June 25, 2006

Lumps - A short story by Dan Buck

Based on an image in Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.


Gary sat in the only lit corner of his immaculate study. A cognac in his hand and his feet slippered and elevated, he stared at the reflection of his tranquil harbor in the darkened bay window.

With a deep sigh he breathed in the silence. A slight creak from beneath his chair opened his lids for a moment. But he quickly decided that it was merely one of the house’s natural sounds that he’d never heard until now. He swirled his snifter in his palm.

It had been a long day of reassuring smiles and too-long hugs with Mary’s parents. They had paid him a “check-in” visit without calling. He’d been cataloguing his collection of novels when he saw them heading up the sidewalk, he quickly paused the Offenbach opera that was loudly filling the house. He grabbed his bathrobe and wrapped it over his khaki pants and pressed white oxford. Then, Gary half peeled a banana, flopped on the couch and clicked on the TV which hadn’t been watched since Mary’s death three weeks before. His preparations were wise as he saw Mary’s mother peer into the window before they knocked.

How are you holding up, sweetheart? A hug. You’re the only one who feels this loss as deeply as we do. Another hug. Oh you poor, thing, is this what’s passing for lunch these days? A sad look at Mary’s father and then another hug.

Gary wondered how he had outlived his wife when visits like this had been killing him since they were married. A painful lunch at Mary’s favorite restaurant followed. His mother-in-law was especially skilled at filling airspace with conversation that was not remotely offensive or interesting.

Becky’s dating a new guy. She always envied her sister for snatching a good guy like you up so quickly, and who knows maybe this is him. Gary felt immense sympathy for the man he’d never met.

Oh look at this menu, is it any wonder Mary’s stomach was so sensitive. Just look at all these fried foods. She closed the menu and this time spoke in the tone that actually required a response.

“Did the doctors ever call you back with more conclusive evidence about what happened to her?”

There was a slight pause. “They just keep telling me that she had a stomach disorder and that she must have gotten a hold of some bad meat or fish or something, and the two working together were too much for her.”

You know, the girl I buy all my jewelry from? You know at those parties they have? She said her uncle died in a very similar way.

Mary’s father peered through his bifocals at the menu, then pocketed his glasses and began to gaze around the restaurant. Gary noticed he wasn’t wearing his hearing aid. So without his glasses the old man was now blind and deaf for this little outing. “Lucky bastard” Gary thought.

Mary’s mother spent the rest of the afternoon regaling him with the recent news of Mary’s relatives, who he had never been able to keep straight. As he returned to his home, he removed his sweater with a low moan and went to hang it on the hooks that sat beside the hall mirror. He stopped for a moment and looked at it hanging alone there and looking down he realized all the other coats had fallen off their hooks onto the floor. This hadn’t happened before, and he tried to remember if he’d slammed the door. He picked up the coats and neatly placed them back on the hooks.

Within an hour he’d built a fire and was sitting in his high back chair getting lost in the flames when a thought occurred to him. He jumped from his chair and ran to the black lacquer entertainment center which was always bigger than he wanted it to be. He flung open a side cabinet that revealed at least a hundred DVD’s. Intermingled among his documentaries and French New Wave films were his wife’s movies.

The fire burned with stranger colors, but was sweeter with her Julia Roberts comedies and Bruce Willis action films fueling it. As he sat imagining the nagging he wouldn’t have to hear, out of the corner of his eye he saw movement beneath the carpet. He cocked his head and waited for a moment thinking it a mouse. Quietly he rose out of his chair and crept over for a closer look. The carpet was still, but on the other end of the room, a nightstand rocked enough to make the lamp atop teeter precariously. He dashed toward the lamp steadying it. He looked beneath the table, inspecting the legs, pulling the carpet up from underneath, but there was nothing. He’d have to call the exterminator in the morning. He stepped astride his chair and took one last sip of his drink, turned off the lights and went to bed. After he’d left the room, a framed photograph was bucked from the mantelpiece and crashed to the marble apron in front of the fireplace. Gary didn’t hear the glass shatter as he was already upstairs, but the frame was destroyed and the photo of his wife now lay amidst the glass exposed.

Gary was shaken awake and a squint at the alarm clock told him it was a little before three AM. “Earthquake” was his first thought, but as he reached for his glasses and peered into the darkness beyond the foot of his bed he saw it. A lump roughly the size of a cat was darting across his bedroom beneath the carpet. He switched on the lamp thinking his nighttime apparition would vanish, whether it was real or imagined. But the light only seemed to agitate it as it scrambled from corner to corner of his room, bumping into a table and knocking it over, spilling family artifacts and a candle onto the lush white carpet. Gary looked quickly around the room for something to defend himself and had to resort to unscrewing a bed post and wielding it like a baseball bat.

The lump headed for his wife’s dresser, and this time, the lump shrank down beneath the corner. There was a pause until the lump grew again so fast that it lifted the dresser from the back and threw it forward. Drawers opened briefly until the dark oak bureau hit the flour with a thunderous thud and slammed them shut again.

Gary leaped from his bed and headed for the hall never turning his back on the lump. He slammed the bedroom door shut and stood breathing heavily in the hall. Then, to his left, he heard a thud. Down at the far end of his hallway, he could see another lump clumsily zig-zagging it’s way toward him. It certainly wasn’t moving toward him with purpose, as it spent more time colliding with the walls, knocking down family photos and various knick-knackery his wife had hung. He quickly made his was toward the stairs and when he turned toward the first floor to head for the exit his eyes turned down. Before him on every step of the stairways was a lump violently thrashing back and forth beneath the carpet. His staircase had become a churning sea of carpet.

The hallway lump was bumping its way closer to him. He had to get down those stairs. Suddenly, he remembered the bedpost in his hand. He lifted it above his head with both hands and brought it crashing down onto the top step. He found his target and with a quick shriek the lump burst into a bluish-grey spatter staining the carpet and the walls on either side. He stepped onto that top stair, his bare feet squishing in the remains of his first victim and he swung again. Once he’d mashed his way down four stairs Gary was able to vault over the railing to his right and make it to the phone in the kitchen.

He dialed 911, but even before the connection had been made he hung up. What would he tell them? Was he going crazy? Was this just a dream? Was this part of the post-traumatic stress of discovering his wife’s lifeless body?

As he set the phone back on the receiver, he heard noise above him. Looking up he saw the lumps were streaking down the wall paper. Not with the blind clumsiness of the other lumps he’d seen, but with direct and speedy force. The largest one was directly above him and as it forced its way behind the phone, the phone popped off the wall and launched right into Gary’s temple. The last thing he heard was the bell inside the phone giving a single ding of pain as it and Gary fell onto the tan, linoleum floor.

His eyes flew open a few hours later as the phone rang him awake. His head pounded but he was alert and quickly scanned the floor and walls for his adversaries. Then, it struck him that the phone’s ringing was coming from the wall. The phone was back in it’s appropriate place. He stood warily and answered.


Gary, honey? Did I wake you up?”

“Um… yes.”

“I’m so sorry sweetheart, I just wanted to ask you if it’d be alright if I stopped by to pick up a few personal pictures of Mary’s. I’m making a scrapbook of her life as a part of my coming to terms with the loss and I know she has some pictures from her childhood.”

“Uh… yeah, I guess that’d be fine.” Gary stepped into the downstairs hall as far as the phone cord would allow, and he gazed at the stairs. No lumps, no bluish-grey stains. Just peaceful order.

“Okay, well I’ve gotta run some errands, so I’ll be over in an hour or so.”

“Okay. Bye.”

He hung up the phone and began to lightly tread through his house looking for his new house guests or any evidence of their activity, but he found none. The dresser had been restored. The photos and personal items were back on walls and tables. The carpets were all tightly tacked down. He replaced the bed post which was still laying in the kitchen floor, and he nursed the bruise the phone had given him.

He went to sit in his high-back chair to collect his thoughts, but before his weight was even completely situated in the leather, he caught sight of something laying directly in front of the fireplace. It was a picture frame that had a photo of his wife. He recognized the frame, but the glass was shattered and the photo was, in fact, gone.

Gary didn’t have long to consider what might have happened to it because there was a knock at the door.

Mary’s parents. His mother-in-law peered through the window and waved perkily. He quickly scanned the house looking for the lumps, half hoping half dreading that they’d make an appearance for his in-laws. He opened the door and the noise began.

Good morning, sweetheart. Oh, what did you do to your head? Let me get some ice for that. You don’t look so good, have you been sleeping okay? I haven’t slept since her funeral, doctor had to give me the extra strength sleeping pills. Her voice drifted into the kitchen but didn’t stop. Oh, baby! You don’t have anything in this kitchen. You need some food. What are you eating?


Adept at noticing the difference between the chatter and words meant to conjure a response, Gary’s father in law perked up a bit. “Yes?”

“Let’s take Gary to the store right now and help him get some of the basics together and then we’ll all have lunch right here how’s that sound?”

“Oh, no that’s not necessary, really…”

“I know it’s not necessary. I want to do it, silly. Roger, get Gary’s sweater for him.”

“This is very kind, but really…”

“Oh, I won’t hear of it. My therapist says I’m still wracked with guilt about not teaching Mary to eat healthy enough with her condition. It drives me crazy that I still don’t know what she ate that gave her all that trouble this last time.”

Gary interjected. “You can’t take that on yourself, who knows what combination of foods might have…”

His father-in-law piped in, “Where’s the sweater?”

“It should be right on that hook by the door” his wife said. “Oh… it looks like all your sweaters and coats have fallen off the hooks.”

Gary whipped around concerned that the lumps have been knocking things off walls again. She was right, the hooks were empty. His eyes darted around the foyer looking for the culprits.

“Here they are!” his mother-in-law said.

“What?!” Gary half-screamed.

“Your sweaters. They’re on the floor.” She handed him one and hung up the others. “So are you ready to head to the store?”

“Sure, I guess.” Gary answered anxious to leave the house.

She began her chatter again, and it was almost comforting to Gary. You know sometimes when you’re mourning even the mundane details of life can throw you off. Like grocery shopping. It’s okay, we’re gonna help you through this, sweetheart.

Gary stepped toward the door when he heard his father-in-law’s voice behind him. “Son. Is this yours? I think it fell out of one of your sweater pockets.”

Gary stiffened. Suddenly, he wished he was fighting the lumps again, for they were an unknown, a mystery. What Gary knew was in his father-in-law’s hand was a known, a tragedy about to happen.

His mother-in-law retraced her steps back into the house toward her husband. “Is that a bottle? What is it?”

The old man cleared his throat and looked at Gary. “It’s poison. And it’s empty.”

1 comment:

James Currie said...

This short story reminds me of an incedent when I was 4 years old. I had cut my own hair with sissors. Two nights in a row, I began seeing clumps of hair crawling up the walls and door to my bedroom at night. I was so afriad to follow them behind my bedroom door for fear that they wold jump out and attack me. I stayed in bed till morning. I was convinced that what I saw was real, but I think my parents knew better when I told them what I saw. Guilt.