A Delicate Man

Upstairs Guest Bedroom 2037



Loyal Barstow chewed his fingernails and looked around. “Panic room,” he said. “Panic room. But I’m not panicked.” He patted his nonexistent pockets.

His bathrobe was open and he wore a tee shirt and sweats, both stained with red and brown. He hadn’t showered in several days, he wondered if there was any water. For two weeks now he’d been locked in a room originally provisioned for three or four days.

“They can’t get in,” he said and sprung across the bed, grabbed for a plastic bag and turned it inside out. Nothing in there. Loyal flung it away and sighed. “No one can get in. And I don’t want to get out.” He huffed and puffed and rolled onto his back. “I don’t want to get out.”

The guest bedroom had been converted during The Scare of ‘17, not to be confused with the Panic of ‘22. No, it wouldn’t do to confuse the two. The year after The Scare, there had even been a militarized assault with fourteen black-uniformed men wearing night vision goggles. Loyal’s father told the story with gusto, especially the end.

“We mowed those fuckers down with good ol’-fashioned machine guns–big ones!–and that was the end of that,” the old man said before downing the last of his Scotch. “In the morning it was all over the news. The blonde talking heads didn’t know what to make of any of it. My lawyers issued some kind of fucked up, pansy-ass statement. I wanted to cut those bastards’ heads off and put ‘em on spikes outside the gate. The damn legal eagles told me that was too Game of Thrones.” He poured himself another drink and looked like a stuffed lion. Carson Barstow would tell them everything they didn’t want to hear.

Loyal hated that story. He knew it inside out. Every little detail was a stripped screw whirling continuously in the threads of a nut of sanity.

The media feasted on the carnage, counting each body, noting that none of the dead men existed on paper and, with sickening glee, lingering on each shredded body and the blood soaking into the ground underneath. They labeled Carson Barstow the Straeon Sadist for his extraordinary expenditure of ammunition in defense of his home. The film of the old man pounding his bare chest in the doorway of the Manor played endlessly for months and then each year on the anniversary of the attack. They never showed his lawyer pulling him out of the door.

The elder Barstow’s death triggered a fresh round of interest in the incident that overshadowed every other accomplishment. His development of security nanotech and his generous philanthropy weren’t sexy enough. His obituaries, except the one in Barstow’s hometown newsfeed, all led with the incident and each of the hundreds of articles mentioned his nickname.

Despite clear instructions in his will, the estate went into probate.. There were calls to tear the house down and turn it into a park. The government kept Loyal and his step-sister Alannah from doing anything with it. A trust was set up until everything could be worked out.

Loyal’s slide into madness had begun shortly after he moved in three years ago. The previous tenants had done some renovation, restoring it to what it looked like at the turn of the 20th century.

Loyal threw himself into learning the history of the house. The three libraries were of little help until he discovered The House Bible. He read it cover to cover in a single day, eschewing food and drink until he finished. That night he tore through the refrigerator looking for “something edible”, finally settling on ice cubes and a stale baguette. When Hitchens, Loyal’s personal assistant, saw the mess the next morning he quit on the spot. Loyal watched him leave. “You could bring some bread with you when you come back,” he said. He told the people his step-sister sent to check on him what he saw and heard. He was sure they reported back to her everything he said and did, including his dependence on Barstow Corp. pharmaceuticals that ‘helped’ him not see everything he saw. Loyal cursed Hitchens for never coming back with the bread, too.

The thing that sent him to the panic room staggered his imagination. Something reached out and touched him with an intensity he’d only read in books. Not just physically, but psychically, too. Something awful, unhuman, terrifying made contact by worming into his fevered imagination. It scared Loyal so much that he felt he had no choice but to inject himself with bionanos that would keep him safe from any outside intrusion. Of course he overdid it.

He could hear everything that the house did.

And thought.




Alannah Barstow-Collins heard a duck through an open window in the upstairs hallway. She craned her head for a moment to see if she could see it in the sky above Straeon Manor then shrugged, closed the window and resumed her trek toward her step-brother’s room. Her phone rang. “Hi, Heather,” Alannah said. “No, it’s no bother. What’s up?”

A client needed reassurance of his investments in Barstow. Alannah walked Heather through where to find the data and statistics the client required. At the end of the conversation Alannah said, “Really, it’s no bother. I’m just visiting my brother. I’ll be back in the office on Monday. Make nice with Mr. Sakamoto, okay? What? Oh, the family home. Straeon.”

A screech that might have been Heather and might have been electronic stabbed out of the ear piece and straight into Alannah’s central nervous system. She dropped her phone and rubbed the sore ear with a kid-gloved hand. “Ow,” Alannah said, “what the fuck?” She picked up the phone but the connection was lost. This just soured her mood even further. Straeon Manor was the last place Alannah wanted to be, and Loyal the last person she wanted to see.

Mother always put on her best pearls and a new blue dress when The Man was coming. And when Emma Polly came over to babysit, they stayed in Alannah’s room until Mother and The Man were gone for the evening. Sometimes Emma Polly would be in the kitchen cooking breakfast when Alannah woke and sometimes not. Mother never cooked breakfast. She always went out for croissant or bagels. Sometimes she had a red mark on her neck or just above the swell of her breast. “A bug bite,” she told Alannah who never quite believed it. She met The Man two weeks before the wedding.

The marriage seemed to bring out the best in Mother, like she was good for Carson and he for her. Carson treated Alannah as if she were his own. Never any problems with the old man. Loyal, though, was was another story. They never quite got along and kept separate lives as often as possible. When they were in the same room, fireworks exploded.

Fistfights were part of it. Cruel pranks another. Harsh words the majority of her upbringing with Loyal.

Until the summer after her eighteenth birthday. Something changed in Loyal that year as Alannah went away to college. They talked over VoIP services and when she came home for visits her freshman year he was cordial and even flirty. One night while their parents were out, they got drunk and fooled around. She was lonely and he was seventeen and a boy. They weren’t blood and she didn’t like to think about the rest. She’d known immediately it was wrong.

Alannah took a deep breath, loosened her shoulders and knocked on the door to Loyal’s room. Three years wasn’t long enough to stay away. “Hey,” she said, “it’s me. Can I come in?”




“No one can get in,” Loyal said. He raised his voice so she could hear him through the six-inch concrete walls. “It’s a panic room for a reason.” He shook his head, looked at the monitor that showed her out there and then thumbed the intercom. “You can’t get in, Alannah,” he said. It’s a panic room.”

“Bullshit,” Alannah said. “I’m coming in.”

He turned and there she was in the room with him, her right hand out about waist height, her coat swinging from having walked in. “What’s the matter with you, Loyal? This place is a pigsty. It smells awful!” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Augh, have you been shitting in here? What the hell’s the matter with you?”

Loyal freaked out. He skittered backwards into the far wall and spread his arms out wide. “How the fuck did you get in? HOW?”

“I walked through the damn door, Loyal.” She wrinkled her nose and squinted. “This is terrible. You have an en suite toilet back there, why didn’t you use that?”

“It’s a panic room,” he said, frantic, his peace of mind slipping. “The water’s run out.” He darted his eyes to the bed. There on the coverlet, squirming as it tried to reach its toes, was a baby; happy and gurgling. It smiled at him.

“When did you get pregnant? When did you have a child?” Beyond frantic now, Loyal tried to claw his way through the wall.

“What are you talking about? I’m not pregnant.”

“The baby,” Loyal said, pointing a shaky finger at the rumpled covers. “There’s a baby on the goddamned bed!”

Alannah looked at the wall and he followed her gaze. The sheetrock bulged slightly, about twelve inches wide and maybe thirty-six inches long, a straight line that traveled the length of the wall. She took a step back. “What the —”

“It’s crying.” Loyal, beside himself, shook uncontrollably. “It’s hurt, or sick, or something,” he said and bit his knuckle. “This is too much. Too much.”




Now that she’d seen something like what she’d heard about from other visitors, Alannah turned her attention back to her step-brother. “Loyal,” she said with a dim hope that she sounded conciliatory, “I think maybe you should come with me.”

“But the baby — he’s so young! He can’t be more than six months old,” Loyal said. His wild eyes found Alannah’s placid face and he almost relaxed. “You can’t see the baby.”

Alannah shook her head.

“But you saw something else,” Loyal said. “You did, I know it. In the wall. The voices, they say they know you.”

“What voices?” Alannah took a step toward him, anxious. The smell was overwhelming and she held down the urge to retch.

“I can hear them,” Loyal said nodding, “they’re evil, something awful, inhuman. The language is like nothing I’ve ever heard. Like nothing.” He trailed off.

Disbelief flooded over Alannah. “This is too much, Loyal. It’s Christmas and I’ve come to take you —”

“No,” Loyal said. “No, no, no. It’s not Christmas. It can’t be.” He ducked his head and put his knuckle in his mouth again. “Last week was St. Patrick’s Day. It’s spring!” He wheeled on her. “It’s spring.” He was so sure.

“Look at what I’m wearing, Loyal,” Alannah said. “Coat, scarf, hat and gloves. It’s winter. It’s snowing outside.” She held her arms out wide. “Come out into the hall, I’ll show you.”

Her step-brother rushed into her arms and buried his face in her chest, snaked his hands under her coat and wrapped her up, pulled her close to him. “I need you,” he said, drooling on her blouse. “I need you more than anything. I’m going crazy.”

Alannah didn’t hug him back. Instead she put her hands on his shoulders and pushed. “That’s not going to happen, Loyal,” she said. “No way. Never.”

He held tighter. “I love you, Lannah, I love you love you love you.”

She shoved as hard as she could and he landed on the bed. Loyal screamed. “Oh my god! The baby!” He rolled to his left and saw something that made him shriek. “NO!”

If he saw the same thing she did, his reaction was half what it should have been.

Two hands reached up from under the bed, the fingers bending at the knuckles and coming down. Loyal thrashed, trying to worm away from the grasping, impossible hands. They came together over him and pulled down.

Loyal screamed.

Alannah stumbled backward into the door and it banged on the wall.

That disturbed whatever was in the wall and it bulged again the way it had before, running around the room faster this time and more than just once. When it ran behind the door it pushed Alannah back into the room and she cried out. She stumbled and caught her balance.

Loyal’s ribs cracked as the hands clasped one another tightly and pulled him through the bed. The floorboards fragmented as his body was dragged down through them.




The voices laughed at him. Mostly women, now, and none of them anyone he knew. The baby’s cries haunted him and he felt something kicking at his spleen, but from inside. From far away he heard Alannah calling his name and shouting incoherently. Needles aimed their points at him.

Loyal heard his father telling the story that had made him infamous. He heard the old man’s cries as he pounded his chest. Something punched his heart.




Alannah fell out of the bedroom and rolled across the hall, landing hard against the wall. She caught her breath and pushed herself up. When she looked into the room again, Loyal lay on the bed, arms and legs akimbo. Slow getting to her feet, breathing hard, Alannah peeked further in. The room wasn’t anything like she’d seen upon entering: it was still neat and clean except for the rumpled bedclothes. And of course Loyal’s body.

A tentative hand on the door jamb sent a jolt up Alannah’s arm but she didn’t let go. A deep breath to steel herself against what she might find and she stepped into the room.

And it was filthy, smelly and Loyal’s body was gone. The bed, broken in half, sat on either side of a deep hole in the floor. The bulge ran back and forth on the far wall. Alannah started to hyperventilate.

“It’s okay,” a woman’s voice said. “Everything is okay now. This isn’t a panic room any more.”

Alannah looked around for the owner of the voice but found no one. “Hello?”

“That’s all you need to know,” the woman said all around Alannah. She felt warm and comforted now. “Close the door when you leave.”

“What’s happened to Loyal?”

Love flooded through Alannah and she didn’t ask any more questions. She knew her step-brother was gone and that was that. Wherever he was, it was where he should be.

The door latched and she put her hand on one of the panels. She felt a throb in the wood and when she withdrew her hand, the door had disappeared. There was only a wall adorned with pictures of cherry trees in full bloom.

Maybe it was spring where Loyal was.

Here it would be a different kind of Christmas. Unsure if that was what she wanted, Alannah felt as though she’d been given the gift of having the weight of the world on her shoulders being lifted.


Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at www.jasonarnett.com


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