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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

There wasn’t time for vivisection.

Tape Recorder

It was stolen.  And haunted.

And neither of the girls wanted to tell their parents.

Polly and her twin sister Maze both turned eight on a Saturday.  Their parents celebrated the day briefly, in the afternoon, during rain.  Each girl wore blue and curled their blonde hair with irons.  The gifts: matching bicycles.  The weather kept them indoors, elbows on handlebars and frowns on faces.  Unspectacular and disappointing, but no different from any other year.  The girls were used to being misunderstood, or worse, ignored.

The twins slept side by side in two single beds, the gap between only inches.  Their room had all the accoutrements of childhood –- puzzles and stuffed toys, window dressings, music boxes, a wardrobe half open to blackness.  The nearest house was a mile off.  When the nights hit, the certain silence of their faraway country acreage gave way to crickets, wind, and the scrapings of trees outside their window.  Only the late whispers of the girls made the air ruffle.

“I’m not unhappy,” sighed Polly one night before fading off to sleep.

The sentence pinned itself to her sister’s forehead.  The assessment wasn’t the reason for its stickiness.  The words — simple, in isolation — seemed strange to Maze’s ears.  They had been plucked out of a larger context, one she couldn’t even remember.  These words told their own story when set aside for inspection.

The following night, it was Maze who ended their fall-asleep chatter, this time with an admonition, “You’ll burn down the whole house.”

As they stood waiting for their daily school bus to arrive, Maze completely forgot the preceding sentences, but she remembered her ending.

You’ll burn down the whole house.

Systematically, Maze began to take mental notes of the last words said between her and her sister before sleep.  The list, fading on the furthest days, still had some peculiar gems.  She’s wrong in wrong ways.  And.  Turpentine never does what they say.  And.  That macaroni tasted like the cat.

On the bus, during questioning, Polly told her sister those she could remember; Maze reciprocated with the original line that still remained in her own head:  I’m not unhappy.

“We should create a diary!” shouted Polly, her volume drawing stares from the surrounding children.  “A diary of every last thing we say before we fall asleep.”


“Why?  Because it’s something to do.  We obviously remember bits and pieces, but if we could get a whole list.  Well.”

So they started their experiment.  As they grew sleepy in their beds, the twins became very aware that the next sentence spoken might be their golden discovery, the embers of the day.  This knowledge, however, kept them awake.  Each girl would top the other with one last peck, one last scratch of conversation.  The first three nights ended with the curtly spoken words: “Shut up!”  Not much of value for an experiment.

“We shouldn’t try so hard,” said Maze on the fourth day.

Polly suggested a note-taker –- that one stay awake until their sister was under then write down the very last phrase.  “I’m always worrying I won’t remember.”

“Noooo,” hummed Maze.  She had a plan.  “We should use daddy’s tape recorder.”

Their bicycles went unused.  They came to want something entirely different to be wrapped in bows by their drifting parents — their father’s tape recorder.  The machine -– and “machine” more fitting than “device” or “instrument” -– was a black box with a plastic cassette tape-guard and raised text, like Braille, reading


in bold, technological font.  The girl’s father, a city lawyer and prosecutor, used the machine for recording his own legal notes, and for conducting interviews with murderers or witnesses, the spooling tape preserving a crimes’ sticky elements.

After returning home from a day at court, he would eat a quick dinner and sneak away with his tape recorder and steno-pad under each arm.  From the archway of the dim sitting room, the girls eavesdropped as he mumbled phrases into the hand-held microphone, the spiral cord choking him, his body turned to the small corner of the room as if he were being punished.  The words that touched the girls’ ears sounded alien: judicial, fees, and the oft-repeated whisper, victim.  When finished with his work, their father would place the machine on the foyer table.  The microphone and power wires dripped over the drop leaf to slap their father’s leather briefcase, where it rested beneath the corner.

“I think we should steal it,” whispered Maze to her sister before falling asleep.  She then rescinded, thinking better of it.  “He should just give it to us as a present.  We never ride our bicycles with all the rain and the fog.  Maybe he’ll take them back.”

Their father had put the matter to rest quickly the next morning.  It’s mine.  I need it.  Don’t touch it.  He then promised to take them for a bike ride the next evening, but forgot about it and never did.

Their request denied — It’s mine, I need it, don’t touch it -– meant they became criminals in their own home.  After the television was switched off and the door to their parents’ bedroom shut, one or the other (they took turns) would tiptoe into the hallway, past the kitchen, and to the foyer table.  Slowly, the little thief would return to the bedroom and press RECORD.

On the first night, they let the tape go for thirty seconds of silence before realizing what they’d done.  Maze snapped off the button.  “Oh no.  Oh no oh no!” said Maze in a panic.  A chunk had been erased.  Their father’s important words stopped then started abruptly, mid-syllable.  He would notice it…but he might blame himself.

Polly roamed the house that night until she located a blank, sealed cassette tape.  Maze cracked the box and they began fresh, as it should have been all along, to capture their dying words.

“It’s all apple juice to me.”


“Remind me about my shoes in the bag.”

“My ankle hurts.”

“Boxcars.  They live in boxcars.”

“Every page torn out –- now is that fair?”

A week passed and they had their first list.

Each morning when their father was in the bath and their mother buttering toast, they’d return the Electromax to the foyer.  No one was the wiser.  It became a well-developed system, a game, this secret, this night dialog.

At the end of two weeks, they still had not grown tired of it.  They looked at their list of fourteen endings and tried to remember what had led to the final lick.  They couldn’t recall anything, or, sometimes only pieces.  Mostly, these sentences were just odd markers of their days, and, to the girls, seemed to sum up their world in a way that no storybook, or diary, had ever been able.  Surrealist nonsense and magnetic tape.

One morning three weeks in, Polly took her turn rewinding the cassette and jotting the next line onto the list.  She let the tape run a moment past their nighttime end, their final sleep, as she hunted her socks.

When she had found the pink pull-ups, had placed them onto her feet and had gathered up her books for school, she heard something.  A sound.  A voice.  She looked to the window.  The morning was quiet and the sun just breaking.  Another sound, rough, a bit distorted, came into her ears.

From her bedpost, she turned the corner and looked down at the Electromax, spinning, as it lay on the carpeted valley between the two mattress mountains.  The soft sound from the round, perforated speaker grate began to become more rhythmic, a pulsing, breath across the microphone.

Maze.  Probably Maze.  Beginning to snore.

Polly reached her finger down to snap off the recorder.  The sound bothered her senses.  And then she heard the faint voice of a man:

“The tree,” it said hoarsely.

“The tree.”

Like touching a live wire, Polly flicked off the machine.  For several seconds, she sat on her knees, paralyzed.  Her eyes went to the shut bedroom door; her ears monitored the sound of her family’s daily preparations.  Footsteps were coming down the hall.  Her mother’s high heels passed her by with a short reminder to pack her lunch.  “Okay!” she said, agreeably.  When she had left, she rewound the tape and listened again to those last few seconds.

“The tree,” it said once more.  “The tree.”

There wasn’t time for vivisection.  Polly returned the tape recorder to the hallway and pocketed their appropriated cassette.

On the bus that morning, Polly told her sister of the voice.

“I don’t believe you,” Maze refuted.  After five miles of seeing her sister sulk, she thought better of her stance.  “It was Daddy’s voice, I bet.”

Polly turned to look at her.  “I don’t think so,” she answered quietly.

After bedtime, their stolen tape recorder once again between their beds, the first thing the twins did was listen again to the voice.  “The tree.”  Maze had to agree; the voice was certainly not their father’s.

That night, the girls did not speak at all.  They fell asleep late into the night with their covers pulled practically over their heads.  They’d rather suffocate under their blankets than see what body owned that deep, rumbling voice.

Together, the next morning, they awoke with a shot and immediately played back the tape.  Moving at high speed from the start of the recording, the listened to the hiss of the empty night for fifteen minutes until a blur came through the speaker.  Their nerves caught.  Polly stopped the scan, rewound, and pressed play.

The sound started with a caught cough.

“Are you –- are you there?  The tree.  I’m in the yard.”  More coughs, then a full stop.

Before they could even discuss it, the girls were hustled to their breakfast, their school bus.  Exploration would have to wait until evening –- Friday night.  Playtime.  Two girls in their backyard with jump ropes and a bright red ball.  Their mother was cleaning the dishes, their father making his own recorded notes.  Maze and Polly stood centered between the four old oak trees of the rear acreage.

Each tree was of equal size.  Even in summertime, each had crumbling bark and half-dead leaves, the neglected results of growing disease, untended by their father, who never stepped outside into the yard.  Never ever.

“Pick one,” said Maze to her sister.

Polly’s finger went up from her side to the nearest tree.  Maze agreed on the choice.  Together, they stepped towards the trunk.  Polly held the jump rope tightly between her two hands, ready to strangle anyone who might attack; Maze held the ball to her bosom, for protection from large, sharp fingernails.

As they stood at the base, their eyes moved up.  The setting sun allowed for a straight look into the branches.  The evening breeze swayed those with the smallest circumference, their leaves rustling.  Maze, being practical, suspected Polly would claim sight of a figure, hunched; but she didn’t.  Their eyes returned to each other.  Maze picked the second tree.  Again, nothing in the tall oak.  The third tree was the same; as was the fourth.  All the trees were empty.  If their parents had thought to look out the rear windows of the house, they would think their daughters played a strange game as they moved together, arm-to-arm, from one tree to the next.

The twins returned to their original spot.

“Nothing,” said Maze.

“Yes.  I suppose we should make another recording.”

They did.  That night, the same as before.  The stolen tape recorder and the dead quiet of their now-changed experiment, one that would surely be remembered for many years, without the aid of wine.  They fell asleep in the even middle of the night, past three o’clock, almost at the same instant, again with blankets up.

The next morning, the voice had left another clue.

“I heard your footsteps.  I…I can’t breath.”  More coughs, the faded deep bass rumble of a man with affected chords.  “Can you hear me?” he asked.  “Were those your shoes?”

The girls played the tape through to the end leader.

Nothing more had been spoken.

Saturday morning they were out in the grass before the dew had even lifted.  Their mother remarked on their eagerness, but the twins couldn’t downplay their excitement, or their fear.  Something tragic and horrible had occurred.  Somehow, someway, there was a man beneath one of the family trees.  How is that possible? they asked each other.  If it were a premature burial, how could a shovel get under the roots?  Jump rope and ball abandoned, both girls bent before the first tree and scratched at the grass and dirt that surrounded the wide base.  The ground looked undisturbed.

Their inspections led them to the second tree.  The evidence was the same: perfectly natural and untouched.

At the third tree, the farthest from their house, they paused.  The roots were slightly above the ground, and looked frayed.  Beneath them were crevasses, anthills, rot.

Polly took one finger and scooped out a teaspoon of dirt.  Beneath there was a darker red earth.  She dug a little deeper.  Her sister moved around the side and kept a close watch for earthworms.  After a few digs, Polly stopped.  She scrunched her nose and held her dirty finger to the side.  “Do you smell that?” she asked, and no sooner than she was hit by the waft of a wet and dead odor than both girls felt the ground beneath their feet shake, just a little.  It was as if someone had pressed at the flats of their feet, putting them off balance.

Simultaneously, both girls screamed, just for a flash.

And they saw it: two fingers darting from the dirt, right where Polly had been drawn to dig.  The two fingers, completely intact, filthy, wiggled as if waving (but having a far more menacing swipe of nails, long and uncut.)

Now their screams were uncontrollable.  Both girls raced for the house, fifty yards away, too far it seemed.  When they burst through the screen door and into the kitchen, where their mother sat reading the newspaper, she shushed her children and told them to quiet down, their father was working in his study.  But the girls were inconsolable, babbling, dragging their mother from her comfortable place beneath the breakfast nook.

“Out in the yard,” said Maze.

“Under the tree,” said Polly, over-top.

Though she didn’t understand their statements, she allowed her children to raise her up and guide her outside.  From the rear door of the kitchen, she finally heard a clear (though confusing) sentence.

“There’s a man buried underneath our tree!”  Maze’s tongue had un-stuck, if only for a few seconds.

The seriousness of their expressions, the rarity of their lying, both worked to convince her to at least go into the yard.  A step from her daughters, she thought of her husband, if she should rouse him, but decided against it.  No need to disturb.  It was, after all, probably nothing.  So she entered the grass while her two children stood frozen by the safety of the open kitchen door.

With her heels digging the wet grass, she moved forward.  At a mid-point, she turned and confirmed which tree.  Her daughters singled out the large one at the end of the yard.

Their mother kept on, deeper and deeper into the grass.  Soon she was aligned between the trees.

Polly moved forward as that foul smell again lit up her senses.

A thousand fingers, hands, arms, erupted from the surface of their cut-grass lawn.  Those nearest to their mother grabbed hold of the woman’s ankles.  The woman didn’t shout or scream; it happened too quickly.  The fingers closest to the girls’ position seemed to be taunting the two.

Polly and Maze jumped back to the door then came forward again.  They watched as their mother, her face half-turned and wearing a completely dead expression, was dragged beneath the very earth, to disappear.

In tears, the twins watched the grass return to normal.  The whole matter only lasted ten seconds.  Their mother was gone.

Maze ran inside the house, hysterical.  Both girls screamed a hatchet scream through the house and screamed double when they turned the corner of the kitchen.  There, having witnessed everything was their father, unreadable.

“Did you see?” Polly asked breathlessly.

The man waited a moment.  Then nodded.

The three spent the rest of the day not speaking.  Their father, aimless, sat limply in the corner of the sitting room until the sun went down.  He didn’t have his tape recorder and never moved his face from the joint of the two walls.  His shoulders were slumped, and he was silent.

At bedtime, Polly and Maze stood at the edge of the room.  “Aren’t you going to find Mommy?” Maze asked.

He did not answer.

“Dad?”  Polly waited for a sign.  “Dad?”

“Go to bed,” he said in a removed voice.

The girls, after a pause, returned to the hallway.  Polly grabbed the tape recorder from the foyer.

Sitting upright, they agreed neither would sleep.

The red light of RECORD continued through the night.

At the darkest hour, the quietest hour, the girls not having spoken since forever, they heard the faint and disembodied voice of their mother.

“The tree,” she said, “Can you hear me?

The tree.”

Darren Callahan lives in Chicago.  His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.


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