While self isolating to avoid a global pandemic an eccentric rich man begins to realize his past is after him as much as any virus.
Quarantine: A Story of Isolation by Keith Tomlin
Music by Ray Mattis http://raymattispresents.bandcamp.com
Produced by Daniel Wilder
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Chester Lytle stretched his legs and turned the page in the book he was reading. Although he rarely allowed himself to think it, he was alone in the world. He had no friends and his father, the last of his relatives, died when he was a teenager. When Chester turned eighteen, he inherited a small family fortune in a trust that took care of all of his needs. He never had to work a day in his life, which gave him plenty of time to pursue his only passion, books.
With a book, he could be transported anywhere in the world, anywhere in the galaxy. He can be a captain of a ship hunting a great white whale, he can command starships, pursue criminals through the streets of 1920’s Chicago, and be a great ball player, beloved by an entire nation. Books were his refuge, his safe place from horrors and pains of life. The world outside his door may crazy and deadly but he was safe and sound, alone, in his comfortable house in a small town in Connecticut.
When Chester first heard reports of a mysterious new disease rising out of China, he knew it would only be a matter of time before it came to America. He had read enough novels about pandemics, plagues, and outbreaks to know that someone, somewhere, screwed up and unleashed a demon upon the world. He was not surprised when a lockdown was instituted and, to tell the truth, it wasn’t much of a change for him. Chester liked the isolation, it felt comfortable, like an old friend, not that he knew what a friend felt like.
On this night, the night of Chester’s death, he was reading a story about a pirate king who fell in love with a serving wench and was now facing a ship full of mutinous sailors. His first mate, the instigator of the mutiny, had just grabbed the pirate king’s one true love and held a knife to her throat. Chester’s breath quickened as he hurriedly turned the page to see how the pirate king would prevail and save his queen.
The strange noise broke Chester’s concentration. He shook his head as if waking from a dream and looked around the room. Every wall in the living room was lined with bookshelves, each one stuffed with hard cover books, paperbacks, and manuscripts of all kinds. The room was dimly lit by a gas fireplace, throwing strange and mysterious shadows around the room.
He cocked his head and listened for the noise again. “What was that?”, he mumbled to himself. He spent a few minutes more listening, silently trying to probe the deep shadows around the bookcases. When the noise did not repeat itself, he shrugged and bent his head back to his book. He started reading again but the spell was broken. He couldn’t summon up the scene that had been playing in his head. He tried going back a few pages to see if that would kickstart the story but it was no use, the magic had faded. Sighing, he put the book down, carefully inserting a bookmaker to preserve his spot.
Chester stood and stretched, his back cracking as he arched backwards. He realized that he has been slacking on his calisthenics. Maybe he’ll try to get in 20 jumping jacks before bed, he thought absently. He walked to the doorway, turning sideways to slide between the two bookshelves that partially blocked the opening between the living room and dining room.
The dining room was also lined with bookcases. These shelves were even more crammed with books than the den. Stacks of well-read paperbacks covered most of the floor, leaving only a path to get from the small table and single chair in the middle of the room to the three doorways, leading to the living room, kitchen, and hallway.
Chester stopped. He stared, confused, at the floor. He gingerly began applying more pressure to his front foot, testing the floorboard that he was standing on. When he first heard the noise, he thought it may have come from there but the more he thought about it, the more he was sure it came from his left, towards the hallway.
“This is strange”, he said out loud. His voice cracked as he spoke. He wasn’t used to speaking above a whisper but he felt he had to say something to break the eerie silence that had dropped over the room.
Chester held his breath and listened, thinking that he had to be alone, no one else could have gotten in here without him hearing them. Each of the windows and the backdoor have been boarded up and the house was sealed tight to keep out light, sound, and disease. The front door had nearly a dozen locks on it. He only opened it every other week when he received his supply of food and reading material and that was only after he was sure the delivery person was long gone.
Chester had no idea who delivered his supplies, the family trust took care of everything. To him, it was almost like magic, everything he needed seemed to show up without him having to ask for it. He then wondered if he had a book with a story about a dashing young hero that fought off home invaders. That may be a good for a thrill before bedtime. He seemed to remember a book of short stories in the bathroom…. He stumbled as he suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath this whole time. He loudly exhaled, taking a few quick deep breaths to clear the dizzy feeling from his head.
The strange noise already forgotten, he headed into the kitchen to make himself dinner. He absently stepped over the stack of paperbacks that line the kitchen doorway and walked to the kitchen cabinets. Opening up a cabinet door, he selected the lone plate sitting on a shelf. He then reached into the breadbox and pulled out 2 slices of white bread, placing them on the plate. Turing to the fridge, he opened the door and looked over the shelves which housed a partial gallon of milk and several packages of butcher paper containing various types of lunch meat. He thoughtfully pondered over what type of sandwich he wanted before finally selecting a package of sliced turkey. He deliberately pulled out 4 slices of turkey meat and placed them onto a slice of bread. He put the second piece of bread on top and made sure the sandwich was centered on the plate.
Next comes his favorite part of dinner; desert. Chester opened up a drawer and looked longingly at a pack of vanilla crème cookies. Whomever delivered his supply of groceries only give cookies once a month so he was careful to ration them. Shivering with anticipation, he reached into the drawer to grab the three cookies that he would eat with his meal.
“What?” he exclaimed when he found nothing but crumbs. There should have been enough for at least three more days but the package was empty. Dumbfounded, he picked it up and shook it, showering the counter with crumbs that fell from a ragged hole in the back of the package. Turning it over, he stared at that hole for several seconds.
It slowly dawned on him that something had chewed through the plastic wrapper and ate his cookies, that something was loose in the house, that something had invaded his space, his safe zone. His mind flashed through the endless possibilities of what this creature may be. He thought of stories with creatures from outer space, demons from the darkest pits of hell, and fairies from tales of old. He finally realized the only logical explanation would be…
“A mouse?”, he whispered out loud.
“A mouse.”, he said, in a firm voice.
“A mouse! A goddamn mouse in my goddamn house!”, he exclaimed loudly.
At the edge of his peripheral vision, he seen something dart out of the kitchen, running between stacks of books, into the dining room. Chester gave a guttural growl and picked up the closet object he could reach and threw it at the creature. The empty package of cookies only flew a few feet before slowly floating to the ground. Chester’s face turned red with the shame he used to feel as a child when he tried to play sports with the other kids. The indignity of it was too much and he charged into the dining room, kicking over stacks of paperbacks as he ran.
Breathing hard, he stopped to listen and, upon hearing nothing, he arbitrarily chose to proceed down the hall. He paused every few stops, drawing on the lessons he learned reading countless stories about great hunters stalking prey in the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa. He made a point not to think about the fact that a great hunter would not accidentally kick a copy of The Great Gatsby down the hall causing a stack of mid-century French poetry books to topple over. He stopped at the bathroom and flicked on the light. Looking at the piles and piles of books, for the first time he no longer saw adventure and romance, he only saw all the dark places where an enemy could hide.
Chester nudged a pile of books with his foot, jumping back in anticipation of a rabid rodent leaping out to attack him. When nothing happened, he felt like a fool, his face once again turning red with shame. Disgusted with himself, he kicked another pile of book. He shrieked with panic when a mouse did pop out from behind that pile, ran across his foot, and out into the hall. Falling back and landing on his rear, he caught a quick glance of the small furry brown creature squirming under the door of the spare bedroom, across the hall from the bathroom.
Trying to rise to his feet, Chester slipped on some paperbacks before his feet found purchase and he smashed into the bathroom doorknob. He grunted as pain exploded from his hip but he carried on, as a true hero does. Chester leaped across the hall and thudded into the bedroom door, hitting it before he was able to grab the knob. Once the doorknob was turned, the door popped open, and he spilled into the room, almost falling down once more. After pulling himself upright, he slammed the door shut.
In the center of the room, Chester stood quiet, once again listening for the creature but he could only hear the pounding of his heart. Taking a few deep breaths, he slowly looked around the room. Like the rest of the house, bookcases filled the walls of the small bedroom. A large antique rolltop desk sat to his right.
He kept scanning the room but the desk kept drawing his eyes back to it. He loved that desk; it was one of the few pieces of furniture he was able to keep after his father died. Not only that, it was where he kept some of his most valuable books, rare first editions from some of the most famous writers in history. He stared at the desk and it hit him, right in the pit of his stomach. He walked over to the desk and reached out a shaking hand, somehow knowing what he would find inside. He slowly opened up the rolltop and piles of shredded paper tumbled out. He books, his wonderful, lovely books were nothing but confetti. Rage boiled inside him, a murderous rage that he had not felt in many years. He snarled and screamed a curse, cursing the mouse, cursing the virus, cursing his life.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the mouse. The little bastard was just sitting there, looking up at him, mocking him. Chester slowly reached for a large, heavy book sitting on top of the desk, an evil grin spreading across his face. With the book in his hand, he quickly turned and leaped across the room, raising the book in the air. He locked eyes with the mouse and, with all of his strength, slammed the book down on top of it. He started to feel regret but quickly pushed that emotion away, thinking about the torment this little rodent put him though.
Panting hard from exertion and aching from landing on piles of books, Chester laid on the floor, trying to gather himself. After a few minutes, he was able to take a deep breath and slowly got to his knees. He looked at the huge book still clutched in his hands and slowly lifted it. Expecting to see the broken body of the little mouse lying on the floor, he was shocked to find nothing. Nothing at all.
He stumbled to his feet, confused. There was no way the mouse could have avoided the book; he had watched the book come down on top of the vile creature.
Chester spun and stared at the mouse sitting on top of the rolltop desk. He locked eyes with it and knew it was the same one… except it seemed bigger, somehow.
Hearing another noise behind him, Chester turned to face another large mouse sitting on a bookshelf, staring at him with cold, black eyes. Chester heard scratches and clawing from another bookcase to his left. Panicking, Chester grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open, almost pulling it off of the hinges. He blindly ran down the hall, slipping and sliding on books until he was once again in the kitchen.
He stopped and tried to gather himself. Chester stared into the dinning room as the sound of dozens of tiny clawed feet grew louder. He panicked again and ran to the backdoor. When it wouldn’t open, he remembered that it was nailed shut. Cursing himself for his foolishness, he turned and grabbed the handle of the only other door in the kitchen. He pulled open the door and stepped onto the top step of the stairs, slamming the door behind him. It suddenly dawned on him where he was. The basement.
Oh, god, not the basement, he thought.
Chester tried so hard to forget about the basement. Anytime the thought of the basement started to creep into his mind, he would dive into a book, forcing the memories away with visions of brave deeds and heroic adventures. Now, the memories started to seep back into his mind and he was unable to stop them.
Chester’s grandfather, by all accounts, was a stern man who had built this house with his own hands. He was a plain, god-fearing man who married a plain, god-fearing woman, who died giving birth to their only child, Markus, Chester’s father. Markus had a hard life and grew into a hard man. When his father died, Markus brought a new bride home to this house. She was a timid, mousey woman who had grown up beaten and abused. Her life with Markus was no different. Within a year, Chester was born. A year after that, Chester’s mother died in a brutal fall down the basement steps. Even though he knows that he was too young to remember it, Chester could close his eyes and see her tumble, screaming, down those stairs. These stairs. The stairs that Chester now stood at the top of.
Almost numb, Chester reached over and flipped on the basement light. One lightbulb, hanging down from the ceiling on a cord, tried to light the entire basement but failed. Chester knew that the far corner would be in the dark. Who knows what manner of creatures lurked there? Chester knew.
Starting to panic, Chester turned and grabbed at the basement door handle. He stopped when the door shook with sounds of wood being chewed and clawed. The sounds stopped when he let go of the doorknob.
“What the fuck?”, he questioned. As he reached out, the scratching started up again. He quickly pulled his hand back.
Standing there, confused, he finally asked himself:
What would a hero do? A hero would fight back, he thought, a hero would grab a weapon and take the fight to the enemy.
This thought sparked an idea.
“Grandfather’s tools”, Chester whispered, remembering the box of old tools that sat in the basement.
He should be able to find something to defend himself with in there. Having a plan bolstered his courage and Chester slowly took his first step down the stairs.
Taking it one step at a time, he slowly moved deeper into the basement. When he was on the last step up from the bottom, he stopped. Not wanting to desecrate the ground upon which his mother died, he awkwardly jumped sideways off the stairs, onto the basement’s rough concrete floor.
Chester turned to face a workbench in the middle of the wall on the other side of the room. He slowly shuffled forward towards it, resisting the urge to look over at the pool of darkness that emanated from the far corner. After what seemed like hours, he reached the workbench. He paused to catch his breath and then pulled an old, rotting, wooden box out from under the bench. After placing it on the tabletop, he dug though it until he found a hammer. It was old and rusty with a handle that wobbled but it was as good as a weapon as he could find in this house.
Testing the weight of the hammer in his hand, Chester turned back toward the stairs. He glanced over to the darkest corner and was instantly fixated by it. The darkness seemed to throb in beat with his heart. Even though he could not see the shackles and chains that were anchored to the wall in that corner, he knew they were there. His mind pulled images from the past.
“Damn you!”, his father yelled. “You’re weak, just like your mother!”
Chester’s face stung like it had been slapped, just like the hundreds of times his father has slapped him.
“You little cunt! I wished I had a son instead of a little pussy like you.”
Chester could still feel the shackles around his ankle.
It all came flooding back, the memories of him growing up, tiptoeing around the house, trying not to draw the notice of his father but knowing that it was just a matter of time before Markus flew into a drunken rage. This rage would end with him being beaten and dragged down to the basement. Chester would be chained, left alone for days, sometimes weeks, living on water dripping from a sewage line and the occasional water bug. He never knew if this would be the time that his father did not come down to release him, but his father would always eventually sobered up enough to let him loose, reminding him, with a chuckle, how lucky he was not to have an accident like his mother did.
The weight of the memories was too much for Chester, he screamed and collapsed to the ground, hitting his head loudly on the concrete floor.
Chester slowly came to consciousness. Before he opened his eyes, he knew that they were there, watching him. He slowly turned his head and seen a half dozen large mice sitting under the glow of the lone bulb, staring at him. Slowly, he rose to his feet. He picked the hammer up off the floor and held it above his head.
“Stay back, you bastards! I’ll use this, I swear.”
The mice remained motionless.
Chester took a step towards them, waving the hammer around. He heard shuffling behind him and quickly turned. Nearly a dozen mice sat on and around the workbench. Panic started to rise up and he spun around to face the light once again and froze.
A large rat now sat in the middle of the mice. This rat, the size of a house cat, had tuffs of hair missing and scars coving its body. What made Chester freeze, however, was its eyes. It didn’t have the black eyes of a rodent. This rat had human eyes, the eyes of his father.
Chester dropped the hammer and screamed, bolting toward the stairs. He kept repeating “I’m sorry, father, I’m sorry, father” breathlessly over and over again as he tried to leap up the stairs. He made it half way up before crashing back down, splitting open the skin on his shins and elbows. He didn’t seem to notice as he clawed his way up, breaking fingernails and tearing flesh as he went.
Chester’s only thought now was to reach the front door and leave this cursed house. All thoughts of the virus and pandemics were gone from his head, only dreams of escape remained. At the top of the stairs, Chester used the stair railing to pull himself up and threw open the basement door. A pair of large rats moved into view from the right and another on his left. The rats looked up at him with his father’s eyes and hungerly moved forward.
“Noooo!” Chester screamed as he took a step back and lost his balance. As he felt himself fall, Chester remembered the day his father died.
It was Chester’s fourteenth birthday and he had been chained up in the basement for nearly 3 weeks. This was one of the longest stretches that he could remember. That morning he discovered that, if he tried hard enough, he could slip his foot out of the shackle. He didn’t know if it was due to his father being too drunk to tightened it correctly or if it was a result of him losing weight. He suspected it was a combination of both.
After freeing himself, Chester dragged himself along the wall but finally collapsed under the basement stairs. He was weak, so weak and so tired.
Later, he was woken from his uneasy slumber by the sound of his father opening up the basement door. Panic over what his father would do when he found him unshackled was quickly replaced by rage and hatred. A hatred so powerful that it gave him strength. Chester rose up and stood under the stairs. When he saw his father feet on the step in front of him, he reached through the open back of the step and grabbed his father’s ankles and pulled. Markus Lytle fell and died at the bottom of the stairs. Chester smiled at this memory. The memory ended when Chester hit the floor, landing on the same spot that his mother and father died.
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