Ointment

OINTMENT

Anthony Ferguson

Cody Wyatt sat on a park bench overlooking the river, watching her breath condense in front of her face. She tried to convince herself it was too cold to be out. It was a bad idea. She should just walk away now. She belched and the hint of ethanol on her breath told her otherwise. Rubbed her bleary eyes, half raw from drink, the other half her angry tears. She knew she was in for the long hall. Too late to turn back.

Try as she might Cody could not stop her brain running over and over that awful grey afternoon. Bursting into the house, shopping bags under each arm. Calling out to Nikki to get downstairs and give her a hand. Putting stuff away and her ears gradually tuning in to the sound underneath her daughter’s teenage music – the spatter of running water.

Anxious, taking the stairs two at a time as the first wave eased over the top of the stairs. Calling Nikki’s name more urgently, bad thoughts flooding her mind. Slamming the bathroom door open to find the body slumped over in the tub and… all that blood.

Cody stopped balling her hands into fists just before her own nails began to draw blood.

‘Jane?’

At first she didn’t respond, then she remembered the name she had given. Cody looked up at the man standing over her.

‘Jesus! You look like shit, lady.’ He sat beside her, uninvited. He was skinnier than she had imagined. Salt and pepper cropped hair dotted his scalp. Dark, hawkish eyes flitted around, looking everywhere but at her. The accent she couldn’t place. It was either Irish or Scots, she could never tell the difference.

‘You’re not exactly beauty pageant material yourself,’ she said, pulling her cigarettes from a coat pocket and shaking one loose. She lit up with a shaking hand. ‘Do you mind?’

‘It’s a free world. They’re your lungs,’ he said, shaking his head. Cody saw droplets of ice formulating on his close cropped scalp. She wanted to brush them off.

‘You look a bit thin for this sort of business,’ she said, taking a lungful of tar deep inside her chest and savouring it, ‘I expected you to be more… robust. If you don’t mind me saying.’

He snorted and spoke sotto voice. ‘Lady, you got it all mixed up. I’m just the messenger. The delivery boy. The perpetrators of this sort of deal don’t do their negotiating in person. Christ. They’re not fucking stupid. Just like Jane isn’t your real name, unless you are.’

Cody blew a plume of smoke out of her nostrils. ‘So why was I asked to come here?’

‘Cos I got something for you. Something you need, and the sooner we get down to it, the sooner we can get out of this shitty weather, and you can get back to drowning yourself in booze.’

‘Fuck you!’

He smiled. ‘So, down to business. You contacted a certain person, and that person put you onto another person, and so on until you reached an associate of mine…’

‘It was a friend of a friend…’

He waved her away. ‘It doesn’t matter who did what or who said what. Just listen, okay?’

Cody nodded, sucked her cigarette down the filter and tossed it aside. Her brain ached for the next drink, anything to blot it all out.

He paused as a jogger, young and male, pounded past them, turning to check them out. Cody guessed they looked like any forty something couple. He closeted in dark garb and a thick coat, the stubble on his chin matching that on his head. She caught the young man’s eye for an instant and read his disdain at her bloated face and puffy eyes. Her long red hair swept messily away from her forehead, showing tinges of grey where, in the lingering malaise brought on by her grief, she had neglected to keep up her grooming.

As the runner disappeared around a bend he continued his story. ‘Your tale of despair reached the right ears. A certain person is sympathetic to your plight, and offers the ready solution to the retribution you seek.’

Cody coughed and cleared her throat. ‘So, what happens now, Mr…?’

‘No names.’ He reached inside his coat and withdrew a small khaki holdall, from which he lifted a little plastic container.

‘What’s that?’

He passed her a slip of paper. ‘If you would just forward the deposit to the account number written there.’

‘Now?’

He nodded.

Cody pulled out her mobile and did as he instructed. He smiled as she clicked send.

‘The balance falls due as soon as our little matter is attended to, and you return the item to me.’

He tapped the transparent plastic container. Cody could see something small flitting around inside it. A black moving speck. He handed it across to her. She held it in her lap.

‘Don’t open it here,’ he said.

‘It looks like a school lunchbox.’ She cackled, which became a rasping cough.

He ignored the comment. ‘Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.’

Cody inspected the container. ‘…Is it a fly?’ She went to lift the corner of the lid, and was surprised by the suddenness of his response, the ferocious grip on her wrist.

‘Do not open it here.’

‘Jesus! Alright. What is it?’

He turned his dark eyes on her. ‘Are you familiar with the curse of the Pharaohs?’

She looked puzzled. ‘I guess so. I’ve seen enough old movies.’

He lowered his voice even further. ‘What you hold in your hands is a plague worse than the ancient prophesies.’

Cody flushed. ‘Are you kidding me? It is a fly, isn’t it? Ten fucking grand to borrow a house fly.’

‘Your daughter was tormented to the point of suicide. Am I correct?’

Cody’s breath caught in her throat. ‘Yes… I found her in the bathtub.’

He avoided her gaze. ‘I know how these things go. These days, our tormenters cannot just reach us in person. They have learned to use new technologies to oppress us twenty-four hours a day.’

‘They were relentless. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I didn’t know until it was too late… The police showed me.’ Cody spat the words with venom. ‘Telling her… she was worthless, ugly, that she should kill herself.’

He glanced at her. ‘There was one ringleader in particular. There always is.’

Cody shook another cigarette from the pack and lit up. ‘Yeah. Danny Grimes. They suspended him-’

‘He was involved with your daughter.’

‘They suspended him!’ Cody said with bitter emphasis. ‘Can you believe it? My kid fucking dies, and he gets a suspension.’

‘We did our research. Relationship gone bad. She gives him the flick. He posted those pictures online, even if it couldn’t be proven. Family ties. Legal obfuscation. Slap on the wrist. It’s not enough, is it?’

She studied the glowing tip of her cigarette. Pictured grinding it into Danny Grimes’ eye. ‘He deserves to suffer.’

‘So you sought out my associate, and here we are.’ He looked at the object in her lap.

Cody held up the container. The thing inside made small clicking noises as it bounced off the walls. ‘What is this exactly?’

‘It is what you seek, vengeance. Are you prepared for the consequences?’

‘Do I have a choice? I’ve come this far. So, what do I do with it?’

‘All you need do is get yourself within a few feet of the one you wish to punish, and open the lid. It will do the rest.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do I get it back in the box?’

‘It will return when the job is done, don’t worry. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to get out of this pissing weather.’

He stood up to leave, turning up his collar. ‘Hey!’

He turned. ‘Yeah?’

She swallowed. ‘Will he suffer?’

‘Oh yes. They all suffer.’

She sat and watched him walk away, finishing her smoke.

***

Cody sat in her bedroom, the television blathered quietly behind her, her only companion. The house was cold and empty. All she had left from a broken marriage. The bottle sat inviting on the dresser next to her cigarettes. The mobile phone signal flickered in her hands. She dialled.

‘Hello?’

‘It’s done.’

‘… I hope you get what you want.’

‘Rach?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. I mean it.’

A snort came down the line. ‘Yeah, forget it. When you move in the circles that I do, you meet all sorts. So what happens to Grimes? When do they… and how? Did they say?’

Cody poured a draft from the bottle and told Rachel about the fly. When she finished, the bottle was dry.

‘What happened? How did you get close enough?’

‘I tailed him around the city. He didn’t notice. He was wrapped up in his own world. Funny thing…’

‘What?’

‘Well, he just seemed kind of lost, empty, alone… I’ve never seen anyone so alone.’

‘He deserves it.’

‘Yeah… I know. It just wasn’t how I pictured is all. I imagined him surrounded by friends, laughing at getting away with it. Enjoying my suffering. But instead he looked haunted. I almost didn’t go through with it.’

‘But you did.’

Cody reached for her smokes, gripped the pack. Fought back the cravings. ‘I waited for the right moment. He went into a food hall, like he was looking for a crowd. Just to be surrounded by humanity. I followed, took the next table. Made sure he had his back to me. I lifted the container out of my bag. I opened it and the thing came out. It looked like a regular fly.’

‘So, what happened?’

‘Well it flew out and buzzed around my table for a minute, circling. It was kind of weird.’

‘How?’

‘Well for a few seconds it stopped dead, right in front of my face, and it hovered there, and it looked right at me.’

There was a pause until the voice came back down the line ‘Right.’

‘Like it was examining me. Then it flew right across to the other table and landed on his ear.’

‘Did he notice?’

‘Oh yeah. He brushed it off, but it came right back. It landed on his ear, his nose, it just kept coming. He was waving his arms around. People started to notice, and they were laughing, pointing, making comments under their hands. After several minutes of this, he totally lost it. He started yelling and stabbing at the thing with his fork. Made a real scene. I quietly moved away.’

‘So, it’s working then?’

‘I guess.’

‘So, you wanna go out this weekend?’

‘Out? Me?’

‘Yeah you. All due respect, honey. You can’t mope around forever.’

‘Gee, Rach, I don’t know if I’m ready.’

‘Look at us, Cody. Couple of washed up spinsters and we haven’t hit fifty yet. One bad marriage apiece. Trust me, we can’t afford to be picky. Especially you. After Sean.’

The words Rachel left out cut deep. Cody winced, but she knew it was true, and only her best friend could get away with dragging it up.

‘Yeah, alright. I’ll go out with you. Do me good to get out of this place.’

‘That’s the spirit. So, where is the fly now?’

‘Well the container is empty. I guess it’s still with him.’

***

Danny cursed and climbed off Mrs Duxton. His neighbour recoiled, closing her legs and swatting the buzzing insect away from her face. ‘How did that thing get in here? Did you leave the window open again?’

‘No,’ He sat on the edge of the bed, bathed in sweat. When he heard the fly buzzing in his ear he swore and batted it away.

Roslyn sat up and reached for her cigarettes, lit up. ‘Damn that fly. I was just about there.’ She blew a plume of smoke and the fly buzzed through it. ‘I thought they bloody died in winter.’

‘Not this one.’ He snatched the smoke out of her hand and took a drag. The fly landed on his face. He flinched and stabbed at it with the hot tip of the cigarette.

‘Hey.’ She reached for it.

Danny got up. ‘Gotta take a piss.’

Roslyn watched as the young man stomped out of the room. The fly following like a puppy dog. ‘That’s too weird,’ she said to the empty room. She glanced at the dresser, saw her husband’s photo eyeballing her, and reached across and turned it over.

In the bathroom, Danny sighed as he emptied his bladder while it flitted about his head. He looked at all of Roslyn’s make up and medications dotting the cabinet shelves. He stood in front of the mirror, examining his bloodshot eyes. She was twice his age, but just as lonely as he was. A husband who no longer cared and often worked away. This is what he had come to. A long way down since Nikki.

The fly buzzed across his face, and somehow he knew.

It was the same damn fly.

It had been five days straight that fly had been following him around.

After the mall it followed him to the bottle shop, causing him to drop and smash a bottle he had to pay for.

It trailed him to work. Tormented him all through his shift. Even flipping burgers is hard with an insect buzzing around your head. Sanjib, the night manager wasn’t too impressed either.

‘Can’t have that thing in my restaurant,’ he said.

Yet no matter how many times they chased it out the door the bloody thing came back and landed on Danny again.

‘Is that your bloody pet?’ an exasperated Sanjib said.

In the end Danny was sent packing two hours early. First the damn thing cost him money he badly needed. Now it was impeding his sex life.

Noticing the sudden absence of insectoid drone, Danny looked around for the fly. He was distracted by Roslyn’s voice, calling him back to the bedroom. He strode toward the sound on a wave of desire, his cock growing more rigid with every step.

When he entered the room his eyes widened. She lay spreadeagled before him, teasing herself with lacquered fingers.

‘You dirty bitch!’ Danny groaned and moved toward her. She gazed between his legs, and her smile turned into a scream.

He looked down to see the fly perched on the tip of his glans, like an unwelcome cancerous growth.

Roslyn leapt to her feet and started grabbing his discarded clothes and throwing them at him. ‘That’s it, I’ve lost the urge now.’

‘But Ros,’ he protested. ‘Can’t we just finish?’

‘No thanks,’ she said, tugging a bra over her breasts. ‘You piss off and play with your friend. You seem well acquainted.’

Danny looked down his nose as he felt it disappear up his nostril. He waved his arms and snorted, and the fly came out on a trail of mucus.

‘Gross Daniel. Go home and take a fucking shower or something. My hubby’s coming home in a couple of days anyway… maybe we should call it quits.’

‘What about when he buggers off for work again?’

Her silence was all the answer he needed. He swept the fly away and pulled on his pants. ‘So that’s it? You’re dumping me?’

Rosyln stood up, started straightening the bed. ‘Don’t sound so surprised, hon. We both agreed this was a short term thing.’

It didn’t make Danny feel any better to know she was right. He pulled his shirt over his head and sneered. ‘Yeah, well who needs you, you old slut!’

‘Get out, Daniel!’

‘I’m going, bitch.’

It got worse over the next few weeks. He couldn’t do anything without his constant companion buzzing in his ear. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t work. Even Rosylyn told him to sling his hook. He got to thinking that it wasn’t much fun being tormented.

***

Cody saw Rachel waiting at a table in the quiet café. She smoothed down her hair. Popped a mint in her mouth. She saw Rach’s face drop as she sat.

‘Jesus Cody, you’re as white as a ghost. What happened?‘

Cody stuck her mobile phone in front of Rachel without a word. Her friend’s eyes narrowed as she took in the picture and headline on the screen. She picked it up. ‘What’s this?’

‘He’s dead.’

Rachel read as she talked. ‘Who’s dead?’

‘Danny Grimes.’

‘No!’ The words on the screen gave the lie to Rachel’s words. ‘Suicide?’

‘That’s what they say, but was it?’

Rachel kept her eyes glued to the online article. ‘It says he ran onto the road right in front of a speeding car.’

‘Like he was being chased,’ keep reading.

‘Yeah.’ She handed the phone back and looked into Cody’s pale face and lowered her voice. ‘So he killed himself. Isn’t that what you wanted?’

‘I didn’t think it would go this far.’

‘Oh come on, Cody. Yes you did. It’s exactly what you wanted.’

‘Rach, we murdered him.’

‘Don’t be stupid. We did nothing. He did it to himself. Besides, you did it, not me.’

‘You put me onto those people.’

Rachel’s gaze swept around the empty café. ‘Because it was killing you. I wanted to help you.’ Rachel reached out and put her hand on Cody’s arm. ‘Cody, it’s over. You got what you wanted. Just let it go now. Nikki’s been gone five years. Move on.

Cody chewed on her lip, slowly withdrew the plastic container from her bag and placed on the table. Rachel saw the thing flitting around inside and looked around in panic.

‘Don’t bring that fucking thing out here,’ she hissed. Get rid of it.’

‘I thought you could take it back.’

‘Me? You’re kidding.’

‘You’re in this just as deep as me.’

Rachel pushed the object back across the table at Cody. ‘Oh no, you’re not dragging me into this.’ She stood up, the chair scraping across the floor. ‘I can’t fucking believe you, Cody. Get a grip. Don’t call me.’

Cody watched her friend walk away. She grabbed the container and put it back in her bag. Her mobile buzzed. The flicked the screen across. An anonymous message gave a familiar rendezvous.

***

Cody was still distracted when she got home. She put her bag on the table, went to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a drink. She went upstairs and changed. The sound of a police siren made her rush to the window. She flicked the blind open to see the lights flash by up the street, felt a tinge of relief. Maybe Rachel was right. She didn’t kill Grimes. They’d never pin it on her. All the same, she couldn’t sleep with that thing in the house. She’d be glad to see the back of it.

Cody slipped off her shoes, went back downstairs to the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and stood by the window, deep in thought. By the time she noticed the subtle change in the atmosphere it was too late. She failed to notice the figure lurking behind the door.

‘Cody.’

She wheeled around in shock to be confronted by her ex-husband.

‘What the hell are you doing here? You’re not allowed.’ She backed away, her brave façade crumbling as all the old fear came flooding back.

Sean’s face creased in a smile. ‘Just got back into town. Thought I’d come and see my house. Why is it such a mess? Don’t you fucking clean?’

‘It’s my place now, Sean.’

‘And what’s this?’ He picked up the bottle. ‘Jesus, you’ve let yourself go, girl. When did you start smoking?’

‘None of your business.’

‘You know I hate that smell.’

Cody blew smoke toward him. ‘You’re off your head.’

Sean’s eyes glazed over. He reached out and grabbed Cody by the hair. ‘Don’t fucking talk back to me!’

‘Get off!’

He dragged her across to the sink, stooping to pick her dropped cigarette off the floor. The sink was full of dirty water and a few dishes. ‘You wanna smoke. I’ll show you what I think of that.’ He tried to cram the smoke in her mouth, but ended up stubbing it out on her face. He yanked her head down into the water. Turned the faucet. Cody kicked and yelled.

‘This is what you get, bitch, when you give me lip.’

The words were muffled by the water pouring into her ears. Cody felt her strength waning, until it occurred to her that it might be better for everyone if she just let go. She stopped resisting, but just as she felt herself drifting away, the pressure on the back of her head dissipated.

She pulled her head out of the tepid water, coughing and gasping for air. She looked around. Sean was gone. Cody felt her legs go and she slid to the floor, sobbing.

***

Her cheek still stung from the cigarette burn as she sat on the same park bench on Saturday afternoon. Every step made her wince, but through make up and will power she dragged herself across town to keep the appointment.

Stubble man was already waiting this time. He eyeballed her as he sat down.

‘Jane. Nice to see you again.’

‘Cut the shit. What sort of game are you playing here?’

He looked perplexed. ‘I’m not sure what you mean?’

‘You know exactly what I mean. I asked you to help me exact revenge on Grimes. I never said I wanted you to kill him!’

‘I didn’t kill him. He did it to himself, aided by our little friend. Besides which, you asked for retribution, but you never insisted what form it should take.’

‘Don’t try and turn this around on me.’ Cody yanked the container out of her bag and thrust it at him. ‘I never said I wanted him dead, for fuck’s sake!’

He shrugged. ‘I say you got just what you wished for.’

‘You can keep the money, just take this monstrosity back.’

‘What happened to your face?’

‘I’m fine.’

He shook his head. ‘That foundation barely disguises it. Maybe you had a visit from someone you didn’t want to see.’

‘What would you know?’

He smiled. ‘More than you think.’

She thrust the container at him again. ‘Are you going to take this thing back?’

‘No. I’m not.’

‘What?’

‘I think we both know what happens next. Our deal isn’t complete yet. In fact, we may need to extend it a little.’

Cody felt a cold wind pass through her. She saw herself take out her phone. Then she saw herself log onto her account and send another down payment.

He watched her do it, then rose to his feet. ‘Have a nice day. We’ll meet again.’

Cody lit a cigarette. Her hands were shaking.

***

She knew she was taking a huge risk following Sean into the bar. She recalled it was one of his favourite haunts. Fortunately it was busy enough for her to slip in unnoticed and find a place in the shadows toward the back. Cody spent an hour nursing a drink, hating the atmosphere, loathing the merry banter. Watching her ex shooting the breeze with his obnoxious buddies. There were streamers and balloons around his table. She remembered it was his birthday. She just wanted to get back to her cold empty house and shut the world out.

Finally, when the Dutch courage kicked in, and she was sure Sean and his friends had drunk enough to throw them off their guard, Cody stood up on uncertain legs. She pulled the container from the carry bag under the table and slipped across the crowded, dimly lit bar.

When he suddenly wheeled around on her Cody was shocked into a stupor. She froze. He sneered. ‘What, thought you could sneak up on me, wifey?’ He laughed, his mates joining in. ‘I saw you creep in here over an hour ago. Wondered what the fuck you were up to. Thanks for not calling the cops on me the other week. So what is it? Can’t get enough of me, eh?’

His mocking tone snapped Cody out of her state of shock, and she stuck the container in front of his face and went to lift the lid.

‘The fuck is that?’ Before she could react he smacked it out of her hands and sent it spinning across the room. It hit the edge of a table and fell to the ground, the lid jarring loose in the process.

Nobody but Cody noticed something small and dark fly up into the air. Then a strong fist closed around her wrist and jerked her around.

‘Well, what the hell are you doing here?’ Sean yelled into her face. A bouncer made his way toward them.

As he spoke, a small black object flew right into his open mouth. Sean let go of her arm and took a step back.

He hacked and coughed, and managed to dislodge the fly. It buzzed around his head, looking for a place to land.

Cody broke free of his grip and forced a smile. ‘I just wanted to say, happy birthday honey. I got you something.’

Before he could respond, she strode away from the bar, stooping to collect the empty container. Sean looked at his friends, then started after her, but something buzzed inside his ear. He stopped to scratch at it.

Outside in the cold night air, Cody watched him through the window. Then she turned and walked away.


Anthony Ferguson is a committee member of the Australian Horror Writers Association, for whom he manages a story critique group. He has published numerous short stories, flash fiction pieces and non-fiction articles in Britain, the United States and Australia, in a range of magazines, zines and anthologies. He wrote the non-fiction book, The Sex Doll: A History (McFarland 2010) and edited the short story collection Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror (Equilibrium 2011). He has been both a judge and a finalist in several antipodean horror competitions, was awarded 2nd prize in the AHWA/Melbourne Zombie Convention 2013 Short Story Competition, received an honourable mention in the AHWA 2014 Flash Fiction Competition and was a finalist in the Australian Shadows Short Story Awards for 2017. He was a judge in the AHWA Awards 2015, and Australian Shadows Awards 2016.

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