. There is nothing there, and I hear nothing else. Nothing stretches behind or ahead of me. It is so silent in this house, and the thing that makes silence so creepy isn’t so much the silence itself, or even the small things that fill in the absence, but the agony of waiting for something to come out of the silence and the terror of being right. I can hear every exhale of the house. Every creak of the floorboards. The sounds of gas and snoring emanating from Mark’s side of the hallway. The shuddering of the glass in the window panes as the wet, cold air leaks in. I can hear footsteps.
I sit up and listen, but there is nothing. Nothing but the sounds of a house emptied of activity and left to settle into its bones. If I were in love, would I enjoy thinking of these sounds as another piece of Mark? I lay back down, and the house shifts again and the sound returns. I strain to listen to the silence. It sounds like the house itself is breathing. When I listen hard for the sounds of life, it is swallowed by ringing silence. The unbearable quiet makes it hard to sleep and I try to ration my phone battery.
Dawn comes at some point, between blinks and the sudden feelings of falling; the night collapses into day. I hope there will be coffee the way I hoped just showing up here would count toward good karma.
Mark walks into my room without knocking. I am still in my pajamas, a large t-shirt and paisley bottoms, and Mark’s eyes instantly go toward my chest. I cross my arms and look away, embarrassed. He smiles at me, “Grandmother made some breakfast for us before we head out.”
“Yeah, there’s some things I wanted to do together.”
“I didn’t know you collected seashells.” I wave toward his collection. “Where did you get all these?”
Mark smiles, “Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated with spirals like this.”
I suddenly remember years worth of doodles on the edges of napkins and notebooks. What I had always thought as scribbles to make the ink in a pen run suddenly crystalized into purposefulness.
“I didn’t know.” That's all I could say.
“I think it started when I was like nine.” He holds the same cylindrical cone snail shell in his hand. “Yeah, it was after one of Grandmother’s meltdowns, nothing special, a couple of broken plates. I was sitting in my room thinking about this place. About how much I hated it here. How much I hated hating this place. How it made me feel like something was twisting tighter and tighter inside me. It was always the same, except it would go deeper and deeper.” He looks at me, and then back down at the shell. “You can’t actually get out of a spiral you see, cause it never ends, but you keep touching the same places over and over. People are like that. They just pretend to move around and change, but we always come back to the same things, over and over again. I realized that time’s like that too. It’s what got me interested in physics, in all of this.” He waves his hands in the air to the general universe.
“Sea shells got you interested in physics?”
“Yeah.” He crushes the shell in his hand. I hear the crack, the sharp sound of the release. When Mark opens his palm, the shell sits perfectly within his meaty hand.
We stand in silence for a moment. I suddenly feel very afraid of a man who could crush things but not break them. It was a strange thought, but I couldn’t shake it.
“Come on,” he finally says, smiling at me, tossing the shell onto a pile on the floor, “Let’s go.”
“Go? Go where?” A rise of panic swells within me. I don’t know why, but it is louder than my loathing for him. Hotter and wilder than my instinct to be kind and to be present with him. Mark doesn’t answer me and just tells me to get dressed and meet him in the car. I nod, my head still vaguely aching from the sweet wine from last night and slightly groggy from a bad night of sleep. I gather up my toiletries and walk to the bathroom. I look at my face in the mirror, but don’t recognize this woman. I look older than I did before we left. My eyes have bags under them and my mouth seems like it is pulling my entire face down. I smile in the mirror, trying to brighten my face. One of my teeth is missing, I think, poking the hole with my tongue. I can’t remember losing it, but I am not surprised that it is gone. There’s no blood or ache, or any ghostly sensation of absence. A piece of me left and I don’t even remember it leaving. I need sleep.
I finish brushing my teeth and make a mental note to see a dentist as soon as we get back. I put my belongings away in my small backpack and take it out to Mark’s car. He is sitting in the driver’s seat idly humming a song. As soon as he sees me walk outside, his face visibly brightens, full of love. It all still repulses me. Am I a monster for not loving this man the way I know I should? Or am I a monster for trying when I know it’s not real? I hate myself at this moment, and I hate Mark too. Still, I get in the car. As soon as the door shuts I realize I forgot to grab any of the food Grandmother made for us, but I am not hungry.
“Where are we going today?” I ask, fiddling with the radio.
He doesn’t answer me until he’s completely backed out of the driveway. I watch the house disappear into the tangle of grass.
“Mark,” I ask again, “Where are we going?”
Mark smiles at me, “Grandmother’s.”
I blink, and remember that I promised him this one trip. I promised him this one trip so many times in a million small defeats. I remember that I promised this trip to him before things felt like they were choking me. We’d do this one trip, and then I would break up with him. After this day, I would be free.
Eirini Melena Karoutsos is a writer from New York. She earned her undergraduate degree in English Lit and Linguistics from SUNY New Paltz and she is currently pursuing a masters in Library Science at Pratt Institute. Her writing has been published in Chronogram and Stonesthrow Review. Her horror story Nowhere was published in 2020 through Derailleur Press Eirini likes free healthcare, dogs, and books.