So Very Beautiful: Psychological Horror Short Fiction By Jack Callaghan.
In So Very Beautiful by Jack Callaghan, Toni has recently found fame as a cast member on a cult period drama. Though the interest of one particular fan becomes more than she bargained for.
Toni had never had a stalker before.
In a way she was actually quite proud of her herself. Surely, that’s how you measure true celebrity? Once you had your first stalker, you knew you’d really made it.
At first, it was nothing too extreme. Just noticing the same guy no-matter where she went. Seeing him in the background of pictures. Not quite photo-bombing, but there in the periphery of every single one.
It progressed to notes slipped under her door in the night. Again, nothing too creepy or in any way obscene. If anything, they were just confusing.
“You are more beautiful than they give you credit for.” The first had read, and Toni couldn’t help but feel just a little bit touched. What a nice thing for someone to say. Even if it was slipped under her door frame in the dead of night.
She’d landed a semi-serious role on ‘October Tide’, a chintzy period drama with writing that was kind of like Barbara Cartland on Xanax. Two dimensional characters delivering lines that were so hammy that you could almost hear the oink, and with more of the budget spent on the costumes rather than the props, so as it looked like the characters from Downton Abbey filmed on the set of Friends.
“You are more beautiful than they give you credit for.” The first had read, and Toni couldn’t help but feel just a little bit touched.
Toni seemed to be the only cast member to have done alright out of it. Getting the part had rescued her from mere extra work and delivered her right into a regularly appearing and always speaking part that her portfolio of previous appearances in no way warranted.
Her agent, a kind though perhaps inexperienced chap named Brian, had taken her on under the offer of,
“I can’t promise anything.”
He’d milked her part on the show as hard as he could. An interview in a trashy magazine was, unexpectedly, followed by a daytime TV appearance which seriously got the ball rolling.
The critics seemed enamoured with her ‘Bolt from the blue’ story, to the point where they overlooked the generally terrible qualities of the show in order to praise her performance.
“October Tide would probably be un-redeemable,” a reviewer for the Radio Times wrote, “were it not for the inclusion of newcomer Toni Marshall, whose talent as an actress is not only out of place in an otherwise mediocre production, but which actually makes the series watchable.”
For the first time in her life, Toni had fans. Honest to God fans. Before she knew it, she was getting stopped in the street for selfies and to sign autographs. What she loved the most was how many of her fans were female. Were the majority of them men, then it’d be obvious what they were really interested in. Sure, her character was pretty well developed as compared to the other members of the cast, but her costume did have a habit of accentuating certain parts of her physique over others.
The fact that it was women, and especially young girls, who had latched onto her character, filled Toni with a sense that viewers were seeing beyond the piled wig and bursting bodice.
Before long, the TV and magazine appearances were focused less upon ‘The Tide’ as it was known among fans, and more upon Toni herself.
The subject that came up the most was what she planned to do next?
It was already a forgone conclusion that ‘The Tide’ would not have a second season. Its ‘So bad it’s good’ factor being nowhere near strong enough to guarantee its survival.
It was around this time that the ‘Stalker’ first appeared. At first it had just been an oddity.
“Have you noticed that same guy who’s always there?”
He almost became a sort of in-joke among Toni and her small entourage.
“Oops, where is he? Ah, don’t worry. There he is.”
Toni had first approached him while on a night out when a group of paparazzi had ended up in tow with her.
She’d just come out of a bar and spotted the guy hanging around outside when the old cry of, ‘Toni! Toni! Over here!’ had rung out from the photographers.
A little worse for drink, and feeling a bit mischievous, she’d marched right up to the guy, slung an arm over his shoulder and declared to them,
“This bloke is my biggest fan!” her words a bit slurred. “He’s who I do it all for!”
The next day, it was on the cover of all the glossy magazines. Toni’s face bright and beaming, the guy looking both elated and utterly embarrassed at the same time.
At first, Brian was worried. Saying that it was stuff like this that heralded a star’s downfall. Though, on the contrary, the media loved it.
“Toni surprises lucky fan!” one headline read.
“Who is Toni’s Numero-Uno?” another enquired.
The general consensus was that Toni wasn’t your usual celebrity type. Rather, she cared enough about her fans to want a picture taken with one of them over any of the other luminaries who were present that night.
Before the end of the initial series of ‘October Tide’, the first convention took place. It was really more of a meet and greet than an actual convention, but still, over three hundred fans attended. Some even wearing full, period costumes.
…she’d thought that no-one would pay such an extortionate amount…to her surprise, a huge number of people lined up to be greeted.
Toni was the biggest draw of the entire day, with photos and autographs set at forty pounds a time.
At first, she’d thought that no-one would pay such an extortionate amount. Though, to her surprise, a huge number of people lined up to be greeted. To the point where it took almost two hours to deal with them all.
“I guess it’s indicative of the times,” said Tom Price, who played the swashbuckling Mr. Cavendish on the show. “These days, a whore doesn’t even have to sleep with her punters.”
This stung Toni like a poisoned barb, but she put it down to the fact that Tom had come away with the least money of the entire cast.
It was getting towards the end of the event, the rest of the cast had already moved to another room where a Q and A was set to take place, when Toni was presented with one final visitor.
A 6X8 photo of herself in costume was placed in-front of her, which she leaned in to sign.
“I bet you never thought you’d see me again?” its owner said, causing Toni to glance up.
It took a moment for her to register who it was.
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, of course, it’s you.”
Sure enough, there he was. The guy who kept popping up in the photos.
Toni signed his picture and then lifted it for him to take. “You know?” she said, “I’m sorry to have put you on the spot that night. It’s just, I’d seen you before and kind of got caught up in the moment.”
“I don’t mind at all,” the guy replied. “Actually, I didn’t realise that you’d noticed me.”
Toni took him in as he stood there, both hands held behind his back, even though she was still proffering the photo to him.
He looked to be in his early to middle thirties. Tall, and with narrow shoulders, light brown hair and a somewhat angular face.
He looked nothing like the usual, run of the mill fan-boy. He wasn’t weedy, with a pock-marked face or Coke bottle glasses. He looked just like any of the others who Toni had met that day.
“Well, at least I got to see you again,” Toni said, giving the photo a slight shake to get him to take it, and also to indicate that their conversation was now over.
“How do you like it up at Prior Row?” he asked.
“Huh?” Toni said, taken aback.
“You moved there last month,” he said. “That lovely house at the end of the first street. With the garden the overlooks the park. It’s really nice.”
“How do you…” Toni said, but he quickly snatched the photo from her and then just as swiftly walked away.
Toni was still trying to gather her thoughts when Brian, who’d been standing close the whole time, came over.
“Was that who I think it was?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Toni replied. “What are the odds?”
“Pretty good odds, really,” Brian said. “We’ve never talked about being careful, have we?”
“How do you mean?”
“You’ve got to be cautious,” Brian said. “You never know when people are gonna be, err, ‘Overly enthusiastic’, shall we say?”
“Oh, come on,” Toni said with a rasp of her lips. “He hardly seems dangerous. Anyway, he’s a fan.”
“I’m sure that’s what John Lennon thought.”
“Give over,” Toni chuckled. “Surely not?”
“He said he knows where you live,” Brian said. “I tell you what, let’s get the Q and A out of the way, and then we’ll talk.”
Brian decided that Toni needed to start thinking more seriously about security.
“I’m not talking armed guards or anything like that,” he said. “You just need to take these sorts of things into consideration.” They did a walk-around of her house, looking for any potential security risks. They didn’t find many, but Brian was less than satisfied. “You’re a single woman, living on your own,” he said, seeming to think that stating the obvious would bolster his point. “I’d sleep much more soundly at night if I knew that you had a security system installed, or failing that, a big, scary dog.”
“I’ll think about a security system,” Toni said. “Though I’m allergic to dogs, as you well know.”
“Let’s set something down right now,” Brian said, “If you’re ever in a situation where you can’t even risk calling 999, then you call me, and you say I dunno, ‘Magpie. That way, I’ll know that something is up, and I can call the police for you. Lots of people have safe words like that, and it works so trust me.”
“I still think that you’re being far too dramatic,” Toni said. “I’m just a low-level actress on some two-bit show who got lucky. All this worry over one strange fan?”
“Tell that to Jodie Foster,” Brian said.
They parted ways with Toni promising to get quotes for a security set up as soon as she could.
It wasn’t long after this that the first note had arrived.
“You are more beautiful than they give you credit for.”
She, of course, knew who it was from and, indeed, it had freaked her out a little at first. Though she tried to think of it from another perspective. The guy was being as genuinely flattering as he could in the only way he knew how. If she ever saw him again, or even caught him in the act, she’d make sure to inform him that slipping notes under her door wasn’t the best way of paying a compliment, and that’d be that.
She didn’t want to be seen as some ditzy, air-head actress who flew into hysterics at the first sign of a problem. No, she could handle this on her own and deal with it before it erupted into anything major and, more importantly, before it leaked to the media.
“Toni’s ‘Biggest fan’ is an obsessive stalker!”
Yeah, how good would that look?
This was the first time that the term ‘Stalker’ had actually entered her mind. Though, the more she thought about it, the more it started to fit the bill.
When she’d spoken to the guy at the meet and greet, he’d seemed like a normal and down to Earth guy. Surely, a simple talking to would set him straight and sort all of this out?
This was easier said than done. Mainly due to the fact that the notes kept on coming, but any sign of the guy himself never did.
Toni finally took Brian’s advice and had a single CCTV camera installed in her front porch. Though the guy must have observed this being done as, no sooner had the camera been put in place, the notes began appearing under the windshield-wipers of her car rather than under the door. The car being parked just outside of the camera’s range.
They also began to become much more abstract with regards to their content.
“What do you want for nothing?” or, “I think it was Lucretius who said, ‘Nothing human disgusts me’.”
Toni decided to lay a trap for the guy. One evening she parked her car the other way around, with the front facing towards the door. This way she could watch the camera feed and, hopefully, be able to see him making his way around it.
She stayed up late for a week, hoping to catch him, but he didn’t appear. She was at a loss, thinking that he’d either seen through her trap or, maybe, finally given up all-together.
However, one Saturday night, he re-appeared. Toni had only been half watching the camera monitor, her attention otherwise fixed upon the final episode of ‘October Tide’ in-which her character finally told Mr. Cavendish that he didn’t have a chance with her, due to him being a ‘Charmless and un-civilised bounder!’ when a flicker of movement caught her attention.
There he was, in the ghastly green of the camera’s night vision, creeping up alongside her car.
She jumped up and headed right for the front door. She looked through the peep-hole just to confirm that he was indeed still there, before suddenly throwing the door open, triggering the porch floodlights.
“Okay!” she said. “That’s enough!” The guy paused in his tracks and held a hand up to his brow to block the light. “You need to stop this, right now!”
“Stop what?” the guy said.
“You know what!” Toni snapped. “All this with the little love letters. I don’t want to have to get the police involved, but I will if I have to!”
“I don’t have a letter this time,” he said. “I noticed that you’d put a camera up.”
“So, then just bugger off!” Toni said. “Leave it at this and then, no more!”
“There’s just one more thing,” the guy said, straightening up from where he’d been crouching near the car.
“Oh, yeah?” Toni said, placing her hands on her hips in a display of defiance. “What’s that?”
“Just this,” the guy said.
He then took three, purposeful strides towards Toni, keeping one hand behind his back. When he was a yard or so away, his hand came into view and suddenly jerked up towards her.
The splash came first, followed by shock. Cold, like ice-water, but then, the smell. Harsh and astringent, like ammonia. Was it pee? Had he flung pee in her face.
Then, the pain. Starting slow, but quickly building over her brow, her eyelids and then her cheeks. It intensified in a throbbing wave which travelled down and also out as whatever this awful substance was spread across her face.
She fell to her knees and flung her hands up, though as soon as they met her skin, they also began to burn.
It was so sudden and paralysing that she couldn’t even scream. The last thing she heard was the guys voice, speaking in a lilting almost cooing tone.
“Beautiful,” he said, “So beautiful.”
When she awoke, the pain was right there wating.
Once again, she reached up to touch her face, but found that it was covered with a tight barrier of what felt like wet cloth. Her eyes were similarly barred, and she jolted upright, throwing her arms around aimlessly.
“Don’t! Don’t, Ms. Marshall!” a voice to her side said.
She tried to speak, but found that her mouth was also swaddled, so all she could managed was a series of muffled gasps and chokes.
It felt like her face was on fire. Like it had been doused in petrol and then set ablaze. Again, she attempted to cry out. There was movement at her side, and then something happened which suddenly dulled the agony.
“You’re in the hospital, Ms. Marshall,” a voice, though not the same as the first, said. “You’ve been attacked with a, err…” it faltered for a second. “A corrosive substance.”
“It was him,” she tried to say through the bindings. “Him. He did it.”
“Don’t!” the second voice said. “Don’t try to speak. You need to stay as still as possible.”
“There’s someone waiting outside for you,” the first voice said “I think he’s your manager or something? Is that right?”
Toni nodded and laid back down.
There came the sound of a door opening and hurried feet.
“Toni,” Brian’s voice said. Toni again attempted to reach out and try to touch him, but an arm, probably Brian’s, pressed her back down. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
“It was him,” she, again, tried to say, but all that came out was, “Eee-oh-i.”
“I know, I know,” Brian said, somehow managing to understand her. “That’s the first thing I told the police.”
“Oo-all-ah-ahulas?” Toni tried.
“Err… What? I don’t…” Brian said.
“Hoo-khalled-a-ahbulass?” Toni said, fighting against the pain and her bounds.
“He did,” Brian said. “They got the call at about half seven. He made it from the phone in your house.” Brian gave a long, low sigh. “Toni,” he said. “I know this definitely isn’t what you want to hear right now, but…” He gave another long exhale. “Toni, he’s told everyone. It was online before he even turned up at your place. Just before the last episode of The Tide ended. It’s everywhere.”
The hospital had never had to turn away so many people. It seemed that every shutter-bug in the country wanted to get a snap of Toni’s disfigurement.
Even when Brian arranged for her to be moved to a private clinic, the word somehow got out and the cameras descended upon the place.
Toni was visited by countless police officers who only brought her the same news every time. All they knew was what he looked like. They’d seen the footage from the meet and greet, as-well as that from her own single CCTV camera. Though, other than this, they had nothing. No fingerprints, no hair or fibres, nothing. It was as if the guy was a ghost.
Toni’s world became one of painkillers and endless dressing changes. There were talks of skin-grafts. Taking flesh from her legs and backside in order to cover the parts that the acid had eaten off of her face. They’d saved her left eye, but the other was gone. A useless and grizzled lump in a scarified socket that wasn’t even able to weep.
When she was finally released, she of course couldn’t go home. Instead, Brian put her up in a hotel. Though, as days turned into weeks, the issue of, ‘We aren’t going to be able to afford this much longer’, began to rear its dreadful head.
It finally got to a point where she began to recognise her bandaged features more than she remembered them as they’d been before. Despite the warnings of the doctors, she’d once attempted to remove a section prematurely, but had stopped as soon as she’d revealed the first inch of gnarled and almost alabaster pallid skin beneath. Better to stay like this. Better to remain covered than to face the horror of what would be her new face from now on.
It was, perhaps, hard to accept, but the time came when the media stopped looking. Something else must have happened that overshadowed her own terrible situation. In her heart, she knew this would be the case. There was always something else. Something new that would draw their lenses in the same way a fresh corpse draws vultures.
She was three days away from being thrown out of the hotel when she received her final visitor. The phone didn’t ring, the buzzer didn’t chime. Instead, there came a knock. Solid and purposeful upon the door to her suite.
She went to the door and drew her face to the peep-hole, having to raise a finger to help open a still slightly gummed eyelid.
It was him. Somehow, he’d found her.
He stood there, just as he had when he was waiting for his photo to be signed. His hands behind his back, his narrow shoulders high and set.
“If you let me in,” he said, his voice only slightly deadened by the door, “then there’s something wonderful that I want to show you.”
Toni felt her heart start to race, her breath beginning to catch. It was him! He was right there. Though she tried to think rationally. If she bolted to the phone and called the police, was that not what he’d be expecting? He’d be gone before they even arrived.
‘Talk to him’, she thought to herself. ‘Keep him there until you can figure out what to do!’
“Ay-horry,” she said. Even now, she still hadn’t regained the powers of full speech. “Ah-hont-oh-hoo-oo-ah.”
“We both know that’s not true,” he replied, apparently able to understand her even through the door. “Come on, Toni. Let me in, and we’ll just sit down and talk.” He glanced off to his side. “Or,” he said, “I can just go?”
“Oh-ohnt!” Toni said, suddenly fumbling for the door handle.
His smile grew as she opened the door.
“There,” he said. “I’d say it’s nice to see you, only I’m not, really, am I?” He brought one of his arms from behind his back and pointed into thro room. “Shall we?”
Toni walked backwards, not wanting to show him her back. He strolled along the hallway, casually looking around and he did so. His other hand came from behind his back to reveal that he was carrying a small back-pack which he began to swing in-front of him as he walked.
Once they were into the main room of the suite, he approached the basic dining table and pulled both of the chairs. Sitting down upon one and beckoned for Toni to sit in the other.
Once they were facing each-other, he smiled again.
“Aht-oo-hoo-ahnt?” Toni asked.
“Why are you still wearing those?” he said and brought up a hand, attempting to reach out and touch her bandaged face.
“Ohnt-uch-ee!” she snapped, batting his hand away.
That smile of his had triggered something within her. She glanced around the room, taking in every object at her disposal. ‘I’ll kill him!’ she thought. ‘There has to be something here, and I’ll kill him with it!’
Only, there was nothing. What was she going to do? Beat him over the head with the kettle or the remote? Hotels provide a lot of things, yet murder weapons are not among them.
“I said that I wanted to show you something,” he said. “And I will. Only, first, you have to show me something.” He brought up his back-pack and set it on the table. “It’s in here,” he said. “Just do as I say, and I’ll show you.” He raised his hand again and pointed at her, twirling his finger around in a spiral. “Take those off for me,” he said. “Let me see.”
There was nothing else she could do. Trying her best to remain composed, Toni reached up and fumbled for the loose end of the first bandage. She’d kept her hair in a tight pony-tail ever since, so she was forced to use her other hand to lift it out of the way as she unwound the first coil.
He simply stared at her, his smile growing ever larger as more of her face was revealed. At first, she thought that he was mocking her, taking some kind of sick pleasure in seeing just what he had done to her. Though, as more and more of the bandages were removed, she realised that this wasn’t true. He genuinely liked what he was seeing.
“Perfect,” he said as the last few inches of bandaged fell to the floor. “Beautiful. I always said you were, didn’t I? More beautiful than they gave you credit for.” He placed his hand on the top of the back-pack. “Now I suppose it’s my turn?” He undid the zip and then fished around inside. He drew his hand back out, and Toni saw that he was gripping a squat, screw-top flask. He set it down between them and undid the top.
“Aht-ish-aht?” she said.
“Shh,” he replied, closing his eyes as he pried the top off. The scent instantly filled the room. That same acrid, ammonia smell. She flinched back, but he raised his other hand, the palm held up. “No,” he said. “Don’t worry. Just listen.” He pushed the flask until it was right between them on the table. “You’re beautiful,” he said. “So very, very beautiful. Now, what I want you to do is take this,” he nodded at the flask. “Pick it up. Throw it in my face,” he gave her that smile again, “then, we can both be beautiful.”
Toni lifted a trembling hand and slowly reached out towards the flask.
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