"The Regulars: Part IV" by Tyler Baker
That night, Priscilla turned in early, but she didn’t sleep. She sat up against the headboard and waited for hours with a book of matches in her cold hand. At just past midnight, her eyes fell closed for only a moment and when she opened them again, she saw the faint outline of a broad shouldered figure at the foot of her bed. Its asthmatic breaths were not human, they were beastlike. Priscilla swiped a match to no effect. She swiped again and the match broke between her shaking fingers. The beast approached her bedside with hard, thumping steps. The horrible thumps fired signals through her brain and the memory of the late Uncle Douglas’ wooden legs striking the floorboards returned. Priscilla gripped her next match closer to the tip and with a swipe it sparked into flame. It burned her thumb but she refused to let go. The beast towered at her bedside inches from Priscilla. In the flickering light of the lingering match, Priscilla could just see the shrouded face of the beast. It shined red with tendons and pumping veins stretched over an egg-white skull. She had seen in a book on human anatomy a black and white sketch of a skinless man. At the very least, the face of the beast looked like this man. The eyes bulged obscenely, without the skin necessary for expression they appeared permanently frozen in terror. There were no lips, only two rows of ivory, making it seem as though the beast were checking its teeth.
Priscilla flushed but did not scream. She was not a child anymore. The flame between Priscilla’s thumb and index finger fluttered and burned out. The room, darker than ever, screamed in silence. Priscilla did not bother with another match. She waited and the beast spoke.
“Nigel....Gilmour,” in a flash she remembered the beast’s voice and she remembered
what it had said before: you are the wrong child. “ Your....husband,” its harsh smoker’s voice cut into Priscilla’s chest, making her recoil.
“My husband,” She whispered.
“Do you know what I am? And precisely what you ask?
“Yes,” shot Priscilla without hesitation.
“Others may have to die... not so simple as plucking Nigel out of a hat, will that be
“Whatever means necessar--” the beast creaked in the darkness and in an instant the
bedroom burst with light. It released the chain.
“You are certain? It cannot be undone...” The power in its voice was gone, replaced by
tired misery. “Please.”
“It will be done, then,” it said without loading its tone with judgement, “will you spare any tobacco for a weary traveler?”
“--you want tobacco?”
“I can roll you a harry rag in the kitchen--”
“Yes.” It stepped back so Priscilla could get out of bed. She passed the towering beast.
Its ashy, metallic scent hung thicker than ever. She found the door, went out into the kitchen and clicked on the light. The beast waited in the bedroom doorway as though shy, its bulging eyes
darted around restlessly. Priscilla produced a pouch of tobacco and a slip of paper from the left hand stove drawer, which made a horrible metal on metal shriek when it opened. She took care to roll it proper, licked the paper and sealed it. She went back to the bedroom doorway as though unafraid. It reached out a shiny-red hand and plucked the cigarette from her. It struck a match from a matchbook with a picture of a woman and the words “Manufactures De Letat” printed at the top, lit the cigarette and inhaled the smoke deep into its lungs. It gazed over at something behind Priscilla. Priscilla turned to see what it was staring at.
“Oh!” Priscilla advanced to the table, took the cold pen in her hand and brought it back to the beast.
“Thank you,” she said, passing the utensil over. The beast ignored Priscilla, stalked back into the bedroom with smoke trailing behind. “Will I see you again?” She called. It stopped.
“...not customary that I say.”
“Thank you!” Its huffing ceased for the first time since it had appeared and the tobacco smoke dissipated. Priscilla searched around the bedroom but the beast had vanished. She went to bed but didn’t sleep.
Two days passed without a parcel being delivered. Priscilla went to work and acted as if everything were normal, though her nerves overcame her at times. She only feared that it had all been a dream, only this time there was no physical evidence that anything had happened at all. The pen was gone. Had it ever been there at all?
Priscilla took lunch at her usual spot, outside Mr. Greenbow’s Grocery. She sat on the tailgate of the lorry and ate fried fish with her hands while skimming the paper she’d bought from Mr. Greenbow for 2 pence. The front page headlines read:
GERMAN HATE HAS MADE ITS BOLDEST PLAY
RMS MAURETANIA LINER IS VICTIM OF GERMAN SUBMARINE WHEN NEARING PORT OF LONDON MORE THAN 300 FEARED DEAD
At first Priscilla did not attach any significance to the headlines and she finished lunch before reading the second page. It wasn’t until she returned home that she, at the kitchen table, found the personal significance of a particular passage:
--a crew of 412, consisting of a majority of battle wounded heroes from the front--
All at once with great certainty, Priscilla knew Nigel was a passenger on the ship. She could not explain how she knew, only that it was an absolute fact. The reality inflicted Priscilla with a shudder and exactly then, the grandfather clock struck half past. The flat, to Priscilla, felt more silent than ever before. Nigel is dead. Priscilla made a cigarette, stuck it in the corner of her mouth, manipulated a matchbook and set fire to the end. Fog had begun drifting in through the open window and the smoke from her cigarette collided with it, creating a swirling cloud. BANG BANG! A knock on Priscilla’s door broke the silence.
God no. Nigel. Priscilla bolted upright. Her blue eyes bulged and her petite jaw dropped as far as it would go. Her lit cigarette fell to the floor. Alive? Alive! I’ve been tricked. Priscilla crept toward her door with short, dreading steps. She visualized her husband: clean-khaki uniform, metals on his breast, freshly shined boots, crutches, brown moustache quivering beneath a hook-nose, khaki cap, sparkling gold eyes. 60 years. 60 more years with the louse. I
will kill myself before I let you take my life away. You have no right. Miserable louse. Priscilla halted at the foot of the door, supporting herself with an outstretched arm on the frame--her head bolted outward and she heaved without throwing up. Tears dropped from her lids striking the hardwood with little tap taps. She inhaled greedily and her exhalation sent tremors through her whole body. Priscilla reached for the door handle and threw it open. There at the foot of the door stood a very apologetic looking Mrs. Parsons. She clutched her black purse with both hands, waist high, round eyes gazing sideways at Priscilla. “Priscilla, my dear! Are you alright?”
“Hello Mrs. Parsons,” a bolt of joy shot through Priscilla and her eyes sparkled for a split second,
“I am perfectly alright, what can I do for you?”
“Priscilla, you’re not alright! You’re red with misery,” her round, sorrowful eyes became horizontal and interrogative, she reached out a cold hand and touched Priscilla’s wrist, “Is it Nigel. Oh, heavens, it is Nigel isn’t it?”
“No Mrs. Parsons, I haven’t a letter from the War Office. It’s just-- the-- the--”
“Oh dear,” through the half open door and past Priscilla, Mrs. Parsons could see the open newspaper, “you’ve seen the front page haven’t you?”
“Yes-- yes ma’am that’s it.” Priscilla breathed deep and exhaled, exaggerating the tremor that followed.
“You poor dear. Such terrible loss, you’re a patriot, aren’t you my dear?” Priscilla ignored the question. “I’ve come to apologize for hurting you. It was such a dreadful thing. Of course you hadn’t witheld my letter-- the posties mix them up all the time,” her upper lip tightened, as she held her face in a grimace, showing her mangled lower teeth, “I will come back when you are feeling better, my dear. We can chat about this lat--”
“Thank you”, Priscilla sobbed, interjecting. She gave one more overblown convulsion and closed the door in Mrs. Parsons face. Priscilla went back to the kitchen and picked her cigarette up from the hardwood. It had burnt out so she sparked it again and stuck it between red lips. She looked at the newspaper headline. The bolded “300 FEARED DEAD” stared back at her. Priscilla nearly finished her cigarette and flicked the tiny butt into the kitchen sink. Her head snapped around and her iris’ darted left and right beneath black dashes. She saw her couch, wallpaper, cast-iron stove, water-closet, windows, curtains, bedroom, ceiling, kitchen-table, chairs, rug-- it all had one thing in common-- it belonged to her. Except for some clothes in the wardrobe, a razor in the water-closet, and his cold empty chair, Nigel’s presence had been flushed out
Her eyes closed, she inhaled the damp air drifting in through the open window and her small mouth spread upward revealing all of her white teeth as she laughed. It was a laugh so hearty she felt it in the soles of her feet. She opened her eyes and belted out the open window:“And I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way, for I belong to the regulars I’m proud to say. And I’ll do my duty night or day. I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”