Wormwood’s Final Cut
Cheryl had always preferred her own company. Being a student meant long hours studying, and she was happy for it. The odd outing was always frugal, rarely for any longer than the length of a film, and always alone.
Touring through an antique shop twice, she had picked up a crumbling Agatha Christie paperback and a silver bangle fashioned from a bent fork. The store owner talked on the phone for the entire time she browsed and her standing now at check-out idly turning the bracelet over in her fingers, didn’t spur him to disconnect. A few times he looked over, so caught up in his conversation about a future where and when that she almost thought the call was a ruse to get her to abandon her tiny treasures and leave. The whole excursion was on a whim, being compelled suddenly to browse the dingy antique shop, so she wasn’t that invested in her finds. Her apartment was nearby and she could easily come back later. Sighing heavily, she was about to do just that when he abruptly signed off and hung up.
“So,” he asked her, “where did you find those?”
Pointing to a carved dresser nearby with a pile of jewellery on top where she thought the silver bracelet had come from, she saw how many pieces of furniture held similar caches. There were twice as many random bookshelves. There was no telling where it had come from. Vastly different prices adorned each pile. Sudden worry racked her, thinking of the five measly dollars she had to spare.
“How does five dollars sound?”
“Perfect, yes please and thank you,” she tried to not sound too relieved, “I had no idea how much they would cost.”
“That’s all right dear. We really ought to price things properly and clean up the place as it is.”
Cheryl looked up, expecting him to be smiling but his expression remained deadpan. Her wallet lodged itself awkwardly in her purse when she tugged it from a strange angle.
Her attention went back to her wallet which wasn’t about to slide out easily as she tried to jangle it free without looking too ridiculous.
A pulse of sound, as if a hummingbird encircled her head, hit her. Flapping in the air passed close again a second later. She whipped her head toward the open door of the shop as if to catch sight of whatever animal in flight had buzzed her. An errant ray of sunlight streamed through a tall window and projected onto the floor, catching dust and nothing more. A faint spell spun her vision for a second and she heard the distinct sound of flapping, fluttering, the beating of wings. As if a large moth or small bird was trapped or struggling against a draught or flying upward against something. She looked around then back at the unsmiling shop-keep who looked at her quizzically.
“Is that all?” he asked as if he looked at all his patrons like he was about to question their sanity.
“Can you hear that?” she said, trying to see if he did or if she needed medical assistance.
“Hear what,” he asked, lips pressed and readied for the next word that stressed the important portion, “… exactly.” And for emphasis, still unsmiling, he repeated the word in case the flock of invisible beasts at her ear threatened to drown him out, “Exactly.” One eyebrow raised in expectation and impatience.
She stammered since at that moment she could not hear a thing. “Wings?” she posed it as a question, assuming he’d either heard it too or knew what it was. Some odd heating problem, bad ducts, most likely something he’d heard before.
“Flapping?” he asked.
“Fluttering,” she guessed.
“Slapping or more like a whizzing?”
She cocked her head, realizing he was correct. It was less like wings at all now and more like a mechanical hum. A machine sound. A warm whirring machine with a flapping part. Something turning round and round. A kind of whacker. Mesmerized in her thoughts, she handed him money on stun, then the shop-keep shrugged and walked away.
“Hey!” she started, yelling over the sound accidentally, then feeling rude. “Excuse me, but do you know what the sound is?”
Shuffling around slowly to face her again, reluctant and unsmiling, he shrugged again, then turned back away to ring up her purchase on a register that looked a few years older than he was.
“Liar,” in a sudden screech from somewhere behind the desk.
“For Pete’s Sake! The girl asked you a question!” Past the stacks of bone china plates sat a woman knitting in a chair. “She can hear it too!” she yelled to the old man without looking up from the busy silver needles in her hands. The old man placed her five on top of a spongy stack of bills, ignoring them both.
“You can hear it, cant’cha?” The lady now looked straight at her over ancient tortoiseshell glasses, cutting the shop-keep neatly out of the conversation while he pencilled up a receipt.
“Yes, but, what is it?” she said, wondering if the lady could hear it too.
Chortling, the lady dropped her knitting in the basket beside her. “Yes, I can, we all can, but you are the first one to hear it all across the room!”
Following the old lady’s gaze, Cheryl looked toward the hulk of grey metal the woman was staring at. All smooth bulges and wheels, at first, she wasn’t even sure what she was looking at. It took her a moment to recognize it as a film projector. The largest one she had ever seen. Being to a theatre maybe hundreds of times, she marvelled at this being the first time she’d seen one and again at how it was as tall as she was, and far more broad.
“It’s not on,” she said, the first thing on her mind. Plainly though, it was the exact sound she had heard. It explained the odd warm breeze she could discern coming from the side of the room though no sun lit that far corner.
“Don’t have to be!” chirped the old lady who was now fixing her arms into braces so she could stand and make her way around the service counter. The man, who could be her husband Cheryl supposed, or maybe a brother judging from the lack of humour and that he didn’t offer the woman any help.
“It’s as haunted as all hell, girl. As haunted as you are psychic.”
“Um—” Cheryl was speechless at first, then smiled nervously. “I’m, uh, not psychic.”
Both the man and woman burst out in laughter as if on cue.
Flapping. Heat. Music maybe. As she got closer, she heard it all. The noise and the story. Part of it happened in her head and part of it happened out loud.
Coraline, the lady introduced herself as, told how Corman, her twin brother who was otherwise ignoring them again, had come upon the machine and how they had figured out it was haunted.
“So, no,” she continued, “you aren’t the first, but like I said, you could hear that thing from across the room, and that’s a first for sure. Corman can hear it when he touches it—pretty near left the damn thing in Halifax just because. I can hear it if I get close, and close my eyes. And Paddy! Old Paddy heard it the minute he walked in the door all flappin’ and clickin’, whirrin’ away like a damn matinee, but that was when it was up here by the door anyway instead of back in the dankest corner we could shove it in. The sunlight kind of freaks it out we figure.”
“But… can they hear the dogs?” With closed eyes she tried to identify other sounds, “And seagulls?”
She turned to her brother once with a cracked and wrinkle encrusted grin, “Ha! We got a live one Cor! Oh, she’s got it!” then again with sparkling eyes, as if she couldn’t believe he wasn’t as excited as she “See, this thing got lugged all ‘round the States and up here in Canada before 1910. It came from Coney Island and we figure that explained the seagulls, if not Halifax, but it was the dogs, honey. The dogs! The dogs were what told us those weren’t seagulls at all,” Coraline pointed a finger at her for emphasis, “they most certainly are monkeys.”
“Monkeys.” Cheryl wasn’t sure why, but that was where her mind tried to stop computing. A haunted thing, latent psychic ability, these strange twins, seemed less absurd somehow than the mere mention of monkeys. “I’m afraid this is a lot to take in, and well, I really should go…”
“Trust me, if you leave now, you’ll be back tomorrow. Just like old Paddy, or Jim, or Vicky,” the woman’s brother stood beside her now, listening but still stone-faced, “Even Cor turned his back on the thing, but went back the next day. Everyone who hears it comes back like they need to know. Like we need to know.” Cora and Corman stared at her, and she could see just now how identical they really were. Same ice-blue eyes, same hypnotic gaze.
“Need to know what?”
“What happened at the Wormwood Theatre, where the projector came from last. What makes this old horse hang on to one film it played some night and replay the sounds for us and people like you.” Coraline placed a hand on her shoulder, “We need to know what it saw.”