Bernard’s favorite slippers were chestnut moccasins, exteriors shaggy, soles warped and thin. Unfortunately, they no longer kept his feet warm. A sentimental guy, he wasn’t the type to toss away footwear just because it was a little worn out. A fine pair of slippers could last for years, but if you were careless, they could turn on you.
He placed the bag from the department store on the counter and pulled out a shoebox, removing the lid. Heart pounding, his eyes darted around the kitchen then returned to the box. He smiled. He couldn’t help it. They were awesome. Navy blue corduroy lined with soft gold flannel. He brought one slipper to his nose and inhaled, closing his eyes, savoring the new-slipper smell.
His Irish setter, Ginger, plodded into the room, the old moccasins dangling from her mouth. She brought them to him every evening.
He shoved the new pair into the box and wiped his damp palms on his slacks.
Now came the hard part.
“Thanks, girl,” he said, taking the old pair. He inhaled and dropped them into the trash under the kitchen sink, slamming the cupboard door shut. Ginger looked at him and whined.
“These are daddy’s new slippers, girl. Aren’t they great?” Ginger gave the slippers a cursory sniff and wagged her tail. He kicked off his loafers and slid them on. They were luxurious. He plunked down in his armchair and propped his feet on the hassock, admiring his purchase. Leaning back, he closed his eyes, the crackling fire easing him toward sleep.
For the first time in months, his feet were warm.
Bernard woke with a start. In the dimly lit room, dark irregular swatches littered the beige carpet.
What are those?
He clicked on the reading lamp. The fragments lead to the fireplace where a chunky object smoked on the grate, the dying embers casting it in an eerie amber light.
“Oh no! My new slippers!” Bernard exclaimed, balling his fists. Ginger slept next to the fireplace; the scraps surrounded her. “Ginger! What have you done?” He rolled a piece of the morning paper and swatted her on the behind. “Bad dog!” She jumped up with a surprised yelp and scooted away.
Shaking his head, he collected the scraps and tossed them into the fireplace. The fire woke, sprouting colorful flames that devoured the slipper’s remains. Bernard stared at the flames, his expression sour.
The fire snapped, and an orange spark flew out and landed on the carpet next to his foot. He stomped on it, freezing mid-stomp when he saw his feet. He wore his old slippers, a bit of eggshell from the kitchen trash stuck to the toe of the one on his right foot.
“What the hell?” He shook his head and looked at Ginger. “Did you get these out of the trash, girl?” He took a step toward her, but she whined and backed away, eyeing the rolled-up newspaper he still held. He sighed. “Great, I’m a dog-beater now.” He tossed the newspaper onto the fire. “It’s okay, girl,” he said in a soothing voice. “I’m sorry I swatted you. You’re not in trouble.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “I must have done this. Damn.”
His first bout of sleepwalking occurred after his younger sister’s abduction. A man climbed in her open window on a hot August night and took her, a single purple bunny slipper left behind in front of the window. Outside, footprints with deep square heel imprints and pointy toes–cowboy boots–headed away from the house.
The police never found the man that wore the boots, and they never found Jess.
After that night, his mother would find Bernard trembling and glossy-eyed, standing by the window in Jessie’s room as if on guard, or sitting in the chair next to her bed. When she tried to wake him, he would not respond, but would shuffle, zombie-like, back to his own bed.
Bernard still had his sister’s slipper. He’d taken it before the police arrived that night, believing that she’d left it behind for him to find. Even now, two decades later, he would take it out and study it, willing it to tell him what had happened that night.
As he got older, he rambled further during his night walks and started collecting things, troubling things. He would wake in the morning to find a single Mary Jane or pink tennis shoe tucked under his bed–never a pair, only a single.
The night walks continued over the years, with sporadic pauses where no shoes would appear under his bed. Then he would see a young girl that resembled Jess, or hear a voice like hers, and the roaming and collecting would start up again.
He worried about the things he did during his night walks. Where did these shoes come from? He wished he could ask his slippers where they took him at night, he knew he wore them because he would often find leaves or mud stuck to the soles, but part of him did not want to know.
Bernard shuffled around the grocery store in a daze, selecting items without much thought: Milk, coffee, eggs. Chocolate syrup. He selected a cantaloupe from the bottom of the pile, and the entire pyramid thundered to the floor. He tried to stop the slide by catching the fruit in a massive bear hug, but only succeeded in being pummeled and knocked back on his ass, involuntarily squeezing the bottle of syrup he held in one hand. A plume of chocolate arced from the tip of the bottle and splattered across the bare calves of a woman standing nearby. She wore a red sweater and matching stilettos, her upper thighs covered by a silky sweep of skirt.
The woman’s legs were lovely, and Bernard fought the urge to lap the syrup off her calf in one long tonguey swoop. Instead, he knelt in front of her, swiping at it clumsily with his sleeve, mumbling apologies.
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, taking a step back. “Well, aren’t you sweet?” She laughed and pointed to her legs. “I guess I am too.” She had a long bottle-blond mane and clear blue eyes that went nicely with her supple, chocolate-covered calves. Bernard laughed, too loudly.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, sitting on the floor surrounded by cantaloupes. “I’m kind of out of it today. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
The woman, who introduced herself as Sally, and a dispirited store clerk, who did not introduce himself, helped him pick up the fruit. Sally wiped off her legs using the paper towels from the meat section, while the butcher, a long string of sausages draped between his hands, watched with interest. When she finished, she retrieved a pen from her purse, and wrote her phone number on Bernard’s bottle of chocolate syrup.
Bernard swung his legs over the side of the bed, bare feet searching for his slippers. He saw them across the room, tangled with Sally’s slippers: open toe slides with three-inch clear plastic heels and pink feather boa trim. A bottle of chocolate syrup stood on the nightstand.
He smiled at Sally’s off-key singing in the shower, the sound of a woman in his home comforting. She scared him a little too, but in a good way.
For the past week, since he met Sally, he had slept like a baby, and when he woke, he felt rested and optimistic, sure that he had not roamed.
“Those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” Sally said, stepping into the bedroom wearing only the towel wrapped around her head. She frowned at Bernard’s slippers.
“They’re not that bad. They’re like old friends,” he said.
“Well, I’ve got a little surprise for you,” she said. “I think you’re going to like it.”
“Whipped cream?” Bernard said, wiggling his eyebrows.
She laughed. “You are so bad. Be right back.” She disappeared down the hall, returning seconds later, placing a shoebox on the bed.
“Oh, you didn’t need to do that,” Bernard said. He lifted the lid and when he saw what was inside, he said, “Wow. You really didn’t have to do that…”
Inside the box was a pair of slippers, exteriors covered with white-spotted, black faux fur. Each slipper had a black shiny nose, brown button eyes, floppy ears, and an open mouth with a red lolling tongue.
“See, I brought you some little doggie friends!” Sally said to Ginger, giggling as she put the slippers on her hands and walked them toward the dog, who sat on the bed. Ginger lowered her head and growled; her lips curled up in a way Bernard had never seen.
“Your dog hates me.” Sally said, drawing her hands back.
“No, she’s just surprised. As am I.”
Sally dropped the slippers back into the box. “Do you like them?”
“Sure…they’re…ah…nice, Sal.” He looked at Ginger. “You leave these alone, girl. They’re daddy’s new slippers,” Bernard said, and for a moment, he felt intense heat and pressure around his feet. He grimaced and bent to take his slippers off, but the pressure released.
The next morning, the sugar bowl held something besides sugar, an object, circular and black, with two holes. Bernard slipped on his bifocals and plucked it out to examine it.
The two holes were nostrils.
“What the–?” he said. His eyes fell on something furry draped over the kitchen faucet–a dog’s ear.
“Oh my God,” he repeated. “Ginger!” he yelled. Ginger trotted into the kitchen, nose and ears intact. Bernard exhaled. Of course, the nose he held was soft rubber, but for a moment there, it had looked so, well…real…
“What did you do? Bad, bad dog!” Sally said from behind Bernard. He jumped, dropping the nose on the floor. It bounced once and rolled toward Ginger. She lowered her nose to it and sniffed.
“Would you just look at this mess, Bernard?” Sally held out a large scrap of black spotted fabric and another flap of an ear. “That filthy dog destroyed your new slippers. The slippers I bought you. “Bad dog!” she repeated, waggling a finger at Ginger.
“It wasn’t Ginger, she wouldn’t do that.” Bernard frowned. No one called his dog filthy. “Maybe squirrels got in the bedroom last night, we had the window open…bad things can crawl in open windows…” his voice trailed off when he saw Sally’s expression.
“Squirrels, Bernard. Really? I think maybe you’re the one that tore up the slippers. That you didn’t really like them at all.”
“That’s not true. I loved those slippers!” He stared at her chin. He was thrilled the damn slippers were destroyed. What kind of man wears doggie slippers?
“Then why are you wearing those nasty old things again? You told me you threw them out.” She pointed to his feet. He looked down and squawked when he saw his old slippers. Sally began to tap one pink-feather-boa’d foot. Once again, Bernard felt his slippers grow hot and squeeze.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled. It was the God’s-honest truth. Yesterday he had put the old slippers in the dumpster behind his house.
“Well, it’s either them or me!” Sally said, arms akimbo. “You’re lucky I don’t make you get rid of the damn dog too.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes dramatically. “You choose.”
“Fair enough,” Bernard said. And he did.
Bernard woke, wet and shivering, curled in a ball on his side. He winced as something sharp poked into his hip. He sat up, not in bed, but outside, on gravel. In the distance, a car alarm bleated. He sat in front of a dumpster wearing only light blue boxers with little pink pigs on them–another unfortunate gift from Sally–and a thin white tee shirt. He hugged his body as the breeze picked up.
He stared at his feet, the slippers looked monstrous in the moonlight, three-times their usual size, his legs, pale twigs sticking out from them. He shivered. He’d never woken up during a night walk, but since his break up with Sally, things had been weird. He was not only collecting little girl’s shoes, but also women’s shoes, and not just a single, but dozens of pairs.
His right foot suddenly twitched and stamped on the ground, followed by the same motion from his left, and he popped to his feet. His mind was awake, but Bernard had no control over his body. It was doing this all on its own.
His right foot took a short step, and his left did the same. His monster feet carried him along in an awkward shimmy until he reached the main drag.
His feet turned right onto the quiet street. His shimmy became a Frankenstein-amble as he trucked down the center stripe. He prayed no cars would come along and see him in this curious state. A regular clicking sound punctuated each step. Claws had sprouted from the fronts of his slippers, curved and bear-like.
“Cool,” he whispered, as he lurched down the street.
He walked for miles, into neighborhoods he did not recognize. He entered a barren, run-down part of the city, and his pace slowed. His feet made another abrupt turn into an overgrown vacant lot. A dilapidated trailer sagged next to the lot. His feet paused there for a moment, before following a narrow path that snaked into the overgrowth.
The bushes thinned and opened up into a circular clearing. At the far end of the clearing, outlined by moonlight, was an enormous tree, and though Bernard was sure he had never been here before, the tree seemed familiar. A slight form stepped out from the shadows and Bernard jerked in surprise, his body once again his own.
His sister stood in front of the tree. Her gold hair hung around her face. She wore a long white nightie and her feet were bare.
“Jessica?” he whispered. “Oh my God. Jess. Is that really you? Do you remember me? It’s your brother, Bernie.” His voice quavered. The girl didn’t speak, and for a moment Bernard wondered if she was real. A light snow started to fall and he glanced at her pale feet. “Your poor feet must be cold.”
“I’m used to being cold,” she said in a faint voice. She moved closer. “How come you can talk tonight? You come here all the time, but you’ve never say anything before.”
Bernard exhaled. “I’ve been here before? I don’t remember…” He looked around, his eyes resting on the huge tree, returning to her. “I must have been sleepwalking those other times I was here. I’ve been looking for you for a long time. Mom and Dad did too, before they died. I wasn’t going to give up until I found you.” His voice caught. “We all loved you so much, Jessie.”
“I know, Bernie,” she said. “I was so scared when the man took me. I yelled for you.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you,” Bernard sobbed. “If only I had heard you…” He knotted his hands into fists. “Who took you, Jessie? What man?”
“The man who fixed the toilet when it broke. The smelly man with the cowboy boots. He came into my room. He said he liked my dolls. Then he came back that night.”
“A plumber?” Bernard said.
“There were roots. Roots had grown in and around the pipes,” his sister said. “They plugged things up. They grow everywhere, wrap around things.” She brought a hand up to her throat and rubbed, and Bernard noticed the smudged bruises on her sallow skin. He shivered.
“Did he do that to you?” he said. She nodded. “Do you know his name?”
“Steven. Steven Craven. He’s very old now. He lives in the trailer next to the vacant lot.”
“I passed that on the way here. Hard to believe anyone lives in there.”
“He lives in there,” his sister said in a flat voice, “but he keeps our things in the big tree. His treasures, he calls them, but they belonged to us. He calls the tree, the trophy tree. He still comes out here from time to time and adds something to the tree, then another little girl shows up.”
“‘Another little girl?’ There are more.”
“Yeah. Lots. The others are all around you. Can’t you see them?”
Bernard thought he saw a shadow retreating out of the corner of his eye, behind him, leaves rustled, branches snapped, but he saw no others.
“Where is your…ah…What happened to…” He stopped.
“I’m buried right below your feet,” she said.
“Oh,” Bernard said, taking two steps back and staring at the ground. The thought of his sister buried in the cold earth both horrified and infuriated him. He raised his eyes. “The trophy tree?” he said, nodding to the huge white oak. His sister nodded and walked to the tree. She pointed to a small opening about six feet off the ground.
“I’m not tall enough to see in, but that’s where he keeps them.”
Bernard hesitated before reaching into the hole, stealing himself for a bite or a sting from an invisible creature. Instead, his hand found something cool and metallic. He pulled out a silver barrette with ladybugs on it.
“That was Jenny’s,” his sister said. Bernard reached in a dozen more times, each time pulling out something different: A pair of ragged mittens, a striped hat with a pom-pom, a lunchbox, a latex doll, a braided hair band, a pair of tiny sequined shoes, a stuffed giraffe. For each item he pulled out, his sister would give a name.
Those are Susie’s.
That is Kendra’s.
Those are Michelle’s.
Until he pulled out a familiar item: A single purple bunny slipper, dirty, one bunny ear torn, the other missing, but he would know it anywhere, he had its mate at home.
“Your slipper!” he cried. “I have the other.” Tears rolled down his face. “I’m so sorry, Jess. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
“It’s okay, Bernie. It wasn’t your fault. You were just little, like me.” She paused. “You should stop stealing shoes now though. I know you were just looking for my other slipper, but it’s creepy. Little girl’s like their shoes.”
“I know! It’s weird.” He groaned. “And now I’m stealing women’s shoes too. Maybe because I thought you were grown now?” He looked at the little girl in front of him; a pang of sadness hit him. His little sister would never grow up to be a woman. “Or maybe I’m just a freak.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s them,” she said, pointing to his feet.
“Them? My slippers?”
“Yes.” A shudder wracked her slight frame.
“I don’t understand.”
“The women’s shoes are for them. They’ve been looking for the perfect companion. They’re really mad at you right now. They found what they were looking for and you took it away.”
“What? I did?”
“Yes, give them what they want, and you will be free. They are selfish things,” she said, “but they love you. That’s why they helped you tonight, but they expect you to return the favor.” When she spoke the last few words, her voice dropped several octaves, not her voice at all. In the same deep voice, she said, “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Bernard croaked.
“Good,” Jessie said in her own sweet voice, much to his relief. She offered her hand to him. He took it in his own and it did not feel cold as he expected, but soft, like feathers. She squeezed his hand, the hem of her nighty swirling around her ankles in the light breeze.
“Bernie! They’re waiting for me. Can you see them?” she whispered, her eyes bright. “Now I can go.”
“Who? The other girls?”
“No. Mom and Dad. They look so happy. I hope you can be happy now, too.” She looked up with him, eyes shining. “I love you. You saved me.” A single sob escaped his throat and he screwed his eyes shut. When he opened them, his sister was gone. He was alone, slumped against the trophy tree.
He closed his eyes and his mind finally slept, but his feet did not.
Bernard woke in his own bed, his sister’s face still sharp in his mind, her last words to him echoing in his head.
I love you. You saved me.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed, bare feet searching for his slippers. Something soft and feathery brushed the sole of his foot and he yanked his foot back. He peered under the bed. His old slippers were there, but were not alone. They nudged up against the feathery pink boa of Sally’s slippers, so close, they appeared to be…well…snuggling. One of her slippers had a splash of what looked like chocolate syrup across the heel.
His eyes drifted to the nightstand where both bunny slippers sat, one tattered and dirty, an ear missing. The other almost like new.
Next to the nightstand in the corner of the room was a pair of cowboy boots, the blood still drying on the hand-tooled leather uppers, the tops of the former owner’s lower legs protruding from the boots, ragged and torn, as if they had been chewed off.
BIO: Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Montana with her husband, Val, and a menagerie of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, “Cream City Review”, “Swamp Biscuits & Tea”, “Ellipsis”, and “Eric’s Hysterics”. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall enjoys exploring ghost towns, kayaking, and cat wrangling.