Haunted Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Peter Gallagher

Runner Up
The Age of Aquarius
Haunted Short Story Competition


Peter Gallagher is a lecturer at City of Glasgow College specialising in Event Management. He has talked about being a writer for years but has only recently started doing something about it. He has submitted several short stories to publications such as Writing Magazine and Popshot, but The Age of Aquarius marks his first success. His first book, a critique of the music of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, will be published by Sonicbond Publishing in 2021.


The Age of Aquarius By Peter Gallagher

Bruce Lee couldn’t possibly say how many times he had saved Sharon Tate’s life, but the first time occurred the day after her funeral.
The funeral is all shock and rumour. Kirk Douglas is there, and Yul Brynner. James Coburn, Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers. Someone knows a friend of a friend in the LAPD. Chinese whispers of sadism and desecration spread like a contagion through the Good Shepherd Church. Bruce wrestles with his anger, his stomach churning with acidic loathing, and steels himself for Jay’s funeral this afternoon.
The following morning finds him parked outside 10050 Cielo Drive, uncertain as to why. He sits behind the wheel, still as marble, stare fixed on the gate. Is the ground beyond now hallowed, he wonders, or is it unholy? Some new sensation burns in his stomach, like something nestled there had just slithered awake. He forces himself out, drops his jacket on the passenger seat, dons his aviator shades.
There are no cops, no barriers. The gate is not even locked. A few steps in, Bruce pauses, remembering a photograph that all the newspapers ran. A white 1966 Nash Ambassador parked in this very spot, front doors flung wide. Police photographers going stoically about their business. Bruce thinks of the bespectacled boy in the checked shirt and crisply creased Chinos, dead because he tried to hock a clock radio at the wrong time and wrong place. It takes a moment, but he remembers the name. Steven Parent. He wasn’t known like the other victims, nor was he known to them. His funeral was also yesterday. There were no Hollywood stars, no paparazzi cameras pointing at tinted limousine windows. No flowers from Dino. No Bruce Lee either; in the coming months and years he saves Sharon and the others over and over, but Steven is sacrificed each time. His salvation fits no scenario.
There is a smear on the white front door, like a dirty protest. The detail that excited the papers the most, the word “pig” written in blood. Sharon’s blood. He shifts him from one foot to the other, restless with indecision. Should he place his hand on it, touch it? It is the last he will see of his friend, after all. The letters on the door blur and become indistinct, and he realises he is crying. He places his left fore and middle fingers to his lips, presses them against the ‘I’ on the door, holds for a moment, and then pushes inside.
He is unsurprised to see Linda there, as they have attended several parties in this house. Sharon is there, of course, as is his dearest friend Jay Sebring, the man that introduced Bruce to Hollywood society. Gibby is there with Wojciech Frykowski, Polanski’s pal from Poland. Roman had asked the pair of them to look after Sharon while he was filming in Europe. The baby is due in a couple of weeks.
They are huddled together, herded in by strangers. In December, their faces will stare out, cold and crazed, from every newsstand in America, but for now, Bruce imagines only men, faceless and fluid in number. There is at least one gun, the body in the Nash Ambassador bears grim witness to that. Perhaps two. Bruce has his hands in the air like the rest, shuffles uncertainly, pleads mercy like the others. With his glasses on he looks quiet and studious. No one notices that he is making a straight line: him at one end, one gunman at the other, the second in the middle. He snaps forward, closes the distance between himself and his nearest foe, slaps the hand holding the gun wide. Two Wing Chun chain punches to the face, and a kick to the sternum sends him tumbling against his colleague. He isn’t shooting in case he hits his buddy, so Bruce keeps the first man between him and his target and closes the gap again. It takes seconds.
The living room is empty. Bruce feels his fingertips chill in this once warm, inviting place. He tries to focus on the familiar, the comforting – the piano, the Stars and Stripes throw, the fake zebra skin – but the rusty, crimson and black stains in front of the sofa beckon like a siren. This is the last he will see of her. And to the right, another patch of ebon-spattered red bleached by the Californian sun, fading like a ghost at dawn. Where Jay fell. He turns away, his cheeks wet.
He looks out the window to where the haze holds the city hostage. He had peered out this same window last time he was here, he remembers. July 20th. Craning to see the moon. Sharon joyous, cheering and clapping as Neil Armstrong disturbs the dust of eternity.
Bruce dances through the shadows, wary the moon’s treacherous gaze. Seconds earlier he sits up, presses his finger to Linda’s lips. They are in a guest room in 10050 Cielo Drive. He slips out of bed, out into the night. It is hard to tell, the canyon distorts, but Bruce spent his early years in occupied Hong Kong. He knows gunfire when he hears it. A white car by the gate, driver’s door ajar. Pink vapour rises in the sodium glare. Amorphous shapes adopt human form. Retroactively, one becomes a man, three become women. One stands by the car, fearful, conflicted. The others lurch confidently towards where he crouches unseen. He can smell the pot from here. The girls wield knives, the man a gun. He’s the priority. Bruce flexes, cracks his bones. Easy.
Out in the pool, forgotten water toys languish like ships in the doldrums. Dragonflies buzz the chlorine. The sun blazes like a new romance. On the front lawn an indifferent hose failed to rinse away all the blood. Gibby. Abigail Folger. Bruce had only met her a couple of times, but he liked her. She was from high society and heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune, but worked as a social worker. Somehow she escaped the carnage inside, but only made it this far.
In the melee, Gibby peels away and bolts towards the back exit, one of their attackers screeching after her like Cutty Sark. Good girl, thinks Bruce, she’s evened up the odds, but he can’t let her be caught. An ashtray becomes a projectile. His target is six, now seven, feet away and moving, and Bruce has only one shot. The ashtray shatters against the woman’s skull and she goes down. Confusion on the face of the shaggy haired man with the gun; it’s a look Bruce has seen before. The stranger’s innate racism viewed the ‘Chink’ was the least of them, and now too late he realises his error. He breaks off his attack on Jay and swings the gun round. Bruce is upon him, trapping the gun arm and kicking his opponent’s shoulder with enough force to dislocate his arm.
Further along, another patch of flattened, copper-tinged glass. This is where Frykowski died. Someone else that Bruce had only met on occasion. The Pole had a reputation as a brawler, so it is not surprising he also managed to break free, however briefly. If the rumour mill is to be believed, Frykowski went down fighting as he was stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot multiple times. He bore the greatest number of wounds by far.
The hum of traffic. A sprinkler whirs. A radio squawks in the distance; perhaps a newsman talks about this very place. The neighbourhood is awakening. Looking down, Bruce sees that the rising sun has split his shadow in two. The lighter of the two he imagines is cast by the sun, but the darker shadow he sees as his guilt, lingering over him like a spectre.
A phone call from Sharon, two days before she died. Would he and Linda like to meet up tomorrow evening? They could rendezvous at that Mexican place on Beverly, before having a nightcap at her place? Bruce is careful not to commit. Jay calls the next day. “C’mon, man. Sharon’s fed up with Gibby and Frykowski constantly arguing. She needs people to run interference. McQueen’s coming, and Quincy Jones, maybe some others. It’ll be great”. Bruce demurs at first, but later concedes.
Later that evening he cries off. Jay’s there, Steve, Quincy, who knows who else. How essential then is his presence? Besides, if the truth be told, from everything he has seen and heard, Bruce really can’t stand that Frykowski guy. Heard he burned through his inheritance, then leached off Roman. Sees Gibby as his new meal ticket. Loves the lavish lifestyle but does nothing to earn it. Claims to be a screenwriter but can’t name a thing with his name in the credits. Meanwhile, thanks to this guy, Gibby’s drug habit gets stronger by the day. Drains her life while emptying her bank account. Frykowski is anathema to Bruce, and he can’t trust himself to remain silent if he goes.
So, he doesn’t go to Cielo Drive on the evening of August 8th. Neither does Steve McQueen or Quicy Jones. Just poor, loyal, besotted Jay. And they all die. Brutally. Obscenely.
His eyes well up again, and that feeling in the pit of his stomach reveals itself. Rage. He strikes his head repeatedly then, exhausted, slumps down on the lawn. Cries like a baby. His feelings for a man of no importance to him clouded his judgement, and two of his dearest friends are gone. A moment of weakness that will haunt him forever.
So, every day for the rest of his life, Bruce imagines he meets up with his friends at El Coyote Mexican restaurant that night. And every day for the rest of his life, he fights off the Manson family. Bruce Lee couldn’t possibly say how many times he had saved Sharon Tate’s life, but from the day after her funeral until the day he dies, it never once helps him forgive himself.

Judges Comments

The Age of Aquarius, the runner up in WM's Haunted short story competition, sparks and fizzes with energy. It's a riot to read: a noir, postmodern rush of a story that revisits one of the darkest episodes in counter-cultural history, the Manson Murders, told from the close third-person perspective of Bruce Lee.

Packed with pop-cultural references and historic details, The Age of Aquarius has a Taratinoesque relish in the way it conveys its sinister subject and the deadly dark ambience that overshadowed the heady days of the 1960s counterculture. Peter's word choices display a beat poetics that match his darkly playful meta narrative where a bereft Bruce is haunted by, and endlessly revisits , a scene where his friends died and he wasn't present and where his screen persona could have saved the day. Sad, funny, and clever, The Age of Aquarius is a blast.