This is more or less a fictionalized account of the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein.
The old man parked the sedan behind a Kendall Motor Oil billboard and killed the engine, the religious program he was listening to on the radio cutting just as the preacher reached his crescendo: SIN BEGETS PESTILENCE, the man said, AND PESTILENCE BEGETS DEATH!
For a long moment, the old man sat behind the wheel, alone but for the ticking of the engine as it cooled. He considered the preacher's words, mentally comparing them to what his mother told him when he was young. The wages of sin is death, Teddy. Never forget that.
Teddy Burgess never did.
Coming out of his daze, he got out of the car, eased the door closed, and went around to the trunk. Using the key, he opened it and removed a drab green bundle. Inside were a shovel, a pick, a pry bar, and a flashlight.
From the sign, which overlooked a wooded section of Route 9, the old man headed west, up a steep incline dotted with barren trees. It was December, and the night was bitterly cold; his breath clouded before him like the spirit of a damned sinner, and several times he shrank back, terribly sure he had seen the face of a phantom.
At the top of the hill, the man encountered a fence. He threw the bundle over and then climbed up. At the top he paused, listening. The only sound was the wind in the trees.
Beyond the fence, white tombstones rose up from the ground like the bones of some ancient beast. They glowed white in the light of the moon.
The old man stopped, certain that he was unobserved, and removed the flashlight, clicking it on. He waved the beam over the headstones before him. MARGRET JOHNSON: 1880-1929; SAMUEL POTTER: 1876-1940.
Where is she?
He continued on, glancing at tombstones as he passed. Finally he found it, set away from the rest of the markers: CLARA KNIGHT: 1901-1948.
A thrill went through him. He stopped, unfurled the bundle, and grabbed the shovel, his breaths coming in quick gasps.
Mrs. Knight was such a nice lady, he thought as he attacked the frozen ground. Shame about the cancer. She ran the feed store after her husband died, and always had a piece of candy for a little boy in need. Mother said she was as harlot, but Teddy didn't think she was: Mother was wrong about a lot of things.
An hour and a half after starting, Teddy's shovel scraped wood. Throwing aside the shovel, he got down on his hands and knees and brushed away the rest of the dirt, running his hands over the smooth polish the way a boy would his first breast.
She's a whore.
Teddy shook his head. No. She was nice.
You always wanted her. You wanted a whore!
Taking a deep breath, mentally willing away the voices, Teddy got up, grabbed the pry bar off the ground, and opened the coffin.
Inside, Clara Knight was as pretty as the day he almost asked her out. She was a tall, thin woman with high cheekbones and short black hair. Her eyes were closed, but he remembered their sparkling blue almost as vividly as he remembered his mother's flat brown.
Teddy licked his lips.
After he dragged her from the grave, he threw the pry bar into the coffin and filled the hole in again as quickly as he could. Though he worked vigorously, he did not sweat: In fact, his face was numb.
At the car, he opened the trunk, stowed the body of Clara Knight, and got in.
On the way home, Teddy kept checking the rearview mirror, sure that when he least expected it, he would see her clawing her way out of the trunk. She would run back to her grave and he would be alone for the rest of his life.
Before going home, he stopped at the Mobilgas on the corner of Oak and Chestnut in town. Harry Stanton came out of the open garage, his overalls stained with grease, and filled the tank without so much as a word. Harry was one of the kids who made fun of Teddy in school, calling him names and beating him up at lunch. Harry joined the army in 1942 and came back with a bum leg in 1945. Teddy wished he died.
Fifteen minutes later, Teddy was home: A large, rambling farmhouse off the main road, its dilapidated façade hidden by a screen of pine trees. Mother insisted on the pines. She said it gave them more privacy. Closed out the sinful world.
Teddy pulled the car around back and killed the engine. He got out, retrieved Clara Knight from the trunk, and carried her into the kitchen. Boxes and piles of junk littered the counters. Forks and spoons fashioned from human bones sat in the sink. A dried and tanned sheet of skin covered the window looking out onto the side yard.
He laid Mrs. Knight out on the couch, and then went back out to the car. He grabbed the shovel and the pick, and shut the trunk.
Inside, he closed and locked the door.
He was home.
After mother died three years before, Teddy closed off most of the house, keeping her room and things just the way she left them: She didn't like it when he touched her things, and she would be mad when she found out. The only parts he used of the house were the downstairs areas. It was cluttered, but he managed.
In the living room, Teddy stood over Clara Knight for a long time, studying the lines of her face. The cancer took its toll on her, alright: She was thin, emaciated, her skin sallow and the color of death. He thought of what he would have to do later, and his stomach turned.
Sighing, he went over to the radio and turned it on. Dinah Shore crooned of lost love, and Teddy felt her pain so acutely that he nearly wept.
After a brief news break and station identification (WKKL), Mario Lanza came on, singing in Italian or some other language. Teddy went back to Clara Knight's body. Sighing, reluctant, he laid his hands on her cold forehead.
"Rise," he whispered.
She didn't move.
"Rise," he repeated, louder this time.
Still, she didn't move.
That was okay. She didn't have to rise. Mother told him so in the dream he had the night before.
You can't make the dead come forth, she told him from a bank of smoke, you aren't the Son. But the dead can bear fruit as the living. When he woke in the murky December sunshine, her meaning eluded him. But by breakfast, he knew what he had to do to bring her back. It wasn't as easy as the occult texts he bought in Wheeling let on. He couldn't raise the dead. He thought he could, yes, but he couldn't.
The bodies of the dead are but empty vessels, read a line in Amazing! the learned student can restore the body to life and call upon a soul to inhabit it.
Teddy believed it. Hook. Line. Sinker. But his mother was right, and what she said made more sense. The bodies were blank. And what does blank plus whole equal? Whole but blank. All those midnight raids, all the graves pillaged in the name of bringing his mother back from the land of the dead...all for naught. And the girl he took from that house in New Martinsville, the young one he brought home and killed to make room for mother...
Teddy picked Clara Knight up off the couch and carried her into the room off the kitchen. He laid her out on the bed, removed his shirt, and tossed it aside.
Don't chicken out.
He removed her burial dress. She was naked underneath, the dark patch between her legs both repulsive and exhilarating.
He pulled off his pants and mounted her.
His penis wouldn't stay hard.
Think of mother, think of mother...
It twitched, teased growing, and fell limp again.
It was the smell, he decided. Though Clara Knight had only been buried the day before, she had begun to exude the stench of the grave.
A thought occurred to him.
He needed a live woman.
He could plant his seed in her and then kill her.
With that, Teddy fell off the body and lay next to it. In moments, he was asleep.
The next day, December 17, Teddy paced the house, waiting for sundown. He kept the radio on; he didn't like the soap opreas, but then again, he wasn't paying attention to them anyway. It made sense, didn't it? If he killed a woman as he planted his seed, the egg would be dead, thus creating a blank, soulless body. Then he would read from the accursed Forbidden Book and summon mother's soul back to earth. She would be a child at first, and he would have to take care of her, but that was a small price to pay for the woman who had raised him.
At sundown, just as the Miracle on 34th Street reading was beginning, Teddy switched off the radio, threw on his coat, and left the house.
Night fell quickly in northern West Virginia, and with it came the cold winds. Teddy drove the three miles into town thinking of Christmas. His mother hated Christmas. She said it was sinful and decadent. He, too, hated Christmas then, but he couldn't resist the sweet allure of Christmas music on the radio. There was something about it that soothed him.
In town, Teddy sought out the tavern owned by Mae Horgan. Mae, a tough, tobacco-chewing tree trunk of a woman, was one of the few people who earned more than passing disdain from Teddy's mother: The old woman outright hated her.
A woman who would take a man's place is no woman of God.
Mae was very mannish, in both features and personality traits.
But she possessed the necessary equipment.
Being a Friday night, the tavern was busy: A number of cars sat clustered around the parking lot. Teddy parked along the street, reached into the glovebox, and removed the pistol he kept there, the same pistol he used on his brother, Henry, when Henry told him he was eloping with some whore from Pittsburgh.
Teddy tucked the gun into his coat and got out.
Inside, loud black music blared from a jukebox, rhythm and blues the likes of which were once confined to Negro only joints. Teddy took a seat at the bar. Mae Horgan was there, and smiled at him.
"What can I get you?"
She brought Teddy a bottle of beer, and he sipped it sparingly. Since Mae's tavern was in the town limits, she was obliged to be closed by nine. Two hours.
Teddy sat where he was and people-watched. Women hung on men; men smoked and drank; someone got into an argument and went outside to duke it out. Den of inequity, his mother would have called it.
Before long, the patrons began to file out, first one-by-one, then in larger groups. Finally, Mae and Teddy were alone.
"You gonna get goin'?" Mae asked. She was by the sink rinsing out glasses.
"Yeah," Teddy sighed. He got up, dropped a dollar onto the counter, and went toward the door. "You have a good night, Mae," he said.
At the door, hidden from Mae's sight by a bump-out, Teddy locked the door and pulled the shade over the porthole window. Taking the gun from his coat, he hid it behind his back.
With a sigh, he stepped out from behind the window. "Before I go, I got a question."
Mae looked up from her dishes. "What's that?"
Teddy swung the gun up. "Will you get down on your knees?"
For a moment Mae wore a bemused expression, almost as though she couldn't believe what was happening. "Teddy...?"
"Get down on your knees. Now."
She nodded...and threw a beer mug at him.
It hit him in the chest, taking the wind out of him. Reflexively, he fired, the bullet going wild and shattering the mirror behind the bar.
Taking advantage of the moment, Mae ducked into the back, no doubt headed for the door.
Cursing, Teddy gave chase.
She was just opening the back door when he caught up, putting his arm around her throat and wrestling her to the ground. She fought and screamed. "Get off of me!"
Teddy brought the handle of the gun down on her nose; a sickening crunch and a gush of blood told him it was broken. She howled.
He brought the gun down onto her forehead, then her cheek. She thrashed and threw her arms up; Teddy dropped the gun, started choking her, and stopped when she wasn't moving.
Doing exactly as the medical texts he read at home said, he checked her throat for a pulse and found one, weak but present.
Hitting her one more time for good measure, Teddy went out to the car, brought it around to the kitchen door, and backed as close as he could. He got out, opened the trunk, and put the unconscious woman inside, grunting and straining the entire time. She was a big one, alright.
At home, he took her out of the car and dragged her into the kitchen. She was beginning to stir.
Grabbing a roll of duct tape from a drawer, he bound her hands and feet. When he was sure she was secure, he took her into the room and laid her on the bed next to Clara Knight.
"I'm doing this for you, mother!" he said, pulling off his pants. His penis was firm and rigged.
Using a kitchen knife, he cut Mae Horgan's pants off. She wasn't wearing any underwear, which he didn't find surprising.
When he entered her, the world fell away, and for a long moment, he was alone, in the darkness, just him and him alone.
As he came, he brought the knife down, sticking it deep in Mae Horgan's back. She came awake then, fighting.
He stabbed her again.
It didn't work.
It was the day before Christmas. Teddy was standing over the body of Mae Horgan. The basement was cold and dark. He didn't like it.
"I know it didn't work," he muttered.
Despite the cold, Mae had begun to rot. At this rate, the child would die inside of her long before it could be born.
Teddy licked his lips. He didn't want to try again. He might get caught. Mae's disappearance was all over the news. Search parties were scouring the woods that very moment, looking for her.
Try again anyway.
"Alright," Teddy said. He climbed the basement stairs and shut the door. It was the middle of the afternoon. He'd wait until dark.
In the living room, he turned on the radio, and went to the couch. Dropping to his hands and knees, he removed a box from underneath. He sat it on the cushions, opened it, and marveled, as he did every time, at his handiwork. The suit, made from the flesh of a dozen bodies, was smooth and supple. The stitching crisscrossing the back looked terrible, but the front was largely unmangled.
Teddy stood, stripped out of his clothes, and put the skin on like a jacket: The dark brown nipples were hard and pert, and almost against his will, he found himself tweaking them.
"Teddy, clean up your room," he said in falsetto. He marched around the living room then like a general before his troops. "And dust my knickknacks."
It was no use. Deflated, he sat on the couch and buried his face in his hands. He wasn't his mother. He would never be his mother. He once thought that by putting on the suit he could channel her the way a spiritualist channeled ghosts. Maybe he did in the beginning, but now?
Still wearing the suit, Teddy went back into the basement. Selecting a hacksaw from the workbench along the western wall, he cut Mae Horgan's head off. He then sat it on the table and picked up a paring knife.
Maybe if the flesh is new I can come back.
Yes. That had to be it. The suit was old. If he made a new one, one with a mask and gloves, mother might be able to come back. She wouldn't be able to stay, and her presence would be very weak, but it was better than nothing.
With the skill of a surgeon, Teddy removed the skin of Mae Horgan's face. He then hung it on a clothes line to dry.
While he waited, he examined Mae's body. The flesh along her sides and hips was going bad, so he wouldn't be able to use it. But her legs looked just fine.
Humming, he removed them, sliced the flesh off, and hung them next to the face.
It was getting dark, he noticed. Upstairs, he removed the vest, put it back in its box, and stowed it under the couch. When he had the new one, he would dump this one in the woods along with all the other organic refuse.
Dressed now, Teddy threw on his coat and left. The wind was frigid, instantly tearing away his body heat. Shuddering, he got into the car and left.
The roads around Plainview were little traveled on winter nights. Teddy went six miles before encountering another car.
In Stubenville, he stopped at a Mobil station and bought a newspaper. In the car, he opened it to the obituaries and looked for recent deaths.
She has to be alive.
Teddy found one. A woman, fifty-eight, had died three days before. The paper said her burial was that morning at Heaven's Gate Cemetery.
As soon as he yelled, he was sorry. "I know," he repeated. "This is for the vest."
You need a live one. Tonight.
At eight 'o'clock, Teddy drove to Heaven's Gate. He parked along a side road, got out, took his tools from the trunk, and hiked a half mile through the woods. The woman was smack-dab in the middle of the cemetery, the dirt so fresh it hadn't hardened yet. Digging was easier than usual, and in fifteen minutes he had reached the coffin.
Using a spare pry bar, he opened the lid. The woman inside was matronly, just like his mother, and for a moment he thought it really was mother, come back at last.
For some reason, he was terrified.
Realizing it was only a body, Teddy pulled her out of the grave and filled it back in. As he worked, the moon sailed from behind the trees, its ethereal glow lighting the world.
When he was done, he threw the woman over his shoulder and carried her back to the car, nearly dropping her several times along the way.
Once she was safely in the trunk, he went around to the driver side, climbed in, and started the engine.
"I know, mother," Teddy said. He did a U-turn and followed the road to the main highway. He turned south and followed the road all the way to Ridgecrest before turning back around. The highway was empty; the woods were dark; the moon sat high in the heavens, ragged clouds passing before its skull-face like torn burial shrouds.
An hour later, he found someone; serendipitously.
There you go.
A car was parked along the shoulder of the road. A Studebaker, it looked like. When his headlights washed over it, a woman leaning against the trunk perked up, raising her hand.
Taking a deep breath, Teddy pulled up beside the car. Leaning over, he rolled down the passenger window. "Trouble?" he asked.
"Yes. My car broke down."
Teddy nodded. "Get in."
The woman got in and closed the door.
"I have a phone at home. It's not far. You can call a tow truck."
"Thank you," the woman said gratefully.
Fifteen minutes later, Teddy pulled around the back of the house and cut the engine. "The door's open," he said, nodding to the back door. "I got something to do out here."
Nodding and thanking him again, the woman got out and went toward the door.
Without taking his eyes off her, Teddy leaned over, opened the glovebox, and grabbed the pistol.
Teddy got out, shut the door, and followed the woman. She opened the door, paused, no doubt taken aback by the mess (did she see the faces hanging on the walls?), and turned around.
Teddy hit her over the head, and she went down without so much as a sigh.
Stepping over her, Teddy grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her into the kitchen. He shut the door, locked it, and sat the gun on top of the refrigerator. He wiped his hands on his pants, picked the woman up, and carried her into the basement. There, he wrapped her wrists and ankles in duct tape, cut away her dress, and pulled down his pants.
It'll work this time. Just keep her alive. When she goes into labor, kill her.
Teddy opened her legs, paused as the dank stench of her washed over him, and entered her. When he came, he cried out his mother's name.
Just to seal the deal.
Christmas morning. Teddy rose, made a pot of coffee, and listened to the preternatural silence of the house. At some point last night, the woman woke and began screaming. At first it wormed its way into Teddy's dream, and he was back at his mother's sickbed, a letter clutched in his hand.
A friend, mother said.
A male friend?
Does a friend address a friend as "lover"?
Leave me alone.
Did you have sex with him?
What if I did, boy? What if I took him in my mouth and spit him out on your cradle?
Fury seized him. He balled his fists and raised them.
When Teddy woke, the house was dark, and the screaming persisted.
Mother's back, he thought, his heart leaping into his chest. She got tired of waiting, now she's at the back door trying to get in. But she's not in a new body, no. She's in her old one. Three years decayed.
As the sleep evaporated from Teddy's mind, he realized it was only the woman. Relieved, he laid back down and listened to her. She wept. She sobbed. She begged. The sound was comforting.
Without meaning to, Teddy put his thumb in his mouth.
I'm sorry, he told his mother's body. His hands were bloody and tears streamed from his eyes. I'm so sorry.
Then bring me back.
Her eyes were closed and her lips didn't move, yet she spoke, her voice as firm and strong as it was twenty years ago.
Bring me back.
When Teddy woke next, it was morning, and the sunlight falling through the window was the color of old dish water. The house was quiet. Peaceful. It was Christmas morning and all was right with the world.
After his first cup of coffee, Teddy cracked and egg and fried it on the stove top. When that was done, he scooped it onto a plate, poured a measure of orange juice into a glass, and put both of those on a tray. He opened the basement door, propped it with a book, and carried them downstairs.
"I made you break..."
At the bottom of the stairs, Teddy froze.
The woman was gone.
The window was open.
Teddy dropped the tray.
Panicking, he ran back up the stairs and through the living room to the front door. He flung it open just in time to see the woman, naked from the waist down, round the toolshed and start for the road, twenty yards distant.
She was escaping. Running. E...
Looking around, Teddy's eyes fell on an ax leaning against the wall next to the door. Mother must have put it there for him.
Snatching it up, Teddy ran after the woman.
Perhaps sensing him, she turned, saw him coming, and screamed.
Get her! Get her! Get her!
The woman was running now, sobbing as she went. Teddy leapt over a rusted tractor his father vowed to fix in 1927...
...and right into a gopher hole. His left foot snapped and a hot bolt of agony shot up his leg. He screamed, let go of the ax, and tried to yank his foot free: The pain was excruciating.
Get up! Get up! Get up!
Baring his teeth, he ripped his foot out of the hole, swooned, and stood.
The woman was at the highway now.
From the west, a green Chevy rounded a wooded corner and started toward her, slow and languid, with no sense of urgency.
"She's getting away," Teddy muttered. He grabbed the ax and started after her, limping, hissing, grunting, the pain neigh on unbearable.
The woman screamed, her voice echoing through the frosty morning. "Help me! Please!"
She waved and staggered into the road. The car, now ten feet from her, came to a halt. The woman stumbled to the passenger door, ripped it open, and looked back.
"He's coming!" Teddy heard her say.
Then, like a warm summer breeze, she was gone and Teddy was alone.
Teddy didn't speak to the sheriff, nor did he speak to the captain of the state police; he sat in his chair at the interrogation table and smiled. Mother told him to wait for a lawyer, just like they did in the cops shows on the radio.
The press took pictures of him as they transferred him to the county jail. Teddy saw a newspaper headline that blared HOUSE OF HORRORS DISCOVERED NEAR WHEELING, and smiled. What else could a body do?
When the sheriff came back to talk to him after having visited the house for himself, he was pale and shaky. Though Teddy was sure it was illegal, the sheriff slammed his head against the table.
"How many did you kill?"
Teddy just looked at him.
The sheriff slammed the table with both hands and got real close to Teddy's face. "We got parts from fifty different bodies in that slaughterhouse of yours. How many did you kill?"
Tell him, Teddy.
"A few," Teddy said.
"Where'd everything else come from?"
Teddy couldn't help it; he laughed.
Later, in his cell, trying to block out the harsh orange light falling through the barred windows, Teddy spoke to his mother.
There's still a way.
You're my flesh and blood. Will your soul away and let me enter. Let me use you.
When the sheriff returned the next morning, he found Ted Burgess dead, a noose made from his sheets wound tightly around his neck.
Mother was nowhere to be found.