Nicholai Conliff

Unburied     Excerpt

(No part of this text may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.)

     A record spun silence into the air; the needle of its player was held captive by two pale fingers. Watching the vinyl reel about the spindle was a set of eyes--one red and one blue--unblinking for what could have been moments or a lifetime.
     Ashley's thoughts were of a face without form, a voice without sound, and the embrace of flesh without texture. Yet no matter how vivid the ghost--no matter how close Ashley came to a dream--he remained aware as ever of the empty space in the bed beside him.
     He turned his head to examine an antiquated clock:
     5:21 a.m.
     Four walls, a roof, and boarded-up windows would spare him--as they had for twenty years--from the creeping morning light.
     The record needle slipped from Ashley's hand as he sat upright and perched on the bedside. The old iron frame groaned with each subtle movement of his body. There were times, such as now, when he would have to take a look around and remind himself that this was home. This small house in northern Ohio with pink shag carpet from time immemorial was where he lived--where he would live forever, at this rate.
     All night in his head, two lovers had lazily drifted along a narrow dirt road dividing two desolate moors. A broken sign lay in the dirt, pointing the way to a nameless village. Their arms were draped softly across one another's shoulders while their hands tenderly entwined. In time, the older of the two asked his friend if he in any way feared the future.
     "I'm afraid of a lot of things," answered the younger, "but that isn't one of them."
     What more was said meant little; Ashley instead clung to the fleeting feeling of the older boy leaning in to kiss the younger's forehead. The younger could in no way resist the urge to kiss back. They soon slowed to a stop while they indulged in the moment; their fingers untangled and they moved to hold one another. The older's eyes closed--the younger's did not. Soon, the older brought his hand up and let his fingers slide through the soft, short blonde hair of his lover....
     Ashley stood. He took the record player under his arm, and after a few steps, found himself across the room in front of a chest-high stack of unsorted record singles waiting to be alphabetized. On top was a curled, dusty, yellowing newspaper, which he picked up and carefully unrolled. "Vampire Slay" read the front page headline. Even the passage of time had yet to make it true; not one word in the decaying British rag was worth reading. Instead, he was drawn to the image: an old photograph of three young men lying battered and dead in the dirt. One in particular held Ashley's attention as his fingertips pawed gently across the body. He stood entranced by the photo, and then considered the publication date for what must have been the thousandth time over the years: 7th July, 1958.
     With his hands full, Ashley strode through the kitchen where a dizzying pattern in the linoleum further betrayed his old house's age. When he reached the living room, he found a place for the record player atop a wrought iron coffee table, and then glanced to the walls where milk crates and metal shelves housed a seemingly limitless collection of vinyl.
     He started toward them, only to be stopped when a sharp squawk tore through the silence. "Brawwwwk. Wanna die!"
     He shot a harsh look toward a blue and yellow macaw perched on a small stand nearby. "Sydney, that's a horrible thing to say. You're a bad bird."
     "Good bird!" Sydney snapped back, seemingly amused by himself.
     Ashley rolled his eyes as he made his selection from the meticulously organized albums. He blew dust off the sleeve of a fragile forty-five and carried it back to the old player where, before he could place the disc down, a knock at the door interrupted him.
     Sydney squawked again, "Aurelio," and Ashley glanced at a clock:
     5:29 a.m.
     He left the record waiting and approached the door. It was unlocked, and a weak tug was all it needed to open. "Hey." He smiled at his visitor. "Come in."
     He headed toward the kitchen as Aurelio, an older teenager with a few years on Ashley, stepped inside.
     "There was a letter stuck on your door." He held it up as he turned the lock. "It's from the city--it says you'll be fined if you don't cut your grass."
     Ashley was unmoved. "Would you like something to eat?"
     He laughed, "Sure, thanks," and dropped the notice on the coffee table as he approached Sydney. "Hey, buddy."
     "I love you," Sydney squawked back.
     He began to scratch the bird's neck. "So," he called to Ashley. "I didn't get the part--any part."
     "I'm sorry to hear that," said Ashley. "You said you didn't do so well in the audition."
     "Botched it. I'd probably be more disappointed if they had wanted me." He paused. "Okay, that's not true at all."
     Ashley chuckled.
     "I'm just bummed because there won't be many other commercials shooting until after Christmas," he added while Ashley prepared two sunny-side-up eggs.
     "We'll keep you busy." Ashley sprinkled salt over the sizzling pan. "For instance, my lawn apparently needs mowing--and I'm sure Stam will be up for some movies."
     Aurelio smiled and glanced about the room. "I guess she's not home yet?"
     "No." An oat fell from a bag as Ashley slid two slices of bread into a toaster. "She works late in the winter." He reached down, swiftly, to pluck the fleck of grain from the floor.
     "She's over at that church like, every night."
     "There's nowhere Stam would rather be--" Ashley gestured to the record player. "Can you hit the music?"
     "Sure." Aurelio crossed the room to the player and lifted the needle. "Who's this?" he asked as he set it onto the vinyl and--through crackles and popping--a rich, crooning voice began to sing of cloudy skies and dreams.
     "Crosby," replied Ashley.
     As the song played, Aurelio's gaze wandered the shelves upon shelves filled with records of all shapes and sizes, in cases and slips of all colors and textures. Atop one particular stack, he noticed a picture frame laying face-down, and turned it upright to expose a photograph of Ashley with a young girl.
     "Who is this?" He held the picture out to Ashley. "A friend from back in New York?"
     Ashley glanced over to see what Aurelio meant, and quickly--though subtly--recoiled at the sight. "No, no...." His teeth had gritted, but he soon smiled and even laughed softly as he returned to cooking. "I don't remember her name."
     "Was it taken in an antique shop or something?" There was an old record player--not unlike Ashley's--in the foreground of the shot.
     "A music shop." Ashley kept his reply terse, not that there was all that much more to the story.
     Eventually, Aurelio turned away from the records and photograph and noticed the newspaper on the coffee table. He picked it up so he could examine the front page and its sinister headline.
     "You sure collect a lot of weird stuff."
     "You're one to talk," said Ashley. "I've seen your movie library."
     Aurelio couldn't argue, and shrugged in agreement as Ashley pulled his skillet from the stove and observed the time:
      5:36 a.m.
     Bing Crosby continued to croon, and the clouds in his song soon gave way to sunshine.

Excerpt from UNBURIED. Copyright ©2013 by Nicholai Conliff. All rights reserved.