Strawberry

Submitted into Contest #64 in response to: Set your story in a Gothic manor house.... view prompt

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Fantasy Holiday Horror

Strawberry

by Joey Nobleman

Esteemed, but monastic, Professor of Astronomy Egaeus Borg wouldn’t normally be caught dead at a common celebration; however Halloween’s eccentricity oddly mirrored his own, and served as the exception. The anonymity afforded by costuming preserved his sense of privacy while socializing with others who, mercifully, were busy with being not-themselves; themselves being normally tiresome. Thus, tonight, the yearly ritual of careful adornment was undertaken with deliberate care, paced only by the promised arrival of several colleagues offering a lift to the festivities. The destination would be the estate of his university's Dean, hosting this year’s gala.

Borg’s costume was uncharacteristically daring and smartly detailed. Each year brought a new display prepared solely on faith, the Professor living alone and referencing only a full length mirror for assessment.

Borg put the finishing touches on his latest creation, an ambitious and painstaking effort leaving him grateful for a few minutes of repose before his lift’s arrival. In full, delicate, dress and with options for relief limited to further standing before the mirror or retreating to his study’s chair, he chose the latter to pass the time comfortably.

Reclining and swivelling gently while surrounded by shelves of books and journals to which he had contributed over the years, Borg smiled proudly. This evening’s frolick would be well deserved.

Chime! Chime!, echoed the bell.

Oh they are already here.., Borg discerned with mild incredulity. However, the time seeming out of joint was consistent with his few moments of self absorption in the study, he promptly surmised.

OK, let’s rise and get to the door. My goodness, the insidiousness of aging, he mused, my sprightliness is waning; these old bones!

In eager anticipation of, yet ironically only plodding towards, his caller, Borg eventually reached the door.

“Hello Leslie, thanks for coming.”

Leslie, a PhD candidate only, was not yet worthy of a more formal address.

A beat or two skipped before his response.

“Uh...you are welcome...Professor", finishing, strangely, almost with a question mark.

“Are Professors Legeman and Usher in the car?” queried Borg.

Leslie nodded slowly in affirmation.

“Excellent. Onward to the party!” lead Borg, proceeding past Leslie and along the driveway.

“Leslie, young man, will you be coming?” Borg asked while pausing and glancing back.

“Yes, sorry, sir”, he apologized, “just needing a moment.”

Leslie soon followed and they converged on the car, opening the doors and boarding slowly.

“Professor Legeman, Professor Usher, hello!” greeted Professor Borg.

Borg noticed Leslie’s glance to his colleagues, a flash, it seemed, of confusion at best and concern at worst.

“Hello...”

“Hello...”

Not a word followed from the time they exited their Aldershot, Ontario, village.

This gracelessness is the result of their discomfort, he decided, not only of my intimidating presence but also with the impress of my extraordinary outfit. They have been outdone, and thus sit quietly ashamed of their lack of preparation...

Dean Riki’s manor was in a discreet edge of Oakville’s castellated Glen Abbey, prefaced by arresting iron gates and a prolonged, serpentine drive, leaving the physiognomy of the residence shrouded in mystery until exhaustive traversal of the approach.

Although impressive in stature, this manifest of generational wealth and simple conception suggested residency more of tomb than home, leaving Borg disdainful of Riki’s less than august taste.

The auto stopped at the front entrance however only Borg exited, the others opting to further costume in the garage park prior to converging at the lobby.

That’s odd; they seem dressed; obviously opting for desperate, last minute, improvements...

Borg found himself suddenly alone on the stoop and motioning towards the door, but immediately arrested by its covering script;

"Lasciate Ogne Speranza, Tu Ch’intrate"

Moderately impressed by the learned, albeit somewhat inaccurate, allusion, the Professor proceeded into the antechamber, eagerly anticipating the revelry.

Ah, just as I hypothesized...all so rude...Gothic the choice of barbarism...Wren was unerring in his scrutiny...

Proceeding to the impressive, detailed arched doors at the end of the foyer, Borg surveyed.

It is finely sculptured...I know this gate...yes, there is Le Penseur at the fastigium...but this should be rectangular, not arched...I am surprised Riki hasn’t finished its ruin by reinserting Le Baiser as originally conceived and completing the mockery altogether...

The massive door swung open and Borg, though already nearing categorical disgust, reluctantly saluted Riki for the entrance's dramatic sweep.

Stepping inside, the main hall was actually not yet forthcoming. The Professor was instead directed to his left into a modest sized room with an elevated, angular ceiling.

This is something of a side room, fashioned perhaps from a much more extensive aisle...oh the gaudiness...dark reds and purples...but here are some celebrants!..

“Hello all!” he cried.

In lieu of the expected salute, the body parted with a collective gasp, retreating to the sides.

Strange behaviours?..

Soon came a resonant clang, inspiring a migration out the room’s rear door. Alone again for a few moments while proceeding to catch up to the others, Borg took further note of the set, his second round of observations confirming and supplementing his initial ones.

This room must be the first in a series around a spacious interior...

The ceiling of the vast inmost was actually visible; this enclosure’s separating wall of seven feet not reaching the lofted, angled ceiling and thus allowing an upward sight line into the prime space.

Does a nave of a “church” await us? Why will Riki not let us see it? Perhaps we must progress through these rooms first? So very clever!

I need to catch up.

Why am I moving so slowly?..

His colleagues disquietude and the party guests' behaviours were momentarily forgotten upon entry to the second room; the walls, Gothic windows, and costuming, a stunning kaleidoscope.

What glare and glitter! Joyous!..

“Hello again all! A magnificent room, isn’t it!”

Borg's fishing for a connection returned only gasps and whispers.

“Yes, it is I, Egaeous Borg! I know you are shocked to see me but, please, let’s enjoy!”

The guests immediately huddled, then turned to face the door to the next room but did not yet proceed.

“Are you leading me through a tour of the haunt?” he asked, and, not waiting for a response, supplemented with, “Wonderful, yes, I will follow!”

This is envy of my dress, just like Usher-and-company; manifest rudely by my simple colleagues...

Another stately clang then hurried exit by the lot.

Ah!..The chime co-ordinates the touring of the configuration, each room’s congregation rotating in time...

With a few laborious steps, Borg neared himself to the side wall, altering sight to the centrum.

Swoosh! Swoosh!

Oh my goodness!..

He gushed in notice of the sweep of an enormous pendulum, now also audible in the quiet absence of company.

It is the silver pendulum of a stupendous clock hanging from the vault...black and massive...and looming over...whatever is in the centre...a most dramatic spectacle awaits...I must proceed as directed toward that space!..

He advanced to the next chamber but not nearly as quickly as he desired, still curiously languid.

The third room, erubescent and titillating, was abound with a masquerade of unbridled charter. This room was larger and elbow curved around a corner, thus changing the linearity of progress but consistent with clockwise circumvention.

Borg inserted unnoticed, allowing for the first time a considerate perlustration of the crowd.

How piquant and devoid of decorum! Unbridled passions!..

A peculiarity, however, caused his survey pause.

That costume rings a bell...where do I know it from?..it looks so very much like...her...

A momentary breathlessness stilled him.

That light red dress...with little yellow polka dots...and red hair...

He dragged himself towards her.

“Miss, Miss...”

She motioned to face him then...Clang! Clang!

“No, no, wait, excuse me, wait for me please..,” Borg begged but to no avail as she, and all, immediately disappeared.

Why do they run?..

It only took a few moments after the next threshold for him to figure it out.

Oh what brilliant jest has been inflicted upon me! They have co-ordinated a silent treatment of sorts, a practical joke, a play on my reserved nature. How banausic and pathetic! This is an attempt to unsettle me, to get a reaction for voyeuristic, gossipy fun. I will accept it and show them I enjoy it, it makes sense, for the most part, save for...

The girl, with her yellow-dotted red dress in clear relief against the dark blue frame of room four, and now separated from the crowd, stared directly at him.

“Miss...you remind me of...”

...Bernice!!!

Now this has gone way too far... my goodness...how could they?..

Clang and clang again.

And they were all gone.

Borg proceeded through the room, following its turn, analogous to the last, calculating that after two more stops the last suite would finally present and this tiresome joke would be over.

He could again hear the pendulum.

Its amplitude is lessening. The batteries in that silly prop must be dying...

The next room, the fifth, was not only simply empty, but also cold.

Souless. reserved just for me apparently. They must have their ears to the walls laughing at this twist in their childish machinations. This point was definitely in their scheme from its inception for this chamber has been wholly disregarded, the surfaces left to their original grey and for my appreciation, only, in solitary discomfort. Brilliant. But, you know what the real motivation for this is? Those philistines, repulsed by my rejection of their social invitations but acceptance of the Deans’ and, envious of my precise costuming which, from conception to deception, leaves them a light year behind, contrived retribution in transparent disguise as a joke. And as for the extent to which Riki might be involved, well how tacky, really, is this whole set up? It has a sense and sensibility more Steve Austen than Jane, the baseness of it all. It questions more about him than I, for specifically, as Nietzsche wondered about Hamlet, ‘What awful thing happened to this man that he needs to be such a clown?..’

Considerable time passed before the next chime.

Borg oddly and passively waited for the next permission.

He this time heard the presage for the bell, his solitary silence allocating the airy sweep of the pendulum to the foreground. One audible and measured swing back, and one forth, then a sonorous clang.

It continues to slow...

The sixth door would not respond to Borg’s touch, finally opening with a pull from the other side by...

...Oh please, stop this cruelty! They must have been in my office, seen her photo, then prepared this imposter of my Bernice...her breath, even, visible in this cold, black, and mercifully last room...

“Come, you!” Borg reached for her as she quickly turned away and towards the back door.

“I understand, so it’s time to stop, please!” he pleaded.

How horrible! To imitate her in a despicable affront to nature! I am sick, sick, my spirit for this night is dead. These are not matters on which to jest...

She exited, the door closing behind her with Borg desperately trying to follow.

It took him seemingly forever to reach the door and when finally there, just one clang sounded and in perfect step. The entry to the nave opened...

“...Eggy...” she called, now standing close with arms outstretched...

She called me Eggy...they could never have known that...can it possibly really be her??? Did they find and bring her here?.. O, Glory! I have jumped to cynical conclusions, this is a wonderful thing they have done, to touch me so!

He laboured to raise his hand to her.

“Bernice,” he whispered as he neared a caress to her face but... then...

...Gone! Gone in a cloud of mist! A grey pile of fabric falling to the floor in an icy cloud!

Oh! Oh! What madness is this? The joke turned on me again and now with a magic trick? They have spared no effort or expense for this torment, this perversity. What malice!! Its merciful end is near, this last space, this nave I must negotiate to finish the agony...

Borg looked ahead from the rear of the main aisle, the pews on either side lined with hundreds of the party-goers.

Yes, I knew they all would be here, but what has happened to them, to their costumes?..

Those present were hardly distinguishable from each other or the periphery’s abstemious palette of black, grey, blue and white.

The long aisle beckoned Borg as all stared at him with stone stillness and in the coldness of an icy mist.

To the front I shall go and all can laugh and I will humour them and it’s over...

It seemed an age up to the face of the aisle with his sluggish stagger into cutting draft but, finally, realized.

I am at the fore of the nave and what is this before me? Is it the face of the pendulum!

In the light mist at the top of the aisle, the altar space, was indeed the mammoth aspect of the now still clock pendulum, and in its silvery, icy, face, was reflected that of another...

...Who is this wretch!...

Inappreciably more than grey eyes with a skull, and drab tatters limping on a frame of ashen skin and bone, barely stood a feeble, frightening, but pathetic, creature.

But it cannot be, it is surely not!..For I prepared my own costume...they did not touch me!..

“Professor Egaeus Borg," came a collective call.

In disturbed, deliberate, apprehension, Borg turned to face the congregation.

Good Lord!!!

Before him was a closed black coffin.

“Who is this?” he whispered and motioned. “Who, I say?”

Silence.

He reached and touched it. Borg nudged it further, trying to open it, but in his feebleness to no avail.

“Who is here?” he demanded more loudly, sapping his limited strength, “Tell me! Tell me!”

He could only move but unlock it and then...the coffin fell from its carriage and burst open, the body partially emerging onto the aisle!

A breathless horror consumed him as he stared down upon...

...the same figure from the mirror! But, no. it cannot be who it seems...

Then, a final, grotesque, abomination – the rib cage had split wide, the chest cavity exposed.

Where is the heart?..

Recognizing what his final exertion must be, dread overcame the Professor.

He slowly, fearfully, put his meager, ossified hands to his breast finding...

...Nothing!!!

Oh my wretched, cursed soul!!! NO! NO! NO!..

“...NO! NO! NO!”

Shouting and gasping, Borg woke in panic.

“What? Where am I? Oh, Oh,” he calmed upon regarding his study.

I feel asleep in my chair while waiting for my ride!

He smiled with nervous relief and giddy laughter.

Borg checked the time, he had not missed anyone. His laughter, however, soon dissipated as he recalled the nightmare. He ran to his bedroom and into his walk-in closet. The mirror validated his relief, his costume, his actual costume, was intact. In the closet’s furthest recess he retrieved an album and one particular photo, his favourite of her in her red dress with small yellow polka dots.

Bernice was first his nanny. Then years later, his lover. Whether its ethics, the age difference, the need to focus on his education, career, or whatever else, he was discouraged by everyone, and the affair ended. He possessed special intellectual talents not to be sinned against, and he gradually withdrew from common course.

Nothing has ever felt like that happiness. And I never really tried again. In both love and life I have frozen everyone out...

Consumed by sudden rage, in one broad sweep he violently emptied a row of books from an elevated shelf, followed by a second sweep in the opposite direction for the shelf below. An overwhelming purguing of anger and tears brought relief.

Oh the dream! What a hyperreal hell ala Baudrillard’s Los Angeles! Nothing was true except its exaggerations, like Adorno said about something or other...Oh My God listen to how I think and speak! No wonder people aren’t comfortable with me...I am so silly and foolish! Ha, ha, ha, ha!..

The giddiness returned, this time, with purpose.

I have missed so much, but it is not too late for this archaic torso to change his life...

A car horn sounds. Borg scurries to it.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” he greets and jumps in.

“Hello, Professor” begins one, “excellent costume”.

“Call me Eggy, please! My friends call me Eggy, and thank you, you also!”

The three look curiously at each other and all drive off together.

“John, how is your daughter and her new husband?” Borg asks, startling him.

“Uh...they are fine...Eggy” he answers awkwardly.

“I must apologize for last summer” Borg surprisingly injects, “I should have come to the wedding.”

“Not at all, you had commitments," comes the polite reply.

“Well, I should have had better priorities!” Borg acknowledges, then continues;

“Paul, your new place, are you all settled? And Frank, is your wife better?”

The Professor barely pauses for breath;

“Fellows, I know we are finding our own way home tonight, so if

we don’t get a chance to speak later I want to invite all of you over one day soon, deal? Promise me? My place is small but I am working on moving some books out of the way. Anyway, tonight will be great, and maybe with the cover of this disguise I can finally get close to that new secretary, eh? Oh, those Brancusian curves! I guess that would make it more like Chrisitmas, wouldn’t it? Ha, ha!” and Borg fraternally slaps Paul on the shoulder, further perplexing all.

They arrive, park, and all approach the doorway where Riki’s secretary awaits.

“Welcome gentlemen. Professor Borg, is that you? Amazing! You look so different!”

“That, my dear, is because I am!” he proudly agrees, “I really am! Now, let's go to a party!.."

October 18, 2020 04:45

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