Stranger: Dark Tales of Eerie Encountersby Michele B. Slung
Don't talk to strangers: the advice everyone hears and few heed. Now its menace has inspired acclaimed anthologist Michele Slung to seek a haunting variety of interpretations reminding us why we ignore this counsel at our peril. Intrigued as well by the slippery definition of "stranger," Slung has looked to such masters of lingering discomfiture as Patricia Highsmith, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Mark Helprin, and Edith Wharton for memorable waking nightmares. Wherever each tale takes us to a greasy spoon somewhere off the highway or to an estate deep in the English countryside, to the basement lair of a suburban hobbyist or to an isolated Saharan oasis it sends us spiraling into that blackness yawning beyond its particular unseen trap door. Slung's choices are both old and new, real and surreal, noir and nervy. Once you've been introduced to the strangers she's sending your way, one thing is certain you'll regard everyone you encounter differently...including that very familiar person who stares back at you from the mirror.
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The Women's Room
There is always a single moment that separates the mundane world, operating according to the usual, taken-for-granted rules, from unfathomable chaos. The good news is that most of us are lucky enough never to experience one, the bad, of course, is that finding one's way back to it (and to the safety it tantalizingly represents) is impossible. Simply moving forward, like a rat in a maze, is the only choice, and King's tale, brilliantly using drab detail to create an everyday labyrinth all of us can instantly recognize, is the more horrific for that familiarity.
The woman's eyes glittered behind bifocal lenses. Widebottomed with middle age, she wore her graying hair uncompromisingly short. Her khaki skirt stretched tight across her thighs and she crossed her ankles primly. In her lap she clutched a leaflet.
To one side and with empty chairs between diem, Mary D. had a clear view of the woman with the leaflet. Her own folding metal chair creaked as wearily as her conscience as Mary pushed back in it. A stranger in this meeting and she was already taking the other woman's measure, indulging an instinctive dislike. The nuns, she thought. She ought to have put all that behind her. Let go and let God. Ah. The answering clich�: Easier said than done.
The woman with the leaflet was the first to speak. Introducing herself as June B., an alcoholic -- Hi, June -- she announced, with a little rattle of the leaflet, she was going to use her five minutes to read something to them.
Mary felther face work against a sardonic smile. She stopped listening. As June B. droned on, Mary's bladder began to ache. Meeting coffee on a day of business-meeting coffee, and maybe the metal chair -- the damn things were always cold when you sat down in them. June B. shot her a glare as Mary rattled her chair rising from it and made her way to the door, masking her face with the concentration of urgent need.
The air in the corridor outside the meeting room was cool on her face and she breathed deeply. Her head immediately felt much clearer. Though the meeting was nonsmoking, sticking a bunch of people in the same room for an hour inevitably thickened up the air. Though it was possible that some peculiar AA physics was at work, she supposed, the Program forcing a miasma of toxic feelings like sweat and bad breath out of those practicing it.
The doors off the corridor were all closed and locked, their frosted windows unlit by any interior illumination. Inscriptions on the windows revealed the occupants were firms of CPAs and dentists and therapists of various stripes, physical and psychological. The meeting room was apparently a lunchroom for a large partnership of family counselors by day.
Around, a corner she found a women's room. Though it was locked, the combination, a simple 1-2-3, had been read off at the beginning of the meeting. She worked the combination and opened the door onto darkness. One foot over the threshold, she groped about on either side of the doorframe and found a light switch on the left.
The sudden illumination showed her a narrow room of the dreary functionality hinting at being buried alive that is the signature of the contemporary public restroom. There were no windows. The two stalls faced one side of the rectangular room, with a basin and mirror opposite, and another pair faced the other way, with a basin and mirror serving them. Everything was very clean, and the room smelled strongly of industrial antiseptic cleansers.
Giving old ex-Sister Mary June a good chunk of time to blow off, Mary dawdled, scrubbing her hands, drying them carefully, enjoying rubbing hand lotion into her skin. She tidied her hair with a brush. Chin getting a little soft, she noted, and chucked the slackening flesh ruefully with the back of her hand. There was a procedure now where you have the fat sucked out. Christ. That's what you came to.
When the lights flickered, she couldn't help a startled little cry. Then they went out.
She clung to the edge of the basin, the one certainty in the darkness. She didn't dare move; indeed she was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from confusion and fear. After a couple of seconds' blindness, the lights suddenly flooded the room again, seeming a little brighter than she remembered. Her anger immediately seemed silly, a familiar feeling that reminded her of how easily she angered, and all out of proportion or completely without reason.
She shoved her brush back into her handbag and hurried out of the women's room. Preoccupied with anticipating the end of the meeting, getting back to her rented Lexus out in the parking lot, and then her hotel where she planned to call home before she went to bed, she retraced her way to the meeting room on mental cruise. She tugged at the handle of the double door and was surprised by resistance. It was locked. She must have inadvertently triggered the locking mechanism when she left it to go to the women's room.
She knocked gently, then realized she heard no voices from within. Her first thought was the group was engaged in silent prayer. She stopped herself just short of knocking again. She would wait until they finished.
Her gaze wandered to the bottom of the door. Disconcertingly, there was no line of light under it. She stooped closer to be sure.
Surely the meeting had not ended that quickly; she had not been gone that long. Her trenchcoat was still inside, hanging over the back of the folding metal chair. Now she rapped hard on the door, but there was no response. There was a hollowness in the rattle of the door under her fist that seemed to confirm the room was empty.Stranger. Copyright � by Michele Slung. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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