Gaslight

We first heard about the child one evening at The Monday Afternoon Club from old Matterson, last heir to an empire of sweatshops. We’d been going round in a circle offering up stories of the supernatural to pass a dreary winter’s eve. The ones we’d come out with so far were of a pedestrian nature—the haunted governess, the young woman who sees her father in an art museum in Italy at the moment of his death three continents away, the romance of certain old shoes—but then it was Matterson’s turn, and the poor codger seemed to be experiencing some bout of internal distress. Well into his fourth whiskey and passing wind like a bellows in Hell, he came out with it, and when he did, he gave an unfeigned shiver, as did we all.

The tale held us captive in the face of its teller’s over ripe departures from decorum. Mr. Steel pinched his nostrils with thumb and pointer and begged a jot more speed in the telling. Matterson was not to be hurried, though. “All in due course,” he said, and paused to run his fingers through his prodigious side burns, like a pair of kittens, while from his southern hemisphere there issued a long slow ripping noise, proof that his trousers had seen their last. It was at this point that my man, Hubert, reached for a handkerchief. I’ll admit, I was also rather faint, but the lure of the harrowing saga won out over self-preservation, and I dare say we all, Steel, Hubert, Mr. Cipus, and myself, tears forming in the corners of our eyes, forfeited no mean parcel of our respective life spans to hear it.

Matterson gave ample evidence of his own proximity to doom, and yet some infernal genius still burned and burnished his descriptions of the evil child, the manner in which the scamp emerged from the mist, his dripping paleness, the sharp teeth. And the setting, with its glistening gas-lit cobblestones and shadowed alleys gave the thing a ring of the genuine. His technique abolished all disbelief, even when we learned that the boy curled himself up, small as a squirrel, in a woman’s handbag outside the opera one evening and was ferried, unknowingly, to her apartment. We accepted this strangeness gratefully as if it were fresh air. Even after the woman had gone to bed, and the sickly little phantom let himself out of her bag and crept to her side, we had no care for why or how, but wished only to know what was next to happen. Matterson took great pains with the scene of the woman’s disembowling. Every grim detail was gilded with adjectives as the boy clawed his way into her womb. “Ungodly,” said Mr. Cipus, in his unfailing ability to state the obvious, and if I’m not mistaken, my good stoic, Hubert’s, hands trembled slightly. I’d heard few things more ghastly, but this outlandishness was exceeded soon after when Matterson revealed the number of victims and recounted the specifics of their bloody deaths, punctuating each episode with a sulfurous staccato note reminiscent of the piccolo.

“Too much,” cried Steel.

“There is ever more,” replied Matterson, and with a volley of thunder, and a cruel smile upon his lips, he launched into the biography of the spirit. “Tommy Tim was the lad’s name.” He told us that in the neighborhoods around Wessel Street, a ditty was sung about the specter. I prayed he would not sing it, but he did, in a mock child’s voice, accompanying himself with a complicated score like some mad Bach of the posterior.

Tommy Tim, Tommy Tim
Look below, it is him
Climbing up your lady’s leg
Climbing for your lady’s egg
Rip, rip, rip, and then
Tommy Tim is home again.

Most disturbing. And yet not the last word, for Matterson went on, dispensing horror from both ends, relaying the dismal life of the boy who would rise from a lonely, unmarked grave to wreak fear upon the living with his desire to be born again and seek that love which had been absent in his first go round. By this point I’d broken into a full sweat and had grown dizzy amidst the barrage of the story teller’s fromage. It was in that staggered condition, my thoughts verily whirling like a pinwheel that I learned that only minutes after birth the lad had been trundled in a dirty blanket and left upon a doorstep—not a lucky one. He was raised in a drab orphanage where he was regularly beaten. Upon reaching the age of eight, he was sent to labor at The Gas Works. Although I swooned in and out of consciousness, I saw it all in my mind’s eyes, a tapestry of destitution, depravity, and sodden depression. When, in Matterson’s recounting, poor Tommy Tim, weak from incipient starvation, slips on the ledge above the putrefaction vat at work and plunges headlong into the boiling slurry of detritus, I, unable to draw a decent breath, also fell forward. I could feel Hubert catch me and heard his voice, “Bring the smelling salts… and for God’s sake, a fan.” Overcome by Matterson’s wicked craft, I went out cold.

Perhaps not even a minute later, I came to with a sweet breeze of brisk air laving my face. Hubert had dragged me bodily to the window at the opposite end of the parlor and opened it halfway. Steel, Mr. Cipus, myself and my trusty man, all crowded around the portal. Behind us, still belaboring the atmosphere with raucous indiscretions, Matterson retrieved a cigar from his jacket pocket. As he cut the tip and tamped the end, he laughed and said, “I’ve reserved the most disturbing part for last.”

“I’m surprised you’ve got anything left,” said Steel.

Matterson lifted one cheek off the chair and snarled angrily. He took out his box of matches and setting one against the flint, said, “Are you familiar with the cuckoo bird?”

We four remained silent.

“The cuckoo,” he said, “invades the nest of another species of bird while the adults are out hunting, destroys the existing eggs and lays its own in their place before vanishing. In a similar way, Tommy Tim hoped to trick some woman into raising him, into loving him. In his ghostly child’s mind he cannot comprehend how his brutal incursions into the wombs of the living, the strangling of the expected child, etc. negate his desires as he tries to fulfill them.”

Matterson struck the match but it failed.

Mr. Cipus understood before the rest of us that a spark might be fatal. “Duck, gentlemen,” he said.

We did just that as Matterson, expelling a parade of gurglers, struck another. This one lit and a heartbeat later he exploded in an impressive fireball that consumed his chair. He burned fiercely and we frantically summoned Emmonds, the club’s retainer, to bring bottles of soda water with which we extinguished the blaze. In the billowing smoke that resulted, Tommy Tim’s figure appeared briefly. We all saw it. He held his arms out to us and called, “Daddy.” We all confessed to feeling a chill. Then he vanished with the smoke, and Matterson sifted down to a pile of ash.

Photo credit: Eric Rosenfield.

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels, The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shadow Year. He has three short story collections — The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life. Ford is the recipient of The World Fantasy Award, The Edgar Allan Poe Award, The Nebula, and The Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in south Jersey and teaches writing and literature at Brookdale Community College.