BY: R JAMES MILOS
In the remote village of Hamburg in Northern New Jersey, over the course of a few days, four young people go missing. The townspeople whisper about a “Pied Piper of Hamburg” leading children away—an appropriate analogy since the country village includes a decaying gingerbread castle and a barren fairytale park. The police, held back by limited resources, struggle to find answers, unaware of an ugly dwarf living in seclusion in a cedar swamp miles from town. Goths, Wicca, and unknowing perversity combine to shake the sheltered hamlet to its core as Goth teenagers, Ash and Luna, befriend the undersized recluse in an effort to escape their own loneliness. But what the two teenagers finally discover will not produce a fairytale ending.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Apart by R. James Milos, Korbin “Ash” Miller is a Goth. Alone and unpopular, he is bullied by the other kids in high school. When Ash is beaten on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, and dumped in a ditch, he is rescued by a strange young man, Ephraim. Ephraim is a dwarf, disfigured, and apart, just like Ash. Empathizing with Ephraim and wanting a friend himself, Ash convinces the only other Goth in the high school, Luna, to go with to visit his strange new friend. Luna is reluctant since Ash knows so little about Ephraim, but Ash finally persuades her. But what the two teenagers discover isn’t at all what they expect.
Milos tells a chilling tale of how loneliness can affect the mind and drive people to do the unthinkable. This one’s a page-turner to say the least.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Apart by R. James Milos is the story of a deformed dwarf, a couple of lonely teenagers, a high-school bully, and a small town whose innocence is shaken to the core. Ash and Luna, two lonely Goth teenagers, both outsiders at the local high school, take comfort in their strange clothing, hairstyles, and makeup. They want to be apart, but not alone. When the high-school bully takes things too far and Ash ends up in a ditch, beaten unconscious, it sets off a chain of events that puts both Ash and Luna’s lives in danger, as well as the bully’s.
Apart is the story of not fitting in, the terrible loneliness that can cause, and the effect that kind of despair can have on the human psyche. It’s a chilling, but poignant tale of people who live outside the norm, and the consequences such suffering can bring.
The father was an internist at Saint Clare’s Health Center at Sussex and a drunk. He insisted on birthing his son unaccompanied at home to protect his wife’s dignity as well as the expected outcome. In preparation, the doctor braced himself with cognac, several times. This affected his judgment and manipulation of steel forceps. A male baby was delivered with a skull fracture that led to an intracranial hemorrhage. The baby went into a seizure, which would cause minimal brain development problems in his formative years. The infant had inherited carpenter syndrome: a tower-shaped skull and fused index and middle finger on the right hand. This explained later why he never saw photographs of himself or most of his father’s relatives. The baby also sustained facial nerve damage and a scarred face. After giving the newborn doses of phenobarbital, the father retired to his office to be consoled by the rest of the cognac bottle. During this prolonged absence, genital tract tears and injuries to the mother’s uterus caused her to hemorrhage. The baby remained quiet in her arms as he listened to her blood drain and heart fade. He began life alone.
A fifty-year-old wet nurse was retained and paid handsomely to deal with his kind. The father pretended his son wasn’t alive, which was better than blaming the baby for his wife’s death. This, the son did himself.
A black iron fence surrounded the family cemetery in the backyard and was expanded to accommodate the mother and those of the family who would follow.
All this was told to the son later by his aged uncle who came to the old gray manor to replace the mother.
The northern corner of the attic was converted to a nursery with thick bars in a solitary small window. Later the son often wondered if this was to keep him in more than keeping anyone out. The room was decorated in midnight blue. The sun never shown in the room and, here in the dark, he was allowed to hide. In summer, he suffocated in the heat and was only allowed out at night. In winter, a small pot belly stove installed in the middle of the garret provided minimal warm. He was fascinated with the bright dancing flames and then the attractiveness of glowing embers. This was a dimension he could escape into and live a different life. He found a metal curtain rod and continually poked at the fire and cinders. This was something he had control over.
The best and strongest tutors from outside the county were hired so he wouldn’t have to bear the indignity of schooling with others. They signed a contract not to reveal their experiences. All the tutors, though, quickly disengaged their services because of his appearance and seemingly inability to learn.
His friends were the spiders in the corners and his uncle. He didn’t realize his true condition, however, since he wasn’t aware of any other existence.
Because of the syndrome, the boy became obese, but strong. He would never reach beyond a four-foot-eleven-inch stature.
Near his thirteenth birthday, a night-time fire originated in the nursery and destroyed part of the house and the father with it. The boy disappeared in an oak grove, nursing burnt fingers. He watched with fascination as the blaze consumed his world. Firefighters with yellow helmets ran around spraying water on charred and burning wood. The destruction warmed him in a way the father never had.
His uncle severed the endless cycle of tutors and started to rebuild the house, maintaining the Edwardian style in keeping with family traditions: steep slate pitched roof, dormers, gables, a large wrap around front porch, and balconies edged with timber railings and fretwork patterns. The boy was given a true bedroom and the admonishment to never go out in the day, except at dusk to split wood for the kitchen fire.
The tall gray painted-brick structure rose above the swamp and fit well into the stark landscape of the estate. It was stronger than ever. The workmen both frightened and attracted him with their actions and loud purposes. He stayed hidden, listening to the noise and cursing. Once, when the last truck of the day had disappeared, he ventured out and smelled sweat, old cigarette butts, and sawdust. Near a crumbled beer can, he found a magazine. It had photographs of naked women. He stared at the smooth skin and forced smiles. They were foreign, beautiful, and so out of his reach. The boy was fascinated. This was a world beyond the house and grounds. He brought the magazine to Uncle to ask him so many questions. Uncle snatched away the “filth.” His bald head turned red and his nose, except for a large wart, showed thin red lines as he squeezed the magazine and shook his fist.
He crumbled the pages and tried to speak. “This! This!” was all he could manage as spit and drool issued from his nearly toothless mouth. The boy fled to the cellar where he remained–feeding on preserved fruit and vegetables and toileting in the corner by the coal bin–for the rest of the week till the workmen were finished.
Uncle told him what the father did not but what the boy had come to know. Some of the family was different. They were special, not meant for outside society. The family did not need anyone. They were apart, above all sinful needs. The boy accepted this judgment without fully realizing what Uncle meant.
Uncle and the boy stayed inside the dark dwelling, linked to the world through a small gray telephone line. The house had become a fortress in the middle of twenty fallow acres bordered by a state park. Black wrought iron spiked gates protected the driveway entrance and opened electronically to admit only service vans and grocery delivery. Uncle and the boy were content in their isolation, but then the boy knew no better.
When the boy was seventeen, Uncle died. He simply slumped over while eating brisket. The boy wrapped him in a table cloth and dragged the lifeless bundle to the cemetery. He placed him in the cemetery’s soft earth near the weeping willow. No marker. Nothing to tell of Uncle’s absence. No words to mark his passing. The boy did watch over the grave to see if flowers would bloom, indicating Uncle had led a good life, or if only weeds prospered, indicating evil. Neither happened. Unkempt grass flourished.
As family custom dictated, the boy drew all curtains closed and stopped all clocks for a week. He didn’t bother to wind the clock after the week since he did not know the correct time.
The boy continued his existence, using the black Bakelite telephone and the accounts established by Uncle. He had taught the boy these elementary functions for this time of his life. The boy left checks on the porch under a rock and hid till delivery vans vanished. A safe, hidden in the cellar, contained large amounts of cash for such time as needed. The marsh was his garbage dump. It attracted the only companions he had: deer, raccoons, birds, rats, and sometimes black bear that, despite their mass and strength, would run at the sight of him.
As he grew, he wore the father’s or Uncle’s clothes. The lawn also grew uncut and unkempt and, with each year, oak leaves carpeted the driveway disturbed only by the periodic deliveries. With each new seasonal layer, the boy became more aware of the edges of loneliness.
He was now twenty and stood in what remained of the former nursery. Faint burnt smells, even now, permeated the area. Moonlight tried to enter but was defeated a few feet from the window. He stared toward the dark woods through the bars, still wondering about the meaning of the irons and why they had been left there. He had been changing. Something was happening. The young man had uneasy feelings he could not explain. Inside his body, emptiness stirred and rattled in search of…of what he did not know. He did know that he was not far from the boundary of despair and deep into longing. He hadn’t had a conversation with another human in over three years.
The young man could not even remember his parents now. He missed Uncle. He created memories, but they were all depressing. He had a need he could not explain and no one to talk with. The young man searched Uncle’s belongings looking for something, but he did not know what it was.
In the north woods near the house, there was a deep ancient swamp. The water was black and rotten. Thin pyramidal cedars fed on the misery of their surroundings. He walked there often at twilight, finding comfort in the dead trees and damp ground. Snakes swam away and frogs hid when he approached but, if he was still, they returned and he could enjoy their company. Lately though, the young man had stayed away. He became aware of his reflection in the stagnant pools. He studied himself. He knew he was ugly and seeing only himself, just him and the emptiness of the sky above, created an ache, a hollowness in his being that caused him to run and run, filling his lungs with fetid air, exhausting his body till he dropped into the sour softness of the swamp.
He did belong here, though. This he knew above all else. He fed on the swamp’s misery, delighted in its desolation. It too was lonely. They had only each other.
Not long ago, he began to move through the swamp at night when he could not see his likeness. Dusky smells embraced him. The wet ground pulled at his feet–the sucking sound was pleasing.
He hesitated at times and slowly, slowly sank deep into the miry warm embrace of the slime. He lifted a boot and let it slide in again. Though the ground was rank and decayed, he was not afraid of miasma. Around him, the swamp groaned with life. It was a pleasurable sensation.
Sometimes, he entered the marsh barefooted. Deep inside it, the ooze slid between his toes and licked at his legs. The muck was silky and forgiving. He would stagger till he was spent. The young man could not stay away. This was his family now.
It was a cold September. He huddled inside his wool blanket. Yesterday’s porridge bowl remained on a white porcelain enamel kitchen table in front of him. He felt a fever, perhaps with it the dizzy freedom of sickness. Recently, he went naked and rolled in the supple still-warm water, smearing mud over his body. He began to touch himself. The excitement brought his thoughts back to the magazine he had found. He liked the stimulation, but the result frightened him.
It was gloaming. He sat in the kitchen and stared out a window at the woods. Jackdaws called on barren branches. Called for what? Behind the trees, almost hidden, he spotted movement. He did not make out its form. It was not animal–it was large and red. Red and in his swamp! For a moment, he considered investigating, but only for moment. What–what if there were people there? He was curious, but cautious. Something drew him to this mystery, though.
Paralyzed with indecision, he sat and watched. Shortly into early night, two beams of light thrust forward, and the red moved again retracing its path. His fever continued and his skin burned, but still he was compelled to uncover this obscurity. He waited till the dark settled deep into the earth. Then the young man followed a calling he could not ignore.
He opened the kitchen door. A lightning bug flew in. This could only mean that someone was going to die. He hesitated, but the call was strong, and he shut the door, leaving the firefly to roam the house.
He was vaguely aware of moisture slowly running down his legs as he moved toward the trees. He hurried through the swamp. The tracks were just visible in the faint moonlight: tire ruts led from and to the highway. The ground at the edge of the wetland was firm and hard, able to support the weight of an automobile. He stood stunned, shocked. He never knew this path existed. He never knew it was so accessible.
Someone had ignored the No Trespassing and Keep Out signs along the perimeter of the estate. Someone had driven between the trees to make a road. Someone had touched his swamp. For what? He searched the ground, running his hands over and near the end of the tire tracks. Clean, intact. Apparently, no one had emerged from the car. But someone had been here–someone had violated his swamp. Why was it here? What had happened in the car?
Frustration built inside him and caused him to grunt and stamp on the tracks. His face flushed and his body heated. The young man raced back into the swamp and was calmed in its rhythms and gentle stirrings. Perhaps the red would be back. For the first time in a long while, he looked forward to something.
Six days had gone and no red. It was six nights now that he stayed inside, fearful of being seen–and fearful that, being seen, the visitor would run. He didn’t know which one was more frightening. His thoughts were clouded. The fever chills held on. He would wait one more day, just one more night.
Daylight was leeching out and a cool late September evening was forming. The young man began to relax from his foolish thoughts. Fever. It was the fever. There was no red. There would be no contact. It was his place to be apart. He was different. He placed his dinner aside and prepared to leave the kitchen, but there! Behind the trees! Lights once again! He sprinted as best as he could out of the house, the blood in his head racing faster than in his heart. The fever caused him to stumble. He thrashed out blindly. His feet and legs were cut by thorns and naked shrub branches. He became quiet as he neared the far tree and saw a red car, a bright red car. He hunkered down and looked. There was no one about. He crept closer. The windows were steamed to opaque. The car rocked slowly and he heard struggling inside. People! Perhaps fighting! Closer. Without disturbing so much as a fallen twig the young man crept closer. He could only see partial shadows through the windows. Something was happening inside. Now laughter. At first, he did not recognize it. What was going on? He placed his head near the glass. There was movement inside like wriggling larvae. And new sounds. Soft moans and gasps. The young man was excited without knowing why. He wanted to enter the car. His hand reached for the door handle. The handle was smooth and hard. He grasped it and held on. It pulled and pushed his hand as the car rolled and the noises increased in volume and emotion. His heart was racing. He lifted the handle. The movement stopped.
“What was that?”
“What the hell you talking about? Forget it. Come on!”
“No, no. I know someone’s outside. I saw something through the window.”
“This place is deserted. No one comes here.”
“All right. All right.”
The door opened and a man stepped out half naked. From his hiding place, the young man saw a woman inside the car. She was propped up on her elbows in the front seat. Short light brown hair was plastered on her forehead. Her breasts were glistening with sweat–her panties were around one ankle.
“There’s no one here.” Vince climbed back into the car and over the woman.
The young man watched the car begin to rock again and he heard her low song.
Long after they left, he remained. He was afraid if he moved from this spot the memories of her full breasts and pink nipples would fade. The young man trembled, but not from fever. Later, he limped through the swamp thinking of seeing her again, feeling a stimulation he had not felt since he discovered that magazine.
The next night, he hid, waiting. Mosquitoes ignored him. His blood was not sweet enough. The car did not return. He straggled back through the mud. The young man continued nightly vigils, in hope of a second showing. The following night they still did not come.
Four days later a red automobile rolled to a stop five feet from his hiding place. The windows were clear. He watched as the driver unbuttoned her blouse, slipped his hand behind her under garment and cupped a breast. The young man gasped as the driver revealed the soft white breast. He placed her nipple in his mouth and began to suck. She smiled and reclined, rubbing his head. The young man was excited, more than at any other time in his life. He needed to get closer. The man slipped her blouse off completely and unlatched that piece of clothing underneath. She worked his shirt and then his pants. As she slid down on the seat, he positioned himself on top of her. The young man watched this exotic dance in fascination as the windows began to fog.
He moved closer, listening to her muted groaning. He could not see everything he needed to know. He peered in the window and saw only shapes in rhythmic motions. His head was next to the glass when a hand wiped the moisture and the inside of the car was visible. The man glared at him. Below, she started to scream, but the young man could not leave. Her legs were spread around the man and her nipples were taut. The young man could not stop staring.
The driver swiftly pushed the door open. “God damn it!”
The young man fell and scrambled on his back into the bushes.
The driver turned in circles buckling his belt. “You freak! Where the hell are you?”
The young man was hidden but the driver moved in his direction. The man bellowed for effect, “Come out here, you bastard, come out!”
The driver came near the hiding place. Even in the dark, rage was visible on his face. A rock was in the young man’s hand. He leapt up, swung, hit the man in the head, and was surprised–the contact was stimulating. The driver grabbed his head and backed up, stumbled, and fell. The young man jumped on top of him and pounded the rock into the face. The driver tried to protect himself instead of hitting the young man–he was beaten till he became motionless.
The car tried to start. The woman was screaming and trying to get away. The young man went to her, not to tell her he was sorry or to hurt her, but to feel her breasts like other did. She saw the young man and screamed even louder. He reached his bloody hands out. She retreated to the passenger side and attempted to open the locked door. Her screaming increased in pitch. He entered the automobile–she started to claw at him. He seized her throat and squeezed to stop the screaming. His grasp was slippery with blood, but the hold worked. He tried to explain that he did not mean her any harm. Her eyes were wide. She struggled to pull the hands away. He held on till she was still.
Her breasts were supple and smooth. They became slightly pink as the young man massaged them. He was trembling and grew excited. He made an effort to imitate what he had witnessed. He was clumsy at first, but became more adept each time. It was more than pleasure–it was a togetherness that he had never experienced. He took her left breast into his mouth and suckled till he fell asleep.
In the morning, the young man’s limbs were cramped from spending the night in the front seat. He gazed at his lover again and felt the excitement return. He left the automobile to clean up. Animals and stray dogs had found the man in the dark hours. He looked more like the young man now–how fitting. The young man gently lowered the woman to the ground and then placed the man in the car. Thanks to Uncle’s lessons, he slipped the shift into neutral and pushed the automobile and its cargo into the swamp. The water was not deep, though, and the car was partially visible. He placed branches around it to cover the bright red. Hopefully, it might look like a beaver den.
He held her from behind her shoulders occasionally touching her breasts as he dragged her home and up to his parents’ bedroom. He gently set her on the bed. She was beautiful. She was now the only thing of value he had ever owned. The young man called her Angelina after his mother.
Every morning he dressed her in his mother’s clothes and combed her hair. He was not insane–but he did not know what sanity was. He did know she was dead, but she brought him pleasure and he could not part with that.
Later, he erased the heel marks she had made leading to the house. He checked the swamp area each day for other visitors. The automobile seemed to sink more each day. He arranged more branches on it. No others came. He uselessly hoped these two might not be missed. Venturing near the road, he did his best to hide any evidence that a car had entered the woods–all the time being careful not to be seen.
It had been nearly a week now. He was certain she enjoyed their love as much as he did. Blood bubbles had stopped forming from her nose. Angelina’s stiffness had gone, but she looked ill. Her eyes had flattened and a terrible grin formed on her withered mouth. Her coloring was changing to a marbleized appearance. Although her breasts had shrunk, her stomach had swollen and he wondered if she was pregnant. She smelled like the swamp–there was comfort in that, though. He knew she must be buried, but he could not bring himself to do it. He could not part with her yet. The young man did not want to be alone again. Angelina had brought fullness to his life. He lifted up her skirt, smiled, and felt himself grow hard. She was so much better than the magazine. Her skin had become damp and made it easier for him to love her again. Uncle was wrong! It was not filth, but beauty. He realized that soon she would leave, but not today, not today.
That was his beginning. Now this was his ending. The young man felt no regrets, except for being lonely.
© 2016 by R. James Milos
Apart is an apt title for this story. Delving into the isolation that is felt by those who fall outside of societal norms, it leads you down a twisted path wrought with murder, occultism, and misanthropy. The small town setting stirs up feelings of adolescent nostalgia, but the story quickly takes a turn into ghoulish territory and macabre madness. ~ Ross Acevedo, Managing Editor, The Excelsior Review