Ever wonder who are your real friends and who are your fake friends?
To celebrate the completion of the first draft of Tales of Damnation, my collection of short horror stories, I’m giving you a little gift. It’s a creative piece of fiction, but it just might help you solve that little conundrum.
“Fake friends,” Michael MacDonald said to a dark and empty house. “That’s all they are.”
He’d just arrived at his inner-city Calgary home after leaving a dinner party at a suburban home. He’d been an invited guest of Mila and Dennis Steinweister, his friends. At least they called themselves friends. Three months earlier, he’d gifted them a paperback copy of his new novel, practically begging them to read it and post a review on Amazon. At that time they’d seemed interested, asking Michael to summarize it.
He’d spent weeks polishing The Dark Presence short synopsis and proudly regurgitated it: “Mysterious and terrifying attacks by the Shadow People and the Hat Man lead a nightmare-plagued man to suspect an enigmatic doctor has accidentally opened a portal to hell.”
They’d both promised to read it and post reviews if they liked it.
Leading up to the dinner party, Michael had tried to keep his expectations in check. He kept repeating the wise stoic philosophy: “Expect nothing, for thou shalt not be disappointed.”
The Dark Presence had already garnered many rave reviews from book-buyers whom he didn’t even know and hadn’t even solicited. Five-star reviews, many from readers who’d said they couldn’t put it down until they’d finished it. Shouldn’t that be enough? Maybe, but it was nice to get a little support from your friends. Nice to know they took an interest in your passion and would give you a little positive feedback and encouragement once in a while. A little validation for all of your blood, sweat, and tears.
But that’s not what had happened a few hours earlier at the dinner party. Washing a mouthful of delicious lasagna down with a sip of white wine, Michael had asked, a hint of trepidation in his voice,” By the way, have you guys read The Dark Presence yet?”
Mila had given Dennis that look. That rolling-eyed look. That picture that meant a thousand words. Then she’d said, “No, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Sorry, I can’t even remember what I did with it.”
To which Dennis had added: “I haven’t had a chance to read it. I’m too busy right now.” Turning to his not-so-lovely wife, he added: “I think you put it upstairs in your office, honey. On the bookshelves with all your other books.”
“Or maybe you used it to line the kitty litter box,” Dennis had added, turning to Michael with a wide grin, nudging his shoulder, and causing him to spill wine onto his steaming lasagna. “Just kidding.”
Michael had almost choked on his lasagna.
Removing his winter jacket and hanging it in the closet, he tried to put it out of his mind, pacing around his large empty house, trying to work through the sadness and disappointment. The bitter rejection. Exercise always cheers you up, right? But not this time. Michael’s mind kept returning to the dinner party rejection. The dinner party debacle. He plopped himself down in a chair at the kitchen table.
“Not any fucking more,” he said. “I’m not hanging around with those fuckers anymore. Fuck their dinner parties. Fuck their fake support. Fuck their fake friendship. Fuck them!”
Michael sighed deeply, the litany of expletives going some way to making him feel a little better. Trying to cheer himself up, he went through a mental checklist of friends and family who had supported him on his writing endeavors.
Out of six immediate family members, including his mother and father, three of them had actually read and enjoyed his novels. And, although none of them had posted reviews—the elixir of life that authors rely on to survive and thrive in the industry—they’d all offered words of encouragement.
He counted up his friends. Good friends, not fake friends. He covered ten digits. Not bad. Most people are lucky to count their good friends on one hand.
Michael then went down the list of who’d read some of his novels and who hadn’t.
Five of them had. Four had posted favorable reviews. After reading a horror novel, one friend, Dianne, had said, “I’m sorry, the book was well written, but it’s just not my genre. I can’t handle all that blood, guts, and gore. I was so disturbed and scared after reading it, I couldn’t sleep for two nights.”
Michael thought about it. Little did Dianne realize, she’d paid him the highest compliment he’d ever received. He was a horror writer after all. Sure, he was on a mission to educate, influence, and entertain. But, he was also on a mission to scare the hell out of his readers. It was nice to know he’d accomplished that with at least one reader.
And he’d made a point to thank Dianne for reading On Death’s Doorstep, explaining to her that true horror fans get a thrill out of being scared. He’d also apologized to her, and advised her not to read any more of his novels—if indeed she found them too disturbing. That was not his intention as a writer. To fuck up his reader’s health.
Michael absently flicked on the TV, a small smile beginning to purse his lips. His reflections were beginning to cheer him up. And really, should he expect all of his close friends and family to take an interest in his writing? That was unrealistic at best, downright stupid at worst. In the end, he’d received more support, more positive feedback, more free promotion, and more five-star reviews from people he’d never met. Legitimate book buyers who really enjoyed his novels.
Everyone has their own lives, their own problems, and their own shit. It was foolish to think that all of them would take an interest and encourage him in his work. He thought of something he’d read on people’s ability to even listen to others, never mind having the capacity to encourage, read, and support them in their work.
It went something like this: We listen to half of what’s being said. We give a shit about half of that. We understand half of that. We believe half of that and we remember half of that. Now, what was it you were saying?
Michael watched five minutes of Anderson Cooper slamming President Donald Trump over what he claimed was his insensitive handling of a recent mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, and then turned the TV off. A seed of doubt was growing in his mind. He needed to chop it down before it festered into an infectious weed of hate and negativity.
Fake friends. If they don’t give a shit about my passion in life, do they really give a shit about me? Probably not. Maybe I’ll just cross them off my fucking friend list then. Chop off a few digits maybe.
Michael awoke from a nightmare-filled and fitful sleep early the next morning still troubled by the dinner party debacle. He’d dreamt of visiting many homes as a spectral entity, a ghost who could walk through walls, watch and listen to conversations, unseen and unheard. He’d visited the homes of his critics and had heard what they were saying behind his back.
None of it was good.
“He’s probably a hack. Not that I’ve read anything, so maybe I shouldn’t say. But, he probably should’ve kept his day job.”
“I couldn’t tell him to his face but I hated the novel.”
“When God was giving out brains, he thought He said trains and took the caboose.”
The last stop on the nightmare train was the home of Mila and Dennis. They were having dinner, discussing Michael and his work.
“I don’t really care what he writes,” Dennis said. “I’m just not that interested.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve lost the book anyway,” Mila answered. “So I couldn’t read it if I wanted to. Not that I’d want to anyway. I doubt Michael can write at all.”
“Exactly,” Dennis said, stuffing his face with potatoes. “We’ve got enough of our own shit to deal with without worrying about what someone else is doing.”
“That’s right, baby. But, to shut him up, maybe we should just say we read it and loved it.”
“Can’t do that. What if he asks about specifics?”
“True enough. Let’s leave it then, and hope he doesn’t mention it again.”
“I don’t think he will. He only brought it up once in three months. Did you see the look on his face when I said we used his novel to line the kitty litter box?”
Michael frowned as snippets of the nightmare played over and over in his mind like a chilling horror movie. He knew a phone conversation with his mentor and close friend Stephanie Bower would set him straight. An accomplished horror author in her own right, she was brilliant at helping him view things in the proper perspective. Maybe it was better to discuss it face-to-face with her. Over coffee.
Stephanie had listened intently while Michael told the story. He’d watched her small features darken and her blue eyes harden. As he spoke, her cheeks had turned from white to bright pink.
“You wanna know what I think?” she said with narrowing eyes. Her hand tightened around her cardboard coffee cup. She frowned, noticing her firm grip squeezing too hard, threatening to explode its hot contents. She loosened her grip.
“That’s why I’m here,” Michael said. He knew he didn’t have to tell Stephanie not to sugar-coat it.
“If they don’t care about your passion it usually means they don’t give a fuck about you,” she said. “It’s really easy to spot the ones who fully support and hold a true interest in what we do and easy to spot the fake bastards who wear a mask of bullshit.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
“I’ve had total strangers offer positive comments on my books and buy them because they wanted to. To get compliments and positive feedback from people I don’t know has been far more rewarding than anything I’d expect to get from a friend anyway. Maybe a friend doesn’t want to hurt your feelings so they don’t tell you the truth. They could easily lie and say how grand the book was when really they thought it was a piece of shit. So, I never ask friends anymore. Or family either. Not that any of my family has ever showed any interest in my writing. I’d rather a stranger read my works; that way I have a better chance of hearing the truth instead of a pile of sugar-coated bullshit!”
“Or worse,” Michael said, his mood darkening. “They never find the time to read it or have no interest in doing so and make all kinds of excuses. Like they used it to line the kitty litter box.”
Stephanie was aghast. “Is that what they said?”
“That’s what Dennis said. And they both grinned. Holding back laughter, you ask me.”
“The lies, excuses, and jokes people conjure up for why they haven’t read your book is mind-blowing.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“I don’t know these people. Never met them, and from what you say, I don’t want to. Are they close friends of the inner circle kind, or just garden-variety friends?”
“I don’t see them a whole lot. I don’t call them much. Once in a blue moon I see them at a dinner party, either at my place or theirs. These happen maybe once a month and they’re planned well in advance. You know me, I hate making plans. I’m more spontaneous. They’re not the kind of friends I could call if I really had a problem, not the kind who would give me the shirt off their back if I was desperate.”
“More like acquaintances or casual friends then?”
“That’s more like it,” Stephanie said. “I think you should distance yourself from them. You have to ask yourself, do they really add anything positive to your life?”
“It’s not all black and white, but for the most part no.”
“It’s never black and white. I have friends who just don’t read for that matter. It would be stupid to ask them to support me or read one of my books. I have others that’ve told me it’s not their genre, so fair enough. Still others feign interest, but I don’t always blow them off. I have one friend who is going through so much emotional turmoil of her own right now I don’t think she’s capable of bringing herself to a calm place where she actually can see outside of her own messed up bubble.”
“That’s true,” Michael said, starting to feel a little better. “I have family members who said they would read my books but never have. But otherwise they’re pretty good people. I don’t take it personally nor do I blow them off. I just recognize I’m not gonna get the kind of support I want from them and move on.
“Same here. As I said, I don’t ask family or friends anymore. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. But in your case, you’re dealing with fake friends, as you say. Not even paying lip service to supporting you and probably even criticizing you behind your back. There is no mask of deceit there, it’s all out there festering in the open from what you tell me.”
Michael’s nightmare flashed through his mind. He felt downright depressed all over again.
And evidently Stephanie could read him like an open book. “Don’t worry about it, Mike. I’ve read your books. I know you’re a good writer. Not to mention all the people who’ve praised your work over the years that you don’t even know.”
“I guess you’re right. But it still hurts.”
“Don’t worry,” Stephanie said with a grin. “Karma’s a bastard. One day maybe they’ll both get torn a new asshole.”
Michael admired that about Stephanie. She didn’t mince words.
Mila looked at Dennis with concern. “Did you hear that?”
He washed down a mouthful of bread with a gulp of wine. “You mean the wind whistling? Yeah, I heard that. There’s a storm coming, honey. Remember?”
Mila’s eyes narrowed. “I know there’s a storm coming, silly. We watched the news together. Remember? I’m not talking about the whipping wind. I heard a crashing sound outside in the backyard.”
Dennis stood. “Probably the wind knocked down a garbage can or something. I’ll go check.”
Dennis went to the back door, put his boots and winter jacket on, and went outside. As soon as he stepped onto the back porch a strong gust of wind slammed him into the door, blowing off his Budweiser cap and sweeping it into the neighbor’s backyard. He watched it twirl in the air and disappear in the heavy snow. Fucking white-out. Gonna be a nasty one.
“Fucking bastard,” he said, gripping the door handle with both hands and steadying himself until the wind abated somewhat. Ferocious winds and driving snow pounded him for a few seconds. Finally the wind let up and he scrambled down the stairs, trudged through a foot of snow, and arrived at the detached garage. The garbage cans were in the alley on the other side of the garage so he had to go into the building and press the automatic garage door opener before he would be able to see if the trash containers had been blown down the alley or not.
He opened the man door quickly and slammed it shut behind him a second before another strong gust of wind plastered the garage with a fresh sheet of snow. He flicked the light on and pressed the door opener. More lights came on and the garage door whirred to life and began rising. When it reached the top, he approached the vehicle entrance and looked outside. Three trash cans were halfway down the alley and garbage was strewn all over the white snow, assorted pieces spiraling around in the air like mini tornadoes.
“Fuck me,” he said, balling his fists. He was tempted to forget about the garbage cans, return to the house, and tell Mila he’d cleaned everything up. Of course, come morning he’d then have to explain three missing garbage cans. And he knew. Hell hath no fury like the wrath of Mila.
So he trudged off down the alley, managed to retrieve two garbage cans, and began making his way back to the garage. When he arrived he placed one inside, setting it inside and rolling it to the front of the garage. He lifted the second one high over his head with the intention of setting it on his workbench. But as he was putting it down, a strong gust of wind caught it and slammed it into the back of his head, catapulting him forward violently. He released the can, watched it teeter and roll and collide with the front fender of Mila’s new SUV.
At the same time, he fell forward, slamming his head on the corner of the workbench. As a dizzying constellation of stars danced around his head, he fell on his back on the concrete floor.
A gust of wind blew a blanket of snow on him as his head slowly began to clear. After unleashing a litany of profanity, he got up slowly, deciding wisely to forget about the other can. “And the fucking garbage.”
He stumbled to the door, pressed the automatic garage door opener, and let out a deep sigh as he watched it wind down mechanically and clunk to a stop on the garage floor. He rubbed a growing goose egg on the back of his head and felt fresh warm blood. He brought his other hand to a spot above his right eyebrow, grimaced and winced as he felt another rising bump. At least there was no blood on that injury.
“What the hell happened to you?” his wife said as he staggered into the kitchen.
Dennis went over to the sink and stuck his bleeding head inside. “Help me, honey. I got attacked by a garbage can. Got attacked by my workbench. Got assaulted by the fucking wind.”
Mila rose quickly, fetching a clean towel and wiping the back of his blood-soaked head. Ten minutes later she had him cleaned up, bandaged up, and sitting comfortably, albeit dizzily, on the living room couch.
He’d explained most of the story to her. Then, through a slowly clearing fog, he noticed her right index finger was bandaged. “What happened to you?”
“Oh shit, just bad luck. While you were outside, I cut my finger with the butcher knife while I was trimming the roast.”
“Are you okay?”
Mila nodded. “It was bleeding like crazy but it’ll heal. What about you? Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
Raw fear wrinkled Dennis’s brow. “What, in this? Are you kidding? I’m okay. Just a minor concussion I think.”
“We’ll see how you feel tomorrow then.”
“Did you recover all the garbage cans?”
“No. One got away.”
“And one more thing.”
Mila’s face tightened. “What about it?”
“I think there’s a pretty nasty dent in the front fender. One of the garbage cans got away from me.
Mila’s brow crinkled and she didn’t say anything for a full minute. When she did open her mouth, Dennis was sure he’d be getting a tongue-lashing.
But all she said was, “I think I’m gonna turn in for the night. You’d be wise to do the same.”
A few minutes later, when they were all tucked into their Queen-sized bed, Dennis cautiously put his hand across Mila’s stomach. She tensed at first and he almost withdrew it. But then she relaxed and he left it there.
“Sorry about your SUV,” Dennis said softly, his voice punctuated by windblown snow slamming the bedroom window.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mila said after a brief pause.
“Why do you think we’re getting so much bad luck lately?”
“I wish I knew, Dennis. I wish I knew.”
Michael hung up his coat in the hallway closet and set his snow-covered boots in a rubber boot tray inside the closet. He’d driven home white-knuckled after dining by himself in a nearby Chinese restaurant. Visibility had been reduced to almost zero as a result of the storm and he’d narrowly avoided a four-vehicle collision. It’s only gonna get worse. Wouldn’t be surprised if I lose power.
He lived by himself in a five-bedroom bungalow on a cul-de-sac in an upper-middle class neighborhood. After making a hot herbal tea, he went into his main-floor office, knocked off 563 words on his latest novel, and decided to turn in for the night.
Curled up in bed a few minutes later and listening to his 1959-built home creak and groan with the force of the storm, Michael felt strangely vindicated. He didn’t understand why but nor did he wish to analyze the feeling for fear of stirring up more mentally deleterious memories of the dinner party debacle. Probably just Stephanie’s pep talk. Leave it at that.
Fifteen minutes later he fell fast asleep.
In the dark of night, lit faintly by numerous dots shimmering below him, Michael wiped blinding snow from his eyes and walked effortlessly down a city street. He was a giant on an evening stroll in suburban Calgary. But it was more than a stroll. It was a mission. And he didn’t question whether his mission was real or fake, only knew it had to be done. He found the house, knelt down on one knee and peered into the window. He saw them sleeping not-so-peacefully, tossing and turning under the glow of a purple nightlight. He tapped on the window with his knuckle and it shattered, blowing snow and glass into the bedroom.
Mila leaped from the bed, grabbing a housecoat and throwing it over her slim body. Her eyes were wide with terror. Her tongue hung from her mouth like a rabid dog. “You. What do you want?”
Dennis merely lifted his head from the pillow, screamed and fainted.
“Karma’s a bastard,” Michael said with a satisfied grin. “It tears you a new asshole when you least expect it.”
“No, no,” Mila said in a high-pitched voice. “I’ll read your goddamned stupid book if that’s what you want.”
“Too little too late,” Michael said. “You had your chance.”
He reached over and grabbed a power pole with a streetlight mounted on top. With a rubber-gloved hand he tore it from its concrete foundation, snapping it like a twig and smashing it through Mila and Dennis’s bedroom window. As the power pole sizzled and crackled with electrical sparks, he stood up, wiped his hands and grinned, pleased with his handy work.
“That should do it,” Michael said, as the house burst into flames.
As he floated away, he could hear the horrifying screams of Mila and Dennis as their home went up in flames.
It was music to his ears.
It took him more than two hours the next morning to shake off the powerful feeling of dread. The nightmare felt so real; unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. When he’d finally calmed down and convinced himself it was nothing more than a bad dream, he showered, dressed, and peered out his front window.
At least three feet of snow. And the storm was still raging. Fortunately it hadn’t killed his power last night. Michael went into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, went into the living room and plopped himself down on the sofa. He flicked on the TV and quickly surfed over to a local news station. He was anxious to see what kind of devastation the storm had caused and still was causing.
A clean-cut male anchor sat in a news studio reporting on a number of school closures, adding that all federal government offices would be closed for the day due to the raging storm. He went on to list three storm-related traffic accidents, one of which had resulted in two fatalities.
Then the blue-suited man picked up a piece of paper from his desk and his spectacle-framed eyes widened, magnified comically by thick lenses.
He cleared his throat. “This just in. Last night the storm knocked down a power pole in the suburban district of Somerset, smashing it through a home occupied by Dennis and Mila Steinweister.”
Michel froze, spilling hot coffee.
“Fire fighters and paramedics rushed to the scene but…”
The TV died. The lights went out.
Michael suddenly heard a loud BOOM and saw sparks fly from a nearby power pole. He rushed to his bay window and watched in terror as a large transformer explosion sent electrical wires flying everywhere. The wires sizzled along the snow—cracking, snapping and writhing like poisonous snakes before fizzling out and growing still.
His body convulsing with fear, he paced the floor frantically, trying unsuccessfully to convince himself that he had nothing to do with Mila and Dennis’s…death? But are they dead? And if they are, how could I have done it? How could it be me? I was home sleeping.
His right eye strayed to the small foyer at his front door. On the tiled floor stood his water-soaked winter boots. Beside them, his crumpled winter jacket.
A rush of fear-fueled adrenaline shot through his body and he convulsed as if struck by a bolt of lightning.
In the rush of emotions that followed, he didn’t know what was real, what was fake; what was true, what was false.
But it didn’t take him long to realize that one thing was true. Last night, he’d hung up his coat in the hallway closet and set his snow-covered boots in a rubber boot tray inside the closet.
Oh my God! Did I kill them?
An hour later, he still didn’t have any answers. To try and make sense of the nerve-rattling experience, he went into his office and powered up his laptop. He planned on using what battery life that remained to document the ordeal. At the very least it would be therapeutic. At the very best, it would make a damn fine horror tale.
The title came to him in an instant.