Stephen Graham Jones (1972 – ) is an American writer of both stories and novels. His most recent books include Zombie Bake-Off (2012), Growing Up Dead in Texas (2012), and The Last Final Girl (2012). Jones has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and Black Quill Award, as well as a winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Asimov’s SF Magazine, Weird Tales, and multiple best-of-the-year compilations. Jones’s short story “Little Lambs” is reprinted in The Weird. The following is a brand new story from Jones, “Xebico,” which is in turn inspired by another story from The Weird: “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold. “Xebico” is noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is how it adapts Arnold’s story for its own unique, unnerving purposes. - The Editors
I still consider it Janet’s fault.
Not for being assistant director on that season’s production — ‘understudy director,’ as she called it, dragging in at midnight for weeks in a row — and not for selecting that particular play, either. First, she had nothing to do with the selection, that was Herr Director (her term again), and, second, it wasn’t even a play.
Which is why she called me in.
I had my Library Science degree in one hand, a beer constantly in the other. Officially, I was taking a post-graduation break before entering the rat race. Just catching my breath before putting my soul on the auction block, all that. Unofficially, two of the three professors I’d asked for recs were putting me off.
Under my library degree, though, there was an undergrad one in American Lit. And that was Janet’s excuse for coming to me for help. Never mind that I’d just fallen into American Lit my last semester, when my advisor noticed that if I took this one class on the Beats, I’d have a specialization, and specializations look a lot like intent and focus to grad app selection committees.
I got into library school, so I guess it worked, and luckily nobody ever quizzed me on Hawthorne or Woolf.
According to Janet, though — she didn’t know about my missing rec letters — I was on my way to permanent barista status. To stocking the produce at the grocery store and calling that enough. From where she was, still in thick of her studies, my little vacation was threatening to become permanent, I mean. And I can’t say she was completely wrong on that.
Helping her with the research for this production, then, I guess it was supposed to spark me awake. Make me remember why I’d wanted so badly to become a reference librarian at a research university.
So, in that regard, I guess her plan was a complete success.
In other regards, though, I think she might have killed us all.
The short story Herr Director was having his capstone class adapt up for the stage was from 1926, “The Night Wire.” He gave the whole crew double-sided photocopies that you had to hold right up to your face to read. As for why a story instead of a real actual play, it was so everybody could learn about staging, adaptation, all the compromises and discoveries that are supposed be built into the process. As for why something that old, it was that Spring had always been for period pieces, so the wardrobe specialists and set-designers could get hands-on experience with that particular kind of headache, and so the actors could all study the old tapes in the basement, for enunciation, body language, how to hold a highball like Jay Gatsby.
And the story this time around, it actually wasn’t bad.
I crawled into the library’s database from Janet’s living room, poked around for this H.F. Arnold, who’d written the story.
It was one of three he’d ever done, evidently. Before dying in 1963, his death decidedly not going out on the ‘night wire’ specific to his story. And, to further complicate the background I was supposed to be getting together for the program, (“since I wasn’t doing anything else”), H.F. Arnold was more than likely a pen-name. Because these stories had shown up in the pulp mags. The supposition was that whoever Arnold really was, he was in journalism in some way, didn’t want to mess his real name up, but, again: nobody knew.
The story, though, this “The Night Wire,” it was one of those that have such a simple premise you wonder how nobody’d done it before. Even in 1926. All it was was two guys working the night wire — I picture a teletype clacking, though that’s complicated, as I’ve never actually seen a teletype — two guys sitting back-to-back, essentially taking dictation from some analog version of a news crawl. They don’t even pay attention to what’s going in through their eyes, out their fingers. Just copy, copy, copy.
My undergrad profs who taught me about “Bartleby the Scrivener” never knew about “The Night Wire,” no. Its first printing was in Weird Tales, though, which I guess explains that.
Anyway, one of these two guys is our trusty narrator and the other is the workhouse John Morgan, who’s known in the business as a ‘double man,’ meaning he can have his hands on two typewriters at the same time, and type different things into both of them.
For me, that’s exactly where the story steps into fantasy, but for everybody else — Janet really liked the story — it’s when John Morgan starts entering data for some killer fog creeping into the town of “Xebico,” and people in that fog get into all their predictable screaming and dying. Our narrator can’t keep his eyes off of this newsfeed, either, is hanging on Morgan’s every keystroke, until — dot dot dot — it turns out that not only has John Morgan been dead and cold for a few hours now, typing from the other side, as it were, but this town of “Xebico,” it doesn’t exist in any atlas. It doesn’t exist at all.
Legitimately creepy, yeah?
The lighting guys were going to have fun with this one, I was pretty sure.
But the program guy, he was kind of coming up short.
Luckily he knew his way around a research project, though.
In the movie version of my life, the digging-up-facts part of this would be an action sequence, like when the boxer’s training for the big important fight: lots of music, close on my bloodshot eyes, the ragged toe of my left shoe tapping, a stern-faced librarian shushing me when I finally stand up with discovery.
And that stern-faced librarian who would never shush me, it’s because her name’s Wendy, and we had Methods together once upon a good time, and used to meet up on the fifth floor stacks, well before Janet. Maybe not ‘well before,’ okay, but they hardly overlapped.
File this with my non-recommenders, under Things Janet Doesn’t Need to Know.
But, H.F. Arnold.
I forget where I picked this up, or maybe I just figured it out, but anytime you see an old-time writer using initials, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that that writer’s male, and just had an ugly name.
My knee-jerk , twentieth century suspicion — this was a play, after all, and he was a playwright — it would have been Horton Foote, of course.
It wouldn’t have been that far off.
‘Hortense Francis Arnold.’ Maiden name ‘Winters.’
She was hiding, not pretending to be a guy, but letting people think whatever they wanted. It’s a male narrator, after all, and a cheap-o horror story.
Yet, and in 1926, Hortense, she had some inside information on the world of journalism, yes?
Another action sequence of me digging, digging, digging through the microfiche, and the money shot at the end, it’s this nobody guy who died in 1952. Who actually might have worked in a newsroom up in Fresno in the twenties.
Mr. Samuel G. Arnold.
His marriage certificate showed him married to H. Winters in 1920, freshly minted as a World War I hero, shrapnel limp and all, I’m sure.
I waggled my fingers over my keyboard like they were magic, like I could conjure anything.
And who knows.
The coincidence part of this that I was banking on was that H.F. Arnold was going to be buried in some overfull cemetery within driving distance. That I was going to be able to steal Janet away from rehearsal for an afternoon, deliver her to some picturesque leaning headstone, show her that I was more than a lifetime barista.
H.F. Arnold died in the midwest, though, where, according to her birth certificate, she’d been born. Where she’d retreated to.
It wasn’t “Xebico” county, either.
When I picture her there as a girl, she’s Dorothy from Oz. Waiting for this impossible soldier to sweep her away. Three stories burbling in her head, filling her eyes, a Shirley Jackson in waiting.
I was kind of getting a crush on her, yeah.
Nine years after she died, her story was reprinted in one of the new and temporary pulps, something called Terror Tales, a title that shows up in exactly the dripping font you’d expect. The pencil illustration over the story shows a woman’s bare breast for some reason, though there’s no bare breasts in “The Night Wire” — no women at all. The year H.F. Arnold died, though, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest would have still been a big thing on the roundracks at the drugstores, even in the midwest, I’m sure. The book with Nurse Ratched’s bare breast figuring quite prominently.
It’s probably nothing, I told myself. You’re being stupid. Just because you know some American Lit doesn’t mean you get to apply it wherever you want.
I gathered my notes, went to rehearsal.
For weeks already, Janet had been telling me that casting this, it was an Of Mice and Men kind of thing, where George is the crux of the moral dilemma, sure, he’s the character who can finally change, who can win or lose and have to live with it, but it’s the big hulking Lennie who’s the real center of it all.
Our Lennie was John Morgan, typing while dead. Even though he’d only have a couple of lines, still, when his chair spins around — he was going to be every bit as important as Norman Bates’ mom.
The problem, though, it was make-up. For the stage, your face gets all amped up, overshadowed. He couldn’t play dead just by letting his jaw go slack. He’d need some real time in the make-up chair. And “The Night Wire,” the way Herr Director’s class had written it, it was a one-act play. No intermission.
Until I went to rehearsal, I had no clue how this was going to work.
That didn’t stop me from picturing John Morgan, though. Just the way H.F. Arnold had written him: a heavyset guy in a too-tight worksleeves shirt, his hair flyaway and greasy, skin pasty from the night shift, both hands kind of potentially busy. Voice meeker than you’d expect.
Evidently that was how Herr Director had been picturing him as well. Even from the back of the auditorium, my research clutched to my chest, I could tell. It was like John Morgan had stepped up from 1926.
Janet was working him through his blocking. In the story he never stood up, but fiction had the luxury of being static like that, of course. Actors, though, they like to walk and talk. To be grand and dramatic and sweeping, whether the story calls for it or not.
I settled into a seat halfway down and watched Janet work, and felt more than heard somebody sit down behind me, more away from the aisle than I was.
Herr Director, I figured, about to cut in on Janet, tell her how to tell somebody to block — that, what, did she want to ruin this whole semester’s work? The usual, I mean. Janet hadn’t named him after Hitler for nothing.
As for the set, it was historically accurate, as near as I could tell. Except for the huge white screen that took the place of what I’d think would have been a ratty window on the back wall. But what do I know about theatre.
Whoever it was behind me chuckled to himself when John Morgan sat down in his chair and it wasn’t wide enough. His hips caught on the wooden arms and the chair wheeled back so that John Morgan had to stab a hand out, clutch onto Janet, who held him up but just barely.
I looked back to, I don’t now, share the moment, commiserate — where were they going to find a chair with the right girth? — but then I flinched so hard I dropped all my precious papers.
It was John Morgan.
The double man.
He looked over to me slowly, settled me in his dead eyes.
A twin. Fresh from his first make-up test, his face grim-reapered up.
He smiled and stood, and, as he passed me by, clamped a large hand onto my shoulder, telling me it was all right.
I swallowed, didn’t believe him.
I forwarded my H.F. Arnold bullet-points to the address Janet gave me, and was already dreading what Herr Director’s student writers were going to do to my simple yet elegant facts. Maybe at least they’d see that this was going to be first time Hortense Francis Winters from Nebraska was going to be this close the story she’d made up.
Made up or heard, I guess.
I mean, it could be that the dead night-wire operator was an urban legend by 1926, right? Melville’s “Bartleby” had to be sixty or seventy years old by then — old enough for somebody to have read it, half-forgot it then told it again at the bar, making it actually exciting.
Or maybe it had really happened to her husband, Samuel G. Arnold. Maybe “The Night Wire” was her way of exorcising it.
Get enough people to feel that guilty chill the story had, then laugh it off, and it would be like maybe it was made up, right? Like it had never even happened.
But I kept thinking of that pencil-lined bare breast over the word “Xebico” in that 1972 Terror Tales—the year I was born. Like this story had been waiting these past seventy years for Janet to bring it home to me. Like H.F. Arnold had been waiting for it to get to the right reader.
You wouldn’t think it, but your heart can just pound from research.
To keep my hands busy — and Janet happy — I put in an application to manage a jewelry kiosk in the mall. Just for temporary.
When the phone rang, though, I just let it ring.
I’d had the idea that keeping necklaces in line on their felt necks would be like cataloging books, like arranging them all spine-out, LC numbers lined up. I wasn’t having that idea anymore, though.
Just because she was there, I guess, I took another run at H.F. Arnold, trying to exorcise her, and dug up those other two stories. 1929 and 1937, “The City of Iron Cubes” and “When Atlantis Was.” But then I couldn’t read them. And I knew if I looked those years up the right way, they’d be somehow important for ‘Herr Wolf.’ For Hitler. And Herr Director was definitely Janet’s alpha these days.
But none of it mattered, either. It was all just me spending too much time alone in the living room, my face too close to the laptop. Not enough lights on around me.
And it might have had something to do with Wendy, too, if I’m going to be honest. Wendy, the student librarian I’d talked up to the fifth floor after microfiching Hortense Winters up from the past. As celebration. One last time.
It might have been her ringing Janet’s phone all those times, I mean. Not a guy wearing a gold rope chain.
And Janet — I don’t know.
She didn’t suspect, couldn’t have, but somehow that was making it all worse. Even though I never would have been at the library looking for Hortense Winters if not for “The Night Wire.”
It wasn’t my fault, I mean.
Any of this.
And never mind who I saw on the fifth floor that day when I closed my eyes in the PN1995.9 aisle.
That’s Library of Congress for movies and stageplays. For drama.
Not for Dorothy, standing at the end of her dusty driveway somewhere way back in the past.
And it wasn’t Dorothy anyway.
The night of the opening, I drank five and a half beers before leaving Janet’s apartment. The last half of the sixth I poured into her sink, because a whole six-pack would have broken my promise to her. I was supposed to show up sober, and not clap like an ape.
I flashed my retired student ID to get the discount price — Janet said she couldn’t comp me, and I of course was reading everything into that (had she picked the phone up one of those times, heard the fifth floor yawning in the silence?) — took my program and zeroed in on the two rented smoke machines under the table.
The ‘fog’ was going to drift in at the end of the play, just creep in on ghost toes, be there before the audience could really register it—everybody was going to be trapped inside the fourth wall tonight — and then, though this was going to be a judgment call, the other John Morgan was going to walk in with that fog, all of Xebico wailing behind him.
He’d be available for that because, early in the play, after his last line but before his ‘death,’ he was going to slip through the trapdoor at his knees, be replaced by his already made-up twin. Easy as that. Leaving him to get made-up himself backstage, then wait up front, the unexpected twin.
It should have been a Fall production, yeah. Halloween.
I took my seat, studied the abomination they’d made of my bullet-points and flipped it over to the back, to see if I was acknowledged.
Ha. But screw it.
Soon enough the light drained from the auditorium, the muttering stopped, the shoes stopped scraping, and the pressroom on stage glowed awake. “The Night Wire” was creaking open.
The audience was rapt.
It was short, they knew that — crossing the parking lot, at least one car in every row had had a dog yapping in the front seat for what was just going to be an hour, the windows cracked enough for me to offer them the back of my hand, let them be my breathalyzer — but it was also a story this particular crowd never encountered, and that counted for something.
With those who had showed up it counted, I mean.
Want to guess what font the assistant director’s loyal boyfriend told her would be perfect for the poster pasted up all across campus? It dripped, it bled, it told you to show up if you dared.
Only about half of the usual crowd had dared.
Herr Director was going to lay that on Janet, of course, and of course I’d try to take what of that blame I could, look over her shoulder at a point on the cabinet and try to think of nothing at all.
This is the way relationships work, isn’t it?
I leaned back so I could rest my head against the back of my chair, cocked my knees up against the vacant seat in front of me, and that big white screen Herr Director had for a back wall, that I’d thought had to just be temporary, a placeholder, it lit up. From the backside.
That part in the story, where the narrator’s reading John Morgan’s typings, his newsfeed or whatever it is?
Instead of having him say it out loud all stupid, they were showing us what was inside his head.
It was perfect. They’d even used an actual typewriter to do it, but what really impressed me was that they must have typed it backwards, then copied it onto a transparency, then flipped that transparency on the overhead they were using, to splash the letters up there backwards from how they were on the clear sheet, but now in the right order for us. Meaning that when you looked at it before the projector light pushed through it, it would be another language, an ancient spell. Not words at all. The illegible inside of the narrator’s head. Of H.F. Arnold’s head.
The typed words even flickered when the narrator scratched at his temple — scripted or accidental? — and it was so perfect that I wanted to clap. Except I’d been coming to these long enough to know better.
Somebody couldn’t help it, though.
Eight rows up, to the side, her heels off the ground, toes pointed in polite excitement, her already-short cocktail dress riding up her leg.
She kept her face forward, prim and proper, clapped two more times.
Because I knew to watch for it, I’d seen John Morgan slip under his desk when the spotlight was farthest away from him, our trusty narrator juggling a coffee mug with wax coffee in it that could never spill, and one time I saw Janet’s black-gloved hand come past the curtain — they were as thin as pantyhose — make a stop gesture to some crewdude in the lighting rig.
I felt the change in my lungs, too, when the fog started to drift in.
It was kind of perfect.
Good for Janet.
This is what really committed boyfriends think. What boyfriends with plans and futures think. That’s just how they are.
On-screen, now — they’d pre-recorded what was supposed to be the narrator’s point-of-view at the end of the story, fumbling through atlas after atlas. Looking for Xebico. Looking faster and faster, more and more desperate, like finding it could save everything.
It was jarring, seeing him do this from the side, on a drafting table, while at the same watching what he was seeing, on-screen and enlarged, but it was also just intensely pleasant in a way I think only the theatre can finally ever pull off.
After a few atlases of this the narrator stood, was obviously lost, this was too much for him, and from the edges of the curtains behind him — what we were to understand as the open windows, the cracks under the doors of this last outpost of civilization — the inevitable fog started to drift in. And you could tell from the narrator’s face that he knew that this fog, it carried death with it.
And then — maybe Herr Director had planted a freshman in the audience, in street clothes? — somebody from the far side of the auditorium screamed, her voice cutting through the manufactured six o’clock gloom. I knew better than to flinch but did anyway, and looked to Wendy to see if it had caught her off-guard as well.
She wasn’t there.
I cast around for her distinctive cocktail dress, that flash of leg again, but the fog was in the aisles, and rising.
Xebico, a voice said through the big speakers, and this was a haunted house now, not a play.
I loved it.
At least until a woman near the front stood in an unscripted panic, tried to step across a guy’s lap to get to the aisle and faceplanted, her glasses skittering under the chairs.
She was the trigger, the crack in the dam, the snake under the horse’s hooves. Like, when she fell she’d dissolved into a fine mist of panic. Everybody was breathing it in, passing it on, blind with it, standing just to fall, trying to claw their way up, screaming for help, until, from the stage, in a voice you had to obey: “Lights!”
It was Herr Director, glaring out at us, his hat exactly the kind he had to be wearing. That he had to have been born in.
His terrified crew turned all the lights on, and that made it worse, like pulling your brights on against a fogbank. The whole room was glowing now. More screams. A few hesitant, guilty laughs.
I hunkered down, held onto my armrests.
In the flash that I remembered to remember, Wendy’s seat was still empty. Meaning she’d never even been there. Meaning I’d put here there. In that unlikely dress. In this unlikely place. The last place I wanted to see her.
Or else — or else Janet had comped her a ticket, right?
You always whisper the worst things to yourself.
I shook my head no, closed my eyes and opened them to nothing. The crew was correcting their error, was shrouding us all in wet darkness now. The fog made it closer.
I wanted to laugh but didn’t want to open my mouth, in case somebody was about to crash into me.
“Sit, sit!” Herr Director told us all then, his voice cutting through the blindness, and, slowly and by audible degrees, the audience calmed.
The house lights rose slow, the smoke machines cycled down. The joke was over. Everybody was smiling into their shoulders, looking around for confirmation that smiling was the right thing to do, here.
The first place I looked, of course, it wasn’t to Janet’s usual place just off of stage left. It was to Wendy’s seat.
She was back, delivered by the fog, by the darkness. But — her dress.
Where had she been?
It was dirty. She must have fallen, I told myself. Into a grave.
I shook my head in affected disgust — this stunt was too much — rubbernecked for other grimed-up theatregoers. Everybody was still just wearing their normal going-out clothes, though.
I came back to Wendy. Who wasn’t Wendy at all.
Her hair, it was a different color. How had I not noticed? Brown where it had been streaky blonde. And it was higher up on her head, old-fashioned. The kind I associated with those cat-eye glasses from sockhops and malt shops, from movies with races in concrete culverts.
But then she turned to get a line on the door, and her face, it was grey, and hollow, and not timid. No cat-eyes, no glasses at all, just a sloughing off that suggested decay, and — but it had to be the lights — no irises, no sclera, no pupils. Just those terrible egg-whites.
My lips went numb, my eyes hot, my fingers digging more into my armrests.
First-year make-up student, I told myself. Too long in the chair. Contacts, it was Little Orphan Annie contacts.
But I knew better.
In H.F. Arnold’s story, the one thing I could never — until that moment in the theatre — wrap my mind around, it was how it must have felt to be dead in your chair but typing anyway.
When that thing looked back to me, though, I got a taste. A whiff.
In a flash like cards shuffling, a face in there that shouldn’t be, the world shifted around me. Under me.
Was I still in Janet’s living room, plugged into my laptop, trying to ignore the phone?
Kind of, yeah. Opening night was still weeks away.
It was just a defense mechanism, just my way of making the theatre something on index card, something I could report on from the safety of a faraway second-floor apartment, but still. It felt as real as anything, and I think it might have been. Like I actually was in two places at once. Until I had to choose.
Or until the choice was made for me.
I pushed up into the worn-out cushion of row 19, seat M, and the seat retracted up under me, creaking alarm.
Like it was her duty, her exit fee, her camouflage, the woman in Wendy’s seat started a round of applause that swelled through the house. Everybody standing behind it like they do, Herr Director staring back at them, his teeth set, his neck gills surely open, to drink all this in.
I started to stand with them but a clammy thick hand came down on my shoulder, held me down.
I looked up into the dead eyes of John Morgan.
He patted me once and was wide enough that for too long, for agonizing pieces of a single second, I couldn’t see the seat I needed to see. Where Wendy who wasn’t Wendy was. If she was going to be there waiting for me when John Morgan’s hulking form was gone. If she was going to be right there.
I pushed back into my seat, ready to … don’t know: take her hand when she offered it? Run? Collapse?
All of the above.
After John Morgan had shuffled his way past, the woman was just then standing from Wendy’s seat, her dress one she had to have been buried in, except I knew better than to be thinking like that. I knew better than to allow that kind of thinking.
But then the night trespassed on itself. Went beyond all thinking.
The woman, when she stood it unbalanced her, so she reached out with a veiny arm to steady herself, her waterlogged bare breast flashing through the tattered side of her dress, my eyes locking on it as it moved under its own skin, the puckered nipple pale, drawn back, retreating like something that doesn’t want to strike, but will.
It made me see her as a girl, standing at the end of her dirt driveway.
It made me see her as a bride, her husband in his dress greens beside her.
It made me see her in what they once would have called her dotage, her eleven-year widowhood. Holding for a moment too long the magazine one of her stories had shown up in, then burying it on the shelf with the rest, pushing her cart on down the aisle. Me the next aisle over, tracking her through the deadspace between the books.
She was crying and trying not to.
She was coming up the aisle of the theatre at me, older now, placing one foot intentionally in front of the next.
I fell back into my chair, and when I turned to leave and never look back, to not let her touch me like I knew she was going to, like I knew I was going to let her do, everybody else was making for the door as well, their breath close to me, their bulk surging me ahead with them, the rush of shoulders and elbows and shuffling feet delivering me to the parking lot, to the last bits of the surprising daylight.
I stood there blinking, the crowd suddenly gone. Or else me standing in place long enough for them to drift off.
It’s always like this after a good play. Like the world’s been remade, and just for you.
I shook my head about it all and only turned back to the theatre when somebody called my name.
Janet, in the doorway, her pantyhose hand raised, calling me to the afterparty. Telling me the night had been a success. That I was part of that.
In my pocket was a pair of earrings for her.
I lifted my hand to her and it was an awkward enough move that it unbalanced me, made me reach down for the hood of the car I was parked by.
The alarm didn’t go off and the dog inside didn’t explode against the glass.
I started to step away, to the afterparty and then the rest of my life, but found myself hesitating. Like I’d heard something. Or—not heard something.
The dog. It wasn’t barking.
I angled myself politely away from the car and came closer at the same time, the way you do in case the owner’s watching, and leaned over to cut the last of the glare.
The dog was on the front seat, slit open from throat to tail. Like something had been torn up from it. Like something had been birthed. Like something had been waiting there all along.
I cocked my head, tracked past this locked door, these unbroken windows. Tracked over the vinyl top of the car to Wendy.
She was standing on the grass that leads to the lake, and was young again. Herself, except for the ragged dress. A slightly smaller, still-wet dog on a leash by her side, licking its side, its eyes missing like they’d never been there. Like it didn’t need them, where they were going.
That Winters girl, I heard in my head.
That dirty-kneed Winters girl.
I tugged at a sudden hot point just under my throat, perfectly between my collarbones, and looked back once to Janet, still holding the door open, parentheses around her eyes now, and then I didn’t look back anymore, just stepped forward, around the car, into Xebico.