by Chris Hlad…
By the end of the third day, Ted had the new house pretty much passable. Of course, his version of passable was a lot different than Valerie’s, his wife. He knew she’d be making some changes, once she arrived; but for now, for the most part, he thought she’d be pretty happy with how he had arranged things. As far as his daughter Cassie was concerned, well, she was just five and still happy about pretty much everything.
And Ted missed the hell out them both.
They were what made him feel complete, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for them, including getting them out of the mess called Detroit they’d been living in. That was certainly no place to raise a family.
Garthwood, on the other hand, might just be the miracle the late night infomercial promised it to be. Ted wasn’t usually so impulsive, but at 3AM on that magical morning that was insomnia hell, he’d called the number shown on his television screen for information on this quaint little town known as Garthwood. The move-in deal was too good to pass up, and like the lady on the other end of the phone explained, there was only one living space left. “Better act now,” she said, and Ted did.
Now, all that was left to do was pick up his wife and daughter.
Ted decided to turn in early. He didn’t have to leave for the airport until nine the next morning, but decorating an entire home all on his own was more work than he’d imagined. And that’s when he heard a knock at the door.
Who could it be? It was just after eight, and he didn’t know anybody in Garthwood. At least, not yet. He’d been so busy unpacking that he hadn’t even introduced himself to the neighbors.
He opened the door on the second round of knocking and saw a man in a bright red suit kicking the bottom of the door. Not knocking with his fist like most normal people do, but kicking. Even when the door was open, the man’s foot continued kicking like he didn’t even noticed the door was no longer there.
“Can I help you?” Ted asked.
“Oh, well hello neighbor,” the man said, looking down at the scuff marks he’d made at the bottom of the door. ‘Sorry about that. I meant no harm. My arms aren’t what they used to be.”
Ted looked up to see an old man who must have been pushing eighty. His first thought: dementia. Feeling something akin to sympathy, he decided to let the door thing go. “That’s okay. I’m Ted,” he said, extending his hand to his new neighbor.
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Ted. My name’s Nicholas, but people call me Mr. Census. They call me Mr. Census because that’s what I do for this precious little town. And I’d accept your hand, but like I said, well, my arms…”
Ted noticed that the old man’s hands were indeed tucked into the front of his pants. Or at least, that’s where the jacket ended. “That’s okay,” said Ted, feeling awkward. “Where are my manners? Would you like to come in? The house isn’t completely done, but it’s presentable.”
“No, no. It’s late and I do appreciate the hospitality. I just need to get some information from you. I like to keep things updated, being Mr. Census and all.”
“Oh, okay then,” Ted said, a bit relieved. “Some other time perhaps. So what kind of information do you need?”
“It’s quite simple, really. We can go into more detail later, but for now I just need to know how many people are going to be residing here, and what are their relations.”
Ted was now sure that he was dealing with a man in the throes of dementia, no doubt about it; but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to placate him. “Well,” he said, “three of us for now: myself, my wife and my daughter. But, I’m happy to say, my wife is due in three months!”
“Twins?” said the old man. “I hope not.”
Ted was expecting some sort of congratulations, not this dour response. “I’d be happy to have twins, but no, it’s just one. Listen, if that’s it, I’ve got to be going. Busy day tomorrow.” He’d lost all his patience with the old man, dementia or not.
“Can I give you a piece of advice, neighbor?”
“What?” Ted responded sharply, hoping the old man would disappear after giving his advice.
“Your daughter, how old is she?”
“I don’t see how that’s any business of yours.” Ted started to shut the door.
The old man stuck his foot out as he yelled, “How old is your daughter?”
“She’s five,” Ted responded.
“Don’t do it to her. Do it to the coming child. Early. From the womb to the butcher. That way she won’t remember.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” Ted was more than a little disgusted now.
The old man laughed. Bitterly. “We have a strict rule in this town, and that rule is to stick to our census numbers. One point six children per family. ONE POINT SIX. Two is too many. I was five when my brother was born. ‘Oh, he’s so cute and innocent,’ my mother said. ‘I’m sorry, son, I just can’t hurt something so precious. It’s got to be you.’ And just like that, she was on me. I’ve never stopped hating that bitch, nor do I ever plan to, even though she’s six feet under and hopefully worm shit at this point.”
Something in the old man’s voice had Ted hypnotized. He needed to know what he was talking about. He needed to understand.
In answer, the old man started gyrating like a madman; and as he did so, the sleeves that were in his pockets became dislodged, flapping around his torso.
Where were his hands, Ted thought?
The old man kept moving, sharper and more rapidly, until the jacket came loose and started to slide down his body.
Ted was shocked at this grotesque dance, but more shocked at the what was beneath the jacket.
The old man was wearing no shirt, and he had no arms. He had no shoulders, either.
But he was just getting started.
The old man turned around to reveal a back with craters in it, muscle and bone missing. Ted couldn’t help himself and wretched on his brand-new porch.
“I’m the point six!” the old man said as he turned around, crying hysterically. “And now that you’re here, now that your residency has been established, you can’t leave. You may try, but all roads will lead you back to Garthwood, neighbor. Just do it to the newborn. She won’t remember. She won’t fucking HATE YOU. Just do it to the newborn and everything will be all right.”
The old man regained his composure and looked at Ted like nothing had happened. “Well, it’s done now. You’ve told Mr. Census, and it’s a done deal. So what do you say, neighbor? Can you help an old man put his coat back on? My arms aren’t what they used to be.”
About the Author
Chris Hlad is a SoCal native who enjoys surfing, sailing, and dumbing-down his brain every chance he gets. By day Chris works for corporate America because, quite frankly, he is a sadist. By night, he masquerades as a worst-selling author. See more fiction by Chris at cpaulhlad.ghost.io.
Support your fellow author by sharing this story through social media… Rock on!!!