I'm a Chicago native and am currently working in the financial industry.
The Lepers was first written in 1997 after I read a book lent to me by Paul Pekin. The book gave a historical account of the world's plagues and famines and was so sensational and gory that it inspired this horror story.
The market was dead that day. Traders stood around in the pit reading newspapers, doing crossword puzzles and gossiping. Anthony Oneida, a successful market maker used the down time to school his clerk on the shortcomings of his colleagues. He said of a man standing less than a foot away, "Take a guy like Miller. He's fifty years old, 250 pounds, and drinks a fifth a day. Maybe more. He's always wasted. I'm willing to bet money that his wife is gonna be collecting his insurance before the year's out. Look at his trading jacket. You wouldn't know that he made two million last year."
"Looks like he washed it in whiskey," Rob said.
That'd be an improvement," Anthony added. "Cheap bastard. Can't spend the money to have it cleaned every week." Anthony stopped because Rob wasn't listening.
The new runner for Merrill Lynch was coming down the aisle. Her short skirt, barely visible under her jacket, offered the floor an optimal view of her naked nineteen year old legs. She, like so many others, was so enamored by her own cuteness that she was pleased by the lascivious stares of men twice her age. She came into the pit and handed the floor broker an order. A young hot shot named Stewart, waggled his tongue and rolled his eyes behind her back. "I saw that," she said meeting his eyes.
He quickly came back with, "How else am I gonna get your attention? You won't give me your phone number."
She gave him the finger. "That's my number," she said and stalked back to the booth.
The crowd roared with laughter. Stewart grinned and watched her as she disappeared.
Rob whispered to Anthony. "He's gonna marry that girl."
The bell rang, signaling the end of the trading day. As the crowd dispersed, Rob told Anthony, "We're still long Telegap."
"Don't worry. We'll take care of it in the morning." He patted Rob on the back and went home. When got to his downtown duplex, he took in the mail because his wife, Lenore was out. There were a number of places she could've been --the spa, the gym, the salon, the nutritinist's, plastic surgeon's. Her schedule, Anthony never bothered to remembered. He just wrote the checks when the bills came in.
Anthony went into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of wine. He sat down at the table and looked through the mail, tossing half of it in the trash unopened. The door bell rang and he moved to answer it.
Lenore stood there smiling with her perfect face. A huge gym bag hung from her shoulder.
"Don't tell me you lost your key again," Anthony said as she came into the house.
"No, Smarty. It's at the bottom of my bag. I didn't feel like digging for it."
"You remember we're meeting Mick and Tina for dinner tonight."
"Yes, I remember."
"Don't sound so enthused," Lenore said as she went upstairs.
He couldn't possibly enjoy going out with Mick as much as Lenore did. Mick had always been Lenore's biggest fan, and Lenore encouraged his shameless adulation, in spite of the fact that both their spouses were sitting at their sides. While Anthony shaved, he could hear Lenore in her closet, pushing aside countless designer garments, many still tagged, searching for something to knock Mick's eyeballs out. Her manicured hands landed on a silk mini dress, and she held it up by its speghetti straps. It was light and breezy and drenched a cobalt blue. She slipped into the body skimming sheath and smiled at her accomplishment. It was absolutely perfect.
Anthony caught a glimpse of his wife preening in the mirror as he stepped out of the bathroom. His belly bulged over his towel and his jowls sagged. Matter-a-factly, he said, "Maybe you should've bought a longer dress. The one you have on is nice. In fact, it's stunning, but those knock knees of yours ruin it." He paused a moment. "What do you think those doctors can do about that? Can they fix that?
Rage darkened Lenore's face and sent quivers through her body. A thousand invectives streaked through her mind but, "Get out!" erupted form her throat.
When Anthony crossed the threshold, she slammed the bedroom door and locked it behind him. As he headed to a hall closet to get a suit, he heard her sobbing and swearing. Lenore's grand display of emotion irritated him, and despite her negative reaction, he knew that she was considering his suggestion. In the meantime, he had to go to dinner without her. "There's always a price to pay for honesty with women," he muttered going out the door.
After he returned from dinner, the bedroom door was still locked. Too exhausted to fight with Lenore, he retired on the couch.
In his sleep, he was visited by a sound instead of an image. It was most unusual that in the blackness of his unconscious mind, he heard a bell. Its chimes were muffled as if it were crusted with rust. Anthony thought nothing of it until he heard it the following night. A slow "ting-ting" like the bell was swaying from a large sluggish creature.
At work, he mentioned this to Rob. "I've been hearing a bell ring in my sleep...It sounds like a cow bell, I think. Rob, why would I be hearing a cow bell in my sleep?"
"I don't know boss. Maybe its some deep-rooted resentment."
"If I wanted to hear psycho-babble, I'd call up one of those radio shows."
Rob fell silent and felt a little disgruntled. The deadline signing up for the new member orientation was a week away and Anthony was skirting the subject again.
Rob didn't want to stay a clerk forever and spent the day thinking about joining a group where a guy with his experience could get promoted quickly.
Anthony had no time for the ambitions of his clerk. He and his wife were not talking and he was having these strange dreams. All day he was preoccupied by this and was determined to make a change that evening. Lenore's car was in the driveway. What could he expect? Anthony went into the house and saw Lenore standing in the kitchen talking on the telephone. "Lenore, can I talk to you?" he asked, but his voice was drowned out by the television.
He came into the kitchen and turned it down. Lenore growled, "I'm watching that."
Ignoring his urge to argue, Anthony backed out of the kitchen. He didn't want Lenore's friend to witness an altercation. Lenore wanted to hold a grudge. For the moment, he decided to let it go.
That night, Anthony lay down on the couch thinking about cutting off his wife's charge cards to get them into some kind of dialogue. Lenore's shrill voice pierced his mind. She'd be on the phone yelling at him after she was denied a new coat or handbag. Anthony drifted off to sleep smiling at his plan for revenge. When he was deeply submerged in sleep, the slow "ting ting" returned. This time it was accompanied by a deep raspy voice that abraded his senses. He shook himself awake immediately, so unnerved that he couldn't recall what the voice said. His sleeping on the couch had to end. With tears in his eyes, he apologized to Lenore and got back into the marital bed.
Even in the bed next to his wife, Anthony wasn't safe from that horrible scratchy voice. It called his name and rang its bell. "Help me Tony," it hissed and was gone, leaving Anthony shaking and coated in sweat. He sat up and looked around the room. Everything was the same. Lenore was beside him, snoozing, thighs pressed together, closed fists resting gently across her chest. Anthony lay back and put his arm around her shoulder. She did not move.
Finding no comfort in his spouse, Anthony rolled over and stared at the ceiling. A plaintive "help me Tony" came from the side of the bed. Anthony shuddered as he could feel the beggar's warm breath on his ear, but saw no face. There was no one in the room beside himself and the mummified Lenore. Again the voice called. And insistently rang its bell.
Tired of his waking nightmare, Anthony kicked off the sheets and went to the bathroom in search of a sedative. He found a bottle of sleeping pills and emptied a few into his palm. He swallowed them dry and gained the peace of mind he sought after.
Unfortunately, the drug's magic was short-lived. Just before dawn, Anthony was wide awake and Lenore was absent from his side. "She went to the bathroom," he said to himself. "She'll be back in a minute and we can make up properly."
She came into the room and turned on one of the lamps. "Anthony, something's wrong with my finger. It's swollen and numb."
He closely examined his wife's pinkie. It had grown twice its size and the red laquered nail was embedded in its fleshiness. Slowly, Anthony let go of Lenore's hand, not to alarm her with his repulsion.
"You don't have any feeling in it, huh?"
"None at all."
"It looks awful. You better have a doctor look at it."
"I don't know what it could be," she said shaking her head. "I'll call the doctor later this morning."
"Good idea," he said. "Let's get back to bed."
The notion of how the symmetry of Lenore's delicate hand was thrown off by that freakish pinki dampened his desire. A ghost of that horrible voice lingered in his mind. He didn't go back to sleep and was very disburbed the next morning.
Though the thought of his going insane clawed at him, Anthony couldn't pay it much attention. Telegap took a nose dive, and he was losing money furiously. On top of that, Rob lost track of his positions and couldn't help his boss stave the onslaught. Anthony cursed Rob, pushed him aside and traded on his own.
Later that day, Telegap bounced back, but the damage was already done--to Anthony's account and his relationship with Rob. Rob had set up an interview on his bathroom break and was good as gone.
He barely spoke Anthony at the close and braced himself for a tongue lashing. Fortunately, Anthony was terse. "You choked today. I've never seen you this inept. Maybe you should hold off on the membership class for a couple of months."
"Sure." Rob said, grateful that he kept it short. "See you tomorrow."
Rob went to the train station and Anthony tried his luck at an off track betting parlor. He lost two hundred dollars and returned home feeling defeated and alone. Lenore was sitting on the couch with her finger bandaged. Happy to see her there, Anthony sat down beside her and kissed her on the cheek.
Lenore stood up before he could go further. "I made dinner. I'll warm it up."
"Don't do that. Len let's go out. How about that piano bar down the street?"
Lenore balked at the idea. "I don't feel like going out. You know how smoke makes me sick."
''Fine we'll stay in," Anthony conceded, but spent the evening criticizing every bite of Lenore 's cooking. Quietly, Lenore wiped her mouth and left the table.
"What's wrong Lenore?" Anthony followed upstairs and taunted. "Not going to throw me out? Not going to make me sleep on the couch? You're not perfect! And you certainly can't cook."
"You're boring me. Good night."
Anthony went to bed and wondered why he and Lenore didn't relate anymore. When he wanted to talk, she'd clam up. When he wanted to be peaceful, she'd go to war. That day, he got killed in the market and she didn't even ask him how his day went. Anthony closed his eyes after this painful reflection and something incredible happened.
First, he heard the familar "ting ting" of the rusted bell. His eyes flew open and strained against the darkness to see where the ringing was coming from. But the room was empty, except for himself and a malignant silence. Then, out of the nothingness a blackened figure appeared. It moved toward him slowly and intently, gripping the bell in its deformed hands, ringing it vigorously.
Captivated, Anthony sat with his back pressed to the headboard. The being was human, judging fom its gait and form. But by some calamity or curse of nature, its appearance was completely horrifying. The figure wore a gray hooded cloak that hid most of its skin. The flesh that was exposed--that of the curled hands--was blanched white and scaly.
The figure stopped about a foot from the bed. Instinctively, Anthony reached for Lenore, but her side of the bed was empty. Anthony considered running but the figure's presence commanded his attention. He stayed put, watching it. It took a solitary claw and removed the hood. Silky white hair cascaded around its narrow shoulders. The face was also white, but there were signs around the hairline that had once been brown. Lesions puffed the eyebrows into high ridges, and distorted the nose into a broad saddle. The lips were ballooned like blisters and oddly enough were painted red. Could this be a woman? Anthony sat up in bed. The intruder unfastened a single hook at the neck of its cloak and showed that it was indeed a woman. Aside from the scaly malformed hands and the hideous face, the shape and form of her body was absolutely perfect. In fact, it was fantastic. The cloak fell to the floor and she stepped out of it. She dropped the bell and it let out a muted clang as it hit the cloak. "Help me Tony," she said in a husky voice, more enticing than the one that haunted his dreams.
Tony was disconcerted. What could he do? He asked anyway, "How can I help you?"
"You must help me."
He did not protest when the woman climbed into the bed. "You must help me. I'm unclean. I'm ugly. I'm damned. Help me."
Tony recoiled as the woman drew near. He could hardly breathe when she extended one curled hand to stroke his thinning hair. The tender gesture was simple. Yet, it soothed his soul like a friend to a forsaken man. He had never been touched like that by his wife. He didn't know he was in desperate need until then.
The woman continued. "I was once beautiful. Now I'm reviled. I use my bell to let you know that I'm coming."
Tony looked at her. Her deep set eyes were kind beneath those ridges. He wondered about her life. How did she get this way? How did she manage to transcend time and space to lay in his wife's place? He didn't bother to ask. He didn't believe in the supernatural.
The woman heard his thoughts. "You must accept me to be real."
Anthony did not answer. She wasn't real.
She ran the back of her hand across his cheek. "You're a beautiful man."
Tony had been attractive in his youth, but now he was past his prime. He knew he was being lied to. Then he considered the source. Comparatively speaking, he was beautiful.
"You're a fool Tony," she said.
"What do you mean?" he asked. Then went on, "Everybody has a bad day. I'll come back and kill tomorrow. I'm one of the best damn traders at the Exchange."
She cupped his face and said, "You're a fool for saying that."
She ran her hands across his skin. It stung and burned as if she had scraped it off. Anthony grimaced and began to cry out, but the woman caught his scream with an exquisite kiss. She embraced him and filled him with an intoxicating energy that made him forget himself. What were his goals, his ideals, his hopes? They were gone. Tony was glad to be free of them. He clung to her and bellowed her praises. She smiled and said nothing. He felt grateful to her. But before he could tell her so, she hopped out the bed, grabbed her cloak and bell and vanished. Dumbfounded, Tony stared into vacant space.
Sunlight spilled around the heavy drapes and Lenore entered the room with a silver plated mirror in her hand. "It's getting worse," she said fretfully. "It's spread to my face," she pointed to her eyebrows. Look they're swollen too."
"Did you get in touch with the doctor?"
"I paged him, but he hasn't called me back."
"Tony dear," Lenore said to her husband and handed him the mirror. "It looks like you have it too."
The End Copyright 1998, Lisa S. Wright Back to Storyarts