Authors: Damien Angelica Walters
PRAISE FOR PAPER TIGERS
is full of hauntings of every sort, a modern ghost story of the very best kind, combining the delicate mania of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the subtlety of Shirley Jackson and the raw dynamism of Joyce Carol Oates. But what Walters delivers here is thoroughly her own creation: a starkly beautiful tale of what it means to survive.”
World Fantasy Award-winning author of
Gifts for the One Who Comes After
gathers the best from every childhood scary storyâcreepy antiques, haunted houses, seemingly friendly ghostsâand repackages them with the worst and most isolating of adult fears. Walters' prose is vivid and gripping, luring you in, feeding you images that will leave you comforted by the light of your bedside nightstand; horror nostalgia at its finest.”
, author of
, Damien Angelica Walters has created a hauntingly elegant portrait of loneliness and longing for healing. But where she confronts real terror is in answering the question of what it costs the wounded to be whole again. This book is at once as beautiful and frightening as a scar on smooth skin or a scream with perfect pitch.”
, author of
“Damien Angelica Walters pulls you into the heart of her characters and traps you there until you're not sure if the story is haunting you, or you're haunting it. Wonderfully creepy and heartwarming, fear and sadness alternate and blend throughout in a story that's packed with atmosphere. Keep the lights on and the tissues close.”
, editor of
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS BOOK MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY ELECTRONIC OR MECHANICAL MEANS, INCLUDING INFORMATION STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL SYSTEMS, WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER, EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF SHORT PASSAGES QUOTED IN REVIEWS.
THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. ALL INCIDENTS, SITUATIONS, INSTITUTIONS, GOVERNMENTS, AND PEOPLE ARE FICTIONAL AND ANY SIMILARITY TO CHARACTERS OR PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS STRICTLY COINCIDENTAL.
PUBLISHED BY DARK HOUSE PRESS,
AN IMPRINT OF CURBSIDE SPLENDOR PUBLISHING, INC., CHICAGO, ILLINOIS IN 2016.
COPYRIGHT Â© 2016 BY DAMIEN ANGELICA WALTERS
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CONTROL NUMBER: 2015957759
EDITED BY RICHARD THOMAS
INTERIOR ARTWORK BY GEORGE C. CATRONIS
DESIGNED BY ALBAN FISCHER
FOR MY FATHER,
who took me to the library
“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”
The Haunting of Hill House
“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Please don't look at the Monstergirl.
Please, don't look.
Alison Reese tugged the scarf on her head, pulling the fabric down to cover most of her forehead, and shoved her gloved hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. The soles of her shoes marked each step away from her front door with a thump, then a pause, then a heavier thump.
A woman's voice, high-pitched and nasal, broke the 3 a.m. stillnessâ“Get outta here!”âand Alison froze, a rabbit in disaster's headlights. Ten feet away, a man stumbled from a house with his shoes untied and the tails of his shirt flapping around his hips. The door slammed behind him, and he let out a string of mumbled curses. Alison tucked her chin toward her chest, willing herself into an insignificant shape, another shadow in the night, and only when the man crossed the street and disappeared did she move again.
Once she reached the street sign at the corner, marking the point of no return, her steps quickened. Her first rule: if one tiny sliver of shoe went past the edge of the sign she had to go on and, of course, tonight it had. Her second rule: she couldn't alter her steps approaching the sign to prevent such an occurrence.
She paused. If she turned left, she'd pass by the elementary school, and although it used to be her favorite route, she hadn't been that way in months. Not since the night she'd stumbled upon a few teenagers lingering in the playground. If she'd seen them first, she never would've entered the playground and she never would've heard their words. Alison blinked twice, forcing the memory away. Decision made, she turned right.
She passed more houses, all nestled next to each other. Narrow brick boxes, some with painted screens covering the basement windows, others with awnings over windows and doors, and all with a marble stoop, a Baltimore trademark.
The original residents of Hampden, a triangular shaped area in northwestern Baltimore, were mostly millworkers. Now, artists, college students, and families took their place.
The late September air held a promise of rain underneath the scent of old exhaust. Alison turned onto 36th Street and a quick gust of wind ruffled the scarf covering her head. Shops and restaurants with darkened windows lined both sides. Traffic lights cast arcs of red, yellow, and green on the asphalt. An empty plastic bag spiraled on the pavement and bounced across the street. Alison peered into the windows and saw cloth-covered tables in one, shelves of handmade jewelry in another, and racks of women's shoes in the next, teasing her with their proximity, taunting with their inaccessibility. When she neared the last store at the end of the block, her pace slowed and she smiled. The skin on her right cheek twisted and tugged, turning the side of her face into something closer to a grimace than a grin.
A small hand-lettered sign in the corner of the window read Elena's Antiques in careful print. Antiques, maybe. Junk, definitely. Until a month ago, the building housed an art gallery. Not the sort with champagne openings for brilliant young artists selling work for six figures, but the type featuring art heavy with barbed wire and faces contorted in misery and torment. All prices negotiable, of course.
The streetlamps cast a pale glow on the items on display: an old tricycle with faded plastic streamers hanging from the handle grips, a lamp with a multicolored glass shade, several small stone dragon statues, a hand mirror with a gilded handle, the reflective side facing away, and a photo album with a worn, ash grey cover. A large
split in the leather ran from one corner down to the center, and the bloated shape of the page edges gave proof of the photos within.
Over the past three weeks the shop had filled up with old furniture and other odds and ends, but the sign and the items in the front window were new additions. She bent close to the glass, turning slightly to see everything with her one good eye. A quick succession of footsteps heading in her direction pierced the silence. She exhaled and stood, leaving behind a circle of breathy fog on the window. The steps drew closer.
A short, round woman with a bright scarf wrapped around her hair emerged from the shadows. Alison backed away from the window, blinking in disbelief and dismay. 3 a.m. on a weeknight was normally safe; she never ran into anyone. And twice in one night? She hunched her shoulders.
The woman unlocked the door, turned, and jingled a large ring of keys in her hand.
“You want come in?” she asked.
“No thank you,” Alison said, angling her face away from the glare of the streetlamps.
She glanced at the photo album. She could call her mother tomorrow and ask her to pick it up. But what if someone else bought it? A ridiculous thought. But what if?
“Aren't you closed? It's the middle of the night.”
“Sometime close, sometime open. If you want something, I let you come in anyway.”
Alison worried her lower lip between her teeth. The woman gave the keys another shake. Why was she so willing to open her door, so unconcerned at this time of the morning?
Alison whirled around, moving away from the store. Red flared inside her, a deep shade of crimson shot through with scarlet, and she tightened her hands into fists, hating the way the right curled in,
misshapen and smaller than the left. The red swirled in and around, twisting her every cell into a grim reminder of what she had, what she remembered, and what she lost. Her vision blurred.
Go away, Monstergirl
, a voice said.
How she wished she didn't know that voice so well. The voice, sharp of teeth and cruel with contempt, bit down hard. The woman remained at the door, her eyes narrowed.
Alison closed the distance between them with several short steps that helped hide her ungainly walk, ignoring the ache in her right hip.
“The photo album in the window. I want.” She cleared her throat. “I'd like to buy it. Please.”
“Okay, you come in.”
The woman held the door open with one hand and gestured with the other. Alison paused, her mouth dry. How long since she'd been inside any building other than her house or the hospital? She couldn't even bring herself to cross the threshold of the house in which she'd grown up, in spite of her mother's assurances that she'd taken down all the old photographs.
Her mother's words came to mind:
Babygirl, you have to try.
Alison kept her chin down and when the woman turned on the lights, she turned her face away.
Leave, leave, leave. She hasn't seen you yet
, a voice said, not the voice of the red, but of the sharpest yellow. Alison swallowed hard. Shoved the voice away.
The walls still retained the previous tenant's paint, a steely shade of grey, complete with unpatched gouges in the plaster. Some of the ceiling tiles in the long, rectangular space had been replaced, but others, stained and bowed in the middle, hung from the framework. A fluorescent tube near the window flickered.
“You want look around some, is okay,” the woman said as she headed to a counter in the corner, her scarf, a vibrant fuchsia with
dark flowery swirls, bobbing up and down the entire way. “I here for little while.”
“Thank you,” Alison said.
She nudged the hand mirror in the window out of the way, and grabbed the photo album. It slipped from her grasp, sliding back with a heavy thud and a puff of dust. She cast a glance toward the counter, but the woman (maybe Elena?) muttered to herself and crouched down, leaving only a curve of her scarf visible. Alison wrapped her
old scars, old hurts
gloved fingers around each side of the album, breathing in the passage of time and a hint of tobacco as she pulled it free and held it close against her chest.
Despite the bright lights, the shop called out with a siren's song, and after another check to make sure maybe-Elena wasn't watching, she let her feet answer the call. The smell of old boxes, yellowed paper curling at the edges, and unwanted clothing hung in the air, musty and thick. And beneath, a trace of artificial rose, reminiscent of the squares of decorative soap her grandmother had kept in a porcelain tray in the bathroom. From a large bookcase set against the far wall, she removed a volume of Poe's works, but a dark stain covered more than half the pages and rendered the text illegible.
She traced a set of initialsâJSJâcarved into one corner of the desk, and her fingers left three trails behind in the fine layer of dust covering the scuffed mahogany. A brass-handled drawer gave a tiny squeal of protest, and the carved legs ended with well-worn lion's feet. The sort of desk designed for a master wordsmith's time and tales. Alison's own poetry, all random, chaotic outpourings of battered emotions, did not warrant such a masterpiece.
If a writer didn't purchase the desk, Alison hoped a teacher would. The kind of teacher students gave gifts to; the kind of teacher students remembered long after they left the classroom. She could
almost see a stack of test papers on one corner, an open lesson plan in the other, a collection of pens off to the side. She closed the drawer a little harder than she intended, picked up the photo album, and made for the counter.
“How much please?” she asked, keeping her chin down.
When she handed the money over, their fingertips touched, glove against skin, and she held her breath. Maybe-Elena said something low, something soft and not in English, but Alison recognized the tone. Oh yes, she did. Yellow raced in, a huge wave (so young, so ugly) crashing down, too fast and too hard to hold still, and she stumbled back, grabbing the album, refusing to lift her gaze, refusing to see everything she hatedâfearedâin maybe-Elena's eyes. Without another word, she fled back into the safe anonymity of the shadows, her heart a steady beat of hurt.
It took three tries before Alison could hold the key still enough to slide it into the lock. She rushed in, flipped the dead-bolt latch, and stood with her back against the door, the album clutched to her chest.
Red and Yellow, two of the Muses of Disfigurement accompanying Alison on her journey through the land of scars, still fought within her. She envisioned them as women in flowing robes, their faces hidden behind swathes of fabric. Red carried anger in her fists; Yellow bore the weight of pity upon her shoulders. Both had voices far too strong and sharp to ignore. Both were bound to Alison with unbreakable chains stronger than steel.
Alison's eyelids fluttered shut and she willed herself to a blank slate. Emptiness flowed in, leaving her still, silent, and colorlessâthe absence of self, the absence of everything. Her pulse slowed, and her breathing turned even.
She slipped off her gloves (plain thin gloves, not the hateful pressure garments meant to tame the scars into submission), shifting the weight of the album from side to side. The spaces where pinkie and ring fingers on her right hand should be cried out with a familiar phantom itch, familiar enough to ignore. As she kicked off her shoes, her hip gave a small thank you. The reinforced heel of the right shoe kept her hips properly aligned and turned her limping gait into something less awkward, but like braces on teeth, the forcing of crooked into straight held a price.
She shrugged out of her jacket and sat on the end of the sofa, closest to the light, with the album on her lap. She'd done it. She'd gone into the store and braved the woman's stares. Sure, she'd hightailed it out of the shop, but that was okay. She'd faced a stranger. That had to mean something.
Baby steps, babygirl. Baby steps.
Tracing her fingers along the cover, she imagined the feel of the old leather. Rough, yet smooth, perhaps cool to the touch. The tip of her forefinger caught on one jagged edge of the long split, hard enough to leave a small mark, a raised line of white against the pinkish skin glove of scar tissue, but not sharp enough to draw blood.
She opened the album, smiling at the scent of tobacco. They never smelled the same. Another odd smell conjured images of old furniture and empty animal cages.
Faint smears of indigo marred the stiff, heavy paper of the first page. Traces of old ink? She tilted the page. Yes, definitely. Old words too faded to read, but still there nonetheless. She angled the album a little further, almost able to make out the handwritten words. An inscription? The name of a family? One line stood out at the bottom, a little darker than the rest, the handwriting old-fashioned and spidery. Not a name, though. Too many words for a name. She held the album even higher, and the words came into focus. Alison read them twice to make sure.
A paper tiger to swallow you whole.
A snippet of poetry perhaps. Oddly compelling.
“Here there be paper tigers,” she said and turned the page.
The yellowed paper crackled and a small corner crumbled off into her hand. The first page contained one photo, a sepia-toned, somber faced man in a dark suit, a dark stain obscuring the bottom half of the picture. Alison traced the man's face with her finger, willing it to memory. Dark hair, bushy moustache, stern eyes, small spectacles balanced on a strong nose, thin lips pressed into a narrow line.