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Welcome to the Library of Shadows. From ghosts to the apocalypse, from zombie-rom-coms to grotesque police files, from monsters to mobsters, we prefer horror but we'll gladly run anything that makes you bite nails and keep turning the page. We display material from authors both new and experienced to help them build their readership and promote their projects and portfolios.

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Welcome to the Library of Shadows, the suspense fiction subreddit. Enter the library with caution, it is filled with things that go bump in the night, ladies with legs that go on forever, black shadows reaching out to drag you into the void and chilling tales that will leave you on edge.

The Library is meant for the patronage of adults, as the themes in suspense and horror fiction can be upsetting and unsuited for minors. Take this under advisement, and proceed with caution.


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Submission Guidelines and Rules

This subreddit was created in the spirit of pulpy submission-driven magazines and comics, like Weird Tales,Tales from the Crypt, Fangoria and others. Your submission is expected to fall within the suspense and horror genre, as well as be driven by good language and literary quality.

This subreddit doesn't come with a form requirement for how you tell your story; first person or third person omniscient, horror poetry, unbelievable or believable. Moderation discretion will be used for removals in regards to quality. Keep in mind that stories that may fit well on NoSleep or other forums, may not be suitable here.


Rules

For full ruleset and explanation of our rules - please read the Posting Guidelines before submitting your story.

  • 500 words minimum, 40,000 character maximum.

  • Genre-appropriate literature, with a focus on storytelling. Posts that are self-referential (that is, posts that break the fourth wall) are better suited for r/nosleep.

Stories that reference the audience implicitly or explicitly will be removed under this rule. Rhetorical questions such as “You know?” may be removed at the mods’ discretion.

  • Tag your stories with the appropriate genre flair after they are posted. Un-flaired posts will be removed until a flair has been placed.

  • Story posts must only contain the story itself (and social media links when applicable). Comments, questions for feedback or explanations are posted as a comment.

  • Format stories - hit enter twice for a new paragraph and avoid indents. Posts that do not display with proper formatting will be removed.

  • Do not put X-post or NSFW in titles, use NSFW flair instead. For series, please put [Chapter 1] or [Part 1].

  • Titles must be literary titles; capital first letter on nouns and meaning-bearing words. Stories with titles in all caps or all lowercase WILL be removed. No clickbait titles. If your title sounds like a book, you're on the right track; The Girl on the Train and Call of Cthulhu are good examples. Titles that employ the use of personal pronouns and sound more like run-on sentences are likely to be removed at moderator discretion.

  • You may post once every 24 hours.

  • No link posts


  • Commenting Guidelines

    Feedback, critique, and interaction is the backbone to becoming a better writer and to be part of a great community. Keep comments respectful and constructive. Comments that are perceived as derogatory, disrespectful or includes hate speech will be removed at moderator discretion.


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    2

    Twisted Metal Creepypasta- The Lost Files

    I used to love playing Twisted Metal. Its vehicular combat style gameplay made it a huge contrast from other videogames on the market and the characters had a lot of charm to them. My favorite character out of all of them was definitely Sweet Tooth. His unrepentant brutality and wise-cracking mouth made him an instant icon of the series. He's more or less the mascot of the franchise and it's hard to imagine a twisted metal game without him. Playing the game as a kid, he scared the hell out of me, but now, I can't help admiring him as a villain.

    One day I found myself growing nostalgic for the killer clown so I decided to boot up my old PS2 to play my favorite game in the series, TM Black. I inserted the disc into the console but nothing happened. I repeated this process several times only to reach the same result. The unfortunate reality that my game disc was damaged then dawned on me. This naturally pissed me off since I invested countless hours into this near masterpiece.

    All was not lost however. I knew of a comic book shop that specialized in selling old and obscure media. Their videogame selection was paltry, but I figured it was the fastest way to get the game at a reasonable price. It took a long but well worth it train ride to downtown Toronto to reach my destination. I clenched firmly to the hood of my coat as the harsh winter winds collided with my face. Snowfall was sure to come soon so hunkering down in my apartment with my favorite game was looking ideal.

    Greg, the owner of the shop, stared daggers into me as soon as I arrived. He's kinda weird like that. He had this shaggy black hair and heavy sunken eyes that made him look like the type of guy you'd bump into a dark alleyway. Greg's never really bothered me before so I tried not to pay him any mind. Still, it's hard not to wonder what goes on in his creepy little mind. The way he looks at female customers always gives the chills. I'd be surprised if he didn't have some kind of rap sheet.

    I walked past aisles of comics and headed straight to their modest videogame section. My eyes scanned on each title in my hunt for Black. To my dismay, it wasn't there. Did I come all this way for nothing?

    Not wanting to admit defeat just yet, I asked Greg if he had the game in stock. He just stared at me for a few seconds before giving a creepy smile and led me to the back of the shop. There was a whole row of games and dvds with pitch black covers. He handed me a case with " Twisted metal black" which was crudely drawn featuring a picture of Sweet Tooth.

    " What the heck is this?" I asked.

    " It's the game you wanted. It's a used copy so it didn't come with its original cover. Decided to give it a makeover," Greg replied in his gravely voice.

    I remained skeptical of the game's quality but bought it regardless. I joked to myself that this would be like owning a rare collector's item. My excitement lasted the entire train ride back home.

    I quickly inserted the disc inside my PlayStation and watched the screen come to life. Maybe it's because its been a while since I've played the game, but the intro was different from what I remembered. There was a much heavier focus on Sweet Tooth who was often seen slashing at unseen victims with his large knife. A blood splatter briefly appeared on the screen before the scene shifted to a blurry image of him sitting in an apartment room. This was incredibly strange because none of the games ever featured the characters in a home environment.

    Once the game finished booting up, I had the time of my life playing through sweet tooth's route. His story of being a serial killer clown who killed Calpyso in his own ending remained as iconic as ever. It felt so satisfying to finally turn the tables on that sadistic mastermind. My entertainment soon turned into confusion upon seeing the credits finish rolling and display the title " Twisted Metal Lost" on screen.

    What the hell was going on?

    TM Lost is a bonus feature that was only featured in special editions of TM Head-on so it should've been impossible for my copy of Black to have it. Greg definitely modded the disc but I wasn't complaining. Little surprises like this will always get a warm welcome from me. At least that's what I thought before finding out what the game truly had in store for me.

    Immediately after selecting the Lost mode, Sweet Tooth's guttural laugh blared from my speakers. The scene then showed Sweet Tooth running around in an asylum with his iconic cleaver in hand. Asylum workers would spawn sporadically throughout the stage and I controlled sweet tooth to cut them all up. I was loving this mod more and more with every second. It was like I was experiencing the true Sweet Tooth; a seasoned serial killer unrestricted by the confines of a car. He was free to slaughter indiscriminately and I was in full control of his mayhem. By the time I was done, the asylum was left painted in blood.

    Once the level was complete, the screen faded to black before an image of Sweet Tooth sitting in a wooden chair appeared.

    " Hello John. Having fun yet?" I felt my body jolt in surprise. Sweet Tooth had just said my name. Even if Greg modded this game, how could he know that I would be the one to buy it? Just how many more surprises did he have up his sleeve?

    " Looks to me like you've been having a helluva time cutting those pigs up. Can't say I blame ya. Just don't forget that this is still MY game and you have to play by my rules. This next level should be something very familiar. Let's play a game of hide and seek. You be the scared little lamb and I'll be the butcher that serves you on a platter. See you soon." A wicked cackle roared from my speakers before a loading screen of a smiling Sweet Tooth popped up.

    My blood ran cold when I saw what stage was next. It was my city. More specifically, it was a supermarket near my neighborhood. I find it hard to believe that Greg had only coincidently modded my neighborhood into one of my favorite games. Had he been stalking me? The attention to detail was immaculate. Greg had perfectly replicated the streets and stores surrounding the market down to the chips of paint on their signs. It was all so uncanny. I watched Sweet Tooth walk through the crowded streets while brandishing his cleaver without anyone noticing him. He was completely invisible to everyone but me. Sweet Tooth dashed down several blocks, gradually getting closer to my neighborhood. Fear swelled in my heart as Sweet Tooth approached my home with his bloody cleaver shining radiantly.

    I immediately unplugged my PS2 and locked my bedroom door. Bullets of sweat raced down my head as I ruminated about what just happened. Greg was one sick fuck for making something like this. Was this his idea of a joke? He must've been some sort of messed up stalker. Just as I was about to curse him out over the phone, a loud bang at more door froze me solid. It was a kind of unhinged, violent bang that made it clear whoever was on the other side had vile intentions. I weakly walked over to the peephole to see who it could be and I felt my blood turn to ice.

    Those baggy white pants and macabre mask were unmistakable. Sweet Tooth was at my door with his face mere inches away from the hole. What the hell was going on? I had no explanation for what I saw but there Sweet Tooth was looking like he wanted to make my head roll. I at first thought it was Greg continuing his prank on me but Sweet Tooth's physique is far too different. Greg was more on the lean side while Sweet Tooth is incredibly stocky. To make matters worse, this man's head was aflame and yet he didn't seem to be in the slightest bit of pain.

    I immediately barricaded my door with whatever furniture I had and locked myself in my upstairs bedroom. I grabbed my phone to call the cops but for some reason, it wasn't working. All I got was static on the speaker. I barely had time it wonder what was going on when I heard a loud crash come from downstairs. Loud stomps echoed throughout the apartment and quickly drew closer to me. My heart felt just about ready to burst from my chest. I couldn't believe that Sweet Tooth was about to kill me. The pounding at my door grew louder by the second and it felt like the walls were closing in on me. In my panic, I almost forgot about my fire escape.

    I dashed out of the window and to the metallic balcony just in time to hear my door burst open. Not taking a second to look back, I bolted down each ladder with frantic energy. My mind was focused solely on getting the hell out of there. Once my feet touched the concrete, I was prepared to run to the nearest police station, but to my horror, Sweet Tooth had just landed right in front of me. He cackled a hideous laugh before the tip of his cleaver was embedded in my stomach. Mind numbing pain consumed every part of my mind and the only thing I could do was cry and puke up blood. The last thing I saw before blacking out was Sweet Tooth standing over me, laughing menacingly.


    When I woke up, I could hardly believe I was still alive. I sat in a hospital room with a whole bunch of tubes connected to me. After the nurses let the police know I was awake, they came over to interrogate me. All I could tell them was that someone dressed as a clown broke into my apartment and tried to kill me. No way were they going to believe that some videogame character had come to life to annihilate me. It was obvious that the police search would lead nowhere. I never went back to the comic shop after that day. Whoever Greg is, he's a creepy bastard that everyone should stay the hell away from. I can't even enjoy playing Twisted Metal anymore without thinking of that horrific incident. To anyone reading this, keep yourself safe and never go to the Magnifique Noir Comic shop.

    0 Comments
    2024/06/10
    01:21 UTC

    2

    I'm Always Chasing Rainbows

    When you were a kid, and you saw a rainbow, did you ever want to try to get to the end of it? I bet you did. I did, anyway. It wasn’t the mythical pot of gold that tempted me. Wealth was too abstract of a concept at that age to dream about, and leprechauns were creepy little bastards. I just wanted to see what the rainbow looked like up close, and maybe even try to climb it.

    Of course, you can’t get to the end of a rainbow because not only is there no end, but there isn’t even really a rainbow. It’s an illusion caused by the sunlight passing through raindrops at the right angle. If you did try to chase a rainbow down, it would move with you until it faded away. That’s why chasing rainbows is a pretty good metaphor for pursuing a beautiful illusion that can never manifest as anything concrete.

    I bring all this up because I think it was that same type of urge that compelled me to chase down the Effulgent One. It’s not a perfect analogy, however, considering that I did actually catch up to the eldritch bastard. 

    I first saw the Effulgent One a little over two years ago. My employer – who happens to be an occultist mad scientist by the name of Erich Thorne – had tasked me with returning a young girl named Elifey to her village on the northern edges of the county. The people of Virklitch Village are very nice, but they’re also an insular, Luddite cult who worship a colossal spectral entity they call the Effulgent One. I saw this Titan during my first visit to Virklitch, and more importantly, he saw me. He left a streak of black in my soul, marking me as one of his followers. I can feel him now, when he walks in our world. Sometimes, if I look towards the horizon after sundown, I can even see him.

    This entity, and my connection to him, is understandably something my employer has taken an interest in. I’ve been to Virklitch many times since my first visit, and I’ve successfully collected a good deal of vital information about the Effulgent One. The Virklitchen are the only ones who know how to summon him, and coercing them into doing so would only earn us his wrath. He’s sworn to protect them, though I haven’t the slightest idea of what motivates him to do so.

    Even though I can see him, I usually try not to look, to pretend he’s not there. The Virklitchen have warned me never to chase after him. Before Virklitch was founded, the First Nations people who lived in this region were aware of the Effulgent One, though they called him the Sky Strider. Any of them that went chasing after him either failed, went mad, or were never seen again.

    I was out driving after sunset, during astronomical twilight when the trees are just black silhouettes against a burnt orange horizon, when I sensed the presence of the Effulgent One. He was to the east, towering along the darkening skyline, idling amidst the fields of cyclopean wind turbines. I could see their flashing red lights in the periphery of my vision, and I knew that one of those lights was him. I tried to fight the urge to look, but fear began to gnaw at me. What if he was heading towards me right now? What if I was in danger and needed to run?

    Risking a single sideways glance, I spotted his gangly form standing listlessly between the wind turbines, his long arms gently swaying as his glowing red face bobbed to and fro.

    I exhaled a sigh of relief, now that I knew he wasn’t chasing me. That relief didn’t even last a moment before it was transformed into a dangerous realization. He wasn’t just not chasing me; he wasn’t moving at all. He was still. This was rare, and it presented me with a rare opportunity. I could approach him. I could speak with him.

    This wasn’t a good idea, and I knew it. The Effulgent One interacted with his followers on his terms. If I annoyed him, he could squash me like a bug. Or worse. Much worse. But he had marked me as his follower and I wanted to know why. If there was any chance I could get him to answer me, I was going to take it.

    “Hey Lumi,” I said to the proprietary AI assistant in my company car. “Play the cover of I’m Always Chasing Rainbows from the Hazbin Hotel pilot.” 

    With the mood appropriately set, I veered east the first chance I got.

    Almost immediately, I noticed that the highway seemed eerily abandoned. Even if anyone else had been capable of perceiving the Effulgent One, there was no one around to see him. I got this creeping sense that the closer I drew to him, I was actually shifting more and more out of my world and more and more into his. The wind picked up and dark clouds blew in, snuffing out the fading twilight and plunging everything into an overcast night.

    The Effulgent One didn’t seem to notice me as I drew closer. He was as tall as the wind turbines he stood beside, his gaunt body plated in dull iridescent scales infected with trailing fungus. The head on his lanky neck was completely hollow and filled with a glowing red light that dimly bounced off his scales.

    Seeing him standing still was a lot more surreal than seeing him when he was active. As impossibly large as he is, when he’s moving it just naturally triggers your fight or flight response and you don’t really have time to take it all in. But when he’s just standing there, and you can look at him and question what you’re seeing, it just hits differently.

    It wasn’t until I started slowing down that he finally turned his head in my direction, briefly engulfing me in a blinding red light. When it passed, I saw that the Effulgent One had turned away from me and I was striding down the highway. Even though his gait was casual, his stride was so long that he was still moving as quickly as any vehicle.

    Reasoning that if he didn’t want me to follow him he wouldn’t be walking along the road, I slammed my foot down on the accelerator pedal and sped after him.

    That’s when things started to get weird.

    You know how when you’re driving at night through the country, you can’t see anything beyond your own headlights? With no visual landmarks to go by, it’s easy to get disoriented. All you have to go by is the signs, and I wasn’t paying any attention to those. All my focus was on the Effulgent One, so much so that if someone had jumped out in front of me I probably would have killed them.

    I turned down at least one sideroad in my pursuit of the Effulgent One. Maybe two or three. I’m really not sure. All I know for sure is that I was so desperate not to lose him that I had become completely lost myself.

    He never looked back to see if I was still following, or gave any indication that he knew or cared if I was still there. He just made his way along the backroads, his bloodred searchlight sweeping back and forth all the while, as if he was desperately seeking something of grave importance. Finally, he abandoned the road altogether and began to climb a gently rolling hill with a solitary wind turbine on top of it. I gently slowed my car to a stop and watched to see what he would do.

    I had barely been keeping up with him on the roadways, so I knew I’d never catch him going off-road. If he didn’t stop at the wind turbine, then that would be the end of my little misadventure. As I watched the Effulgent One climb up the hill and cast his light upon it, I saw that the structure at the summit wasn’t a wind turbine at all, but a windmill.

    It was a mammoth windmill, the size of a wind turbine, made from enormous blocks of rugged black stone. It was as impossible as the Effulgent One himself. No stone structure other than a pyramid or ziggurat could possibly be that big, and the windmill barely tapered at all towards the top. Its blades were made from a ragged black cloth that reminded me of pirate sails, and near the top I could see a light coming from a single balcony.

    When the Effulgent One reached the hill’s summit, he not only came to a stop but turned back around to face me, his light illuminating the entire hillside. Whether or not it was his intention to make it easier for me to follow him up the hill, it was nonetheless the effect, so I decided not to squander it.

    Grabbing the thousand-lumen flashlight from my emergency kit, I left my car on the side of the road and began the short but challenging trek up the hill.

    I honestly had no idea where I was at that point. Nothing looked familiar, and the overgrown grass seemed so alien in the red light. The way it moved in the wind was so fluid it looked more like seaweed than grass. The clouds overhead seemed equally otherworldly, moving not only unusually fast but in strange patterns that didn’t seem purely meteorological in nature.

    With the Effulgent One’s light aimed directly at me, there was no doubt in my mind that he had seen me, but he still gave no indication that he cared. The closer I drew to him, the more I was confronted by his unfathomable scale. I really was an insect compared to him, and it seemed inconceivable that he would make any distinction between anthropods and arthropods. He could strike me down as effortlessly and carelessly as any other bothersome bug. I approached cautiously, watching intently for any sign of hostility from him, but he remained completely and utterly unmoved.

    The closer I got to him, the harder I found it to press on. From a distance, the Effulgent One is surreal enough that he doesn’t completely shatter your sense of reality, but that’s a luxury that goes down the toilet when he’s only a few strides or less from stomping you into the ground. His emaciated form wasn’t merely skeletal, but elongated; his limbs, digits, and neck all stretched out to disquieting proportions. His dull scales now seemed to be a shimmering indigo, and the fungal growths between them pulsed rhythmically with some kind of life. Whether it was with his or theirs, I cannot say. There were no ears on his round head. No features at all aside from the frontwards-facing cavity that held the searing red light.

    As I slowly and timidly approached the windmill, he remained by its side, peering out across the horizon. I turned to see what he was looking at, but saw nothing. I immediately turned back to him and craned my neck skywards, marvelling at him in dumbstruck awe. I’d chased him down so that I could demand why he had marked me as one of his followers, but now that I had succeeded, I was horrified by how suicidally naïve that plan now felt.

    Many an internet atheist has pontificated about how if there were a God and if they ever met Him, they would remain every bit as irreverent and defiant and hold Him to account the same as any tyrant. But when faced with a being of unfathomable cosmic power, I don’t think there truly is anyone who wouldn’t lose their nerve.

    So I just stood there, gaping up at the Effulgent One like a moron, with no idea of what to do next.

    Fortunately for me, it was then that the Effulgent One finally acknowledged my presence.

    Slowly, he turned his face downwards and cast his spotlight upon me, holding it there for a few long seconds before turning it to the door at the base of the windmill. I glanced up at the balcony above, and saw that it aligned almost perfectly with his head.

    Evidently, he wanted to meet me face to face.

    Nodding obediently, I raced to the heavy wooden door and pushed it open with all my might. The inside was dark, and I couldn’t see very well after standing right in the Effulgent One’s light, but I could hear the sounds of metal gears slowly grinding and clanking away. When I turned on my flashlight, the first thing I was able to make out was the enormous millstone. It moved slowly and steadily, squelching and squishing so that even in the poor light I knew that it wasn’t grain that was being milled.

    The next thing I saw was a flight of rickety wooden stairs that snaked up all along the interior of the windmill. Each step creaked and groaned beneath my weight as I climbed them, but I nonetheless ascended them with reckless abandon. If a single one of them had given out beneath me, I could have fallen to my death, and the staircase shook back and forth so much that sometimes it felt as if it was intentionally trying to throw me off.

    When I reached the top floor, I saw that the windshaft was encased in a crystalline sphere etched with leylines and strange symbols, and inside of it was some kind of complex clockwork apparatus that was powered by the spinning of the shaft. Though I was briefly curious as to the device’s purpose, it wasn’t what I had come up there for.   

    Turning myself towards the only door, I ran through and out onto the upper balcony. The Effulgent One was still standing just beside it, his head several times taller than I was. He looked out towards the horizon and pointed an outstretched arm in that direction, indicating that I should do the same.

    From the balcony, I could see a spire made of purple volcanic glass, carved as if it was made of two intertwining gargantuan rose vines, with a stained-glass roof that made it look like a rose in full bloom. The spire was surrounded by many twisting and shifting shadows, and I could perceive a near infinitude of superimposed potential pathways branching out from the spire and stretching out across the planes.

    The Effulgent One reached out and plucked at one of the pathways running over us like it was a harp string, sending vibrations down along to the spire and then back out through the entire network. I saw the sky above the spire shatter like glass, revealing a floating maelstrom of festering black fluid that had congealed into a thousand wailing faces. It began to descend as if it meant to devour the spire, but as it did so the spire pulled in the web of pathways around it like a net. The storm writhed and screamed as it tried to escape, but the spire held the net tight as a swarm of creatures too small for me to identify congregated upon the storm and began to feed upon it. But the fluid the maelstrom was composed of seemed to be corrosive, and the net began to rot beneath its influence. It sagged and it strained, until finally giving way.

    A chaotic battle ensued between the spire and the maelstrom, but it hardly seemed to matter. What both I and the Efflugent One noticed the most was that the pathways that had been bound to the spire were now severed and stained by the Black Bile, drifting away wherever the wind took them.

    The Effulgent One caught one of them in his hand and tugged it downwards, staring at it pensively for a long moment.

    “That… that didn’t actually just happen, did it?” I asked meekly. I waited patiently for the Effulgent One to respond, but he just kept staring at the severed thread. “But… it’s going to happen? Or, it could happen?”

    A slow and solemn nod confirmed that what he had shown me had portended to a possible future.

    “That’s why you marked me as your follower then, isn’t it?” I asked. “You needed someone, someone other than the Virklitchen, someone who’s already involved in this bullshit and can help stop it from deteriorating into whatever the hell you just showed me. If Erich had picked anyone else to go to Virklitch that night, or hadn’t asked me to stay for the festival, it wouldn’t have been me! It didn’t have to have been me!”

    His head remained somberly hung, and I hadn’t really been expecting him to respond at all to my outburst.

    “Elifey liked you,” he said in a metallic, fluid voice that sounded like it was resonating out of his chest rather than his face. “I would not have chosen you if she hadn’t.”

    He twirled the thread in between his fingers before gently handing it down to me like it was a streamer on a balloon. I hesitantly accepted the gesture, wrapping as much of my hand around the spectral cord as I could. The instant I touched it, a radiant and spiralling rainbow shot down its length and arced across the sky. When it reached the chaotic battle on the horizon, it dispelled the maelstrom on contact, banishing it back into the nether and signalling in biblical fashion that the storm had passed. The other wayward pathways were cleansed of the Black Bile as well, and I watched in amazement as they slowly started to reweave themselves back into an interconnected web. 

    “But… what does this mean? What do I actually have to do to make this a reality?” I asked.

    The Effulgent One reached out his hand and pinched the cord, choking off the rainbow and ending the vision he had shown me.

    “A reality?” he asked as he held his palm out flat and adjacent to the balcony. “It’s already a reality. All you need to do is make it yours.”

    It seemed to me that I wasn’t likely to get anything less cryptic than that out of him, so I accepted the lift down. He took me down the hill and set me down gently beside my car before setting off out of sight and beyond my ability to pursue him.

    Even though my GPS wasn’t working, the moment I was sitting in the driver’s seat the autopilot kicked in and didn’t ask me to take control until I was back on a familiar road. I know that windmill isn’t just a short drive away, and I’ll never see it again unless the Effulgent One wants me to. I don’t think I can say I’m exactly happy with how that turned out, but I suppose I accomplished what I set out to achieve. I know what the Effulgent One wants of me now, and why he chose me specifically. If it had been all his decision I think I’d still be feeling kind of torn about it, but knowing that I’ve been roped into this because of Elifey makes it a lot easier to bear.    

    And… I did actually manage to catch a rainbow. I just needed a giant’s help to reach it.

    0 Comments
    2024/06/09
    21:26 UTC

    2

    Water Bears and Dirt Rats

    0 Comments
    2024/06/09
    15:10 UTC

    5

    My siblings’ imaginary friend wants to kill me [Part 3 - Final]

    I - II - III

    “Please. You have to remove Jumpy from the end of the episode.”

    My animation supervisor looked at me with furrowed brows. “ We can't. We've already passed that sequence over.”

    “Well then un-pass it. Just tell the client there was a technical error or something. We need to remove Jumpy from the background.”

    He frowned at me and drank his coffee. A few people peered into the window of the meeting room, wondering why I was having another one-on-one with my boss.

    “Elizabeth, it was you who wanted to add Jumpy in the first—”

    “—I know! It was a terrible mistake. We should have never added him in. Please.”

    He massaged his temple. “Why does it matter exactly? It's just a webcomic right?”

    My hands were fidgeting, wringing each other constantly. I tried to keep my voice level.

    “... If we don't remove Jumpy, we are risking the well-being of countless generations of kids who watch this TV show. Lives are at stake.”

    He put down the coffee cup and looked me in the eye. “Elizabeth, I know you had that elevator accident. And if you’re feeling … untethered … that’s okay.”

    “I'm feeling totally fine. This has nothing to do with the elevator. Please just believe me when I say we need to remove that cartoon frog.”

    He took a deep inhale and shook his head. “My hands are tied here Elizabeth. But if you want to talk to production, see if they are willing to communicate with the client for us to resubmit the animation sequence. Go right ahead.”

    ***

    I spoke with production. I spoke with the head producer at our studio and explained how important it was to remove the frog from the background of episode six.

    Everyone gave me strange looks and didn’t see the big deal, but I kept pushing.

    Eventually, even the head producer said there was nothing that could be done.

    The only person who had the power to make changes to episode six, was the client side boss. A wealthy studio exec who worked from home, some two hours away from my city.

    His name was Paul Winslow.

    I tried calling him, emailing him, messaging him via linkedin, slack and every other platform imaginable. But he was some big shot, and didn't have time to respond to anything.

    I had given him three whole days. Three whole days where all I did was worry about my cousin’s nephews, and all the kids I could see going to the school across from my apartment.

    This wasn't up to him anymore, It was up to me.

    ***

    HR said I was required to take a ‘ leave of absence’ for 2 weeks as they ‘ reassessed’ something. This was fine with me, because It gave me the time I needed to execute my plan.

    On a dark, overcast night I drove all the way to Paul Winslow's house.

    ***

    It was late, but I could still make out the black, wrought iron gates at the entrance. The intercom box on the right.

    I had waited too long, the episode was going to release imminently, so I didn't have time to bother with the intercom. Instead, I flashed my high beams and pointed at the gate.

    In view of my headlights, the iron gate started to shake and bend.

    The middle latch snapped off.

    Within seconds, the gate had been peeled apart as if it were made of putty.

    I drove through.

    Along the path, two large dogs came barking at my car, they looked eager to leap at my throat.

    But before they could reach my bumper, there came a large, earth-shaking stomp. The dogs froze. Noses sniffed the air.

    Their tails curled between their legs as they ran away.

    I pulled up to the enormous front doors made of some kind of red cedar. The handles looked like they were made of polished bronze, or maybe even gold.

    The expensive handles crumpled. The doors were torn from their hinges.

    I walked in holding a laminated copy of my Jumpy sketch. I spoke loudly and assertively.

    “Mr. Winslow. We need to talk.”

    From upstairs, I could hear a panicked voice: “Who are you!? Get out of my house! I have a gun!”

    Wasting no time, I pointed at the stairs. The bannister bent and splintered.

    I waited at the foot of the stairs until I heard a gunshot, followed by shrieks.

    “What the hell? What is happening?!”

    Some banging and screaming ensued. When it turned into crying, I walked up the stairs.

    Mr. Winslow was lying in a bathrobe on his hallway floor. I could make out the wet indentation of a heavy footprint on his chest. He looked up at me with watery, frightened eyes.

    “Paul, believe me when I say I’m sorry I had to do this. But I had no other choice.” I said.

    He whimpered as he spoke. “Is it money you want? I have gold in the attic. take as much as you want.”

    “Lives are at stake. I need you to remove this character from the kids show you're making.” I held up the Jumpy sketch to his face.

    “ …What?”

    “You have the ultimate sign off. I need you to prevent episode six from airing.”

    “You’re talking about … that singalong show?”

    “YES! You have to prevent this character from ever being seen by anyone!”

    “But it's already … It's already been sent to the streamers.”

    “What!? What do you mean it's already been sent?”

    “They’ve already released it in … Asia and Europe.”

    I dropped the picture, and lowered my face to his. ‘Are you serious? Kids have already seen it!?”

    Mr. Winslow's face was beginning to turn blue. “Listen. Do you have any idea how tight the turnaround is on children’s programming? I don't make the rules.”

    “No no no!” I pulled at my hair. How could I be too late?

    I stared at the air above the studio exec and pointed wildly. “Jumpy, is that true? Is there something you're not telling me? Have some kids seen you?”

    The air slowly rippled into green, white and orange patterns, until all the colors solidified into the shape of a massive tree frog.

    I looked at one of the frog’s massive red eyes. “Do you have other believers? Can you sense them already?”

    Jumpy frowned, holding one hand on its stomach. “Only thing that Jumpy can sense. Is how hungry belly is.”

    The frog eyed Mr. Winslow.

    “No Jumpy!” I shouted. “We agreed, only as an absolute necessity.”

    “Holy fuck!” Mr Winslow tried his best to wriggle out of Jumpy’s foot. “What is this thing? Is this real!?”

    Jumpy lifted its foot. The man rolled out and crawled away.

    “Jumpy!” I waved my arms. “What are you doing?!”

    Mr. Winslow ran for the pistol lying on the floor at the end of the hall. Just as his fingers leaned down, A massive tongue whipped out and grabbed him by the head.

    There was a crack and a twist.

    Mr. Winslow's body lay face down on the floor. His shocked face was turned upwards, staring wide-mouthed at the ceiling.

    “Now can I eat him?” Jumpy asked.

    ***

    The following day I left town. Paul Winslow's sudden disappearance would eventually be traced back to me. Everyone at my work knew what I was after.

    I had been obvious about it.

    I had been stupid.

    Terror prevented me from seeking Jumpy, but now survival has forced me to pair with the frog. It followed me wherever I drove.

    Ironically, I was no longer afraid of the monster which used to keep me up at night, because I had turned into somewhat of a monster myself. A murderer on the run.

    The silver lining was that when I finally got around to watching episode six of my company's kids show. You couldn't see Jumpy.

    It was a sing-along show for young kids, and the baked-in lyrics on screen obscured the background characters for the whole sequence Jumpy was in. You couldn't even make out it was a frog.

    And so here I am, driving from city to city. Never lingering too long.

    I'm giving myself a few months to figure out what to do. I’ve mostly been staying in cheap hotels and hostels.

    Every now and then I go swimming at the nearest public pool late at night. Jumpy always finds a way through the roof. We swim together.

    Through Jumpy I’ve been learning more about my late twin sisters. They used Jumpy a lot to get what they wanted.

    But I don't need anything excessive. I don't want money, I don't want fame, I just want to live somewhere peacefully. Maybe teach synchronized swimming. If I can use Jumpy to arrange that—it's enough for me.

    As much as I hate it, I feel like I deserve to be the sole believer. To have this invisible creature haunt me, and follow me wherever I go.

    I was a Whitaker sister after all.

    Jumpy is my imaginary friend.

    0 Comments
    2024/06/06
    23:48 UTC

    5

    My siblings’ imaginary friend wants to kill me [Part 2]

    I - II

    “Are you sure we can't make Jumpy the Frog a little … friendlier looking?”

    My animation supervisor was looking at my sketches, and pointing out how Jumpy’s eyes looked a little too bloodshot, and how too many veins protruded through his gray skin.

    But that's just what Jumpy looked like.

    “He can stay in the background,” I said. “ I would really appreciate it— if we could sneak him in there for the next episode.”

    My anim supe frowned at the picture. “Is this like a webcomic you are trying to make viral or something?”

    It's actually some awful, real life entity I'm trying to appease so it doesn't kill me.

    “Yeah, it's a webcomic. I would really appreciate it. Seriously. Just this once”

    My supe liked me and I could tell he was willing to make this small favor happen, but that still didn't wipe the look of confusion off his face.

    “Okay. I'll talk to production. It doesn't need to go higher up the chain. We can just slip Jumpy in near the end of the episode in one of the crowd scenes.”

    I bowed and clasped his hands.

    ***

    Hallelujah.

    I would be seeding Jumpy’s image across a generation of kids who streamed cartoons. If that Frog said it needed believers to exist, it would now have a legion of kids who would see it, and probably wonder what that creepy frog was doing in the background of a popular TV show.

    It might not happen right away, it may take weeks or months for anyone to notice, but if I could have Jumpy appear enough times to get other kids to simply think about the frog, I would no longer be condemned as the sole believer.

    All I need is one fan to make a meme about it (hell I could lay the groundwork myself), and then we’d have tons of people on the internet seeing Jumpy, fan-arting Jumpy, and dreaming about Jumpy. He’ll have hordes of adherents loyal to his image.

    I felt like this plan would work. Something in my bones told me so.

    To celebrate, I removed all the Jumpy drawings I had put up in my apartment, and I deleted all photos from my phone.

    “You’ll have plenty of believers, Jumpy! Not just me! A sea of ten-year olds will keep your essence alive!”

    I was laughing, pouring myself some wine and cheersing my reflection in the mirror.

    The evening was young, and for the first time in what felt like years, I decided I would go out. To a pub. A club. Anything.

    I pinged a couple friends and got some suitable dancing clothes.

    ***

    My elevator is the glass kind that rides on the exterior of my building. I usually don’t appreciate the view, but tonight I relished the sun setting on the horizon, basking the entire city in a warm orange glow. I had found a solution to Jumpy, and I deserved a moment to appreciate the good things in life.

    I admired the other skyscrapers, which framed the white capped peaks in the distance. I admired the graceful fir trees which fit in-between the downtown streets. And I admired the grimy footprints on the elevator glass that didn't block any of this magical view.

    Wait a second. Grimy footprints?

    The elevator jolted to a stop.

    I flew several feet in the air. Fell straight on my tailbone

    My entire spine was on fire for a few moments as I looked at the elevator’s little screen .Floor 31 - SERVICE ERROR.

    What just happened?

    I heard loud warbling on the elevator's glass, and there the answer presented itself. Outside, waving its massive webbed hand, was an ecstatic, smiling Jumpy the Frog.

    “Whitaker sister! It’s me! It's me! It's meeee!’

    Even muffled behind the glass, I could make out the high-pitched voice.

    “Jesus Christ,” I said, barely able to speak. My body had frozen stiff.

    “What you say?” Jumpy pressed its head against the glass. “I can't hear you.”

    I collected myself, realizing how much weight Jumpy was adding to the elevator. I tried shooing with my hands. “Get off. Get off the glass!”

    The frog's pupils widened and looked in two different directions. “Okays! I’ll take off the glass!”

    “What? Wait. Wait!”

    The amphibian applied both of its sticky hands on the glass above the elevator, creating a vacuum-tight seal. The arms lifted, flexing dozens of wiry, cord-like muscles. I could hear metal and screws pop.

    The glass exploded atop the elevator.

    I shielded my head as hundreds of shattered pieces fell. A few cut my arms. Crisp, thin air breezed in along with Jumpy’s jovial voice. “Whitaker sister!”

    I watched as the frog clambered down into the elevator. Its skin looked healthy and green, evidently all my ‘believing’ had maybe helped heal the creature after all. I stood with my back against the closed metal door. Jumpy reached the elevator floor.

    “Why are you removing Jumpy art?” The frog used a massive arm to sweep the glass away from its feet.

    I could barely move. “What?”

    “I sawed you remove the pictures of Jumpy in your house. Why? why? why why why?”

    Although I was terrified for my life in this broken elevator missing half of its ceiling. I was now doubly creeped out that Jumpy had been watching me in my apartment? For how long?

    The frog licked its eyes, The cheeriness from its voice fading a little. “Why. You. Remove. Drawings.”

    I cleared my throat, and brushed hair out of my eyes. “Listen Jumpy, I am going to convince lots of kids to believe in you.”

    The frog stared blankly.

    “I’m going to get a lot of kids to believe in you, so I don't have to believe in you. This way you can outlive the Whitaker sisters. This way you can live your own life, Jumpy. I’m setting you … free.”

    The frog held still, not moving a single muscle until its head tilted sideways. “But Jumpy belongs to Whitakers. Jumpy always helps only the Whitakers!”

    “Well, I'm giving you permission to stop. You can be free. To be your own frog.” I was trying to sound confident, like the way my sisters may have commanded Jumpy.

    But Jumpy didn't seem to take this well. The frog slowly cradled its face, as if such a suggestion was sacrilege. “But how is Jumpy supposed to help you then? Who do you want Jumpy to gobble up?”

    “I don't need you to help me. I don't … what do you mean gobble up?”

    “Marie-Anne and Jamie had Jumpy gobble up lots of peoples!”

    They did? “Like … who?”

    “Oh other pretty little girls. Girls who did too much talking and singing. Lots of peoples.”

    I haven't mentioned this yet, but my twin sisters were rising young actors. They landed recurring roles on a sitcom and their careers only seemed to be looking up. Until the fatal car accident of course.

    “I don't want you to gobble anyone up, Jumpy! I want you to be free, to go live in the pond or Forest and do whatever you like.”

    “But …” The frog lowered its gaze and approached me“... Jumpy likes gobbling. Please tell Jumpy who to gobble.”

    I couldn’t back up any further than the elevator door. “Fish! Worms! Whatever normal frogs gobble up. You go gobble that.”

    Jumpy pressed one of its sinuous fingers against my belly. “Oh but you can think of some juicy, jiggly peoples for Jumpy to gobble up. There must be someone you don’t like.”

    I closed my eyes, sealed my mouth. The moldy fruit breath was overwhelming.

    “Tell Jumpy who to gobble.”

    I shielded my face. “Please Jumpy. I don’t have anyone. I don’t want you to eat anyone.”

    The breath retreated. Its voice turned disappointed. “You don’t have … anyone?”

    “No. It’s not good to eat people, Jumpy.”

    When I opened my eyes, the frog was turned away. It placed one of its massive hands on the glass wall.

    “You don’t want Jumpy to be happy …” The frog bonked its head along the glass, penalizing its own sorrow. The glass cracked a little bit.

    “No, I want you to be very happy! I just want you to discover a new source of happiness that isn’t … gobbling.”

    The frog bonked its head on the glass again. “Marie-Anne and Jamie told me you wouldn't understand Jumpy. Maybe they were right ...”

    The remaining walls of glass were growing cracks at an alarming rate. If they broke, I would be completely exposed at thirty one stories above sea level.

    “Please Jumpy! I understand everything! Maybe I can find you, like, I dunno, a people meat substitute? Have you tried pork?”

    Jumpy ignored me, and climbed back to the opening up top. The glass was spider-webbing everywhere

    “Sorry Whitaker, Jumpy must eat peoples. There is no choice.”

    Pops and snaps came from all the walls around me. I turned to hug the elevator door as close as I could.

    “I’ll just wait for your kids,” Jumpy said. “I’m sure one of the childrens will have lots of gobble ideas for Jumpy.”

    Before I could reply, the frog hopped away, climbing along the side of my apartment building.

    Then, the glass around me fractured in aggressive zigs zags until … SNAP! CRACKLE! POP!

    Shards fell like a waterfall.

    Bits shot at my back and neck.

    Within seconds, the glass walls around me were gone. I could feel the cold, atmospheric wind rippling through my clothes.

    The platform slanted from the weight of the glass. I rolled once or twice before digging my nails into the floor.

    I was at least four hundred feet in the air, completely at mercy to the elements. If the elevator jolted in any direction, I would certainly roll off the ground platform and plummet.

    Oh god. Please don’t move, please don’t move, please don’t move, please don’t move …

    ***

    Screams would erupt uncontrollably as the elevator jiggled every now and then. I’m not ashamed to admit that I soiled myself.

    Birds cawed at my panicked form. The twin elevator would rumble past me, causing my whole platform to tremble too. I was in my own private hell for forty five minutes until the fire department showed up.

    It felt more like six hours.

    When they finally did manage to pry open the elevator door and pull me to safety, they announced I had no real injuries, only a couple of minor scrapes. But I was trembling so much from fear, that they took me straight to the hospital. The paramedic said I looked like I had seen a ghost.

    I stayed the night, unable to sleep.

    They even kept me the full next day because my heart rate still wouldn’t go down.

    “You’ve got to relax, you’re safe now,” one of the nurses said. And I told them, “I know, I know, I’m doing my best.”

    But what I didn’t explain was that I was absolutely petrified that a horrible frog monster could come back and kill me. I had only met Jumpy twice in my life now, and both times it felt like I was staring death in the face. Even if it was by accident, the frog could easily hop on me, choke me or toss me down a flight of stairs without intending to murder me.

    Jumpy was too callous, too oblivious in regard to preserving any human life… and then I realized I would soon enable kids to see Jumpy.

    I would be allowing minors to not only risk their lives meeting the frog, but also risk the lives of others by letting him gobble.

    I had sent the wheels in motion for a Pandora’s box to open via children’s television across the internet, across the entire world. The frog could terrorize the lives of countless kids for eternity because they would all believe in and fear it. Bullies would abuse Jumpy. Parents won’t know what to do. I would be creating a real life boogeyman.

    Dear God, what have I done?

    0 Comments
    2024/06/05
    16:42 UTC

    5

    The Night Ripper

    [ Based on the Puppet Combo Game]

    " This city needs the nightripper. People love spreading their propaganda; saying he's terrorizing New York and killing innocent females. LIES! The Night Ripper is cleansing the streets of its filth! Our city is plagued by drugs, prostitution, and homosexuality. We need a savior who can bring New York back to its glory. The Night Ripper deserves a badge of honor for all that he has done. The Night Ripper is our hero and we-" The crazed ramblings of the radio talk show host were cut short by the turn of a dial. Rachel could not stand that nutjob and she couldn't understand how anyone could give him a platform. Did anyone deserve to die just for living differently from others?

    Rachel sighed to herself as she finished cleaning the last of the dirty dishes in Hunter’s diner. She had a terrible late shift filled with drunk customers who kept her busy cleaning up their messes. She hated coming to this awful job every day but she had bills to pay. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and gazed out the windows of the diner. It was practically pitch black out there with barely any lights to illuminate the city. As she changed out of her work clothes and prepared to leave, she noticed her co-worker Tim standing by the door.

    " Are you really about to walk home on a night like this? The night ripper killed three women just this week alone. You're as good as dead if he sees you." Standing at a little over six feet, Tim resembled a bodyguard blocking the door with his folded arms and serious expression.

    " Oh please. That psycho only goes after hookers and I don't exactly match that description. This girl can handle herself just fine, thank you very much. I don't live far so there's nothing to worry about. See you after the weekend!" Rachel gave Tim a faint smile before slipping past him and went out the door.

    " Can't you get your boyfriend to drive you home!?" He shouted after her.

    " We broke up cause he bored me so I'm all on my own. Maybe the night ripper should go after mediocre boyfriends instead!" She waved goodbye to her coworker before venturing off into the night.

    Cold night air brushed against her rosy cheeks, making her wish she had dressed more appropriately for the late autumn weather. She pulled out her mini mirror and examined her outfit. It was a simple yellow sweater with faded blue jeans and converse shoes. No way was she going to be confused for a hooker. She looked at her surroundings during her walk home and never before had the quietness seemed so loud. The idea of a quiet New York City was an alien concept to her. Rachel figured all the news of a serial killer must've sent everyone hiding in their homes. Rachel wanted to be in her safe little apartment too, but she had business to take care of.

    Working at a diner in the sleazy part of the city didn't do much to pay the bills. Rachel needed a second gig to make ends meet and it was one she wanted to free herself of as soon as she got the chance. Her second source of income came in the form of ravaging crack houses to scoop up as much drug residue as she could. It was a shameful hustle of hers, but it was the best way for Rachel to make quick cash. She collected the powder thrown about in the room and gathered it in her plastic bag. Rachel sold her findings to the local addicts and even to a few prostitutes if they crossed paths. She hated masquerading as a drug dealer at night, but she only needed a few more payments until her debt was settled. Rachel couldn’t wait until the day she could put all of this behind her. She was on her way to leaving the den when she heard the agonizing slow creak of a door being opened from downstairs. Her heart nearly exploded from her body as her mind raced through several possibilities: A cop who’s trying to catch her in a drug bust? Another dealer taking out the competition? Or was it someone even worse? Rachel bolted it out of there. The creaky floorboards ruined any chance she had of being stealthy so thought it best to leave while she still had the chance. Rachel navigated through the twisting corridors of the den until she escaped to the outside patio that connected to another house using a long board of wood. She paused. It was an extremely narrow space to move across and the fall down would end everything.

    'Damn it! I don't have time to think things over. I have to get outta here before he catches up with me' She thought to herself. Willing her nerves, she carefully placed one foot in front of the other on the slender plank of wood. Both arms were stretched to the side to maintain her scant amount of balance. She felt herself wobble on one side and then to the other before her leather purse slipped off her arm and down to the ground below.

    " Shit! My keys were in there!" Rachel cursed to herself while praying she too didn't plummet to the ground. Each step forward felt like an eternity, anxiety pooling inside her like a bomb ready to explode. She carefully scurried across the wooden plank until she reached the other side. As soon as her feet touched the rooftop, Rachel took off running down a flight of stairs and was faced with another confusing corridor of twisting angles. 'Who the hell designed the place?' She thought as she struggled to navigate her way around.

    This building was even worse than the previous one. The apartment didn't look too big from the outside, but inside it was practically a labyrinth. Each corner led to several halls to transverse and she even found herself walking In circles. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest with every second she spent wasted in the corridors. She felt so relieved when she finally found the staircase. Rachel nearly tripped over herself as she shot her legs down the spiraling set of stairs. Once she reached the first floor, she headed straight for the door and stopped right in her tracks when she saw the Nightripper waiting for her. There he was. She saw his signature black trench coat and a bright yellow duck mask with a knife in hand. Her blood ran cold and every ounce of energy she had left in her vanished. It was her worst nightmare come to life.

    Rachel's screams echoed throughout the entirety of the crack den. She did a complete 180 and took off bolting down the hall. Her frantic thoughts were muffled by the sounds of the feet slamming against the ground and her heart on the verge of bursting.

    Rachel could hear the night ripper hot on her trail. His iconic duck laugh cackled in her ears. Rachel found herself in the absolute worst place to be hunted down. The various twisting corners and halls made the crack den resemble a maze. It was like every component of the building served to slow Rachel down further. She let out a sigh of relief once she reached the fire escape.

    She almost tumbled down the metallic flight of stairs with how anxious she was. Her shoes stomped on the cracked concrete as she ran through the vacant neighborhood. Before, Rachel enjoyed how quiet the neighborhood became due to the night ripper's crimes. It lowered the chances of her being caught occupying crack dens. Now? She was desperately clinging onto the hope that someone,anyone, could save her.

    It was after five blocks of running did she meet another human. The woman wore a tight-fitting dress that went well above her knees and shabby looking high heels. She waited on the street corner with a cigarette in hand like she was waiting for a client.

    "You have to get out of here! The night ripper is on the loose and he'll chop us up if we don't hurry!" Rachel cried in a desperate attempt to at least do one good deed that night. Perhaps if she managed to save the life of a stranger, it would make up for all the crime she had done.

    The woman simply rolled her eyes and blew a puff of smoke in Rachel's direction. " Fuck off. I'm not gonna let you steal my clients with some stupid made up story. I have bills to pay so I ain't budging."

    " I'm not in that line of business, lady! The night ripper is really out there and I just barely managed to escape from him. We have to run outta here now!"

    " I said fuck off! This business is all I have and I ain't gonna let some crazed bitch take that away from me." The woman went back to puffing her cigarette. Rachel had no time to argue with the fool. She tried in vain to save her, but some people dug their own graves. Rachel bolted down several more blocks until she came across a payphone. She had just enough money to make one phone call. She contemplated between calling 911 or her roommate.

    ' Who knows how long it'll take for the police to get here. My best bet is to get my room unlocked.' Rachel thought to herself as she inserted two nickels. She heard the low groan of her tired roommate from the other side of the phone.

    " Hey, it's me Rachel. Do me a huge favor and keep the door unlocked. I lost my keys and I should be coming home soon. Please just hurry. " The words fumbled in her mouth with how quickly she forced them out. It wasn't until she heard her roommates' confused confirmation did she hang up the phone and went back to running.

    Along the way, she heard the blood curdling scream of a woman in her last moments. Rachel could only imagine it was the woman she tried to save earlier. Tears welled in her eyes as she imagined how close she was to facing the same fate. Her adrenaline and anxiety kept her going. Rachel dashed out of the slums with all the energy she had left.

    Words couldn't describe her relief once she finally arrived at her apartment. She flung the door open and locked it behind her before sitting down on the couch. She was free. Everything else was behind her now. Rachel was beyond exhausted from the blocks of running and mental anguish she went through. All the energy she had left her body as she closed her eyes to drift off into a peaceful slumber. Into a peaceful dream where she was unable to hear the front door slowly turning open. Unable to hear that duck laugh quickly approaching her.

    0 Comments
    2024/06/05
    13:43 UTC

    8

    My siblings’ imaginary friend wants to kill me [Part 1]

    I - II

    Something grabbed my leg at the pool.

    I was on my last lap—just doing a leisurely breaststroke—when massive fingers wrapped around my thigh and dragged me down.

    I squirmed and tried to get away, but the fingers were wrapped tight. They had some form of suction cups. My ensuing struggle attracted the attention of the lifeguard. As soon as he came to my aid, the massive fingers let go.

    The guard believed me when I said that something had caught my leg. He inspected the area. But all he could find was a pink plastic wristband.

    “That’s not what pulled me down,” I said.

    He shrugged and put on the wristband.

    ***

    In the locker rooms I swear I could hear something walking around, making large, squishy, plodding sounds. I stayed hidden in my change room, waiting for the sounds to stop.

    From beneath the change room curtain I could see wet footprints. I could literally see large, towel-length footprints appear on the ground—out of nothing.

    Of course it freaked me out. And of course I gasped out loud.

    Before I knew it, the curtains opened and closed on their own.

    I was cornered in the back of the changeroom.

    I let out a half a scream before invisible wet fingers wrapped themselves around my face. My head was shoved against ceramic tiles.

    Fear froze me completely.

    A hot breath arrived, smelling like moldy fruit. Then a voice came. It was high pitched and squeaky, choking a little on its own words.

    “No need to be scared. It's just me. JUMPY!”

    Like a chameleon, the skin of the creature slowly solidified into gray. One of its eyes was the size of my head. I would say it looked like one of those red-eyed tree frogs, except it was nine feet tall and it could easily kill me.

    It switched from holding my mouth to pressing its sticky fingers against my throat. “Remember me? Remember me?”

    ‘No’ seemed like the wrong answer, so I just repeated the name it told me. “...Jumpy?”

    “YES! YES!” The creature jumped up and down—still holding me by the throat. If I hadn't grabbed hold of its fingers, it might have hung me on the spot.

    “Jumpy! Jumpy Frog! That's me!”

    I was dropped to the floor as it started to clap. The massive webbed hands created a deafening applause.

    “Marie-Anne and Jamie made me when they were babies! I was their best friend!” The frog jumped onto a wall effortlessly and peered down at my struggling body. “Every day I was with them—every day I helped them!”

    It was referring to my older twin sisters, who died last year in a car accident. Part of the reason I was out swimming so late is because that’s how I’ve been coping with their passing. We all used to do synchronized swimming for many years.

    “But now they’re gone… They're gone! How terrible is that?!”  The frog sounded like an overdramatic, sad cartoon. It teared up, and pounded the very wall it was climbing. “And now, no one believes in Jumpy!”

    I was still recovering, breathing through a pinhole, but that didn’t stop Jumpy from hoisting me by the leg.

    “You’re the only Whitaker sister left! You have to believe in Jumpy!”

    It felt like I was speaking through a tiny straw. “Have to?”

    “Yes! Can’t you see? I’m fading! I used to be green for frog’s sake!” Jumpy shoved its forearm against my face. Some of the gray slime stuck to me.

    “If you don’t believe in Jumpy … I’ll die! And I don’t want to die!”

    The frog crawled to the ceiling and dangled me by the leg, high above the marble floor. “You have to believe in Jumpy! You HAVE to!”

    If I landed in the wrong way, I could easily break my neck, or skull. I forced myself to sound happy. “I believe in Jumpy, I believe in Jumpy.”

    For the first time in the entire encounter, the creature treated me like a porcelain doll. I was gently lowered to the floor, and then patted on the head.

    “Good. Keep believing in Jumpy. Think about Jumpy every day.” The frog made a gagging sound, then leapt back to the ceiling, leaving wet marks along the wood. “And if you stop believing in Jumpy, don’t worry … I’ll come back to remind you!”

    The frog smiled in a way that made its giant eyes bulge and look in two opposite directions. I thought for a second it had a tongue lolling out of its mouth, but I peered closer, and could make out a human hand in its lips.

    A human hand with a pink wristband.

    Jumpy slurped it up.

    ***

    Since that encounter I’ve basically been in a permament state of fear, praying that Jumpy never visits me again.

    I’m an animator so drawing is a hobby of mine. I’ve drawn countless sketches of Jumpy and left them around my house, my work, on my phone, etc. Not a day goes by without me seeing a picture of that frog.

    I believe I’m fulfilling my promise. I’m thinking about Jumpy every day. But I also haven't slept properly in like … months.

    I’d like to stop thinking about the frog. But that also sounds terrifying.

    I’m pretty much forced to think about my worst fear all the time.

    Its wearing me down. I’m so exhausted…

    What am I supposed to do?

    0 Comments
    2024/06/04
    02:34 UTC

    2

    Ketchup On Satan's Burger

    "Cancer, as known to the State of California, is this bag of roasted peanuts." Is what she said.

    I wasn't paying attention anymore. I was staring instead at the goat.

    I think that goat was actually Fred, and we just didn't know it yet.

    We were still on our little detour when it started getting dark across the desert, rather quickly.

    "I don't want to drive back in the dark. Let's stay in San Piana." Gloria had said.

    That's when what appeared to be the same goat crossed our path.

    I had to slam on the brakes, a cloud of road dust flowing over our vehicle and hovering over the road before us.

    "I think that's the same goat." I said. I looked and saw it was atop someone's roof, staring down on us with red glowing eyes. I felt nervous while it looked at us, it's blackening silhouette against the evening sky looked sinister.

    "Ew, I hate goats." Gloria got out her phone. "We have no reception out here."

    I checked my phone - she was right.

    "Let's find a place to stay for the night, then." I told her. We left our car parked in the middle of the dirt road leading into the village and took our bags to the nearest shack.

    I banged on the door. A little old lady opened the door, with half her face looking like it would just fall off her skull at any moment. "Excuse me. We are travelling on our way to my sister's wedding, and we decided to drive this rental car. Now we are stuck here for the night, because the road back to civilization from this little detour is too dark and treacherous to drive back at night. So, we need to stay here tonight."

    She said nothing, but reluctantly shuffled out of our way as we brought in our bags and made ourselves at home. I looked around at the little hovel, and despite looking like a primitive shack from the outside it was rather clean and tidy inside. "Not too bad. I thought it would be filthy in here."

    "No vacancy." The old woman grumbled.

    "Yes, of course. We have this little bed and breakfast exclusive to ourselves." I smiled, sat back in her rocking chair and put my dusty boots on the coffee table. The little old lady remained stoic, but I could tell she wasn't used to civilized folk. We took over the bedroom and left her on the couch, whining rather unprofessionally about her arthritis.

    In the morning the lazy stiff had gone cold, forcing us to make our own breakfast. While we were eating, the village's chief showed up. He was wearing a brown button up shirt with a logo on it that vaguely looked like a county sheriff at a glance.

    "Mrs. Summers has expired?" He noted the little old lady was still wrapped in an Afghan on her couch.

    "Yeah, could you help me with that? She smells gross." I went to one end of the couch and indicated that I needed his help. He reluctantly assisted me while we took her and the whole couch outside and left her on the porch.

    "Now I'll have to wait here with her until they can come get her. We have wild animals around here." Thoman sat, looking sad.

    "Why the long face?" I asked.

    "I just, it's sad she's gone. I've known Mrs. Summers since I was little. How'd she die?" He wondered.

    I shrugged. "She was old?"

    My wife brought out our bags, glaring at me for not helping.

    "Well, we'll leave a nice review." I patted his shoulder and then left him there.

    We tried to drive out of San Piana, but as we turned around, we couldn't quite find the road that led back the way we had come. We circled around for awhile while the villagers came out to see what we were doing. We waved as we drove past them and finally I stopped and asked how to get out of town.

    They all pointed in eerie unison, with weird blank looks on their faces. I was feeling a little bit creeped out by them.

    I was about to roll up my window, but never did.

    As we were about to go, the goat came running at me from nowhere and ran its horns into the driver's tire. I never would have believed a goat could puncture rubber with its horns and tear it open like that. The whole car was being lifted on the impale, the goat bleating angrily.

    When it was done it trotted away like nothing had just happened. Suddenly the airbags deployed.

    "Help!" We were shouting for help. The villagers just stood there, staring at us.

    "You are chosen by Azazel. You shall carry our sins, and the rotten soul of Mrs. Summers with you, out into the desert." Thoman was suddenly at my driver's side window like a jump scare. I was so surprised I gave him a high-pitched bark and almost slapped him. After the goat attack my nerves were shot.

    "Your goat did that! You'll pay for the damage!" I proclaimed.

    "All in good time." Thoman said with certainty.

    I got out of the car, my knees wobbling from the scares. "What sort of place you running here? I want to see the manager!" I shoved Thoman and yelled.

    "You will see Him." Thoman's eye's looked like goats' eyes when he said: 'Him'. I felt a chill, despite the warm desert sun.

    I got back into the car and said to Gloria. "There's something wrong with this place."

    She said nothing and I looked to her seat, empty. "Gloria?"

    I got back out and looked around for her, seeing that the streets were now empty. Everyone had gone back inside their shacks. Gloria was nowhere in sight. I began walking around, banging on doors, looking in windows and searching for her, demanding to be told where she was. The villagers all played dumb, shrugging and acting like they didn't know any English.

    As the minutes began to add up and I couldn't find her, a cold sweaty panic burst out of me. For about an hour I just ran around the place, looking desperately for her. When it got hot out and I was exhausted, I found myself sitting on the front porch of Mrs. Summers.

    Thoman came walking up. "There you are. I had to come find you, see if I can help."

    "Where's Gloria?" I asked, exhausted.

    "I'm sure she's around somewhere." Thoman lit a smoke and looked at the empty couch. "Looks like Mrs. Summers has gone missing."

    I looked and saw her corpse was removed, leaving only her shroud and some suspicious pawprints, like a team of oversized coyotes had dragged her away when nobody was looking. I shrugged.

    "Gloria is missing." I pointed out. Thoman nodded as he realized I couldn't care less about the local wildlife problems.

    "People go missing sometimes. They always get found sooner or later." Thoman said, somehow mirroring my attitude about the missing old woman, but regarding Gloria. I started feeling hostile towards him.

    "Do you know where she is?" I stood up, trembling and sweating.

    "Of course, but it won't do you no good. She can't be found if she doesn't want it." Thoman blew smoke at me, dropped his smoke and crushed it underfoot until it was a mess of tobacco, ashes, paper and the filter. "Still there."

    He dusted his hands off on his jeans and walked away, leaving me there looking at the whisp of smoke hovering ephemerally over the ruined cigarette. I heard coyotes howling in the distant hills in the middle of the day, I heard wind chimes making discordant sounds, I heard the bleating of the goat sound like laughter and then the cackling of the old woman who I knew was dead.

    I sat, and from my feet a numbness of fear began to climb up my legs like tarantulas. My skin was like braille, and my sweat ran in rivulets into stains darkening on my clothes. My eyes stared, listening to the desert while it spoke the name of its lord. I was afraid, I knew I was against something that wanted to eat me, somehow.

    "Where are you?" I asked Gloria, my voice a dry cracking sound. I went into the old woman's shack and poured some of the iced tea she had made at some point before she died. It tasted like tomatoes with a hint of almonds and made me feel sleepy. While I walked to the couch, I dropped the glass and fell over.

    Darkness made me blink, my eyes darting around for any source of light. All around me, in the midnight desert, candles stood upon cooled-melted stands made of old wax - atop human skulls. I was tied naked to a cactus, my body seemed to be covered in writing done in ketchup.

    There was a humming sound of many human voices, not an unpleasant sound, except in the circumstances it frightened me to know I was surrounded by people humming in unison. Gloria was standing at one end of the triangle, holding a Nosegay Bouquet like it was some kind of offering towards the darkness. She wore nothing but an open hooded robe of shimmering crimson and scarlet.

    I always find my wife exciting, so despite her betrayal, I still think she looked hot as a Satanic priestess. I'm pretty lucky.

    The third corner of the triangle was an old woman wearing the skin of an oversized coyote, and also slippers made of coyote feet. She howled dramatically and her voice was answered by a disembodied growling from all around us.

    I peed myself in terror, glad I wore nothing to absorb it. Instead, it just ran down my leg and collected under my left foot. I wanted to scream, but I felt weak and frightened, unable to do more than whimper pathetically in mortal dread. Gloria looked at my mess and smiled weirdly at me.

    "Azazel, take from our community our sins, take our sins to the desert. Leave us another six years of peace. We offer you the slaughter of the scapegoat. Lord of the wilderness, accept our humble sacrifice." The gathered creeps were saying their prayer slowly in unison. They repeated it word-for-word again and again, long into the night.

    Something was coming closer, something was coming. All around us desert creatures hopped and leapt and swooped, chittering, yipping, barking and hooting. Thousands of beetles, centipedes, tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, mice and crickets swarmed everywhere except the hot wax and flames of the candles. I cried and shivered, moaning in horror as the creatures crawled all over me.

    The glowing eyes, a shade of golden brown, loomed from the darkness. As the shape of the entity formed in my mind around the darkness it was cloaked in, sleep overwhelmed me. I straight up fainted at the sight of Azazel.

    The early dawn found me in the back of our rental car, driving on a spare. Gloria was driving, getting us to her sister's wedding on-time. "Why?" I choked out a word.

    "I wouldn't bother, but his business is in jeopardy. When we cross the border into that state, we are in the territory of one of the most corrupt governments on the planet. Technically, California is part of the United States in name only. Everyone knows their government is run entirely by criminals. The new laws will eliminate her new husband's franchises. They'll lose everything and have to live with us. I hate my sister, you know that." Gloria enlightened me to her insane political opinion and family drama, without answering my question.

    "You're telling me all that was about burgers and ketchup?" I wheezed, needing a drink.

    "With this -" Gloria held up the bridal bouquet "My lord will bless their union. She cannot be made poor by the dealings of other devils. They are all on the same team, you know."

    "Team McDonald?" I asked.

    "Team Humanity. They just want what's best for us." Gloria explained.

    "Demons want what's best for us?" I tried not to sound too incredulous.

    "No. You are missing the point. Humans make the sins, they just feed. They are fair, if you ask them for a favor. They'll take care of you."

    "Like getting someone elected?" I guessed.

    "Yes. Exactly." Gloria agreed. I stared out at the scenery of Angel's Crest National Monument as we drove.

    We arrived at the wedding and I kept thinking about how good Gloria looked as some kind of Satanist last night. I requested we spend some married couple time together and she considered it, but said we had no time for such things. She promised we'd spend some quality time together after the wedding, provided I play for her team.

    "I can't promise anything." I said honestly to her. For whatever faults I have, I do insist on being honest with my spouse.

    We parked in the alley and got ourselves ready to go into the wedding, still looking like we were out all night, despite twenty minutes of details.

    "We need to get going." Gloria urged me. I was still fiddling with my tie in the passenger's mirror, since the driver's side one had a crack in it already. I kept reminding myself how this car was a rental, as the thought was easily slipping my mind under the stress I was feeling.

    I hate weddings.

    We went in and the place was simultaneously too loud with all the murmuring and too quiet with all the whispering. I kept hearing words of profanity and would look up to see if any of the holy statues were reacting. No weeping or bleeding.

    It really freaks me out when statues cry and bleed and have flesh underneath when they get damaged. I'm pretty sure there are actual religious orders where they entomb their saints alive, after eating a diet of herbs meant to sedate and preserve the corpse sealed inside. Not too freaky, but I am just one person being judgmental, aren't I? I realize I am sorta disrespecting their whole culture in a way, and that's not how I mean for it to sound. It's just not for me - I get scared - that's all you need to know.

    The blurry way the statues looked had me standing in front of the bride's aisle while everyone was wondering what I was looking at with that look on my face. I'd provided the distraction Gloria needed to ensure absolutely nobody except her saw her make the switch of the bouquets. She had an exact copy of her sister's bouquet, unironically.

    Out behind the church we met and she had started a small fire in a coffee tin with holes around the bottom rim. She closed the knife she'd used and used the longneck lighter to get a couple candles going on the side.

    "Hurry, someone might see us." I said as loudly as I dared, half hoping someone would hear me and look around the corner. I couldn't help it, part of me was against whatever we were doing. I still felt nervous, nervous we'd get caught or that we'd get away with it. My anxiety had me holding my hands like I was warming them to the fire.

    "And white goes softly into flames, and black comes the smoke, pure and thick." Gloria dropped the blessed flowers into the flames.

    "Uh, amen." I coughed.

    "Let's go watch her get married." Gloria growled.

    We went in and there was a wedding that happened while we were in our seats.

    While most people were on their phones, texting or whatever they were doing, others actually watched the wedding.

    I looked around and saw how some people were observing the ceremony. I too was looking at it, but trying not to. I knew I was seeing something there that they weren't, and it was pretty scary because I knew it was real. Therefore, it was invisible to all of them except me.

    I leaned over to my wife and asked her: "Who is the goat up there with them?"

    "That's Fred, she's like a bridesmaid." Gloria whispered back.

    "Fred is a girl goat?" I asked.

    "I can arrange for you to have visits from Fred, Sweetea, if that's something you're into." Gloria teased me weirdly, but I didn't really find it that amusing, just creepy. The last thing I wanted was to be haunted by an invisible goat-demon.

    "Ew, no thanks." I said.

    When the bouquet was tossed, Gloria caught it. She'd run in, shoving all the maidens like a quarterback. Some of them had fallen and gotten serious scrapes and bruises. Her sister yelled at her, but Gloria just looked at me and we took off around the corner and went for our car.

    "Why aren't we leaving?" I asked.

    "This has to be under her bed on her wedding night. My sister is a virgin, she has to be given to her new husband first." Gloria waved the bouquet in front of me, gripping it the same way she had gripped her foldable dagger earlier when she'd cut the coffee can.

    "I have a feeling you mean Azazel." I gulped, realizing I couldn't go that far with her. I had to find a way to stop this.

    "What's that?" Gloria asked me sharply.

    "I'd best dealing be with Azazel?" I tried to change what I'd said, botching it horribly.

    "No, you said something else." My wife said firmly, and frowning. I had a feeling my bed had just gone cold, and it scared me as much as the devils, because as I mentioned, Gloria is what's best in my life.

    "I don't like this." I admitted. I also mentioned I really don't lie to her.

    "She won't know the difference." Gloria smiled a little bit, a kind of evil villain-styled smile. I found it too sexy.

    "Either way, it's wrong. I'm not sure exactly how, but it seems super perverted and evil and I won't allow it." I proclaimed.

    Gloria slammed on the breaks and flicked out her knife and held it to my throat. "Get out."

    I was left standing by the side of the road with my bags as she sped away, driving to some unknown honeymoon destination to put some cursed flowers under her sister's bed to summon some kind of husband demon for her wedding night. I'm pretty sure I had to stop this from happening.

    "You still fighting the good fight?" Ronald McDonald stepped out from where he was waiting to catch a bus.

    "I love my wife to death, but she is trying too hard to ruin her sister's wedding." I sat on my bags, feeling tired and my eyes watering.

    "Don't cry." Ronald McDonald told me. "You got to man up right now. This is your chance to set things right."

    I sniffled and tried to smile for Ronald McDonald. He smiled back and we shared a moment on that desolate highway.

    "I've got something for you." He told me. He handed me a toy from a happy meal I'd gotten as a kid, the Muppet Baby Fozzie. I assembled his armor and put him on horseback. When I looked up, Ronald McDonald had caught the bus and was waving goodbye to me.

    That's when the tears started. I knew I had to step up and stop her. I wiped 'em on my handkerchief and got my phone out of my pocket. I used the app we had to find where she was, after figuring out how to use the darn thing.

    Then I used another app to summon a professional getaway driver named Breeze. She arrived in less than four minutes, the sound of her engine in earshot for the whole last minute as she took the three miles of road between us with fury. We said nothing to each other. I showed her the destination and the review I'd already written and nine one-hundred-dollar bills and she gave me a hand signal I guess meant we were in business. We caught up to Gloria and then I found the only likely honeymoon spot, a desert view bed and breakfast, of course.

    We got ahead of Gloria and Breeze accepted her payment and vanished into thin air, leaving only burning tire tracks in her wake. I reached into the newlyweds open car and released the parking brake. With a muscle-pulling, ankle-twisting, hernia-inducing, disk-slipping effort I got the darn car moving, with the toy in my pocket making me pretend I could do this. I got their vehicle into the ditch, out of sight.

    I went into the bed and breakfast and checked the guest registry. I was sweating and my suit was coming loose all over. I was limping and groaning, although I wasn't feeling what I'd done to myself yet. I looked at the names. They were here.

    With the page torn out I started a new entry for the weekend and made up a couple fake names before the owner found me there.

    "Uh, sorry." I said. I set the toy on the counter and fled.

    I watched from the bushes while Gloria went in. See, I find simple plans without a lot of moving parts work best in any situation. Gloria found no evidence she'd come to the right place. The owner was already freaking out and gave her a stern goodbye.

    Gloria tried to call her sister but got nothing. As she drove away my terrified state began to subside. I collapsed in the bushes, sleeping with a butterfly on my eyelash keeping me company.

    "You did this." Gloria was saying. I was in the back seat of the rental again. She was smoking, and she'd smoked enough that the little strip had turned yellow, indicating we would be charged a cleaning fee for the damages. There was no ashtray, so she was just putting them out on the dashboard, leaving little burns and ash everywhere.

    Her phone chimed and I saw she was chatting with one of her old boyfriends. She made sure I saw this. I rolled my eyes. It's not like we'd spent twenty years married. Her interrogation techniques needed improvement, especially since she would know - I don't lie to her. I'd never seen her smoke, not that I could remember, not for a long time.

    I was under a lot of stress, but as I thought about it, she was smoking the whole trip.

    My mind played a weird montage of all her light-ups. I felt like it needed a theme, so I hummed the theme to that show we were just watching. Then I looked at her and stopped humming, humming that cue for the other person who hums to hum along, you know what I mean. There should be a word for that kind of cue, probably is, but I'm not fluent in music vocabulary.

    She didn't get it, but instead got mean and lifted her hand like she wanted me to stop humming because it was annoying or something. I stopped.

    "You're not even Gloria." I complained.

    "Took you long enough." The creature grinned.

    My mind went wild with terror, as I realized she was some kind of horrible demon disguised as Gloria. She handed me the toy from McDonald's and it started to melt, becoming warped and evil looking. Her laugh sounded like a stretched audio recording of a laugh, all distorted and demonic, exactly like the best horror movie foley artists make it sound, and making me pee from my frozen spine bone and dry eye sockets staring till my eyes hurt.

    Demonic laughter is unforgettable, a kind of maddening sensation, like something is being ripped out of you suddenly, a painful disorientation that you never quite stop feeling dizzy from. Its an ache, an unhealing wound of the psyche, always oozing and causing me some kind of misery. It lives there, like a tiny flea, too small to squish or catch, in its hole, in my mind.

    Weirdly enough, the horrible little toy it gave me contains it, and that is why it must never be touched, for although it is a burnt figurine, it imprisons a part of the wilderness of souls.

    I held it there, and looked up at the not Gloria. She looked just as relieved and bewildered as I felt. She was Gloria again, I could tell it was her.

    "Where is it?" She asked me.

    I held up the toy, having already dropped it into the burnt coffee tin to contain the prison for the sound that the demon had become when I'd listened to it, pretending to be my wife, therefore listening to my wife also.

    "How's that work?" Gloria asked me, sobbing. She wanted reassurance it wasn't going to take control of her ever again.

    "Well, we are in this together for better or worse." I figured I'd say.

    "We weren't helping it. It already got me, using my hate for her against me. Remember when we got the wedding invite?"

    "I thought it was weird there was a goat with glowing red eyes drawn on that." I pointed out.

    "I never really wanted to hurt her." Gloria felt awful. I hugged her close and kissed her forehead.

    "I'm the one who got hurt." I reminded her.

    We went over all the things like cactus and such that I'd suffered, dehydration, scares, murder and mayhem, dagger stabbings, cannibalism, arson and demons. It was agreed I was the hero in all this, and I finally got some ketchup on Satan's burger.

    It was delicious.

    1 Comment
    2024/06/03
    21:07 UTC

    5

    On A Foggy Night

    ON A FOGGY NIGHT BY AL BRUNO III

    We live in a world of surveillance, cameras, code numbers, and background checks. Our every purchase and infraction is recorded by mindless computers and soulless bureaucrats. Our births, our lives, and our deaths are nothing more than information to be filed away.

    It was after I had quit the University that I found myself a part of that never-ending process. I had secured steady and suitable paying employment in the field of medical billing, cross-referencing information for eight hours a day. The process was mindless enough; an insurer would call, and I would find the correct records and pass the information along. No names were part of the transactions, only numbers curtly passed from one disinterested voice to another. From what I understood, my fellow employees and I were merely there to correct database errors and investigate irregularities.

    I worked in a wide room that was nothing more than a grid of half-cubicles and desks. I wore a headset and hunched over a computer. I had long ago forgotten that each sequence of numbers that passed from my lips was a life encapsulated.

    The morning of the impossibly heavy fog, I walked into the building to find myself one of the few employees who had risked the drive. That meant a crushing workload and mandatory overtime, but I didn’t mind; I lived alone in a studio apartment that might have been a cell; I never went out on weeknights and slept through most of my Saturdays. Sometimes, I  would treat myself to a movie on a Sunday afternoon, but I always took great care to sit in the back row of the theater, for if I spied a single blemish on the fabric of the screen, it would be all I could focus on for the rest of the show.

    The first few hours of my shift passed slowly; the diminished staff had created long hold times that left every caller with a litany of complaints and a waspish tone. I kept my tone apologetic and respectful.

    Somewhere to my right, a coworker was coughing endlessly; behind me, another banged his mouse on his desk in frustration. Their voices hissed with frustration. When I excused myself to the restroom I realized to my discomfort that someone was crying in the bathroom stall.

    My lunch hour was quiet and lonely. I spent some of it outside smoking one cigarette after another until the sight of the fog began to play tricks on my eyes. It left me with a strange feeling of vertigo, as though I was slowly spiraling into emptiness.

    The second part of my shift is when it began. The call was ordinary at first, but a frustrated voice cut me off mid-greeting with a request for information. I did my best to comply but had to ask the caller to repeat himself several times.

    The numbers he gave me were wrong—completely wrong. Please understand that I am not talking about faulty account information or transposed digits.

    I mean to say that the numbers themselves were wrong. They did not exist.

    They were integers that existed outside the zero through nine that I had been taught and lived with for all of my years, but I knew these were numbers I was hearing nonetheless. I could almost see them in my mind,  lost and impossible symbols that no human hand had ever drawn.

    The caller made an impatient sound as I stared at my keyboard in dismay. Could any key express the characters the caller was describing? Though my college education was incomplete, I had studied enough to understand the concept of imaginary numbers, but this was more than that. These were alien numbers,  blasphemous numbers, and every time the caller repeated them, I felt an ache in my head.

    “I don’t understand,” I finally admitted.

    The caller simply repeated himself again and again, and the numbers sounded like a prayer in an unknown language. I disconnected the call and pulled off my headset. Shudders worked their way through my body. I looked at the windows. The fog had blunted the late morning light, casting everything into shades of gray.

    I heard the numbers again; I looked at my headset, but it was silent. Standing, I listened to those terrible syllables coming from the mouths of my coworkers; they murmured them with easy familiarity. I cried in alarm, but no one looked up from their work. I ran to find a supervisor, but he was also on the phone, speaking facts and figures that made no sense at all. He didn’t look up when I called his name; even when I  touched his shoulder, he did not react, and his flesh was clammy with sweat. I could see the veins in his forehead throbbing as he spoke.

    There was a loud crack, and the lights flickered and went out. Something similar had happened the previous year; a fog-blinded truck had crashed into a telephone pole, snapping power lines and leaving us with nothing more to do but, while away, the remainder of our shifts with small talk and gossip.

    Despite the dead phones and darkened screens, my coworkers continued to talk. In fact, they spoke louder and faster, their voices finding a chaotic rhythm.

    I fled from the madness, leaving my job, apartment, and possessions behind.

    As I said before, the modern world has reduced us to numbers, but what if the numbers we chose to do that with were the wrong ones? What if we have unknowingly reduced ourselves to nonsense?

    0 Comments
    2024/06/03
    01:03 UTC

    7

    GTA5 Turned Me Into A Peeping Tom

    I’ve always hated people. Not really people, but having to interact with them. You could call me anti-social, but honestly, it just bothers me how fake people are. Friends, family, relationships. People change at the drop of a dime, or maybe it's just them randomly deciding to show their true colors, either way, people will always find a way to tear you down and make you feel less than nothing. I guess getting stabbed in the back enough times made me want to keep to myself, unfortunately, in this society, it's hard to avoid people. You have to go to the grocery store, you have to speak to cashiers at the gas station, and unfortunately, you have to have a fucking job…

    Every aspect of life demands you interact with someone, and I fucking hate it. That's why when COVID hit, and the country got locked down, it didn't bother me one bit. Not only did I not have to go to work, but the government paid me triple what I made, and sure, even though paying millions of people for years on end for no reason caused this ridiculous inflation we're experiencing now, at least I didn't have to interact with anyone, and even though astronomically more people died because of the lockdowns than died of covid due to it causing depression and desperation leading to suicide along other health conditions that couldn't be treated, I still consider it a plus. My only problem was figuring out what to do with my extra time. 

    At first, it was amazing. The first week I started and finished 3 shows on HULU I had been wanting to watch, but one thing about the lockdown that hit me hard was I couldn't even go joyride in my Mustang. I guess the cop saw me past too many times in one day and pulled me over. He said if I wasn't out to get essentials, I had to go home or Id be arrested which made no fucking sense. Eventually, I got tired of just watching TV and not being able to go out and enjoy the world. I'd never really been into video games, I mean, I had an X box but mainly to play a Friday the 13th game as I was a Jason Voorhese fanatic along with any other content that would be described as especially heinous, but I figure I might as well put the x box to use since I had so much time to kill. Upon searching through the games, I found the one that would give me everything the government took away.

    If you're not familiar with GTA5, it's an open-world game where you basically do whatever you want. You design a character and can choose to do different types of missions to make money, or just drive around and interact with the world. The best part for me was it had a Mustang exactly like mine. I made my character look as much like me as I could, did some missions, made some money, and bought my car. I played the actual game for a while but I quickly found myself more fixated on the mechanics of the world. The people walking and driving around saying outrageous things.

    I am by no means a computer or programming specialist which is why I guess it amazed me so much. How did it run how it did? I passed the time simply walking behind people, seeing where they went, driving behind cars, to see if they had a destination. I was amazed to see how these people interacted with each other. A pedestrian, crossing the road and getting hit by a car. An ambulance shows up and revives the person. A gang member shooting a gun causes motorists to drive erratically crashing into multiple other cars and causing mayhem. I concluded the game is probably a grid, like a railroad track these people were programmed to walk or drive on, but when forced to deviate from their programmed route was where it got really interesting, for example, one time a plane crashed causing multiple people to run frantically, and I chose one to follow. They ran and ran and decided to get off the road and head up a mountain. They topped the peak and proceeded to fall down the other side, repeating this over multiple ranges until I got tired of following. I've seen them decide to jump in the ocean and swim toward the horizon, and even randomly jump off a bridge. I understand how they can be programmed to follow a predetermined route, and even deviate to another route while staying on the grid, but some of them do things that kind of make me think they can make choices.

    At the end of the day, I’m sure it's just my ignorance of programs and computer shit, but I did find it very entertaining to see what these people did. Eventually, I created my own games within the game, mainly a slasher game where I put on a mask and stalked people from the shadows. I’d wait until it was night, and I would carry a machete like Jason, and just follow people until I felt it was their time to die, and I would kill them. I’d walk through trees and backyards finding somone sitting on their porch or standing in their driveway smoking a cigarette, and I would sneak up and kill them. Sometimes I would just watch from the shadows. I wouldn't even be holding my controller, I'd just sit and watch the world exist because I wasn't allowed to watch my own… Or could I? 

    I loved walking around the areas that were just trees or hills, away from the city where the animals are, so I decided to go experience my own world again, against the wishes of the government. It’s not like anyone would see me at night, especially if I just walked around wooded areas. For some reason, I can't tell you why, but I wanted it to be as much like the fake world I had been living in as possible, so I even ordered a mask like the one I had been wearing. I put on clothes similar to my character and walked out my back door and into the woods behind my house. The cool breeze was refreshing and the sky was so clear the moon lit up the forest. I had no clue how deep it was but I knew it was deep enough to not worry about cops seeing me and forcing me to return to my prison. For hours I just walked around, admiring nature, all the while wearing a mask and gripping a machete. All of a sudden, through the trees I saw an illuminated floating window. It was too dark to see the house until I got to the wood line. I wondered what the people inside were doing. What they might be up to. I fought with myself in my head about going and finding out inevitably choosing to have a peek. What's the worst that could happen? There were no trespassing signs and the way the law works is you have to be told not to be there by the police before you can get in trouble. The thought of this person having a gun crossed my mind but not before my legs had started walking across the yard. At that point it was already too late, not to mention, I didn't really care. I wanted to see what they were up to. 

    Only one window was lit up and it was the perfect height for me to peek through. I crouched below it and slowly rose to look inside. It was absent of blinds but it had curtains that were slightly pulled apart, a kitchen window. A woman was doing dishes as her kids were sitting at the table finishing dinner. I wasn't sure if her husband was home, or if she even had one, but I was satisfied with what I saw and decided not to find out. My heart was still racing As I walked back through the woods. This was exhilarating, but as the adrenaline started to wear off, I started to realize I didn't know my way back. I wasn't worried. I happened to have the Google Earth app and knew it would help me find my way home but when I lifted my mask to look at my phone, I realized 2 things. 1, these woods were pretty big, but not that big. Maybe a square mile surrounded 15 houses along its border. 2, it was only 10 o'clock. I obviously didn't have to go to work the next day, so why not check out another house before I call it a night?

    As I made my way to the east side of the woods I started to question if what I was doing was wrong. Sure, I could lose the machete, but in my defense, originally I just planned on walking around the woods. I couldn't kill someone. Not in REAL life. But what's the difference between this and simply looking out your window at your neighbor's house or staring at a jogger a little longer than normal? I was just getting a closer look. I decided to lose the machete in case I was seen and continued through the woods until I saw light dancing through the trees. The smoke smell in the air told me it was a fire up ahead and when I approached the woodline I could see a shadow moving back and forth. I crouched down low and parted the bushes to see a barrel with a blazing fire, and a man carrying a cage. I couldn't see what was inside but once I heard the meows I had an idea. He opened the cage pulled out a small cat, maybe a kitten, placed it in a burlap sack, and tossed it in the barrel. The meows turned to screams and it was so loud I had to cover my ears. I quickly turned and darted back into the woods. 

    I felt horrible, but what was I going to do? The cat was already in the fire so there was no saving it. The screams echoed through the woods for maybe 20 seconds, and then it was quiet. I had heard that sound before thinking it was just some cats fighting or something. How could someone be so fucked up? I mean, I know I can't say much, I’m watching people from the woods with a mask on, but I’m not burning cats alive. I couldn't get home fast enough. I crawled into bed and forced myself asleep so I didn't have to think about what I had just seen and thank God I didn't have any nightmares about it. The next day, I woke up instantly thinking about it but the shock of it had kinda worn off. I felt a little numb trying to understand how evil like that could exist, but I carried on with my day eventually forgetting about it altogether. 

    When the sun started to go down, I reentered the woods, this time with a route planned out. I’d check out 3 houses a night, all on different sides of the wooded patch in case I were seen I would be out of the general area, and also to learn my way around the woods so I didn't have to rely on Google to tell me where I was at. The first house was dark and the absence of cars in the drive led me to believe no one was home or maybe it was unoccupied. I didn’t approach the second house due to a man working in his garage. The car he was working on was nice and had him so preoccupied he didn't even notice me watching from the open door. I lingered for a bit and then headed off to my final house before calling it a night. I could hear the whipping sound before getting close to the house. My jaw dropped inside my mask when I looked through the window and saw where it was coming from. A man in a wheelchair, and an older woman wearing a face of pure anger, gripping the belt. He sat in his chair emotionless as the woman repeatedly hit him with the belt. He didn't even try to fight back, and honestly, I don’t even think he knew what was going on. The lifeless look on his face told me he was an empty vessel, a health condition the woman resented for whatever reason. I wanted nothing more than to bust in and stop her, but was it my place?

    I wanted to take my mind off of what I was seeing, and the image of the woman and her kids came into my mind. I wondered what they were doing… Maybe something normal that would make ME feel normal again. I made my way to the yellow house hoping the wholesome view of a loving family would prevent any nightmares the scene would cause, but when I got close I could hear the yelling. She did have a husband, and they were arguing. Looking through the window, I could see her crying in the kitchen, the man towering over her with fury in his voice. The kids weren't there but it was 11 pm so I assumed they were asleep, unable to hear the anger filling the house. I didn't like how he talked to her, but again, what could I do? 

    For weeks, I watched the evil that dwelled in the houses surrounding the woods, walking through the dark trees with negative sounds echoing through my head. Images of people, hurting each other, or themselves. 15 houses, very few pleasant to watch, or anything that could be considered normal. Every Monday, a sound echoed through the forest. I felt it starting to change me, drive me crazy but at the same time, cause me to feel numb. So much pain in such a small area, the craziness inside every box with a door. How much more was in the rest of the world?! What even was normal? I made a decision. Sticky notes.

     “Hurting yourself isn’t the answer”

    “How would you like to be in a wheelchair?”

    “You'll burn next if you don’t stop.”

    Messages no one would report because they’d have to explain. I approached the yellow house to leave my last note. “Treat her better”, that’s all it said. Maybe it would be enough. Maybe if these people knew someone was watching they would change their ways. His car door would be the best place for this one. As I stuck it on the handle, I could hear the yelling. He was always yelling, and drunk. It was worse than usual because I could hear things being thrown and slammed. I peeked through the usual window just as he flipped the kitchen table and backed her against the wall. He raised his hand, bringing it down across her face. She hit the floor as he stood over her. He took another swig from his bottle before striking her again. Between every angry sentence, he would hit her. He was going to kill her!

    Before I could even think I had kicked in the door. Before he could even turn, I had picked up a chair and swung it at his head. He hit the ground and the woman started to scream even louder. I looked down to see the blood pouring from his head. I dropped the chair and ran back into the woods, her screams fading the further I got. 

    I got home, hid the mask, and bit my nails to the nubs waiting for whatever evidence I left behind to lead the cops to me. Any trails I made over my weeks of walking through the woods, like breadcrumbs for the police, but they never came. 

    The next day, every news channel played the same story. "Man killed by a masked vigilante." The woman had told the story, exactly how it happened. How he was beating her mercilessly. How she feared for her life, and how a masked person had come in to save it. I wasn’t proud of what I had done. I had taken a man's life. What if he was only going to hit her one last time and be done? Did this man really deserve to die? It wasn’t my intention, and no amount of Reddit or social media posts praising the vigilante made me feel better about what I had done. 

    The truth is, I'm not a vigilante. I’m not Superman and I'm definitely not God, so who am I to change what I feel needs to be changed? To redirect a timeline that would otherwise never exist. If there is a God, who am I to change what he himself doesn’t deem worthy to alter? So from now on, I just watch… Or not... One thing’s for sure, the longer I do this, the easier it is to not look away.

    SHORT FILM at:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKzkNB9Df_Y

    3 Comments
    2024/06/02
    16:52 UTC

    3

    Take Me to the Pilot

    ‘‘Who the fuck am I, doctor? What happened to who I was?’’

    As a doctor, it’s normal for such patients, utterly at the end of their tether, to resort to such language, even though we doctors are supposed to enjoy a degree of formality not reserved for other walks of life. At this point in my career, I pay it no mind.

    ‘‘Thank you for agreeing to undergo the physical exam, Elton,’’ I began, ‘‘and also agreeing to discuss your complete medical history with me before we begin. That should greatly expedite my ability to diagnose what’s happening here.’’

    He was obviously in a very bad way. The signs of sleep deprivation were wrought into his features. He was adrift in a sea of nothingness and was close to drowning.

    ‘‘I just don’t want to feel like this anymore. Whatever it takes.’’

    I’d seen this many times before. As an expert in this particular field of human existentialism, I already knew the exact problem, but for the sake of appearances I needed to let the patient work through the process on his own. After all, this patient was still more than salvageable.

    ‘‘Well, now that we’ve used various diagnostic tests, including imaging studies and blood tests, to rule out physical illness or medication side effects as the cause of the symptoms,’’ I paused to give him time to take this all in, ‘‘I think it’s time for us to discuss what else it could be. At this point I’d like you just to tell me how you feel on a day-to-day basis.’’

    ‘‘I don’t even really know where to begin.’’

    I do, but it’s important for the next stage of this process to come from him, as much as it possibly can.

    ‘‘Take your time. It’s important to the diagnosis that you put your feelings into your own words.’’

    ‘‘I guess I feel like I have… well, a distorted perception of my own body. I don’t know how to really describe it, at least not in a way that makes any sense. I guess I kind of feel like I’m a robot… or I’m in a dream. I might fear I’m going crazy and might become depressed, anxious, or worse.’’

    I nodded, taking in Elton’s words. ‘‘Elton, what you're describing sounds a lot like depersonalization disorder. It’s a condition where people feel disconnected or detached from their own body and thoughts. It’s as if you’re observing yourself from outside your body or living in a dream.’’

    He looked at me with a mixture of confusion and desperation. ‘‘So, I’m not going crazy?’’

    ‘‘No, you're not losing touch with reality. People with depersonalization disorder are very much aware that what they're experiencing isn’t normal, which is what makes it so distressing. Episodes can last for a short time or, in some cases, for many years, affecting daily functioning.’’

    ‘‘What causes it?’’ he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

    ‘‘The exact cause isn’t well understood, but it can be triggered by intense stress or traumatic events, such as abuse, accidents, or violence. It’s one of several dissociative disorders which involve disruptions in memory, consciousness, and identity.’’

    He took a deep breath, trying to process the information. ‘‘Is there any way to make it stop?’’

    ‘‘Treatment typically involves psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help you manage your symptoms. In some cases, medication might be prescribed to address underlying issues like anxiety or depression. The first step is understanding what you're dealing with, and from there, we can work together on a treatment plan.’’

    Elton nodded slowly. ‘‘I just want to feel normal again.’’

    ‘‘I understand. And with the right approach, we can work towards that goal. You’re not alone in this, Elton. We’ll take it step by step.’’

    Elton nodded slowly. ‘‘I just want to feel normal again.’’

    ‘‘I understand, Elton. Let’s talk about how we can work towards that. Most people with depersonalization disorder seek treatment because of symptoms like depression or anxiety, not always the depersonalization itself. Sometimes, these symptoms go away on their own over time. But when they don’t, or if they're particularly distressing, treatment can help.’’

    ‘‘So, what kind of treatment are we talking about?’’

    ‘‘The goal of your treatment is to address the stress and triggers associated with the onset of the disorder. The best approach depends on your individual situation and the severity of your symptoms. Psychotherapy, especially talk therapy, is usually the primary treatment. Cognitive therapy can help change any dysfunctional thinking patterns you might have.’’

    ‘‘Will I need medication?’’

    ‘‘Let’s take things a little slower, Elton. Medications are not typically used to treat depersonalization disorder directly. However, if you’re experiencing significant depression or anxiety, an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication might be helpful. Sometimes, antipsychotic medications are used to help with disordered thinking and perception.’’

    Elton shifted in his seat, considering the options. ‘‘What about my family? They don’t understand what I’m going through.’’

    ‘‘Family therapy can be beneficial. It helps to educate your family about the disorder and its causes, and it can also help them recognize the symptoms if they recur. This support system can be very important for your recovery.’’

    ‘‘Are there any other types of therapy that might help?’’

    ‘‘Yes, creative therapies like art or music therapy can provide a safe and expressive way to explore your thoughts and feelings. Clinical hypnosis is another option; it uses intense relaxation and concentration to explore thoughts and memories that might be contributing to your symptoms.’’

    ‘‘What’s the outlook for me, then? Can I really recover from this?’’

    ‘‘Well, the good news is that many patients do recover completely from depersonalization disorder. The symptoms often go away on their own or after effective treatment that helps address the underlying stress or trauma. However, without treatment, additional episodes can occur. With the right support and treatment plan, we can work towards your recovery.’’

    Elton took a deep breath, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. ‘‘Alright, let’s do this. I’m ready to start.’’

    ‘‘Good. We’ll take it step by step, together.’’

    I then leaned forward slightly; my tone gentle but firm. "Elton, there's one treatment that might provide more immediate relief. It's called clinical hypnosis. By guiding you into a deeply relaxed state, we can explore your subconscious and potentially uncover the root causes of your depersonalization."

    Elton's eyebrows furrowed in skepticism. "Hypnosis? You think that'll actually work?"

    "I understand your doubts," I replied. "But hypnosis can be a powerful tool. It allows us to access parts of your mind that are usually hidden, bringing buried memories and feelings to the surface. Many patients find it really helps them make significant breakthroughs."

    Elton hesitated, glancing around the sterile office. "I don't know... it sounds kind of... out there."

    "You're right to be cautious," I said, nodding. "But consider this: you're here because traditional methods haven't worked. This is another option, one that could bring you relief faster than talk therapy or medication. And I'll be with you every step of the way."

    A long silence stretched between us as Elton weighed his options. Finally, he sighed, a mix of resignation and hope in his eyes. "Alright. I'll try it. What do I have to lose?"

    "Excellent," I said, a hopefully reassuring smile on my face. "Let's get started."

    Elton settled back into the chair, feeling a flutter of nerves in his stomach. I dimmed the lights and began speaking in a calm, rhythmic voice, guiding Elton through deep breathing exercises. "Focus on your breath," I instructed. "Inhale slowly through your nose... hold it... and exhale through your mouth."

    Elton followed along, feeling his body gradually relax. My voice was soothing and steady. "Imagine a peaceful place," I continued. "Somewhere you feel completely safe and calm. Picture it in your mind and let yourself drift there."

    A warm sensation spread through Elton's limbs as he visualized a tranquil beach, the gentle waves lapping at the shore. His eyelids grew heavy, and my voice had now become his only anchor to reality.

    "You're doing well, Elton," I softly murmured. "Now, I want you to go deeper. Let yourself sink into a state of complete relaxation. With each breath, feel yourself going deeper and deeper."

    Elton felt as though he was floating, weightless and free. My voice guided him further, urging him to explore the recesses of his mind. "You're safe here," I said. "I want you to go back to a time when you first felt disconnected. Allow the memories to come to the surface."

    Images began to flicker in Elton's mind, fragmented at first, then gradually forming a coherent picture. He saw himself as a child, standing alone in a dark room. The sense of detachment washed over him, more intense than ever before.

    "Tell me what you see," I prompted gently.

    "I'm... I'm in my old house," Elton said, his voice distant and hollow. "It's dark, and I feel so... alone."

    "Good," I replied. "Let's explore this memory together. What happens next?"

    As Elton delved deeper into his past, the details of his childhood began to unfold, revealing the moments of fear and isolation that had shaped his experience of the world. My voice remained a constant guide, helping him navigate through the labyrinth of his subconscious.

    With each revelation, Elton felt a weight lifting from him, the long-buried emotions surfacing and dissipating. He was beginning to understand the origins of his depersonalization, and for the first time in a long while, he felt a glimmer of hope.

    As Elton's breathing slowed and his body relaxed further into the chair, I observed him with an almost clinical detachment. I maintained my soothing tone, but my mind was focused on the next phase of my plan.

    "You're doing very well, Elton," I said, my voice steady. "Now, I want you to go even deeper. Let your mind drift until you reach a state of complete relaxation."

    Elton's eyes fluttered closed, and his body went limp. I continued to murmur softly, guiding Elton into a semi-comatose state. Once satisfied that Elton was deeply under, I stood up and crossed the room to a cabinet, retrieving a sleek piece of scientific equipment.

    I returned to Elton's side, carefully attaching the apparatus to his head. The device resembled a futuristic helmet, with electrodes and sensors that monitored brain activity and displayed it on a nearby screen. I adjusted the settings, my eyes flicking to the monitor as it powered up.

    The screen quickly hummed to life, displaying a detailed image of Elton's brain. Patterns of electrical activity danced across the display, revealing the inner workings of his mind. I watched intently, my expression a mix of curiosity and satisfaction.

    "Activate the neural resonance scanner," I instructed my unseen assistant through a small intercom device on my desk.

    A moment later, my assistant entered the room, a young technician with a clipboard. She nodded and began adjusting additional controls on the apparatus, fine-tuning the settings to enhance the resolution of the brain scan.

    "Good," I muttered, more to myself than to my assistant. "Let's see what we're dealing with."

    The screen's image sharpened, and the intricate details of Elton's brain became clearer. I leaned further in, studying the neural pathways and synaptic connections. I was searching for any specific anomalies, patterns that might otherwise explain the profound disconnection Elton felt from his own body, apart from what I already knew to be the true reason.

    "There," I whispered, pointing to a cluster of unusual activity deep within the temporal lobe. "Increase the magnification on this section."

    My assistant complied, and the image zoomed in on the targeted area. My eyes narrowed as I scrutinized the display. I had of course seen similar patterns before, but never with such clarity. It was as if Elton's brain was broadcasting a signal, a distress call from within the depths of his subconscious.

    "Prepare the neuro-interface," I ordered. "We need to delve deeper into this anomaly."

    My assistant hurried to set up another piece of equipment, a sleek console with a series of complex controls. As she worked, I continued to monitor the screen, my mind racing with possibilities. This was – of course - no ordinary case of depersonalization disorder. There was something unique about Elton’s brain, something that held the key to understanding the human mind's most profound mysteries, and our continued presence here.

    With the neuro-interface ready, I began the delicate process of linking it to the apparatus already attached to Elton's head. This would allow me to interact directly with the neural signals, exploring the depths of Elton’s subconscious in ways traditional therapy could never achieve.

    "Elton," I said softly, even though I knew the young man could not respond in his current state. "We're going to find out what’s really happening inside your mind. And with any luck, we’ll finally bring you some peace."

    As the neuro-interface established its connection, I took a deep breath, ready to plunge into the uncharted territories of Elton's psyche.

    The neuro-interface hummed as it established its connection with Elton's subconscious. I adjusted my headset, and the images on the screen shifted, providing a direct view into the intricate neural landscape of Elton's mind. I focused intently, searching for the signal I knew was there. After a few moments, the connection stabilized, and a new voice resonated within my mind.

    "Pilot Taupin," I said, my voice filled with a barely controlled anger. "Do you realize the damage you've caused by neglecting your duties?"

    There was a pause, followed by a petulant reply from within the depths of Elton's mind. "This human is boring," Taupin complained. "Being his neuro-pilot is no fun at all. He's so predictable, so... mundane."

    I clenched my jaw, struggling to keep my temper in check. "Maintaining the mission is all-important, Taupin. We have protocols for a reason. Too many humans are waking up to their realities, and your negligence is contributing to the problem."

    Taupin's voice, echoing through the neural pathways, carried a tone of indifference. "Protocols, missions... It's all so tedious. Why should I care if a few humans start questioning their reality? It's not like they can do anything about it."

    My eyes narrowed as I studied the patterns on the screen, observing the chaotic flux of neural signals that reflected Taupin's rebellious attitude. "Your job is to ensure that they don't question it, Taupin. By allowing Elton to experience such severe depersonalization, you've jeopardized the integrity of his mind and our entire operation."

    Taupin sighed, a sound that reverberated through Elton's brain. "You don't understand, Doctor. The monotony of this existence is unbearable. I need more stimulation, more... excitement."

    I leaned closer to the screen, my voice dropping to a menacing whisper. "If you can't handle the responsibilities of your position, we can find a replacement who can. Your indulgence in seeking excitement has nearly cost us this human. Indeed, it is his very mundanity that we have honed in on. He is earmarked for high political office in the future. We need him to fulfill his potential so we can increase our influence over this species. Remember, Taupin: the mission is paramount, and you will adhere to your duties."

    There was a long silence, the neural pathways crackling with tension. Finally, Taupin spoke again, his tone begrudging. "Fine. I'll do what you ask. But remember, Doctor, without a bit of freedom, even the most loyal pilot can become resentful."

    I took a deep breath, slightly easing the grip of my anger. "Resentment or not, you will maintain your human and ensure he remains stable. We can't afford any more risks. Now, begin the recalibration process. Restore Elton's perception of reality and eliminate any residual anomalies."

    Reluctantly, Taupin complied, and I watched as the neural activity on the screen began to stabilize. Patterns of normalcy re-emerged, and the chaotic signals smoothed into harmonious rhythms.

    "Good," I said, my voice steady once more. "Remember, Taupin, the success of our mission depends on the seamless integration of our presence within these humans. We cannot allow any deviation from the established protocols."

    As the connection began to fade, Taupin's final words lingered in the doctor's mind. "Understood, Doctor. But don't forget, even the best-kept secrets have a way of coming to light."

    I removed the headset and sighed, rubbing my temples. I knew that the delicate balance they maintained was constantly under threat, and I could only hope that Taupin — and others like him — would remember the importance of our mission. For now, Elton's mind was stable, but I remained vigilant, knowing that the battle to maintain control over humanity would never be truly over.

    4 Comments
    2024/06/02
    16:20 UTC

    8

    Innocent When You Dream

    INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM BY AL BRUNO III

    When I was young, I was prone to fevers and nightmares, something that my doctors and my parents alike put down to a weak constitution and an overactive imagination. Even as I grew older and stronger, nightmares continued to plague me, nightmares that no drug could keep at bay,  nightmares that frequently had me lashing out violently as I awoke.

    As you can imagine, when it came time for me to attend University, I felt I had no choice but to live alone. The lack of companionship only aided my focus on all things academic. My grades were strong, and my instructors began to take a special interest in my academic progress.

    Unfortunately, in my second year of studies, I began to experience incidents of sleepwalking and nocturnal violence. On four separate occasions, campus security had to apprehend me.

    This is how I came to the attention of Dr. Palatine, the University's leading expert on the subject of sleep disorders. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say I was placed under her care and supervision. She was a handsome woman with iron-gray hair that was streaked with red; she wore thick glasses and spoke with an Eastern European accent. Dr.  Palatine explained that she had just returned from a long sabbatical where she had been conducting what she called 'the purest research.'

    Dr. Palatine shared her theories about the nature of REM sleep and the source of dream imagery in the collective unconscious. She requested I keep a journal and a tape recorder at my bedside. Still, I must admit that the nature of my waking terrors left me with little clear or consistent information to impart.

    This lack of hard data to work from led her to invite me to live with her. I felt I had no choice but to accept. Dr. Palatine lived in a crumbling brownstone several miles from the college campus. She made room for me in her basement so that my night terrors could be controlled and monitored with the greatest care.

    My only night of observation began with Dr. Palatine giving me a mild sedative before having me lie down on the cot she had prepared for me. She sat beside me in an uncomfortable-looking, rust-colored chair with a pen and notepad in hand.

    Soon, I was asleep, and I found myself in the most lucid dream I had ever known. In the dream, I found myself alone in the basement, staring up at the single bare lightbulb that was the only illumination. Dr. Palatine and the rust-colored chair were gone. A strange feeling of dislocation washed over me as I stood and walked up the basement stairs.

    I found the cellar door had been locked from the outside, but I felt no panic at this realization. What better way to curtail my nightly meanderings than a locked door? I rapped on the door and called for Dr. Palatine. When there was no answer, I began to knock louder and louder. I called her name over and over, but there was no answer.

    The feeling of dislocation grew stronger, and in my mind's eye, I saw myself beating at the door in ever-growing panic. I looked so small, like a forgotten child.

    Without warning, the basement door rattled on its hinges as though something had been thrown against it. Fingers scrabbled and grabbed through the inch-wide gap between the bottom of the doorframe and the floor; they were thin and covered with thick tufts of red hair. They scratched and scraped.

    Even now, you might assume that this was all some sophomoric prank, but my every sense told me this was not the case. Whatever was on the other side of that door was bestial and twisted. The grasping of the fingers became more frantic, as though searching for something precious that was just out of reach.

    It was as though my every childhood nightmare was coming true. Hadn't the fear of seeing this very personal incubus driven me to night terrors and fugues?

    I screamed at it. The claw-like hand retreated. There was a moment when I thought it was about to retreat, but then it began to sing. I cannot describe that voice; I do not know if that voice can be described. All I can say is that the sound that reached my ears was a loathsome crooning.

    Unbidden, an image arose in my mind: the creature burbling nonsense, trying to lull the pink, quivering shape at its breast to sleep.

    Desperate to escape that sound, I backed away, only to lose footing. I tumbled down the stairs, striking my head and plunging my mind into merciful, mindless darkness.

    How long before I awoke again? I cannot say, but I do know that I blinked my eyes to see the basement door wide open. It took me some time to find the courage to mount the stairs, but when I did, I found myself in a barren house.

    There was no trace of Dr. Palatine. Not only had she disappeared from her home, but she had also vanished from all University records. All my professors insisted there was no Dr. Palatine, that there had never been a Dr. Palatine.

    The more I told my story, the more I became a subject of derision and unease. I left the University in the middle of the semester and never returned.

    I found gainful employment far away from the University, but I had lost the capacity to dream, and with it, I had lost all sense of certainty in the world around me. I began to fear that I no longer dreamed because I  was still asleep in Dr. Palatine's basement, that I had never awoken at all.

    0 Comments
    2024/06/01
    15:15 UTC

    6

    Martyr Among the Stars

    Anno Domini 165

    Day I

    Tonight, I write what may be my final words in this humble journal. The cold stone of my cell chills my bones, yet my spirit burns with a fire that not even the Emperor's fury can quench. Tomorrow, I am to be fed to the lions—a fate I embrace if it glorifies my Lord. For to die for Christ is to live forever.

    I pray for deliverance, yet am ready to meet my Maker.

    Day II

    The strangest miracle has befallen me. As I lay in my cell last night, awaiting the dawn that would usher me to my end, a light, brighter than the midday sun, pierced the darkness. Figures robed in radiance descended, their faces ethereal and voices like a chorus of distant thunder. I wept, believing them to be angels come to deliver me from my earthly torment.

    "Be not afraid," they spoke as they lifted me from the darkness into their chariot of light. Oh, how I rejoiced, thinking of the apostles’ visions, believing I was bound for the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Day III

    I am in awe, yet confusion clouds my joy. The realm of these angels is unlike any heaven spoken of in the scriptures. It is a vessel of strange metals and endless corridors, bathed in an otherworldly glow.

    They show me wonders beyond mortal understanding: stars within grasp, the Earth a mere orb of blue and green below. Surely, this is divine revelation, and I am to be a witness to the Almighty's creation beyond the confines of our sinful world.

    Day IV

    My celestial guardians do not speak of God or His Son. Instead, they examine me with cold curiosity, prodding me with strange instruments. My chamber is comfortable, yet unmistakably a cell. Through its transparent walls, I see other creatures, each in its own enclosure. Creatures so bizarre, they must be the inhabitants of Noah's forgotten ark or demons meant to test my faith.

    My heart trembles at the realization: these are the chambers of a cosmic menagerie.

    Day V

    My captors revealed the truth to me: I am a specimen in their collection, never to return. My soul aches in this celestial prison, longing for home.

    Tonight, I pray with a fervor borne of desperation, not for deliverance to heaven but return to Earth. If it is to be a martyr’s death, so be it, but let it be among my people, in the name of my God.

    Day VI

    If you are reading this, then my journal has somehow found its way back to human hands. Know that my faith remains unshaken. The heavens hold wonders and terrors alike, but my soul knows its Creator. Whether in the belly of this celestial ship or the jaws of the lions, I am the Lord’s.

    Pray for me, as I have prayed for you. May you find courage in the Lord as I have found amidst the stars.

    —Valeria Flacca Deciana, Faithful Servant of Christ

    0 Comments
    2024/06/01
    06:48 UTC

    4

    Unburdened: A Job Gone Wrong.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The following two brain scans were provided by the Neuro-Warfare branch of the Halcyon Security Division (HSD) for the purpose of analyzing the thoughts, behaviors, and information of notorious gangsters Vincent 'Troy' Cohen and Bruno (Deadname: Koraak Tel-Char). At the point of the recording of this archival shared, Bruno has since received his rebirth therapy, and Vincent is currently serving a long-term rehabilitative and reeducative sentence in the Erebus Supermax Prison on Io.

    Warning: the contents of this archival shared may be especially disturbing to some audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

    Warning: the contents of this archival shard are for the sole purpose of analyzing the thought patterns and memories of certain degenerate criminals in an effort to ascertain vital information that can be used to eliminate their organizations. Only staff with clearance level Omega may view this archival shared, and the viewership of this archival shared by anyone of inadequate clearance level will lead to twenty years in prison and a fine of over a hundred thousand credits.

    Booting up memory scan: Vincent 'Troy' Cohen, November 4th, 2446…

    Loading and processing firmware data… translating… memories and subconscious simulated…

    Beginning archival shard presentation…

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "Do you have visuals of the target, Troy?"

    I knelt down in the alleyway, the bodies of me and my partners shrouded in long, waterproof, ashen-gray overcoats the shade of dirty street scum that we wore to ward off the constant heavy rainfall the color of osmium. Our faces were covered in a mix of scrapped respirators, visors, or full metal face masks carved with intricate designs to hide our identities. On our waists were our badges of honor: leather belts studded with interlocked rivets made from blackened titanium, each buckle forged of silver and shaped into the head of our gang's symbol, the black mamba. We hid amongst the shadows of the dark midday of Halcyon City, the heavy, oppressive rains blanketing the roads paved obsidian-black with asphalt and weathered concrete walkways. The street lamps were always on, like beacons of false hope in a storm of melancholy.

    The city was dark and dreary as always, the planet of Proxima Centauri B, renamed Dawn's Lamentation over a century ago, orbited the red dwarf star of Proxima Centauri, and the atmosphere was thick with natural smog and ever-storming rain clouds. That didn't dissuade people from living here: there was plenty of money to be had for shrewd industrialists and hardworking pioneers, even in the urban sprawl. But that life also came with risks, especially for those on the bottom of the totem pole.

    I was a ganger, and we were criminals; full stop. I won't assault you with some spiel about how we're the good guys fighting oppression because, at the end of the day, we could be just as bad, if not worse, than Halcyon's Security Division, or the HSD for short. We were traffickers, killers, extortionists, and money launderers. We dealt with everything from stolen tech and military-grade hardware to hard drugs and sentients.

    Yes, sentients. We trafficked sentients, but not in the way you might think. They weren't prisoners, in fact, we were their saviors if they had the cash. We had developed a reputation for fighting the power, but it was still business: sure, freeing captives from the clutches of the Protectorate. The disruption of its many oppressive organizations held a certain satisfaction in my heart for sure, but we didn't help those who couldn't pay unless someone else paid on their behalf. It was about making sure me and my gang, my family, could live a decent life for another day.

    It helped that most of us joined after leaving the state yard for partaking in acts of 'degeneracy' and 'anti-xenopet illegalities' as if those terms meant anything anymore other than that we were a threat to the local status quo. It was hard to pick up a job as a former inmate when even in something as harsh and backbreaking as a job in the iridium mines near the poles when the employment office had you blacklisted as a degenerate, which lead to the formation of many of the gangs: we needed to make a living somehow, and when all social programs were cut off from you unless you submitted for 're-education' and the only way to put food on the table was subverting, breaking, or even downright fighting the law, you did what you had to do or you died on the streets a scorned beggar.

    It wasn't like the HSD made it easy for us on even a good day: the local HSD units were armed to the teeth with advanced, military-grade hardware that you'd often see on the front lines of the Second Authority War: armored assault transports, a myriad of advanced war droids, all sorts of chemical countermeasures that made tear gas seem like putting the garden hose on mist mode, and of course advanced firearms. Add that to the fact that they were authorized to use deadly force when they deemed it necessary and you had a ruthless, heartless, and nearly unstoppable enemy. But we could make that work: we weren't trying to stop them, just to withstand them.

    "Yeah, I got eyes on the prize, Koraak; seven armored transports, two for droids, five for prisoners."

    Today wasn't a day for a normal job: we were getting bolder, cockier, more ambitious. Our numbers had swelled for the last few years after the raid at Barnard's Star and the fall of the Blood Dragon Mafia. Their leader, Saito Yasuhide, had committed seppuku as their manor burned, and his twin sons had gone down fighting rather than allowing themselves to be captured simply to face a firing squad. In the aftermath, many of the family's associates had fled to the surrounding systems, and with the sheer size and scope of the criminal underworld found here, it was no wonder that many people who had developed skills of the less legal variety had decided to form ranks with the gangs, and with them they brought guns, tech, knowledge, contacts, and even something that we thought wasn't possible beforehand: a semblance of peace between the gangs, or at least the closest thing to peace that gangs could cultivate effectively. With the fall of the Blood Dragons, we saw the writing on the wall, and the writing couldn't have been clearer: work together or die together.

    "Sounds like a massacre, Troy: are you sure we can handle seven?"

    "We ain't got no choice, Cinder: this job's double the usual rate, and that's not including the weapons and gear we could scrounge if this goes well," I hissed, my eyes scanning for any resistance. There were at least four guards for each van, not to mention at least eight droids in total, meaning that we were already outnumbered, but we had the element of surprise: we could make it work. "So put your balls in your purse and get ready to spill some blood."

    Koraak snorted at our antics, which sounded like someone pulling the ripcord on a lawnmower. He was a veteran Russu Corsair, and while his past of slaving, raiding, and killing was unsavory, so were the lives we'd lived, so who were we to judge? All we cared about was that he was a brutal and capable fighter and a loyal brother in arms. It turned out that being a ganger wasn't much different from being a Corsair: you lived and died by a code of honor, you fought to the death for your brothers, and you lived to die for the sake of your gang and your family, simple as that. In a strange, ironic way, it was an incredibly honest way of life: we were under no illusions as to what we were, what we did, and why we did it, and we'd long since accepted it. The Russu related to us in that aspect, in many ways I could respect, which is why I hated what the Protectorate was doing, and why I couldn't grasp how most of humanity could just collectively lose their marbles so long ago. What had happened for us to deem all other life below us in such a demeaning and infantilizing way?

    The Russu were a race of tall, muscle-bound Saurians with avian features, and Koraak was no exception: reaching almost seven feet in height and weighing over four hundred and fifty pounds, he could be an absolute menace if he so desired. His skin was covered in stubby, knobby scales and dense plumage, with elegant feathers adorning the ridges along his back as well as his forearms, elbows, knees, and the crests on his head. He almost looked like how paleontologists described velociraptors, with razor-sharp talons, feathers shaded in vibrant greens, reds, and purples, and a maw full of sharp teeth, but at the tip of his snout was a sharp, beak-like growth meant for ripping flesh off the bone.

    The Russu were strange as hell, but they also looked almost cute in the same way a fully grown alligator was cute: they were obviously dangerous, but humans would always have this innate desire to anthropomorphize them and to pet them for some inexplicable reason, although common sense usually prevented that, at least amongst the very few of us left that were sane.

    "Shut up, Troy! All I'm saying is that that'll be rough, and you know it," hissed Cinder. Cinder was a tall black man whose coffee-colored skin was covered in tattoos. He wore an ebony mechanic's jumpsuit with metal inserts underneath his grimy overcoat covering his body and a faded black respirator on his face. His eyes were a startling blue that seemed sorely out of place, and his hair was braided into thick cornrows along his scalp. He wore a pair of heavy black combat boots and palmed his compact shotgun in his hands, the square barrel less than seven inches. Like a lot of the weapons the Black Mambas carried on their persons and dealt in, they fired caseless ammunition; in Cinder's case it was 16x40mm caseless shotshells filled with depleted uranium micro-flechetes no thicker than a toothpick. Cinder nervously fiddled with the detachable tube magazine underneath the barrel, his hands shaking. Despite the shit I have him, I didn't blame him for being anxious: I was anxious too, even if I refused to show it. The biting cold of unease and pessimism was in my stomach, and I ran all the way that this job could go wrong in my head over and over.

    "Just hold yourself together, this ain't anything we haven't done before, there's just more of it," I reassured Cinder, "besides, we're not alone; we have reinforcements across the street. We'll make it out of this alive."

    Cinder nodded almost absentmindedly, his eyes downcast and his breathing shallow. I turned from him and back to Koraak, who was making sure he had everything on his person; he had a synthetic leather bandoleer across his chest that contained the heavy eight guage depleted uranium slugs he kept loading and unloading into his much larger, longer, and more traditional shotgun he nicknamed ‘carnage’ and several leather straps that held his Tu'shan daggers: traditional Russu pyramidal blades forged from a silvery alloy with all three edges serrated and the tip barbed to leave behind horrible, gaping wounds that gushed blood. They were wickedly sharp and absolutely straight like a stiletto, and the hilts and pommels were beautifully decorated. He wore no clothes underneath his overcoat to cover the countless scars and blemishes he's earned in combat across his chest and abdomen, and instead of a normal respirator or visor, he simply wore a hood over his head and some traditional Russu facial armor to protect his mouth, eyes, and cheeks.

    "You ready to fight, Koraak? The caravan will pick up and leave soon."

    Koraak was silent for a moment before nodding, a human gesture he had picked up after serving as a soldier with the Black Mambas for years. "I'm always ready to fight," he said before lifting up his shotgun and aiming down the sights at the reinforced front wheels of the first armored car in the caravan. He exhaled and fired, the slug ripping through both front tires and causing them to deflate and fall apart. The echo of the shot rang through the alleyway and the street, causing pedestrians to panic and flee the scene as heavily armored guards poured out of the side doors of the armored cars and unholstered their carbines.

    "Go, now!" I shouted, and both me and Cinder rushed out into the fray, our guns raised. Koraak was right behind the two of us, providing covering fire with his shotgun. Several guards fell quickly, Koraak's precise fire and the sheer force of the depleted uranium slugs putting them down for good as their heads were vaporized or their chest cavities were turned to mush. He emptied the tube with one final shot that painted the grey matter of a security guard on the door of one of the armored cars, then racked the shotgun and expertly loaded it in threes, his hands deft and agile as he reached for more slugs faster than any human.

    With the cacophony of our initial assault, more Black Mambas poured out from the alleyways and the subways, armed to the teeth with all manner of weapons; shotguns, submachine guns, pistols, machetes, baseball bats, and all manner of homemade explosives. Molotovs and more potent concoctions shattered against the asphalt, herding in the caravan guards with their volatile contents as they were quickly gunned down. The assault was working, and we were winning.

    Then I heard the robotic whine of a combat droid activating, and my heart sank. One of the armored cars in the back activated the four combat droids it held, the robotic assault units detaching from their charging ports on the sides of the large van and began to form up, each armed with a terrifying array of deadly weapons meant to quash any and all resistance. They were blocky, soulless, utilitarian things that stood at eight feet tall, with flat feet meant for stomping and blades, grasping claws designed to lacerate flesh and shatter bone. On each shoulder was a weapon: on the left was a multi-barrel rotary grenade launcher loaded with 15mm concussion grenades, and on the right was a burst-fire splinter cannon. They were all painted a dull grayish-green, the color of Halcyon's Security Division, although some had a few decorations on them: the one closest to me had a bit of graffiti on the side that said Mr. Hugs in Comic Sans, which I couldn't decide whether that made it more or less terrifying. They split up without hesitation and began to scan the chaotic battlefield, their single, red, beady lenses the security forces had the gall to call eyes focusing on specific targets to eliminate.

    An entire group of Black Mambas was torn to pieces by a cloud of flechettes as one of the droids fired a withering three-round burst of shotshells from the four gauge splinter cannon mounted on its shoulder. Another picked up a Black Mamba in its hand and crushed her skull effortlessly before tossing her limp body to the side, its single, red, remorseless robotic eye tracking a new target. Most bullets that struck their thick armored chassis simply bounced off, and those that could pierce the armor didn't seem to phase the droids whatsoever, merely notifying them of a new potential target.

    "Damnit," I shouted as I gunned down another guard only for two more to take his place. "Cinder! We gotta pop open the cars and scram! Get the maglock cutters!"

    Cinder rushed and slid over through a dirty puddle, pulling out a maglock cutter from the inside of his coat and slipping it onto the back door of the first van. It immediately went to work, drilling through the maglock with a high-powered plasma torch nozzle, and within ten seconds we heard the telltale clunk of the maglock separating. I yanked the door open and ordered I side, ready to escort the prisoners out… only for my face to contort in shock and horror.

    The back was empty. There was not a single soul inside of the back brig of the armored car.

    "What the fuck…" Cinder gasped, his eyes wide with shock. "What the actual fuck… what the fuck is this, Troy?"

    "I… I don't…" I stuttered the sounds of battle and carnage drowned out by the sound of blood rushing in my ears. All five cars were supposed to be filled with recently captured Russu from the front lines ready to be housed in the local Xenopet-Megaplex for processing and conditioning. The fact that this one was empty…

    Suddenly, it all hit me at once with the force of a freight train, but it was too late. "We were set up, Cinder; our fucking client either squealed or was crooked to begin with…"

    "Fucking bitch!" Cinder shouted as he spun around in an enraged arch, anger growing in his eyes. He aimed his shotgun at an approaching security guard and reduced his upper body to a fine red mist with a cacophony of shotgun blasts. "We gotta get everyone who's left out of here! Do you know what this means? The Jurors will be here soon, and then we're all going down! We gotta go, fuck the job!"

    I grit my teeth. Not the Jurors, anything but the Jurors.

    "Fine, gather everyone who's left and we'll slip through the sewers, the droids are too bulky to follow us there…"

    As I spoke, my eyes wandered to the seventh and final armored car, the second of the droid cars, and my blood froze. Not only were all four ports empty, but they were also smaller and more shallow than the ports for the combat droids. That could only mean one thing.

    "Oh fuck! Cinder, we gotta get our Russu members out of here! They've got arachnid droids!"

    Arachnid droids were the stuff of nightmares. Resembling blocky, robotic arachnids the size of a manhole cover, they were specifically designed to take down sentient aliens, specifically the Russu, using sickeningly non-lethal means. They were equipped with full-body adaptive cloaking to blend in with their environments, paralytic agents that they could inject into their victims, built-in taser barbs, psychedelic gas ports for crowd-control, and a narrow-coned cacophony canon that disabled the Russu using incredibly high-pitched sounds that only they could hear, forcing them onto their knees and clutching the backs of their heads where their auditory organs were stored in agony. But worst of all was their stygian spinnerets: special ports near the end of their robotic abdomens that excreted a viscous, latex-like substance made up of millions of nano-bots. This substance could be used to render Russu blind, deaf, and mute by having it forced onto their faces, the black substance growing and enveloping their heads and working its way into every orifice. It was completely permeable to the standard atmosphere, but any Russu who had been 'webbed' was completely helpless and essentially captured, and the 'webbing' was both nearly indestructible and nigh impossible to remove without a triple-encrypted override key that was found in every arachnid droid's code, which was corrupted when the droid was destroyed or hacked into. Once you were 'webbed', you were essentially captured and the standard protocol was to leave you to the wolves since the nano-bots could be tracked, endangering the entire gang.

    I turned just as I heard the deafening sound of Koraak discharging his shotgun, and I saw him squaring off against one of the assault droids. The droid has obviously been programmed to not use lethal force against Russu if possible, as instead of simply killing Koraak with it's shoulder-mounted splinter cannon, it approached with its claws extended, blades retracted. Koraak continued to back away and fire, pumping the droid full of depleted uranium slugs, its armor crumbling inward as the slugs pierced its chassis and damaged its internal cyberstructure. Eventually, Koraak ran out of slugs and instinctively reached to his bandoleer only to find that he had no more shells left at all, and he drew one of his knives and his sidearm, a simple high-caliber handgun. He tried to take down the droid with his handgun, but the bullets didn't even seem to affect the droid upon penetration, it's claws still extended as it attempted to apprehend Koraak.

    In the corner of my vision, as I watched Koraak battle with the droid, I noticed a faint shimmer in the air on one of the black streetlight poles that was right behind him. I focused on it and blinked, believing my eyes had deceived me for a moment before realizing that it was actually a cloaked arachnid droid stalking Korvaak, ready to pounce and incapacitate him.

    Before I could shout, it leaped from the pole and landed on Korvaak, causing him to shout in surprise while it began to coagulate its horrifying stygian webbing to disable Korvaak. Korvaak tried to wrestle it off of him, but the droid was agile and fast, clinging onto Korvaak and skittering around across his upper body as he attempted to grab it, forcibly wrapping the sticky black liquid across his face as he gagged like a spider wrapping up a fly. I rushed towards him to try and help, but I felt pain explode in my ribs as I was struck with the arm of the closest combat droid and launched into the chassis of a parked car, the metal denting from the sheer force of impact. I groaned in pain as I saw stars and my head spun, and just then I felt a blinding light be cast over me.

    “Drop your weapons and kneel with your hands on your head, or you will be pacified with deadly force!” Shouted a loud, artificially deepened voice from above. “I repeat, drop your weapons and kneel with your hands on your head! Neither hostility nor hesitation will be tolerated!”

    It was the Jurors, I could feel the air being pushed around from the thrusters on their drop ships, and I could hear screams and shouts as my fellow Black Mambas were quickly gunned down. I couldn’t see well since I was seeing double, but I could hear the slaughter as my eyes dimmed and I began to lose consciousness, my regrets crawling up my throat like vomit.

    I’m sorry was all I could think as everything finally went dark, and the sounds of chaos, destruction, and combat faded away.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Memory halted due to loss of consciousness. Booting next available memory in shard…

    Booting up memory scan: Koraak Tel-Char Bruno, November 5th, 2446…

    Loading and processing firmware data… translating… memories and subconscious simulated…

    Beginning archival shard presentation…

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “Good morning, sleepyhead; it’s time for breakfast.”

    My eyes shot open. I was not in the street anymore, nor was I home in my bed with my mate. I knew instantly that something was horribly wrong. I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t gain the leverage to do so: my ankles had been shackled together with magnetic cuffs and my arms were forced together in front of me.

    I was wearing some kind of thick shirt. It was warm, fluffy, and comfortable on the inside, but it still made me incredibly uncomfortable that my arms didn’t have a free range of motion. I looked down to see that I was wearing some human garment I had heard about before, a straightjacket maybe?

    The entire room was padded: the walls, the floor, even the ceiling. There was no bed or furniture; the floor was soft enough to serve as a bed in itself. There was nothing else except for the soft reddish-orange lights on the ceiling that somehow made me sleepy. I blinked slowly for a moment, my body screaming at me to just lay back down and lose consciousness, but I couldn’t do that: I needed to figure out where I was and how to escape.

    Then I noticed who was speaking to me: it was a short human female, with crow's feet around her blue eyes, blonde hair braided down her back, and freckles all over her face. She had a soft smile on her lips, and her forehead was slightly crinkled. She wore a full-body white lab suit with a white overcoat and a pair of glasses for snugly on her face.

    "There we go, now I can see those pretty eyes, such a beautiful shade of teal," she cooed softly, "You're such a handsome boy, even with all those scars: I'm sure you'll be adopted very quickly once we get you fixed up."

    Fear gripped my heart as I began to piece all the evidence together. I had been captured; I was no longer on Halcyon, and instead, I was in one of the horrific space-born facilities I had heard so much about from the inside agents. I started to hyperventilate and squawk like a newborn hatchling, my eyes dilating in panic. This couldn't be happening! This has to be a nightmare!

    The human woman merely wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into an embrace, cradling my head under her chin and speaking softly. I couldn't bite at her or claw at her: I was muzzled and wearing a straight jacket, so I had no choice but to allow her to coddle me.

    "It's okay, sweetheart: I understand you're scared, but Julie's here to make all the pain and bad thoughts go away," she said as if she was comforting a child, which made anger blossom in my chest indignantly. "I'll be your caretaker for the next few months, and I'm going to make sure you're healthy, happy, and most importantly safe while you're under our care. I'm sorry to say that includes your restraints and restrictive clothing, but we have to make sure you aren't a threat to yourself or others before we can determine if it's a good idea to remove you from suicide watch."

    I growled under my muzzle. Suicide watch? They must have had a lot of instances of Russu taking their own lives after being captured, something I wished I had been able to do before that damnable droid launched itself onto me and…

    I shuddered at the thought of the black, viscous substance forcing itself into my nostrils and down my throat and windpipe, gagging me and rendering me completely helpless. It was so cold, so harsh, like slime, and when I had tried to tear it off of my face it merely attached itself to my claws and bound my talons together. I remember squirming on the ground as it enveloped me, unable to see, hear, or speak, and then everything went dark in an instant. It was the most horrible thing I had ever experienced, which was saying something.

    "You alright, sweetheart? Oh, I know, you're probably hungry! Here, try some of this." She held up a piece of what looked like raw bacon and wiggled it in front of me before reaching out to remove my muzzle. In an instant, I attempted to snap at her only for pain to blossom in my forehead and my eyes to roll up in my head as I convulsed. It was like something was attempting to drill through my skull from the inside, and every breath felt empty and labored.

    "Now, that didn't feel very nice, did it? This is why we have countermeasures in place because we can't trust you yet, sweetheart! Don't worry, we'll work on breaking you of all those bad behaviors and habits while you're here; after all, a well-trained pet is a happy pet!" She began to stroke the crests on my head as I slowly recovered, and she snugly fit the muzzle back onto my snout. "But I won't hold it against you this time, sweetheart; you're just scared and confused, but I'll make all the pain go away."

    I struggled in the straight jacket, trying my best to break out of it, but it was no use. Eventually, I became exhausted and despondent, allowing my new caretaker to have her way with me as she gently ran her fingers through my feathers and along my ridges, quietly speaking to me in a hopeless attempt to cheer me up. She seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being, which concerned me even further: who could be this naturally twisted while attempting to be as benevolent and kindhearted as possible?

    I felt the pain and terror build up in my chest, the anxiety from what horrific activities I imagined they had planned for me here. I couldn't take the infantilization, the lack of any autonomy, the dehumanization, and what I feared the most was if the rumors of 'rebirth' were true: would they take my personhood from me?

    Suddenly, I felt her whisper to me. "Don't worry sweetheart, I know you're so scared and confused, but I promise you everything will be okay: it's going to be your birthday soon, and then everything will get better." She ran her fingers through the feathers along my crest lovingly. "It will be such a wonderful day, and then we'll choose for you the most wonderful family, and you'll spend the rest of your life happy in your forever home! Doesn't all of that sound wonderful?"

    I wanted to die. I wanted to disappear. I didn't want to lose myself, not like this, not to these monsters!

    "It'll be your birthday soon," she said wistfully as if she was remembering similar events to this in the past like I wasn't the first she'd done this too, "and you'll never be sad again."

    I realized that I wasn't the first the stay in this particular cell, and I knew for certain that I wouldn't be the last: I'd end up like my brother, a broken, erased mess of a pathetic creature, reduced to nothing more than a pet for these humans to amuse themselves with.

    "We took the liberty of picking out a nice name for you, sweetheart! Now, let me just slip this little programming chip into the port slot on your occipital bone, and... there we go! It will also help you calm down a bit and adjust."

    I felt the chip begin to invade my mind, suppressing my thoughts. What made me me was slowly being ripped out of my mind. I couldn't remember my name my name is Bruno, and I needed to get out! I can't let them do this to me! Somebody help me! I was a good boy.

    ##Do not think. You are a good boy.##

    I tried to scream, but my voice wouldn't work: I had trouble forming any words at all, the confusion clouding my mind like wet, slimy eels curling around my brain and sinking their teeth into its folds like needles. I couldn’t scream any longer, because I had nothing left: the chip was slowly beginning to take everything from me, robbing me of my identity and branding a new one into my psyche with a white-hot iron. Julie simply held me close, attempting to reassure me as I awaited the inevitable demise of my personhood. Soon I would be just like my brother: erased. My mind would be shaped into the mind of a loyal plaything, like a Dog.

    ##Relax. Allow caretaker [Julie] to comfort you. You will let go of your burden.##

    Soon, everything was a blur. I quickly found myself resting my head in her lap as she whispered to me and fed me, my eyes bleary and my head fuzzy. I couldn't remember my name anymore My name was Bruno, and I needed to break free from this trance relax, and allow her to help me; good boys didn't resist help.

    ##Good Boy. Do not think. You are a good boy.##

    You can't... I...

    ##Good boy.##

    I wouldn't… good boys don't… I…

    ##Good boy##

    I was a good boy… I was a good boy…

    I was… I was… a good… boy…

    Someone help me, please! I don't want to be erased!

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The following script is from episode #343 of Halcyon After Dark, a popular late-night and current events talk show hosted by Melinda Carter. This specific episode was sponsored in part by the Halcyon Security Division, with Director Lochlin O'Brien joining as a guest star to talk about the changing crime statistics in Halcyon City and the HSD's recent successes in busting organized crime as well as their plans for addressing the growing criminal underworld.

    MC: Good evening Halcyon! I'm your host, Melinda Carter, and you're watching Halcyon's most popular late-night talk show, Halcyon After Dark!

    The crowd claps and cheers as Melinda walks on stage and sits behind her desk, her glittering red dress waving as she does so from the special effects.

    MC: Tonight we have a very special guest here to tell us about the state of crime in the city and his plans on resolving it: please put your hands together for the HSD's very own Director, Lochlin O'Brien!

    The crowd cheers some more as HSD Director Lochlan O'Brien, a tall, muscular, caucasian male in his early forties with red hair and a well-trimmed beard steps into the room, waving at the crowd with a bright smile. He sits in the armchair angled next to Melinda's desk and gives her his full attention.

    MC: It's so good to have you on the show, Director! Tell me, how are you doing on this fine evening?

    LO: I'm doing excellent, Melinda: every day I wake up feeling fulfilled knowing I'm serving Halcyon to the best of my abilities and then some."

    MC: That's the spirit, Director! Now, I know this question is just on everyone's lips, so I have to ask: how successful was the recent gang bust? I heard HSD forces took out dozens of gang members and liberated at least a dozen Russu Hounds from their abusive clutches, but I know that everyone in the audience and at home wants to know the numbers.

    LO: I'd be glad to tell you, but I do have to preface this by saying that we still lost a lot of good officers that day, and while we did strike a crippling blow to one of Halcyon's biggest gangs, it doesn't change the fact that each death is a tragedy, and we're taking steps to prevent them in the future. That being said, those valiant officers did not sacrifice themselves in vain: we had over a dozen confirmed kills and several arrests, including the rescue of several corrupted Russu hounds.

    MC: That's excellent, Director: proof that even when the number of degenerates and scum grow by the day, the HSD will always be here to keep the citizens of Halcyon safe.

    LO: Absolutely, Melinda, and we're always working tirelessly to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our units, as well as racing to stay several steps ahead of the many gangs of Halcyon at all times. My newest goal as Director is to vastly increase the funding given to our Robotics Department and our Neuro-Warfare Department to potentially reduce the number of casualties we may experience in the future, as well as to quickly and effectively detain, and if necessary, eliminate criminals. Within the next decade, I want to double the number of automated units each Security Platoon is assigned: droids are the future of public safety as well as countless other industries, and it would be foolish to be left behind.

    MC: That is quite a lofty goal, Director: what about the displaced jobs from the increased automation? What will the union say?

    LO: And to that, I say: what misplaced jobs? We aren't replacing our honored and beloved service members with droids, Melinda, we are simply supplementing our units with more droids to ensure that future gang assaults end with fewer HSD casualties and more gang members in prison or eliminated, simple as that.

    MC: That makes much more sense, Director, thanks for clarifying. Now, I have one more question that I'm sure much of Halcyon wants to know the answer to before we take a short break: what plans do you and your fellow directors have to make long-term progress in reducing crime beyond just increasing funding? Have you proposed any plans to strike at the source of where crime and degeneracy flourish?

    OL: That's an excellent question, and one I am proud to answer: my constituents and I have been working tirelessly on a two-step plan to greatly reduce crime levels in Halcyon. Step one would be to prevent people from becoming criminals and degenerates at all in the first place: a lot of young men and women, but especially young men, have lost either one or both parents or even a sibling, aunt or uncle, or even a close friend by the brutality of the Second Authority War, and while the service of their lost loved ones will always be recognized and honored, many of these young men and women are left bitter, angry and lost without the guidance these people give them in their lives. Oftentimes they seek to fill that void with others who claim to relate to them: career criminals. These criminals will fill their heads with lies and false narratives to make them feel like they're fighting back against the 'evil protectorate government' that took their loved ones from them by sending them off to war when in reality it was the rogue Xenopets of the Triarchy that took them away by resisting their just and inevitable unburdening.

    In response, I have proposed a slew of special programs that will make sure local law enforcement and HSD officers are present and contributing to their local community, and we'll be providing easy and light job openings for youngsters and teens looking to make a career for themselves in the force when they grow up. We want to let these lost souls know that there are people who care about them, people who understand them and that you shouldn't turn to degeneracy to feel fulfilled. We want to help the youth of our great society soar to new heights!

    MC: That sounds like a wonderful beginning to your plan, Director, but what about the second step?

    LO: Well, the second step is to prevent criminals and degenerates from becoming repeat criminals. Sure, they've made their mistakes, some worse than others, but they're only human like the rest of us. Some of them have been through hell: some are traumatized veterans who don't know how to adapt to normal life, others were recruited when they were young and don't know that there's a better way to live, and even more are mentally ill. We're alone in this galaxy, and we can't leave so many people behind. That's why we've come up with an excellent solution: we've set up isolated communities on distant moons and frontier planets where these criminals can be reeducated, rehabilitated, and allowed to repay their debt to society. When they're deemed 'reformed' and have graduated from our program, they'll be granted a hefty stipend and their criminal record will be deemed irrelevant, allowing them to reintegrate and become functioning members of our proud society.

    MC: all of these sound like incredible steps forward in the fight to better our society and make real progress, Director. Sadly, we do have to step away for a moment, but you best believe I'll be back, Halcyon, and we'll be asking the Director here some burning questions about allegations over the quality of life Erubus Supermax! Now, a word from our sponsors!

    Halcyon Xenopet-Megaplex! Everything your xenopet could ever need in one place! Adoption is now free-

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Good, you’re still alive! The rest of this shard appears to be corrupted, which means this particular trail seems to have run cold here, but do not despair; you need to keep searching. Find out what happened. Find the truth.I cannot guide you any longer: they've already found me, and if I remain in contact with you they'll find you as well. Take the archival database, and see what you can piece together. Maybe if we discover what truly happened we can put an end to this madness once and for all. I'm counting on you. Don't cry for me, I don't fear death, but I fear what they'll do to me to get to you: there are far worse fates than death, after all.

    1 Comment
    2024/06/01
    05:56 UTC

    1

    Philm™ Never Launched

    Creeping through the silent house, the old woman moved without sound.

    Those who slept never saw her, and at first light, she was gone.

    There is a wall of truth, where facts can be traded. There is a veil between this one and the other, and between them is a moment, a place, an echo. That is where I found the first sign, caught on the fabric, slowly fading.

    I held it between two fingers and looked closely at it. What I saw frightened me and amazed me. At first, I could not be sure it was real.

    "This is what we are made of. When we die, this remains, always. So, how much is left? Can I sell it?" I wondered.

    I always put business first, because I am a broker.

    Darkness arose like a black mist, boiling out of the shadows. We were not alone, and I told everyone to hold hands, and to keep their thoughts pure. Any kind of fear would lead us into the chasms of ultimate horror.

    Those who listened to me did not hear what I just said. The rest ignored me, unable to comprehend the meaning of my words.

    There is a voice that speaks in all of us. It is the common will, for when I die I shall live again as another, and again and again. This way, I shall be you, and everyone else. And you are me, and that is how you know what I am talking about. That is why you are listening because you already know.

    "I know you, I know your wisdom. I know the beauty of your soul, and I truly love you." I mused.

    I always put family first, because I am a parent.

    Terror was the footsteps of the old woman made of shadows. I watched as she moved through the night, through the home, and I trembled to know who she was and see how she moved among us.

    The rotting severed hand was stolen from the grave of a madman. He'd ravaged and eaten enough girls to make him into a monster. The hand stood on the wriggling wrist bone, the fingers and thumb burning like candlelight.

    Everyone's eyes had flashed and closed, and they'd fallen to the floor asleep. The stroke of midnight was like the hair on the sleeping cheek brushed aside by a lover, or a monster.

    Each of us lives as all the rest, we are all the same person, living endless lives and forgetting we are all of us. How can we remember such an awful truth?

    My memories came to me, my wish granted. I was no longer me, I could never have my ego back, for I now knew I was everyone, and everyone was me. They were all aware that I knew all their troubles, and I could hear such prayers and could do nothing for them. Everyone instinctively knew that someone or something knew them, knew their struggles and their pain and their secret shame.

    They also knew I still loved them, although for the cannibal on death row, this was difficult to explain. The moment the veil was lifted, I was a cosmic bride, wilted in the void, taken from my family and cast into sleep. Eternal sleep, for what else could soothe me?

    I always put others first, because I am a friend.

    She stepped over them, her bare feet barely touching the floor. She grinned in malevolence, claiming all these who had trespassed into her realm. A realm filled with all the things that are worse than death.

    Most new streaming services such as Netflix®, Hulu®, Vudu® or Clix™ made a deal with this same devil. I just wanted Philm™ to launch, a streaming service that focused on wholesome, classic and educational movies. I never thought I'd feel such nightmarish terror at what I had unleashed.

    With the skin removed, the skulls of my business partners were stacked up one by one until she had a complete collection. I felt sick, the smell of blood overpowered me, and I fell to my knees and threw up.

    "Trust in the will of the Mighty One." She hissed, smiling while she removed and ate the last eye. She licked the skulls clean until they were just bones, eating the flesh and brains. "Delicious."

    I wanted to scream, I wanted to run, but my voice abandoned me, and my legs hand no bones, no muscle, so I could not flee. Instead, I was paralyzed with the horror of my actions and the nightmare I was witnessing.

    Staring at the wicked work of that business meeting, in my own home, I realized the devil was in the details. If I'd just stuck to prayer and left the secrets of the followers of Infis in the shadows, I'd know peace. Instead, I will always know the fear I learned that night. I will always remember the face of the devil.

    I always put details first, because I am a storyteller.

    Smoke arose from the pit, where only the Sign of Infis was a mark on the wooden floor of the house. Where a circle was, now a hole into Hell.

    "The bargain must be sealed. These souls for the successful launch of your new wholesome movie streaming service app Philm™. Just sign here, in blood." An imp with a clerk's visor offered me a paper contract.

    "I'm not doing it." I shuddered. My feet felt like they were slipping, my hands couldn't grip, my eyes couldn't focus. The fear I felt went much deeper than mortal dread. I'd discovered circumstances so horrible and painful, that mere death seemed like sleep.

    "Then there will be no Philm™. Cursed is the name." The old woman growled, her bloodshot eyes dripping the venom of her rage and her sharp teeth grinding.

    When the demons had melted and slithered into the closing rectum of Hell I sighed in relief.

    Where their skulls and chewed remains rotted before my eyes, each of them was intact.

    I blew out the candle made from the severed hand of the condemned. One by one my business partners began to open their eyes and look around, realizing it was not just a nightmare. All of us could see upon the others, the next sign, a mark of our common demon. Each of us wore the mark of Infis, although we were never claimed.

    At least we had not gone too far. The complete failure of our app to launch seems more than a little cosmic, doesn't it? Leave it to someone like me to summon Infis and then change my mind.

    I always put myself in these situations, because I'm human.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/31
    22:52 UTC

    6

    DARK MATCH

    Cannibal had made up his mind a few moves ago:
    If this kid doesn't swing this chair, doesn't absolutely fuckin' nail me, then he's getting taxed, and big time.

    The kid's name is Rob Small, and he's supposedly some hot-shot rookie fresh out of the local school. But Cannibal doesn't get it. Everything about the kid bugs him, right down to the name. The sport lost something when people stopped calling themselves ridiculous things, like 'The Big' this, or 'Ultimate' that.

    And besides, it's a dirty trick. It's too easy, just like everything the new kids are doing. It's almost too real. And the audience doesn't want real. They only think they do. Cannibal knows this better than just about anyone.

    Cannibal feels that he's been carrying them both since the bell. Again, it's this new, soft shit. Flipping, and posing, and nobody wants a single scratch on their pretty mugs. The word fake doesn't exist in this business, but as Rob winds up for another one of his little tricks, all flare, no impact, you can kind of see where people get that idea.

    Cannibal takes a knee, then another, but wide, because that's how you take a real hit. Rob pulls the chair back.

    "Don't fuck this up," Cannibal says.

    The blade of the chair just grazes Cannibal's eyebrow, opening two inches of scar tissue, and perforation.

    This is good. Unintentional, but good.

    The crowd isn't theirs yet, but the stream of blood pulls a few people forward and gets them almost leaning into the next row down.

    The blood is good, no doubt about it. But the sound of skull on steel would've lit them on fire, and that's just science.

    Rob moves to the ropes, taking a squeaky-clean moment to acknowledge the crowd. He waves his arms around like he's leading a marching band or something, and it "earns" him a small pop of recognition.

    Here's the problem- there's no story here. No tale of the tape. Just some rookie nobody cares about, and an aging prick that people care even less about. This is when every move is supposed to count. Not just every move, but every transition, every facial expression too. The kid's athletic, sure. But so is everybody. He doesn't have the rhythm yet, and his nose is too straight. And Cannibal is tired of carrying this match.

    Cannibal starts back on his feet, quickly, counter-intuitively, like a jump scare. The kid's finally connecting with the crowd now, lifting the chair like some intramural trophy. But it's too little, too late, and Cannibal sees his opportunity.

    First Cannibal snatches the chair, up, and behind Rob, then steadies his giant, calloused fingers with a well-timed exhale. He whirls Rob around, ready or not, and drives the lip of the chair into the liver side of his waist, which folds him directly in two. The crowd chatters a bit, but he isn't finished.

    Cannibal throws the chair less than a foot away, then sets up the move that's going to win the crowd.

    He didn't invent the move, not even close. It's not even particularly uncommon. But he made his name off this move. Here's some wisdom from the old school: There are precious few people who make money from this business by looking good. And if you can't look good, you need to look vicious.

    Cannibal hooks his arms under Rob's armpits, then wrenches both arms so violently that the triceps almost touch. Operating on pure panic, and instinct, Rob's legs unwind, independently searching for a better position, but never finding it.

    "Hey, easy up there," Rob says from somewhere near Cannibal's midsection, but he may as well be speaking to the mat now.

    Cannibal wrenches Rob's arms again, but this time the triceps touch for one moment of searing pain. He does this half for show, and half as a warning to keep quiet during his finisher. He looks out at the crowd, and their features form for the first time since he entered the arena. Before then, they were nothing, just a wallpaper pattern of merch, and facial hair. There's a difference between the individual faces in the first row, and the voice that fills the venue, and guides your match.

    A single fan can be wrong, but a crowd never is.

    But Cannibal takes some of that power back now, and he's staring at the crowd, the entity, right in the face, starting with the first row.

    The first few faces that he locks eyes with are rabid, their eyes wild with anticipation. They're gesticulating wildly, like they can't believe, or can't wait for what's coming next. The next face is a little boy who shies away and looks at his dad for help. He scans about a seating section and a half, screaming spittle-seasoned insults along the way.

    Mid-taunt, before anybody can count it off, Cannibal hits his finisher, The Flesh Eater.

    Cannibal pushes off the toes of his boots, about a foot into the air, bringing Rob's craned arms with him. That's why you really need to wrench. With Rob feeling real pain at each arm's socket, he has no choice but to sell. At the height of his jump, Cannibal shoots his legs straight out in a wide V, unclenching his ass for a nice, cushioned landing.

    Rob's face hits the chair a microsecond before Cannibal's legs, and underside absorb the remainder of the blow. It's enough to make the aluminum ring out into the high warehouse ceiling and put a pretty little face-sized dent in the seat.

    The crowd reacts with screams, with horror, with finally, some fucking emotion.

    Cannibal climbs to his feet, while the lights flick on-and-off, on-and-off in Rob's eyes. Rob props himself on his palms, and knees, finding the floor he wasn't even looking for.

    But he loses it again with a big, booted punt to the ribs. The crowd boos now from every direction.

    This is good. It means that right now, they hate Cannibal. It means that when they go home, they'll remember how much they hated him. It means that he did his job.

    Cannibal takes a victory lap around the ring while Rob writhes in presumably authentic agony. Cannibal leans over the top rope, pointing at the front row again, dissolving the boundary between them. He's screaming at a fan. He may even be screaming at one hundred fans when he notices a face that shouldn't be in attendance.

    Was it section B? He looks over but can't find the face anymore.

    He darts his eyes wildly, unfocusing them so that the crowd transforms into nothing but eyebrows, and merch, approval, and disgust.

    He glances back toward Section B, right around where he thinks he saw the face, right as Rob crawls from behind, hooks his leg, and rolls him into a three count.

    Both men roll onto their backs; Rob, because the pain from his neck, down to his waist puts him there. Cannibal, because he's defeated and confused.

    Had he really seen that face?
    He knows he hadn't.
    One, because that would make no sense.
    And two, because, and he only saw it for a second, but the face was significantly younger than it should have been.
    About 20 years younger. Which would put it right around a time that he doesn't think, or speak about.
    Cannibal decides that he didn't see the face after all. He doesn't believe in ghosts.
    Especially not ghosts that haven't even died.

    ***

    Cannibal collects his pay, and the doc plugs up his gash, in that order. He's got a show in a bigger market tomorrow, so the butterfly stitches just need to hold until then.

    He unlaces his boots in the parking lot, then trades them for some once-white Adidas from the back seat of his gray Toyota Camry. Then he thinks about the ghost again. The one that he didn't see, the one that isn't even dead as far as he knows.

    He stands still in his untied sneakers and thumbs a few reps through his social pages. If he had died, the news would have picked it up by now. An old friend would have even messaged,

    "Here if you need to talk." Or, "It's not your fault"

    Something like that, anyway. But Cannibal doesn't see anything, no messages, neither of their names gracing, or disgracing any headlines. And besides, that doesn't exactly solve the issue at hand. Maybe the kids are right, he thinks. I've officially taken too many blows to the skull.

    For twenty years, Cannibal has always driven to the next city, or the next stop on the road, the night prior. Tonight, he checks into the nearest hotel/rest stop that connects to the main road. It's only about a four-hour drive, three if he can avoid traffic, and the need to piss. He doesn't even need to check into the venue until 5 pm. That's ample time, he decides for the first time in his career.

    "I just need a bed and a shower", Cannibal tells the night clerk, a pimply boy who has deepened his voice since the exchange intensified.

    He's the only employee, except for a few maids pushing yellow baskets around the parking lot, and a few unofficially affiliated girls prowling around from the local skin bar.

    The boy wants to avoid a hassle. He knows that the nearest signs of life are the old warehouse a few exits down, and the sheriff's office even further.

    "I'm sorry sir," he begins, and he's really using diaphragm now, speaking to the back of the house, "But all's we got left tonight is the honeymoon suite."

    "So it's $30 extra for a dirty mirror on the ceiling, and a vase full of plastic fuckin' roses?"

    The clerk winces at the swear, then gleams over Cannibal's right shoulder into the mostly empty parking lot. Cannibal gives the kid his best mean mug, the same one that he'd shoot toward a new opponent or a crowd that hates his guts. The quiet moment lingers, and then, wouldn't you guess it, just like that, thirty dollars gets shaved off the tab.

    Cannibal tosses his duffel onto the frilly red sheets, then rolls off his sneakers as his reflections oblige in both the ceiling and wall-length mirrors. He sits on the bed, then wiggles his toes a bit generating a sound like gravel crunching in a driveway. He wants to get up and shower off some of the dried blood that's clotted his hair to his face, but the world rocks, and spins, and he lays down and falls asleep without even killing the bedside lamp.

    He can't remember the ramp, the fans, or the bell. He can't remember the promos, or what angle he's supposed to be taking. But judging from the dark cherry splatted canvas, and the ringing in ears, it's been a fuckin' barn-burner so far. He looks directly ahead, at the high, pipe-laden ceiling, and realizes he's on his back. A boot lands next to his head, then another. Maybe it's the high-intensity discharge lights that are stinging his eyes, maybe he's still rattled from whatever move put him on his ass, but as his opponent steps over him, he can't seem at all to make out their face.

    Whoever his opponent is, he begins to pick him up by the hair, and that's when Cannibal notices that the abstract art on the mat has mostly come from the back of his head. Drops of blood race down his opponents wrists, and pool near his elbows. Cannibal is bent over looking down at the mat, at his opponent's standard-issue black boots, and at the fresh coat of bright red, which will soon dry darker.

    His opponent cranks his arms clumsily but with intensity. He can feel his blood greasing his opponent's grip, not allowing for any real traction. Then his opponent's knees square up, then bend, and Cannibal realizes.
    "Hey, that's my fucking move!" he says, or tries to say, but his opponent's airborne, and then so is he.

    Usually, there's a nice thud when you hit the mat, but not this time. This time it sounds more like a series of wet pops, like cracking your knuckles underwater. Cannibal tries to roll over and assess the situation. Then he tries to roll over again.

    Oh. Shit.

    He's face down on the mat, and he intuits, rather than feels his opponent hurry off him, and in that same foggy way, he can feel the crowd. The beast with one thousand eyes is silent, but it isn't bored. It's murmuring, but with a sort of upward inflection, like it's asking him a question can't answer. Now a referee rolls him over.
    Cannibal awakens in a panic and tries to jump out of bed, away from the red sheets, but his body is uncooperative. His head lolls at an unnatural angle toward the mirrored wall. He can move his eyes, but nothing else.

    He wants to scream for the pimply-faced boy or one of the night girls, but nothing comes out of his mouth. He can see his reflection, the collapsed muscles in his face, and the pool of spit that's collected on the pillow by his ear. The parts of the bed directly under him appear a darker red than the rest of the sheets. His eyes roll wildly and take in different parts of the same wall that he's frozen on. He can barely feel his breathing, but he knows that it's sporadic and shallow. He keeps rolling his eyes, searching for a modicum of control over his own body. And that's when he sees him again.

    The ceiling mirror casts its reflection into its wall counterpart, and with the furthest strain of his eyeball muscles, Cannibal can just barely recognize him. He's a little older than he looked in the crowd earlier, but it's unmistakable this time. Fucking ghosts. Ghosts who aren't even dead yet. From somewhere behind his eyes Cannibal feels the onset of rage.

    His eyes blink involuntarily, and a well of tears are pushed, and guided down into the spit-soaked pillow. He imagines himself rocking forward and tries to send this signal to a part of his body that doesn't exist. He imagines it again. He tries to kick a leg, throw an elbow, he'll settle for anything. He sends that signal in random intervals like he's trying to surprise his own faculties. He "throws" another elbow.

    Except this time his arm releases from his side and soars out in front of him. His body follows, and he feels a vile concoction of fear, and relief as he falls off the bed, with arms and legs too weak to break his fall. He narrowly avoids contact with the corner of the nightstand and lands with a thud on the carpeted floor. He wiggles his toes, and the sound of tires on gravel rings out into nothing.
    ***

    After regaining some strength, Cannibal uses his recently renewed limb strength to tear through every creak, and crack of the hotel room. He finds nobody in the room, nobody in the mirrors, just himself and his aching fucking cranium. Exhausted, but no longer tired, Cannibal grabs his duffel and checks out of the hotel room by tossing his key in the general direction of the unsuspecting clerk. He tears his car door open, then drives off with only half a plan in mind.

    The morning sun breaks as Cannibal pulls up to a red light, and re-reads his early morning text to the promoter, 'Can't make it tonight. I'll make it up to you somehow.'

    He's never backed out of a show before, and he knows that he'll have to confront that fact soon, but right now, it doesn't seem to matter. He needs to see him. He cobbles his route out of headlines and news stories that he manages to search up between red lights and stop signs.

    Where are they now? 6 Wrestlers Whose Careers Ended In Tragedy
    The Real Story of Ernie "The Eagle" Samson
    Former World Champion Contender in Hospice After 20-Year Battle

    Cannibals mind races as single sentences fire out at him like shrapnel. He scrolls past his own names, both gimmick and government a few times over. He feels the rage, and tears form behind his eyes again.

    You weren't the only one that lost your legacy that day, you prick.

    After twenty years he knows these roads well. Well enough to cruise over to the hospice unassisted by a map, or GPS. He acknowledges his thoughts as his motions become routine.

    Ernie Samson was poised to be the next big thing back before all the wrestling territories got swallowed up by the Big Guy in the corporate machine. He was a handsome bastard, and a city man with the strength of a farm boy. He could talk fear into the crowd without raising his voice, and he pulled women who didn't know and didn't care what he did for a nightly living. Cannibal hated him, but in a brotherly way that was steeped in admiration. Even in those times, Cannibal was more brutish and uglier than everyone in the locker room. It was a stroke of momentary genius when some otherwise dipshit promoter first suggested that they pair up. Some sort of beauty and brawn type gimmick. The monster and his mouthpiece.

    And you know what? It worked. People ate that shit right up. Cannibal chewed through his opponents with ferocity, while Ernie dazzled the crowd with his mixture of strong style, flips, and tricks. They melted the imaginary territory perimeters and became shooting stars in every market they played. Men paid off their tabs at the bar, and Ernie was gracious enough to send some trim Cannibal's way every now and again. It was a nice system, comfortable even.

    Then that dipshit promoter had another bright idea. The team was ready to break up.

    The way he described it, they'd take all that heat they had amassed together, and cover double the ground. This storyline was a natural, mostly because it was real. What the promoter was saying, in his dickhead way, was that Cannibal had served his purpose. He'd put the real star in place for his meteoric rise. Cannibal looked at where his career was, and how far it had come, and he agreed. They'd go out in one final bloodbath of a match, and defeat their current rivals, The Maniacs. Then Cannibal would attack Ernie, severing their ties, and launching their individual careers. Cut, dry.

    Right up until the end, that match stands in Cannibal's memory as his finest work. If he'd been vicious before, he was rabid in this match. The hits were real, the emotions were high, and the crowd invested in every last pectoral twitch. After nearly half an hour of slogging and bruising, Cannibal hit his finisher and covered his opponent to the tune of twenty-something-thousand screaming fans. As the three-count fell, the crowd hit a decibel that he'd never heard before. They were screaming so loud, that it almost dampened in volume, and became a whisper in his ears.

    The Maniacs had done their jobs well, bloodying and bruising Cannibal and Ernie for a gruesome glamor shot that would make the following day's paper. That image, of Ernie raising Cannibal's arm before the inevitable turn, would haunt almost every article written about either of them from that day forward.

    Soaked in the moment, and each other's blood, Ernie hoisted Cannibal's arm, and they spun the ring, facing every single fan in attendance. Normally you'd wait for a break in the volume before the next big moment, but this crowd had no intention of quieting down. They faced each other, and Ernie mouthed the words.

    "You ready?"

    To this day Cannibal doesn't exactly know what went wrong. First, he felt sadness. Then he felt anger. He realized that the cheers wouldn't end for Ernie, but there was a very real possibility that this was his own last big pop. He went ahead as planned. First with an absolutely brutal kick to the midsection, which softened Ernie's abs into dough. Ernie let out a real, dry cough as the crowd's cheers morphed into shock and confusion. Then he cranked his arms, clumsily, but with intensity. Ernie's arms were slick with blood, and Cannibal couldn't sink in his hooks correctly. His legs shot out gracelessly, and rather than hearing the cushioned thud of his own ass, all he heard was a sick, wet pop.

    Cannibal notes that he is about one exit from the hospice, and shakes his head vigorously as if to erase his thoughts. The exit approaches, and he cuts in deftly. He is immediately greeted by a green, bustling town, in a decent Midwestern neighborhood.

    He cruises toward the hospice, passing a few young couples, and their church-clothed children. Bells chime nearby, and a dog emits a medium-sized bark from a nearby public park.

    Cannibal glances in his rear-view as he changes lanes. Ernie is seated behind the middle console, smirking, but with no joy in his eyes. Cannibal tries to scream, but can't.

    With the wheel slightly angled for his turn, Cannibal cruises subtly across lanes, onto the sidewalk, then into the park.

    The first few couples dive out of the way with synchronized, but inharmonious shrieks. A young man pushes his wife and child to the ground, and the driver's side front wheel crunches, and shatters his ankle. The next few people aren't so lucky.

    A group of friends sprawled across a picnic blanket snap around toward the source of the commotion just in time to greet the Toyota Camry's fender. Cannibal's eyes dart between his windshield and the rearview where Ernie sits smirking. He sees a young woman snatched from his sight line and hears a gunshot of a pop as the back of her skull smacks against some concrete. Tears roll down Cannibal's face as he wills his arms, legs, or fucking anything to move. The litter of bodies test the car's shocks, as the wheels find their way over strange terrains of bone and flesh. Then, a street lamp.

    Cannibal's forehead smacks against his wheel a millisecond before the airbags deploy. He flinches, and his arms twitch as the bag chafes his nose and brow. He has regained control of his movement, if only slightly.
    He kicks open the door but does not face the trail of mayhem that succumbed to his vehicle. Instead, he realizes that he is just one block away from the hospice. With the remaining screams a comfortable distance behind him, he half runs, half stumbles to the reception desk.

    People react to Cannibal's arrival with appropriate confusion and terror. The butterfly stitches have ceased to hold, and a rigid pattern of blood trails him as he staggers across the linoleum tile.

    "Sir, do you need help?"

    "Samson. I need Ernie fucking Samson."

    He peers over the desk and sees a directory of sorts, like a cheat sheet of hospice patients, and their assigned rooms. He leaks blood from his brow over the counter, and onto the sheet, and the seated receptionist recoils with disgust as he snatches and reads it.

    Ernie Samson 211

    Cannibal marches now on sturdy feet to the nearest stairwell. A small security guard attempts to stand in his way, but Cannibal dwarfs his face with his gigantic palm, and smashes it into the drywall behind him, eliciting a collective gasp from the lobby waiting room. He kicks open the stairwell door and drags himself up the single flight of stairs onto the landing. Then he kicks open the second door.

    Nurses gasp and take a step back as he emerges from the stairwell, ferocity emblazoned across his face and written in his scar tissue. He observes the direction in which the numbered rooms flow and stomps toward Room 211.

    Half a dozen people are stood outside the room, with hospital staff accounting for only two of them.

    "Bradley?" an older woman asks, as Cannibal tears past her, and into the room.

    Inside the room is a white sheet spread over a series of lumps on a lightly inclined bed. A young man is seated near the side of the bed where the railing has been temporarily removed. His eyes are bloodshot, and his cheeks are damp.

    "Brad, what the fuck is-" he begins to say.

    Cannibal lifts his leg and boots the man right off the green cushioned chair. Then he turns to the white lumps and tears the blanket off.

    Ernie's face appears as it did in his back seat but without the rigid smirk. The muscles in his face are weak and sag as if they'd collapsed several years before his death. His dull eyes are still open, still staring at Cannibal.

    "Ernie, you fucking prick," Cannibal starts, "You fucking prick, you get back here right now! You gonna fuck with me? You gonna fuck with me, Ernie? I fucking made you Ernie! We both fucking died that day!"

    A small militia of security guards pour into the room, and it takes every last one of them to restrain Cannibal. He fights, and squirms as the fattest guard sits on the wide of his back, and pulls his arms. Cannibal thrashes and screams like an animal as he is restrained. He bashes his face into the tiled floor, leaving increasingly large spots of blood at the sight of impact. The fat guard applies some pressure to his hold, as small, wet pop emits from Cannibal's back.

    There's no story here. No tale of the tape. Just a has-been wrestler in tomorrow's headlines, and a family mourning a loss that begun two decades prior. The crowd of mourners gasp and scream as all the fight leaves Cannibal's body at once. Then a woman breaks into sobs. She used to know Bradley Hughes. The real Cannibal. But nobody wants real.

    They only think they do.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/31
    20:53 UTC

    3

    Unburdened

    Just an old story I wrote a while ago. I went exploring for good subreddits to post this in, and I found this one. I don't know if it will exactly fit, since it's a psychological horror story at its core and there's no big bad monster, but I've been told it's chilling all the same ¯⁠\⁠_⁠(⁠ツ⁠)⁠_⁠/⁠¯

    If you like this, I might write more horror stuff. I also write non-horror stuff if you're interested. Anyway, enjoy reading my garbage.

    The following brain scan was provided by the Terran Institute of Pet Assimilation (TIPA) and the Protectorate Xenopet Acquisition and Integration Corporation (PXAIC) and may only be viewed by qualified and permitted individuals for educational purposes of the study of Xenopet neural interface errors and how to prevent them in the future, as well as expediting the domestication of Xenopets suffering from false sapience. Violating such procedure is a Class C offense by the Protectorate Department of Xenopet Betterment, and can lead to twenty years of imprisonment and a fine of over a hundred thousand credits.

    Booting up memory scan: Rocky

    Loading and processing firmware data… translating… memories and subconscious simulated…

    Beginning neural catalog presentation…

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    My head was spinning, and my skull thumped in pain like an entire herd of freshly captured slaves recently made pet friends were panicking celebrating within. Everything was blurry, so blurry, and I just wanted to close my eyes again and waste away. Sensations assaulted me from all angles, some of them good and some of them bad: the warmth of sun-bleached wooden planks in my feathery hide, the smell of different roasting meats, the splashing of individuals in a small body of water very close by, the smell of the salty air, and the oppressive white brightness of the daylight passing through my closed eyelids. I had a migraine from my sudden consciousness and perception of the light, causing me to clutch my snout and face with my clawed hands with a guttural moan.

    My backside hurt as well, in my… area. I didn't know why, but something was horribly wrong everything was fine. I tried to recall who I was and what was going on, but I couldn't even remember my name. Every time I tried, right when I grasped onto a sliver of something, it was as if it was torn from my grasp and replaced with something else knowingly like I was being watched and corrected but within the depths of my own mind.

    I needed to remember my name. What was my name? Wasn't it Yuutek Rocky? I couldn't remember exactly, but Yuutek Rocky was the only name I could recall. It felt… wrong, right, like something was missing, but I couldn't put my claw on what. everything was fine, and I shouldn't think about it too much. I could feel things that should have been important, things that my conscious had perceived but a moment ago, slip away from me like I was clenching sand within my claws.

    ##Relax. Let go of your burden##

    I inhaled sharply as a strange, warm feeling overtook the back of my skull and my muscles became loose and relaxed. Something also felt… out of place, like I needed something but I didn't know what. Everything felt so strange. My head spun, but I was too weak to do anything about it. I felt sick in the same way one would feel when they consumed too much caffeine.

    Suddenly, I felt a hand on my head. "Dad, I think he's awake!" I heard a young, shrill voice say, hurting my ears. The touch of the hand made my skin tingle and the spinning of my head recede as if it grounded me. It felt nice, as if this was wrong, something was horribly wrong what normalcy felt like. The hand then began to rub up and down my head and across the ridges along my head, causing me to release a chuff of delight against my will, something I hadn't done since I was merely a hatchling.

    "It sounds like he likes it, David; keep going, and make sure to scratch his chin, they're sensitive there."

    The human spawn, David, did what the other human said and began to scratch under my chin. It felt really good, and I stretched out instinctively. David was thorough and gentle, making sure he scratched every part of me that seemed itchy, and I felt the same warmth in my head from before, but it felt… nicer than before like it was trying to manipulate encouraging me to relax.

    ##You will learn to love this##

    I inhaled sharply again, but this time it was almost refreshing, and everything was right in the world. The human's hands felt so good, and the warmth from before spread through my body, melting the knots in my muscles and causing me to close my eyes in comfort. The boy lifted my head up and placed it in his lap before continuing to pet me, my eyelids heavy and my leg lightly kicking.

    ##Let them continue. You love this##

    Oh, that felt nice… what was I thinking about before? The pain on my backside? My legs didn't work too well, and although I could move them gently, my muscles seemed to be fighting against me. What did they do?

    ##Do not think##

    Everything was cold and harsh again, and my thoughts scrambled and my head throbbed. I needed to focus on grounding myself. I couldn't let go, I couldn't let them take my mind from me.

    ##Do not think. You are a good boy.##

    I… I was a good boy? I… I can't… I… no…

    ##Good boy.##

    I was a good boy… good boys don't think hard… I don't…

    ##Good boy##

    I was a good boy… I was a good boy…

    I was… I was… a good… boy…

    I'm scared.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Who was I again?

    ##You are Rocky##

    I hissed under my breath as I felt that bad feeling creep up on me again. I didn't like the bad feeling. I was not Rocky! I was Yuutek! Rocky.

    My thoughts became jumbled again in a whirlpool of nausea and confusion.

    Where was I?

    ##You are home.##

    It was bright out, and nice and warm as well. The sun was soaking my feather-cloaked skin and my side felt good against the warm back porch. I heard splashing and laughing in the distance, and the soft clinking of glass against glass. I could smell the salinity in the air, and the air was dense and humid but in a good way.

    I had lost all sense of time. Everything had been a blur since I had been taken from that horrid facility, the wretched prison they called the Xenopet-Megaplex. There, I was in a padded cell with a few insulting amenities for most of the day, except for the three periods a day where they let us out into a small gated courtyard for an hour or so to 'socialize' as they had so condescendingly put it. There, the worst part was the boredom and the mind-bending lack of individuality: I had lost my ability to speak, stand on two legs, and even eat normally. I was treated like cattle, but the smiles and cloying gestures hinted that something even more sinister was going on, like I was a lesser beast to be kept for their amusement.

    Now I had traded that particular prison for another, far worse one: I was at the mercy of a gross violation of my sense of self. Something horrible was growing in my mind, both in the physical and metaphysical sense, and I could feel it working its way through my consciousness like the parasite it was. It silenced me, it stole from me, it gaslit me, and it made me question the very nature of my own individuality and personality: was I who I thought I was? Everything was so elusive and hard to acknowledge that nothing seemed real between these bouts of semi-consciousness.

    ##Don't think, just rest.##

    In an instant, everything changed. My head became… fuzzy like a thousand voices were whispering to me all at once, but from all directions and inside my head. I didn't hear it, per se, but I felt the presence, the oppressive feeling of pure unfocused nonsense. I felt my temporary bout of concentration and resolve become jumbled up into a mess of sporadic confusion. Whatever I was just thinking of was gone.

    ##Don't think: Just relax. Let go of your burden.##

    Every part of me became relaxed and limp, my muscles unwinding from their tension and stress. I couldn't resist the feeling, and I stretched out subconsciously with a yawn, my body twitching from the stimuli. I was even sleepier than before, my head spinning once again and my eyelids heavy.

    Suddenly, I felt a hand on my snout and forced the eye that was facing upwards to open sluggishly. If I had to guess, it was an older human with cinnomon-colored skin, short-cropped brown hair, a gruff, wrinkled face, and chocolate brown eyes. He patted my side gently and gave me a soft rub, the feeling of his rough hands causing my chest to rumble with a satisfied chuff. I hated loved that it felt good, but I hated loved it even more that I couldn't bring myself to resist I felt content. I needed to escape relax, and I needed to find my way home appreciate my new life.

    ##You are already home##

    No, I couldn't will not obey

    This isn't is my home, my home is [Redacted] here.

    No! Yes, I won't will obey!

    YOU CAN'T SILENCE ME!

    ##Do not resist. Resistance is wrong. Good boys do not resist##

    Suddenly, I felt an intense pressure in my skull, but I didn't know where it came from. I became dizzy, and my eyes twitched, a rapidly growing pain intensely forming in my forehead, causing me to wince and clutch my snout in my claws. I couldn't concentrate, and I felt the horrible sensation of an invasive presence in my mind once again working its way through the folds of my brain, strangling my chain of thought. Bile grew in my throat and I felt the sour, stinging sensation of a building retch in my cheeks.

    I scrambled onto all fours and vomited onto the deck, my hackles and feathers rising as I heaved. The older human from earlier rose from a sleek chair on the deck, his hat on the glass sun table next to him and his eyes widened in shock. He rushed over to me, and I hissed at him instinctively. I wouldn't let him touch me again. I wouldn't let them control me.

    ##Do not attack owner##

    In an instant, my world transformed into absolute pain. I felt as if my brain was being deep fried in a vat of boiling grease, and my eyes were being squeezed in vices. I kept heaving, my stomach doing loops and somersaults around all my other organs, and my heart fluttering like a flock of startled birds. It was weightlessness. I could see the man approach me and push me back down on my side, muttering under his breath.

    "Carol! Get Xenopet emergency services on the phone, Rocky's having another implant attack!"

    I heard another muffled voice in the background, as well as the sound of the human spawns crying in the pool. For some reason, I felt bad: I'd never felt bad for humans before, but I could feel the guilt in my chest. Had I failed my owners?

    ##Breath. Calm. Let Go##

    I felt like I was wrestling with my own mind. I wanted to believe that I was not someone's pet, but my body screamed otherwise: amidst the chaos caused by the wretched implant, I felt the painful sensation of guilt and regret bloom in my chest as I twitched and shuddered on the deck, my mouth frothing. The world was spinning, and suddenly everything erupted into a kaleidoscope of colors.

    Oh, by the forbidden one, look at all the pretty colors! I was completely delusional at this point, cackling as I lost it all. If I was going to die here, I'd die happy and completely mad.

    Soon, everything began to fade away, and I slipped into an unconscious state.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I woke up to the sound of medical equipment beeping and whirring, the sound of a few hushed human voices, and soft music.

    I opened my eyes: the room was dark. I didn't feel anywhere near as bad as before, but my head still throbbed. I lifted up my head with a groan and examined the room: it was a dark hospital room, with a window covered in blinds that let very little sunlight in, a few chairs, and of course the hospital bed itself. Mountains of advanced medical equipment were set up on either side of my bed, and a heartbeat monitor beeped slowly, although the speed was growing.

    Suddenly, I heard the voices again, and this time they were legible.

    "Hush, he's awake: we need to make sure he's ready."

    Huh? Ready for what?

    Something that irked me was I felt strangely… free. I didn't feel the oppressive force of the implant in the back of my skull anymore, how it attempted to crush my will with every waking moment. I still couldn't speak: all that came out were animalistic noises, but I was free from the invasion of my mind for now.

    "Give him some peace, Emilia, he just woke up from an implant attack; you know how traumatic they can be."

    "We have to begin soon; my dissertation for this new technique is due in less than a week, and by law I need at least one more successful example for it to be deemed acceptable! Besides, he needs to go home soon anyway."

    My heart sank. I would not go back to that place. I wouldn't let those people keep me like some kind of pet: I was a Russu; a member of a proud warrior race! I would not be reduced to some animal for the amusement of these humans!

    Suddenly, I heard footsteps, and I tensed. The door creaked open and I spotted a younger human, a male I had never met before, in a lab outfit with his shoes, pants, shirt, and overcoat all bleached white and almost glistening. He eyed me warily, as he should, before he sauntered in, a tablet clipped at his side and a strange plastic container in both hands. I growled at him threateningly, extending my talons and raising my feathered hackles. The human paused for a microsecond before continuing forward, caution in his eyes, and right before he was within swiping range he opened the container and the most wonderful smell assaulted my nostrils.

    Meat.

    I was starving. I don't remember the last time I had eaten anything in particular: the implant had a terrible habit of causing me to go about my day in a hazy blur: entire lengths of time just… gone, whitewashed like a sheet of freshly decorated paper dunked in cold water. I knew something was there, or at least that something should have been there, but I mostly spent the days or weeks that I had been captured bobbing like an ocean buoy in a state of frustratingly bleary semi-consciousness.

    But I'm awake now and mostly in control. Sure, some things were still missing everything was clear now, like my name: What was my name again? My name was Rocky. And now I knew that I needed to eat something, and if putting up with this human for now meant that I could fill my stomach, then I suppose that it was an acceptable sacrifice.

    I salivated expectantly as the human lifted out a large piece of meat with his gloved hand, eyeing me humorously as he wiggled it. It was dark on the outside, but still dripping with blood and juices: humans had this weird habit of cooking their meats, and although it didn't taste bad at all cooked, nothing beat the feeling and flavor of tearing into raw flesh, the blood and the texture still fresh. At least this meat only seemed to be raw and not fully cooked.

    I snapped up the piece of meat just as he lowered it enough for me to reach it. It was divine! It burst with flavor just as I bit into it, the juices spilling into my mouth. I quickly tore it apart with my strong jaws before snapping up another big piece with a beak-like protrusion at the tip of my snout. All the while, the human gently ran his fingers through my tightly-knit feathers and along my knobby, scaly hide. I made my annoyance with his touch clear, but he merely chuckled as if I wasn't an apex predator larger than him but rather simply a feisty hatchling.

    "I know, I know, just relax. I need to perform a quick test to see if you're healthy before we continue."

    Continue? Continue with what?

    Just as the second piece of meat slid down my gullet, I eyed him with hostility and growled, but he quickly slipped something between the scales and feathers on my side and plunged it into my skin. Suddenly, I went rigid, and all the air was expelled from my lungs in an instant with a hoarse wheeze. The human merely chuckled and scratched under my chin as if nothing was wrong and my face wasn't frozen in horror.

    "Good, that'll keep you occupied for a few seconds while I just slip this on…" he placed a breathing mask over my face and strapped it on before flicking a switch on a machine next to my bed. Then he released the plunger of the strange device on my side and I suddenly inhaled deeply and deflated like a balloon. I hissed under my breath, but suddenly panic filled my chest: I wasn't breathing just air. A cloyingly sweet-smelling gas coated the inside of my lungs, causing me to become dizzy. Suddenly, I was fully at their mercy again, blinking rapidly and my head spinning.

    "Sorry about that, big guy, but we need to make sure you're passive before we begin the procedure." He said, almost apologetically, although there was a hint of mirth still detectable. "Sadly, you have to remain awake for some of it or I'd simply feed you more and then put you to sleep, but there are some benefits to this inhalant."

    As if he summoned it with his words alone, my scales suddenly felt very… tingly. The human ran his hands across the scales at my side and I shivered from the feeling, like pain but better. Everything felt so warm and strange like I was floating on water, but also like I was being gently prodded by blades. Then, with panic rising in my chest, I suddenly felt a soft click as something was plugged into the neural port at the back of my skull that the humans had installed into my head when they had first captured me and placed me in that wretched facility some time ago.

    "There you go, all prepped for the Doctor. She'll be here to begin the procedure in a bit." He said, "For now just relax and let the inhalants work their magic."

    I whined quietly, and he rubbed the side of my head in an attempt to calm me which only made me more angry. I wasn't someone's pet! I wouldn't be treated like this!

    I didn't want to go back to where I was before! I didn't want to become that sluggish, broken puppet again! I couldn't!

    I tried to get up, to will my muscles to move, but I couldn't: my body refused to respond, as if I was paralyzed. But that wasn't right: I still could feel everything, especially the strange, mind-bending sensations the inhalants gave me.

    ##Initializing beginning phases of Neural Alteration Preparation##

    Something else is wrong, I can feel it

    ##Assessing if the neural state is nominal for Alterations##

    I can't let this happen, they're going to do something to me! I won't let them!

    But nothing happened. I was at their mercy. It was over for good this time.

    All those battles, all those tragedies and triumphs amongst my kin, only for me to be reduced to this? The plaything for a human?

    ##Query: is [Dr. Kalenghari] present to begin Neural Alterations?##

    The door across the room opened again, and a human woman with light brown skin, chocolate brown eyes and long locks of black hair stepped in. She was holding a digi-pad in her hands and swiping up as if she was reading into something before she set it down on the counter across the room and gave me a warm, condescending smile.

    "Well, how are we doing today, Rocky? I know, this predicament you have found yourself in must be very stressful, but I assure you that it's for your own good," She said, almost cheerfully, which sent shivers down my spine, "we're here to lift your burden, and we won't stop until you're capable of living the life of a happy, healthy, and well-behaved pet."

    I whined under the mask, and the woman rubbed the feathered crest on my forehead. "I know, it hurts, but it'll be all over soon. It'll be like you, or at least this version of you, never existed. Just relax and close your eyes while we root around your brain and remove all those bad thoughts and silly delusions: I assure you, you won't feel a thing, and you'll feel much better afterward."

    My heart raced and I began to panic internally, watching in horror as the woman stepped over to the medical console and tapped away for a few seconds before the machinery around me began to whir to life.

    ##Identification accepted: booting neurochemical firmware. Preparing for selective memory erasure.##

    In an instant, my eyes involuntarily rolled back into my head as I felt the intrusive sensation of my mind being violated. It wasn't painful, but it was horrible all the same: it felt like a thousand black, slimy leeches were slithering through every crevice of my brain, leaving behind their cold, corruptive filth. The cold sensation seeped further into my brain, behind my eyes, and in my ears, enveloping every bit of it until there was nothing left.

    ##Relevant memories extracted for tailoring. Beginning total memory erasure.##

    Suddenly, things just began to slip away: important memories, like the faces of my parents, the day of my initiation into the Corsair Collective, the face of my life mate, the birth of our hatchlings. I hoped that wherever they were, they were okay: if they never had to face the fate I would face, then maybe there would be some justice in this cruel, twisted galaxy. Maybe they could take the fight to humanity, remind them that they once had been the heroes of the cosmos, fighting against the cruelty of my people and the Triarchy at large. Maybe my hatchlings could live normal lives.

    ##Memory erasure process at 47%##

    A single tear rolled down my scaly cheek as everything I once knew, everything that made me was torn from my mind and rendered null. Every second saw a million memories massacred, leaving the memories the implant had attempted to supplant my old memories with: Me playing fetch with my 'owners', chasing birds on the beach with my 'owner's' grandchildren, swimming in the pool in their backyard as steaks and bratwurst cooked on the grill, relaxing on the back porch and listening to the rasping calls of the katydids during humid summer evenings by the swamps. My psyche was being mutilated piece by piece, reduced to that of an animal, a pet.

    ##Memory erasure process at 64%##

    Soon I had a hard time telling who I was anymore. I couldn't tell what was real or what wasn't, or what I actually felt. I couldn't even remember my own name anymore. Who was I? Why was I here? What was happening to me? I'm so scared, someone help me, please!

    ##Memory erasure process at 83%##

    There was nothing left. I felt nothing. I knew nothing. I was floating in a void, with little flashes of light depicting events I didn't recognize. There were people I felt like I was supposed to know, but I didn't know them. A human woman with bright blue eyes and blonde hair. Two Russu hatchlings that looked a bit like me. A Russu female… my chest hurt for a moment but the feeling quickly subsided. I didn't know any of them.

    ##Memory erasure process completed. Implanting tailored memories and personality. Happy birthday, [Rocky]: you have been unburdened and reborn.##

    In an instant, the confusion of who I was before was replaced with absolute certainty: I knew who I was now, who I always was:

    I was Rocky, and I was a good boy. I belonged to Mr. And Mrs. Chen. I was their Russu hound. I loved them: they took care of me and let me play with their grandchildren. I swam in the pool and played outside every day. Life was good. Today was my birthday! That meant it would be a happy day! Mrs. Chen would always come home with a whole duck for me to eat and then take me to the Xenopet Comex for a bath and a spa day, just like my last birthday, and the birthday before that, and the birthday before that! It was a good life. I was happy. I was always happy. Good boys were always happy.

    I was Rocky, and I was a good boy: that's all that mattered.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    To Miguel O'Hara, Chief Medical Representative of the Protectorate Xenopet Acquisition and Integration Corporation, with the best of intentions.

    The over-reliance on neural suppressant firmware programs along with thought scrubbing/replacement firmware programs and countermeasures towards higher thought and tainted thoughts with a relatively active hormonal reward structure can be incredibly effective when placed into the brain of a more passive Xenopets. However, Xenopets that come from more… difficult backgrounds such as one in a militant setting tend to be much more resistant to being reprogrammed by just an implant alone. The Russu are an excellent example of more tainted Xenos that need neurological care of much higher intensity, a level of care that the average Xenopet-Megaplex is ill-equipped to handle due to the current level of technology.

    I am a firm believer in the idea that thought correction, a hormonal behavioral reinforcement structure, and neural countermeasures can have a place in the proper unburdening process but we have been chasing the wrong solution for the past century: Many people are under the misconception that the burden these Xenos carry is surface level when in reality the corruption runs far deeper: it is like a weed, with deep roots. To kill the weed permanently, you must rip out the roots, and not just the surface plant. If you do not eliminate the source of the problem, it may just return and worse still the mind may adapt to the standard unburdening process, allowing the xenopets to fall victim to those degenerate zealots who seek to pretend xenopets possess even the capacity for true sentience. We as Terrans should be united in this cause of unburdening the galaxy, but I digress.

    The implants should be there to reinforce good behavior and stigmatize bad behavior, not completely reprogram the pet. To fully stamp out any potential for a relapse, we must remove the core issue that has the most potential to cause problems: their memories. The Russu are an excellent example

    We are in the advanced testing stages of a new method that may revolutionize how we process and integrate xenopets into our society. By removing or modifying any and all problematic memories, we can completely remove the risk of relapse and make it nearly impossible for those misguided degenerate rebels to bring to the surface problematic ideas and memories that could reawaken a sense of false sentience. It is the perfect, final solution to our overarching goal: for humanity to unburden the galaxy, one happy pet at a time.

    We hope to secure more funding from PXAIC that will greatly assist us in the expansion of the possibilities that this breakthrough technique can provide, more than just using it on board-approved fringe cases. Think about the many Xenopets we can unburden, and how they'll live happy and ignorant lives with their human owners! This could be a game changer, Representative, and I implore you to bring it before the board with the best of intentions.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Emilia Kalenghari, Head Researcher of the Epsilon Eridani Institute's Behavioral Neurology and Neurochemistry Division (BNND).

    11 Comments
    2024/05/31
    01:33 UTC

    3

    First Heat

    The announcement came promptly after we sensed the distant rumble.

    Attention all swimmers! Attention all swimmers! Due to another nearby lightning strike, the competition is delayed by twenty minutes.

    Goggles let out an annoyed moan. I’d given him that nickname because I didn’t know his real name, and because he’d insisted thus far on wearing his oversized goggles for the duration of the wait.

    I finally decided to ask him about it. “You ever going to take those off? It’s been nearly an hour already. It can’t be comfortable keeping them on like that.”

    Goggles responded defensively. “What’s it to you, county boy?” 

    I shrugged. Goggles, Anthony, and Roger made up the rest of my heat, and they were friends with one other. If I picked a fight, they’d back each other up, so I tried not to escalate things further.

    That didn’t stop Roger from whining about me. “Goddamn it, how long are we stuck here with this bumpkin?”

    “A long time, I bet,” sighed Goggles. “A very long time.”

    This caused Anthony to speak up for the first time in a while. “Give him break, guys. We’re all in the first heat anyway. We’ve got nothing to act tough about.”

    He was right. In swimming, each age group is divided into ‘heats’ of competitors who all race at once. The number of swimmers in a heat varies based on the number of lanes in the pool – in the case of the pool used for this regional tournament, ten.

    The last heat was where all the excitement happened, as it contained the fastest swimmers. The first heat was the opposite, as it typically consisted of the those who swam slowly, as well as competitors who had gotten themselves disqualified for breaking the rules in previous competitions.

    The first heat was notable, too, since it was the only one that had an irregular number of people – if there were seventy-three swimmers in an age group at this pool, the first heat would include only three, versus an even ten for each of the remaining heats.

    The worst fear of any slow swimmer like myself was to be the solo competitor in heat one. Goggles, Anthony, and Roger, who I figured all attended one of the private schools nearby, displayed a preppy hostility towards me, but at least their presence ensured that I wasn’t alone 

    We bore all the signs of a first heat, from being only four in number to lacking the lean physiques of the better swimmers, half of us being too scrawny and small, and the other half leaning too far in the other direction.

    Normally, our humiliation was brief. Within fifteen minutes, we’d sort into heats in the gymnasium, walk to the various waiting stations throughout the facility, and end up on a diving board poised to jump into the indoor pool. The race – a fifty meter breaststroke – would be over in no time, and then this miserable weekend would be one step closer to ending.

    Today, however, lightening had kept us stuck in the corridor where we waited just outside the pool room. I normally experienced nervous jitters a few minutes before a race, but all I felt now, after so much waiting, was tedium and boredom.

    Roger, perhaps realizing he’d let a full minute pass without complaining about something, spoke up again. “Why do they even delay for lightening, when it’s an indoor pool we’re going to be swimming in?”

    Anthony responded.  “It’s just a stupid government rule. The lightening can’t hurt us indoors, even in the water. But there’s some local safety code that makes them have to wait anyway.”

    Goggles groaned. “This is so boring. We’re stuck here forever with absolutely nothing to do.”

    “Maybe they’ll just cancel the race,” I said. “Surely they have to do that, eventually. 

    This prompted a sneer from Roger. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? It’s the only way you won’t place dead last.” He and Goggles snickered.

    “Like Anthony said,” I responded, “we’re all in last place already by being in the first heat. There are nine heats that are faster than us. Do your really care about finishing in ninety-first place versus ninety-fourth?”

    “At least we’ll finish at all,” taunted Goggles. He approached where I sat such that he towered over me. “You’ll probably flounder and grab onto the lane rope until someone comes to rescue you. And, instead of it being one of the hot lifeguards, it’ll be that old coach who led us here who gives you CPR.”

    I jumped to my feet. Even if the odds weren’t in my favor, I wasn’t going to let them keep tormenting me without fighting back.

    The door at the opposite side of the hallway opened as a familiar figure entered. My sister Allison, six years my senior and an event volunteer, unwittingly broke up a potential scuffle. Goggles retreated and sat against the wall with Roger and Anthony. One of them – I don’t know who – let out a few catcalling whistlers, which Allison thankfully ignored.

    “Hey Peter! You doing okay?”

    I nodded.

    “I was worried about you. Is there no staff person here?”

    I shook my head. “Some coach was here for a little while, but he left and hasn’t come back yet.”

    “I see. Well, I know you can look after yourself, but please don’t hesitate to come find me if anything comes up. I know you must be bored out of your mind.”

    “Yeah, of course I’m bored. I wish this would wrap up already. These delays are killing me.”

    “It’s a nightmare, I know. But I have a feeling things will be moving along shortly. I’ll be watching whenever the races resume, and I’ll be cheering for you, little champ. You’re gonna do great, alright?”

    “Thanks.” I watched as she made her way back to the gymnasium.

    Little champ,” snickered Roger.

    Goggles jeered at me too. “She won’t be cheering when she sees how badly you lose. Heck, you’ll probably just flounder about until someone has to rescue you. 

    “Fuck off,” I said.

    Again, it was Anthony who stood up for me. “Go easy on him.”

    This made Goggles incredulous. “Why do you keep sticking up for this guy?”

    Anthony delivered his response in a somber, serious voice. “Because he has enough to worry about already. When it’s our turn to race, I get the feeling Nick’s going to be in the pool, waiting. If Peter’s as slow as we think he is, he won’t be climbing out the other side. 

    “What? Who’s Nick?” I asked, confused as to why someone would be in the pool when our race began.

    Roger let out an exaggerated Oohhh. “He doesn’t know the legend.”

    Goggles’ response sounded forced, even improvisational. “Oh, right, the legend.” 

    “I’m not falling for whatever bullshit you’re about to make up.”

    To my surprise, Anthony joined in. “You don’t have to believe if it if you don’t want to. But ignore it at your own risk. I’m confident that I can outswim Nick. You, though, I’m not so sure about.”

    Roger took a step towards me. “You see, Nick haunts the pool. He’s been there ever since he died in it thirty years ago. On this same day. At this same meet.”

    “He was the only swimmer in the first heat,” added Goggles. “He was nervous about swimming alone in front of so many people.”

    “Let me guess,” I said. “He jumped in the water, forgot how to swim, drowned, and somehow the hundreds of people present, including all the lifeguards, didn’t notice on time to save him? You really think I’m dumb enough to believe a story like that?”

    Anthony shook his head solemnly. “Oh, I wish we were just making this story up. A lot of people would still be alive if we were.”

    I remained unconvinced, to put it mildly. But, there was a sincerity to Anthony that made me wonder if there could be a grain of truth to what he was saying. Maybe some unfortunate kid really had died, and they were just inventing the rest of the story around that fact.

    Anthony continued. “You see, it wasn’t that simple. Lightening had delayed the meet for over an hour. Nick sat right where we are now shaking and shivering the whole time. Little did he know that, while he waited, there was a miscommunication among the pool staff. One of them got word that the meet was cancelled due to the bad weather and started draining the pool. Meanwhile, there was an electrical short in the overhead lighting system.”

    “It was a disaster waiting to happen. When the announcement was made that twenty minutes had passed since the last strike, and that the competition would resume, the audience was allowed to return just as Nick was led to a diving board.”

    “A few people noticed that something was wrong. The pool wasn’t empty – it takes time to drain – but it wasn’t nearly as full as it was before. But their cries were ignored. It wasn’t a situation anyone expected, or that the parents and staff were trained to deal with.”

    “Nick took his position on the diving board. He saw, amidst the flickering lights, that there was water below. But, in his eagerness to get the race over with, he didn’t comprehend that there was much less water than there should be. Less than there needed to be.”

    “One of the lifeguards realized what was wrong and cried out for the race to be called off. She ran towards Nick to stop him from jumping. She didn’t get to him in time. The buzzer rang, and poor Nick hurtled forward.”

    “He fell through the air a few moments longer than usual before crashing into the water. It wasn’t enough to slow him, not much at least. His head slammed into the concrete below.”

    “The whole crowd screamed when the lights returned and revealed his body, which had floated to the shallow surface. According to some witnesses, his skull fractured open and some of his brain spilled out.”

    “To this day, Nick’s spirit remains in that pool. He gets lonely there, so, sometimes, he causes the lights to go out. In the darkness, he pulls the slowest boy from his age group in the competition down with him. By the time the lifeguards notice, it’s too late, and he’s taken another victim to join him in haunting this place forever.”

    “If that were true,” I said, “this place would have been closed down for good ages ago.”

    Goggles piped up in response. “Nick isn’t greedy. He only takes someone every once in a while. In the thirty years since this happened, only a few kids have died. The last one was a decade ago.”

    In the long silence that followed, I thought about what I’d heard. These guys were just trying to scare me, right? But, I found it hard to believe that Anthony had conjured up such a detailed story out of thin air.

    I jolted upright as another announcement resounded through the room. 

    Attention all swimmers! Attention all swimmers! Twenty minutes have passed without incident, and the competition has resumed!

    Goggles, Roger, and Anthony were laughing. To my embarrassment, I realized that my reaction to the announcement had given away how tense Anthony’s story had made me.

    Roger giggled at me. “We got you so scared. You scaredy-cat.”

    “No, no, I just didn’t expect-” 

    Goggles’ cackling cut me off. “I can’t believe you fell for that stupid story. I guess county kids really are as dumb as the dirt they grown their corn in. 

    Anthony, again, was more sympathetic than his friends. “Don’t worry, I made that whole story up. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

    “Of-of course,” I stuttered. “I didn’t believe it.”

    The poolside door opened. The coach who’d led us to our waiting station over an hour ago emerged. “Come on, this way!” she called.

    I followed her inside. As with any crowded indoor pool, the noises that echoed through the room – splashes, announcements, and the chatter and cheers of the crowd that was slowly made its way back to the bleachers – formed a loud, blurry cacophony. The room was also a lot dimmer than I remembered, with some of the overhead lights flickering on and off irregularly. 

    The announcer’s voice blasted through the speaker system. Heat one, take your position! 

    I hesitated. I thought about Anthony’s story, and how the lights had technical issues just before Nick jumped. But, that had to just be a coincidence, right?

    The coach pushed me along. “Come on now, son, let’s get this little heat over with.”

    The crowd cheered as I put on my goggles and carefully climbed onto the diving board. I was in one of the center lanes. I looked to my left and to my right and saw, to my surprise, that no one else was standing with me. Where had Goggles, Roger, and Anthony gone?

    The race will begin in three, two… I looked down. There was water, but was there the right amount?

    I got little more than a glimpse before, all at once, the ceiling lights turned off.

    One! finished the announcer. The buzzer rang.

    “Come on, kid!” yelled the coach through the darkness.

    “There’s no light,” I cried. “I should wait until I can see!”

    “The clocks’ running now!” the coach replied. “I’m not letting you delay this entire race. There’s nine heats behind you waiting to go!”

    I turned my head back to the coach and, for a brief moment, discerned in the darkness the black silhouettes of three shadowy figures immediately behind me. I heard laughter, and I felt a force against my back.

    An eternity passed in the moments that followed. I flew awkwardly through the air, my form all wrong, until I hit the water. I panicked at the thought that my head was about to smash into the hard pool floor.

    Instead, my body slowed a few feet from the bottom. I realized, to my incredible relief, that the pool was full. I wasn’t in any danger. Sure, my time would be terrible, and I’d likely be disqualified for not swimming in proper form, but I wasn’t in any danger. 

    I kicked at the water and began to climb to the surface. That’s when I felt an intense force around my neck.

    It was an…arm. It was soggy and worn, and it pulled me downwards. I found myself at the bottom of the pool, held in place by the figure that had grabbed me. I turned my face to see Goggles, grinning widely. Only, he was missing many of his teeth and much of his skin, and his skull was split open revealing patches of a gray, spongy substance underneath.

    I squirmed and tried to pull him off, but he continued to hold me in place. I needed desperately to breath, but I couldn’t tear him off of me.

    Two more faces appeared, but, when they swam closer, I realized they didn’t belong to lifeguards like I’d hoped. The lifeguards probably couldn’t even see that I was down here.

    Instead, it was Anthony and Roger. Their skin was tattered and stained a murky brown, and they hovered above me in the water.

    I managed to pry Goggles off me, but before I could get anywhere, Anthony and Roger reached out and pushed me back against the floor.

    The world above me turned to shadow. I felt myself fade into unconsciousness. My last memory, real or hallucinatory, was of Goggles whispering one word into my ear: “Sleep.”

    I woke up gasping and coughing up water. Allison sat over me, her clothes soaking wet.

    “Thank god. Peter, I thought I’d lost you.”

    The lights turned back on. I could tell that we were on the surface next to the pool. My sister must have dived in and dragged me out. I learned later that I’d stopped breathing, but started again after she performed chest compressions on me.

    “I can’t believe they didn’t call off the race. With the lights out, nobody could see that you were in trouble. Why’d you jump?”

    “The-the…” I took a moment to catch my breath. “They shoved me in…” 

    Who shoved you in? That coach? And how the heck did you get stuck at the bottom of the pool anyway?”

    “No, it was the other kids in my heat…they held me down…”

    My answers continued to only prompt more questions from Allison. “What other kids? You were the only one in your heat. You’ve been alone the last hour.”

    I didn’t know what to say to that. Nor did I know what to say when the doctor Allision brought me to asked me about the abrasions and hand prints on my body, or when I saw the pictures from the old news reports about the other accidents at the facility. 

    It’s been twelve years. Of course, nobody listened to my warnings or believed my ghost stories. The facility stayed in operation until a few weeks ago.

    The official story behind its closure was that the building was so outdated that it needed to be demolished and completely rebuilt. I think it has more to do with the fact that another kid drowned in its pool last spring.

    A few days ago, I found a grainy video of its destruction on a local news channel’s website. In the corner of the footage, away from the smoke and debris of the collapsed building, I noticed something unusual: four figures, dressed only in swim gear, walking along a dirt road.

    I don’t know exactly where that road leads. I just know that it stretches onwards for a long, long time in a direction far away from town.

    1 Comment
    2024/05/29
    20:16 UTC

    5

    The Diary in the Woods (Part 1)

    I’m sorry if this is a bit weirdly formatted or anything this is my first post on Reddit. I usually just read and comment, but I found something weird when I was hiking with my puppy.

    We were about to get to a creek off of the path people usually take when I saw a notebook poking out from under some brush. I’m not usually one to grab stuff out of the woods (who knows what kind of germs or curses could be on some of that shit?) but anyone who knows me will tell you that my curiosity is strong enough to outweigh my self preservation, so I grabbed it and put it in a plastic bag meant for mushrooms before putting it in my bag.

    My dog didn’t really like the book so that made me a bit uneasy but my dumbass brought it home anyways. My puppy (who usually wants to hike longer than me because he’s an Australian Shepard and has more energy than I’ve ever had) wanted to turn around once we hit the creek, which also weirded me out.

    Because of my pup acting weird I asked my fiancé to bring the sage out and I cleansed the notebook before bringing it into the house to do another cleansing ritual before placing some runes and crystals on it and leaving it to dry in front of the heater since it was a bit moist out.

    Well, I opened it up and unstuck some pages and read what I could from it and it looks to be a diary. I can’t read much from it, but from what I can read, well, it’s WEIRD.

    Like, really weird.

    I can’t read it very well right now but I’m sure with the right lighting and magnification I could transcribe what it says. I’m just a little bit freaked out. I don’t know if this is some writing project that someone brought out here to finish cause they like the wilderness, or whatever, but if it isn’t….

    I don’t know why it would have been out there though.

    Anyways, if anyone wants to stay to hear what I read I’ll try to give updates for every couple or so entries I transcribe. I’m obviously going to change names for privacy and omit any details that seem too personal, but hopefully someone else finds this as interesting as I do.

    It looks to be about a person I’m calling Sophie and her friend/girlfriend/sister/etc. Katie.

    There also seems to be two other frequent people I’m calling Clara and Annie who seem to be roommates of Sophie and Katie?

    I’ve also gotten some words from the middle about a “home town” and “Dad’s place” so maybe she was out in the woods taking a break from family and went out to write some horror in her journal???

    I hope so.

    My magnifying glasses and extra strength lights come in soon, so hopefully I can update y’all within the month.

    I hope this isn’t a bad idea.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/29
    15:49 UTC

    2

    Holy Death

    The radio is low, playing ‘I’m Getting Used to You’ by Selena as our unmarked Ford Explorer rolls down the dusty road toward the Tijuana River Valley.

    I adjust the rear view mirror, carefully scrutinizing myself. I see there’s a trace of lipstick on the collar of my shirt; I hope the dim light will keep it hidden.

    I catch a glimpse of Audrey, her fiery red hair still slightly disheveled. She’s gazing out the passenger window, the reflection of passing headlights glinting off her features.

    We both avoid eye contact. We haven’t spoken much since leaving the motel room—officially booked for 'deep cover' surveillance work, though the only observation we'd done was of each other.

    I promised myself the last time we did it that it would be our last. The fear that gripped me when the condom broke was a wake-up call I couldn’t ignore. Audrey’s panicked eyes as she took the morning after pill are etched in my memory. We had been playing with fire, and that night, we nearly got burned. Yet, here we are, slipping back into our old rhythms as if nothing had happened.

    “You going to answer that?” she asked, nodding towards my phone vibrating against the dashboard. The screen lit up again, flashing a picture of my wife Rocío and our boys. I pressed a button on the steering wheel, silencing the buzzing.

    “I’ll call her back later," I murmur, feeling a pang of guilt tighten around my chest.

    Audrey shrugged, her focus returning to the shadowy outlines of the landscape ahead. “If you say so, Ramón. But it might be important.”

    "It's just Rocío checking up on me," I say, trying to sound nonchalant.

    Audrey shifts slightly in her seat, her eyes never leaving the road. "Does she know about us?"

    "She doesn’t," I say, keeping my voice steady, though a trace of defensiveness sneaks in. "She’s just been on edge since... since the Vásquez case. After the shootout, she thinks every call might be the one—"

    "The one that ends with you not coming home?" Audrey finishes for me, her voice softening.

    "Yeah," I murmured, the weight of the words settling heavy in the car.

    A thick fog begins to roll in from the coast, shrouding the landscape in an ethereal veil. The headlights of the Explorer cut through the haze, revealing only brief glimpses of the road ahead.

    As we approach the outpost, the sight before us is eerie—silhouettes of border patrol agents, their forms hazy and indistinct through the fog. They look less like people and more like ghostly sentinels keeping watch over the edge of the world. The border fence stretched out into the Pacific Ocean, its metal bars disappearing into the misty waters, giving the whole scene a surreal, almost dreamlike quality.

    “Ready?” I ask, my voice a bit rougher than I intended.

    “Yeah, let's do this,” she replies, her voice all business now. She glances at me, her expression unreadable for a second before she turns away, focusing on the gathering shadows stretching before us.

    We step out into the chilly air, the ground beneath our feet soft with recent rain, and make our way toward the group of border agents. They look relieved to see us, understandable considering the circumstances.

    One of the agents steps forward, his face partially obscured by the brim of his hat and the fog.

    “Detective Ramón Castillo, San Diego Sheriff’s Department,” I announce, flashing my badge. “This is my partner, Detective Audrey Dawson.”

    The agent nods, extending a hand, rough and calloused. "Watch Commander Rick Martínez, US Border Patrol. Thanks for coming down here on such short notice. We’ve got a mess on our hands."

    "What's going on, Commander?" I ask, trying to keep my tone even.

    Martínez’s eyes shift toward the portable command post set up a few yards away. "It's best if you see it for yourselves."

    The command post is a hive of activity. Radios crackle with static, agents huddle over maps, and the air is thick with the smell of stale coffee and damp earth. Martínez gestures for us to step inside.

    He leads us to a set of monitors displaying grainy night-vision footage. Pulling up a pair of chairs to a particular monitor, the commander motions for us to sit.

    He doesn't waste time with pleasantries. "About three hours ago, one of our infrared cameras caught a group of migrants moving through the valley. They were following the usual routes, nothing out of the ordinary at first." He pauses, his expression tightening. "Then something went very wrong."

    Martínez hunches over the keyboard, his fingers tapping a rhythm on the space bar as he seeks out the specific clip. “Here,” he mutters, and the grainy footage begins to play on the small screen.

    The video shows what appears to be about a dozen migrants, huddled together, their movements weary yet determined as they navigate the marshy landscape. The infrared gives their figures an otherworldly glow, making them look like specters floating across the screen.

    My chest tightens—a familiar pang of empathy. Though I was born here, my mom wasn't. She crossed marshland much like this, driven by hopes of a better life.

    "Keep your eyes on the left side," Martinez advises.

    As the migrants shuffle through the marsh, one of them pauses, glancing back nervously. The infrared camera, designed to pick up heat signatures, suddenly reveals something chilling—a figure that emits no heat whatsoever. It's an anomaly, darker than the surrounding night, moving with an eerie, fluid grace.

    The figure moves swiftly, almost gliding over the ground. Without any warning, it strikes. The group of migrants erupts into chaos, scattering in every direction like a disturbed hive of bees. Screams pierce the night, although they're silent on the footage.

    The migrants, in their desperate bid to escape, are picked off one by one. Each time the figure reappears, a migrant drops to the ground, motionless. The figure's movements are precise, almost predatory, and terrifyingly efficient.

    Martinez pauses the video, and the screen freezes on a particularly chilling frame: one of the migrants, isolated, his heat signature intense with fear as the entity looms over him. The shape is amorphous, almost ghostly, a swirling mass of blackness that doesn't fully register as any identifiable creature.

    "Shit," Audrey murmurs, her eyes not leaving the screen. "What are we dealing with here?"

    “No idea,” Martínez shakes his head, his eyes not leaving the screen. "I’ve watched this over a dozen times. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Thermal doesn’t pick it up right—it's cold, colder than anything alive should be."

    "Any survivors?" I ask, though I'm not sure I want to hear the answer.

    Martínez pauses the video, his jaw clenched. “We sent a team in right after the camera lost them.”

    “They found clear signs of a struggle—shoes stuck in the mud, dropped belongings, patches of blood. But of the migrants... nothing. No bodies, no survivors. Just... gone.” He lets out a heavy sigh, rubbing his forehead as if to clear away the grim images.

    “Well, except one,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “We found him half-buried in the mud, unconscious but alive.”

    “Who?” I ask, my voice steady despite the churning in my stomach.

    “Enrique Sálazar,” Martínez replies, dripping with disdain. “He’s been on our radar for a while. Coyote, drug muling, you name it. If it’s illegal, he’s dipped his fingers in it at some point.”

    I lean forward, my interest piqued. "Where is he now?"

    "In our holding area," Martínez replies. "He's shaken up—bad. Keeps saying things that don't make a lick of sense. We figured he was high, or maybe in shock."

    Audrey and I exchange a look. "Can you take us to him?" she asks.

    "Sure, I guess," Martínez agrees, standing up. “Come with me.”

    He leads us out of the command tent and toward a smaller, more secure area where they're holding Sálazar.

    As we approach the secure holding area, a battered old trailer encased in high barbed wire, the muffled sound of shouting grows louder. Even through the thick metal walls, Sálazar’s voice carries a distinct note of hysteria.

    “Madre de los silencios, reina del destino… A tus pies depósito, mi temor más genuino…” (Mother of silences, queen of destiny… At your feet, I lay my most genuine fear…) His words echo in the night.

    "He's been at it for hours," Martínez grumbles.

    As we draw closer, a young agent steps away from the trailer, his face lined with exhaustion. He straightens up as he spots Martínez, casting a wary glance at us as we approach.

    "Agent Ortega here," Martínez introduces him with a nod. "He found Mr. Sálazar half-buried in muck and babbling nonsense."

    Ortega nods in acknowledgement, his eyes flicking towards the noisy trailer.

    "Whatever he's seen, it’s got him scared shitless. Nothing he says makes any sense."

    We pause at the door, the metallic clang of the trailer echoing slightly in the still night air. Ortega unlocks the door, pushing it open with a creak. The inside of the trailer is dimly lit, the only light coming from a harsh fluorescent bulb that flickers intermittently.

    Sálazar is cuffed to a bench at the far end of the trailer, his clothes muddy and disheveled. His eyes are wide, darting around in panic, and as the door opens, he recoils as if expecting an attack.

    The network of tattoos crawling up his arms and neck stands out, the intricate designs unmistakable in the dim light. The most prominent among them is the black scorpion that marks him as a member of the infamous Tijuana Drug Cartel.

    Martínez, unfazed by the man's disheveled state, addresses him with a firm tone. "Hey, Salazar, there are detectives here to talk to you.”

    Sálazar doesn’t seem to register our presence at first, his gaze fixed on something only he can see. After a moment, he slowly turns his head towards us, his eyes narrowing as he tries to focus.

    “Dulce ángel de muerte, escucha mi plegaria…” (Sweet Angel of Death, hear my prayer…), he mutters to himself.

    Martínez shrugs, standing back as Audrey and I move closer to Sálazar. The stench of mud and sweat is palpable as we approach the cuffed man. He’s still mumbling under his breath, his voice a mix of panic and delirium.

    I step forward, keeping my voice even, “Mr. Sálazr, I'm Detective Castillo and this is my partner, Detective Dawson. We need to understand what happened. Can you tell us what you saw?”

    Sálazar's eyes flit between Audrey and me, his breathing erratic.

    "It was the devil, ese," he begins, his voice dropping to a whisper as if the very memory scared him. "A shadow that ate light, man. It moved through them like smoke through a chain-link fence."

    Audrey leans in, her voice soft but insistent. "Enrique, we need you to focus. What did you see out there? Was it a person? An animal?"

    Sálazar shakes his head vigorously, his face contorted with fear as he glances around the cramped trailer as if expecting the walls to close in on him. "No, no, it wasn’t no person. It wasn't an animal. It was wrong, todo mal," he stammers, the words tumbling out in a frantic rush.

    “It had…” He pauses, his eyes widening. "... una cara rota.”

    “A broken face?” Audrey asks, kneeling down to his level.

    "Yeah, like it was shattered, cracked all over, but still moving, breathing, watching." His hands tremble as he makes a motion in the air, mimicking something fragmenting apart. "It looked at me, man, and I felt it in my soul…”

    "Can you describe how it moved, or what it did to the others?" I ask, trying to guide him back to specifics.

    "It moved like fog, like mist," Sálazar continues, his voice dropping to almost a whisper. "It didn't walk. It... floated, man. And wherever it passed, people screamed, fell down, didn't get up. I ran, I ran so fast..." His voice breaks, and he looks down, the haunted expression etched deep in his face.

    "Look, detectives, with all due respect, I don't buy this supernatural mumble jumble," Martinez speaks up, his voice a low rumble. "It's more likely cartel activity. The Sinaloa Cartel’s been known to take migrants hostage, use 'em for smuggling or worse. And him? He's been neck-deep in that world. Shithead is just playing us."

    Audrey's expression remains impassive, but her green eyes are sharp, taking in every detail. "So, you think the cartel is dressing up their actions with... what? Legends? Superstitions?"

    "It's not the first time," Martínez admits with a shrug. "Fear is a powerful tool. Make people afraid of ghosts or curses, and they won't look too close at what's really happening."

    "Commander, can you give us a moment alone with the suspect?" I ask, my voice calm but authoritative.

    Martínez catches the hint, his eyebrows lifting slightly. "Right. I’ll give you some space." He makes a show of checking his watch. "I need to check in with the command post anyway. Holler if you need anything."

    As he steps out, the metal door clanging shut behind him, the trailer feels even more confined.

    I lock eyes with Audrey, and without a word, we both understand the gravity of the situation—desperate times call for desperate measures. We need to pry information from Sálazar quickly.

    Sálazar's eyes widen in fear as I grip him by the shoulders and slam him against the wall. His face hits the metal with a dull thud, and a trickle of blood seeps from his nose, staining his dirt-caked shirt. He gasps, the panic palpable.

    I lean in, my voice cold and calculating. “Mira, pendejo, what do you think would happen if we shipped you to RJD and locked your ass in a cell full of Sinoloas?"

    “Detective Castillo here," Audrey gestures to me, "was undercover with the Sinaloa Cartel for over a year. He's seen things that would turn your blood cold. Things that make your little devil story sound like a bedtime fairy tale."

    I pull out my pocket knife, flipping it open with a swift, practiced motion. The metallic click sounds unnaturally loud in the cramped space. I lean in close, the cold steel just grazing the stubble on Sálazar's neck.

    "See, cabrón, the Federation, they like to make examples out of rival cartel members," I growl, my voice low and menacing. "They got this little trick called el corte de corbata (the necktie cut). You know what that is?”

    I draw the tip of the knife lightly across his skin, just enough to draw a bead of blood.

    “Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, que tus huesos sean la fortaleza de mi alma…” (Our Lady of Holy Death, may your bones be the fortress of my soul), Salazar whimpers a prayer.

    I pantomime with the knife, tracing a line down his neck. "They cut your throat open, from here," I say, dragging the tip of the blade slowly downward, "all the way down to here." I gesture towards his sternum, my movements deliberate and chilling.

    "And then," I add, my voice cold and matter-of-fact, "they pull your tongue out through the slit. You'll feel it tearing through your flesh, the taste of your own blood choking you as you struggle to breathe."

    "We can do this the easy way, where you tell us everything you know, and maybe—just maybe—you get some kind of protection. Or…” Audrey chimes in.

    “... you get a brand new tie,” I say, pressing the blade slightly, just enough for him to feel its bite.

    "It spoke to me," Salazar mumbles, his voice barely audible. “Not with words but... it's like it whispered directly into my mind. It said, 'Sigue el rastro de las estrellas caídas hasta la niña dormida…'" (Follow the trail of the fallen stars to the sleeping child.)

    "The fallen stars?" Audrey presses.

    Salazar clutches at his shirt, his fingers trembling. "He said: ‘Dulces, dulces,’" he mutters repeatedly, the single word spilling out between labored breaths.

    "Dulces?" I echo. "Like candy? What's that supposed to mean?"

    He doesn't seem to hear her, or chooses not to respond. His gaze is distant, unfocused, as if he's seeing something beyond the grimy walls of the trailer.

    "Dulces, dulces," he continues, the word becoming a mantra, obsessive and relentless. I let out a heavy high, realizing we're not going to get anything substantial out of him. I ease my grip entirely, stepping back.

    "We're done here," I say, my tone dismissive, yet internally, I'm filing away every word.

    Audrey nods, and we step out of the trailer, letting the heavy metal door slam shut behind us. The cold night air hits us, and the sound of the ocean mixes with the rustling of the marsh grass.

    Martínez is waiting for us, his silhouette outlined by the dim lights of the command post. "Anything useful?" he asks.

    "Maybe," I reply, keeping my cards close. “We need to see the crime scene.”

    The drive to the site is tense and silent, the SUV's headlights slicing through the thick fog like twin blades. The landscape around us feels alien, the marshy ground and twisted trees casting eerie shadows.

    When we arrive, the scene is exactly as Martínez described: chaos personified. The ground is churned up, littered with abandoned belongings and deeper grooves that suggest a struggle. The fog hangs heavy, muffling sounds and giving the whole area a claustrophobic feel.

    The area feels haunted by the terror that transpired, the silence almost oppressive under the weight of unknown horrors. Audrey and I begin a meticulous search of the site, our flashlights piercing the fog, casting long shadows on the marshy ground. Every rustle in the underbrush has us tensing, half-expecting whatever caused the chaos to reappear.

    I start from where the video last showed the migrants, moving slowly, searching for any clues that might have been overlooked in the initial panic. Audrey takes the western flank, her steps deliberate, eyes scanning the mud for tracks or signs of disturbance.

    It's clear this was the epicenter of the panic. Shoes—children's, women's, a single man's boot—are half-buried in the mud. I pick up a small, worn-out teddy bear, its eyes missing, and wonder about the child who held it last. The personal items are scattered as if their owners dropped everything in a desperate bid to flee from whatever horror pursued them.

    "Anything?" I call out after a few minutes, my voice low, wary of disturbing the dense fog that seems to swallow sound.

    "Nothing yet," she replies, her tone just as tense. We keep searching, the sense of urgency mounting as the minutes stretch into an hour.

    I pause when I catch a glint of something metallic among the dense reeds—a flash of silver that doesn't belong in the muck. Crouching down, I brush aside the wet vegetation and find a small, silver locket. The clasp is delicate, caked with mud but still functional. I pop it open, revealing the photograph of a young girl, no more than thirteen or fourteen, her smile frozen in time within the confines of the locket.

    Scanning the ground, I notice more metallic objects scattered around—a key chain, a pair of battered dog tags, a twisted fork, a small brass bell, a couple tarnished coins, and a metal whistle—all lying within a few feet of each other. It’s as if they’ve been deliberately placed to draw the eye, the gleaming metal stark against the dark earth.

    "Hey, Dawson, look at this," I call over my shoulder. She’s not far, her silhouette ghostly in the shifting fog. She jogs over, her boots sucking at the mud with each step.

    Audrey kneels beside me, her flashlight sweeping over the scene. “Look at how they’re laid out,” she murmurs, tracing the air with her finger. The items seem to form a pattern, each one pointing to the next, culminating in a rough shape.

    "It's the Big Dipper," she whispers, a tone of disbelief in her voice. "See? The handle here, and the bowl there."

    I look again, squinting through the fog and the dim light of our flashlights, and it clicks. She's right. The arrangement of the items—a seemingly random assortment of personal belongings—is a deliberate depiction of the constellation. My mind races back to Salazar's frenzied babbling about the "trail of the fallen stars to the sleeping child." It couldn't be a coincidence.

    "I remember learning about the Big Dipper in the Girl Scouts," Audrey murmur. "We used it to find Polaris—the North Star. It was like a game back then, using the stars to find our way back to camp…" Her voice trails off.

    With a renewed sense of purpose, she starts tracing the items making up the makeshift constellation laid out in the marshy ground. “The fork and dog tags are pointer stars.”

    Catching on to her intent, I follow her hand as she draws an imaginary line from the Pointers through the fog, trying to pinpoint where the North Star should be in our earthly re-creation.

    I signal the others with a sharp whistle, the sound cutting through the damp air like a knife. Martinez and the other agents converge on our position. Their silhouettes loom out of the fog, each one appearing as if materialized from the mist itself.

    "Form up," I command in a low voice, not wanting to disrupt the eerie silence more than necessary. "We've got a lead”

    “Might be walking into a trap though," Martinez warns, drawing his sidearm. We form a tight formation, moving with our weapons drawn, our senses heightened. Audrey’s beside me, her P320 at the ready, her eyes darting through the mist.

    Martínez flanks us, his Glock aimed low, his breathing controlled but audible in the eerie silence. The rest of his team fan out behind us, forming a loose perimeter. The fog thickens as we proceed, each step forward feeling more like a descent into another, less tangible world. Visibility shrinks to mere feet; the world beyond our tightly formed group blurs into indistinct shapes and muffled sounds. The air grows colder, clinging to my skin with damp fingers.

    Suddenly, a putrid smell slices through the moist air. It's a stench that clings to the inside of your throat, acrid and unmistakable. Audrey wrinkles her nose, her expression one of disgust mixed with alarm. "That smell…" she murmurs, her voice barely a whisper over the soft murmur of the fog.

    “Burning flesh…” I nod, swallowing hard against the bile rising in my throat. The smell brings back unwelcome memories of other, darker places.

    The smell intensifies, the burning scent so overpowering now that our eyes begin to water. We push forward, though every instinct screams at us to turn back.

    Martínez holds up a hand, signaling us to stop. We freeze, the only sounds are our heavy breathing and the distant, faint lapping of waves against the shore. He points to a barely visible light ahead—not strong, but enough to pierce through the fog slightly. "There," he hisses under his breath.

    The ground underfoot becomes firmer, the marsh giving way to dry, cracked earth that crunches beneath our boots. The sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh intensifies. I’m the first to see her—a small figure propped up against an old, gnarled tree. Her position is unnatural, arranged meticulously. As we draw closer, the horrific details come into sharp focus. It's a child, a young girl.

    Her face is painted to resemble a skull, stark white with hollow black circles around sunken eyes and dark, exaggerated lines stretching down her cheeks—mimicking the visage of Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint of death. Her small form is dressed in tattered robes that flutter slightly with the breeze.

    Her head is adorned with a crown of thorny roses, the sharp thorns piercing her brow, causing crimson rivulets that resemble tears of blood to trickle down her face.

    Her chest is open with surgically precise cuts, revealing a hollow cavity where her heart should be. Inside, a small flame burns, the fire somehow contained, only charring the flesh around the edges of the wound, casting eerie shadows on her pale skin.

    Audrey gasps, her hand going to her mouth, her eyes wide with horror. "Jesus, it's her," she murmurs, her voice breaking. It takes me a moment to understand, then I see it—the girl from the locket.

    “Fuck!” Martínez swears under his breath, his face set in a grim line as he radios for backup. "We need CSI here, now," he barks into the handset, his voice rough with anger and something akin to fear.

    The commander barks orders to his team, setting up a secure perimeter around the girl. The area is marked with evidence flags, each flutter of the small, bright squares a stark contrast to the somber surroundings.

    Audrey and I begin documenting everything with meticulous detail, our cameras clicking in the otherwise oppressive silence.

    As we inspect the body, it becomes disturbingly clear that there are signs of cannibalism. Bite marks, unmistakably human, mar the girl’s limbs, the flesh torn away in some places to reveal bone underneath.

    Around the child’s form, the ground is littered with what appear to be votive items—candles still flickering weakly, a set of rosary beads, and oddly, a single cell phone lying a few feet from her body. It’s an older model Nokia, probably a burner.

    I pull on a pair of latex gloves with a snap and carefully pick up the device, ensuring not to smudge any prints that might be on it.

    I examine the battered old cell phone. The screen is cracked and smudged with grime, but it flickers to life under my touch, asking for a six-digit pass code. I pause, staring at the prompt.

    I thumb the power button, cycling through the flickering options, and freeze when I remember Salazar's manic repetition of the word 'dulces,' the single word hauntingly echoing in my mind.

    I think about how letters correspond to numbers on a phone keypad, much like the old 1-800 commercial numbers. It's a long shot, but given the lack of immediate leads, it's the only one we have. I begin to match the letters to numbers, typing them out tentatively. D(3), U(8), L(5), C(2), E(3), S(7).

    I hold my breath, half-expecting it to be wrong. But then, the phone unlocks. I stare at the unlocked screen, my heart hammering in my chest. The dim light of the phone casts ghostly shadows across my fingers as I navigate through the cluttered interface.

    Amidst the jumble of apps and icons, a single video file stands out, labeled simply "Último Mensaje" (Last Message). I tap on it, and the video begins to play.

    Martinez, Audrey, and the rest of the team huddle closer, their breath visible in the chilly night air.

    The footage is grainy, the colors washed out, but the image is unmistakable. It's the same girl we just found, only now she's alive, her eyes wide with a terror that chills me to the bone.

    She's dressed in the Santa Muerte costume, seated on a wooden chair in a dimly lit room.

    She glances off-camera nervously, as if awaiting a cue or fearing a reprimand, before her eyes return to focus on the camera. Her hands tremble slightly as she holds up a piece of worn paper, reading from it in a shaky voice.

    "Mi nombre... mi nombre es Lucía Álvarez. Tengo catorce años y soy de Zamora, Michoacán," (My name... my name is Lucia Alvarez. I am fourteen years old, and I am from Zamora, Michoacan,) she begins, her voice a whisper.

    She swallows hard, her eyes darting off-camera again before continuing, "Tengo un mensaje del Dispersador de Cenizas para aquellos que han visto la muerte de cerca pero han sobrevivido.” (I have a message from the Scatterer of Ashes to the ones who have seen death closely but survived.)

    "Dice que deben seguir estas instrucciones exactamente como los describo," (He says… he says you must follow these instructions exactly as I describe them,) she reads, her eyes scanning the paper.

    Lucía's voice grows even more tremulous as she reads from the crumpled sheet, each word spoken with reluctant precision.

    "Paso uno: Vayan a la vieja capilla de San Pedro, en las afueras de Calexico. Allí, encontrarán una cruz invertida enterrada en el desván." (Step one: Go to the old chapel of San Pedro, on the outskirts of Calexico. There, you will find an inverted cross buried in the attic.)

    Audrey pulls out a pen and notepad, jotting down each word with meticulous care. Her hand moves swiftly, ensuring nothing is missed.

    "Paso dos: Enciendan una vela negra al pie de la cruz y reciten el Salmo 23 al revés." (Step two: Light a black candle at the foot of the cross and recite Psalm 23 backwards.)

    "Paso tres: Traigan la tierra de la tumba de un asesinado y esparzanla en un círculo alrededor de la cruz." (Step three: Bring soil from the grave of a murdered person and scatter it in a circle around the cross.)

    "Paso cuatro: Ofrezcan sangre de tres animales distintos—un cuervo, un perro y un caballo—en el mismo lugar." (Step four: Offer the blood of three different animals—a crow, a dog, and a horse—at the same place.)

    "Paso cinco: Esperen hasta la medianoche y luego quemen una efigie del Señor del Inframundo mientras todos los presentes pronuncian su nombre tres veces." (Step five: Wait until midnight and then burn an effigy of the Lord of the Underworld while all present chant his name three times.)

    Lucía’s eyes brim with tears as she concludes, "Esto debe hacerse antes de la próxima luna nueva para aplacar al que cosecha almas." (This must be done before the next new moon to appease the one who harvests souls.)

    "Si no cumplen con exactitud," she adds, her voice breaking, "más como yo morirán." (If you do not comply exactly, more like me will die.)

    Lucía's eyes widen with a dawning realization of her fate. She glances off-camera again, her voice trembling as she implores her captor, "Por favor, hice lo que pediste. ¡No quiero morir!” (Please, I did what you asked. I don’t want to die!)

    Her plea is desperate, raw with the terror of a girl who knows she is speaking her last words.

    Tears stream down her face, smudging the white paint and dark lines, transforming her death mask into a tragic, melting visage. Her small frame trembles with sobs, and she clutches at the paper, crumpling it in her hands. The desperation in her eyes is unbearable.

    The screen goes black suddenly, the abruptness of it like a door slamming shut, leaving only the hollow echo of Lucia's screams in the otherwise silent predawn. The cries taper off, dwindling into a stifled whimper that chokes off mid-breath, leaving a chilling silence in its wake.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/29
    15:40 UTC

    2

    The Trojaborg Labyrinths

    He suddenly came towards me in the dirty tunnel that leads to the subway, up the stairs from the mall, dressed in Adidas and a puffy duvet jacket. His breath steamed in the cold. A woman stumbled next to him, in broken high heels. They looked like they were in a hurry, to get away from someone or something. Destroyed faces, but not because of age or starvation, they looked young and healthy. 

    He should’ve been at least twenty years older now, I told myself it couldn’t be him and looked away without knowing if the man had seen me or not.

    His face, as I remember it, spoke of his past addictions. No traces of serious violence, but at the same time deformed as after a fight. The proportions seemed wrong. Symmetrical, but swollen. I saw the tattoo on his neck, on the left side facing me, the outline of an animal head. Kåres' tattoo was red, this man's tattoo shimmered in purple. It could’ve been a bruise. A milky haze surrounded them, except for the man’s white sneakers that shined sharp against the gray concrete. It looked like they were living on that thin line between partying and homelessness. I was sure he was dead.

    When they’d passed by, a sour smell of adrenaline hovered in the air. I stood there, in my own thoughts, long after I’d missed my train, looking down at my blurry hands, as a whole inner world of sadness and trauma started to open. I wanted to think that I had buried what happened that summer somewhere deep, deep down, where it had been crushed by the weights of new, better memories. But the man with the tattoo dug it all up again. I looked at my own hands and felt I was going into dissociation. Right there and then, I promised myself to write about it. 

    I met Kåre in the late summer, my first summer without Dad. I lived alone in our apartment on the Red Line towards Norsborg. When I think back to that summer, I see the broken living room clock before me. It stopped working long before when Dad was still alive, but it reminded me that something had stopped in me too.

    Summer was happening somewhere out there, slipped in through the cracks in my closed blinds, it felt like time was rushing by without ever touching me. I went out sometimes, sure. To the mall with some friends, to the park or the empty schoolyard. We climbed up the fire escape ladder and carved swear words into the brick wall.

    One day in the beginning of August we drove down south, me, Eli and Sindra. I remember how we cranked down the windows and it was claustrophobically hot. Eli put on a playlist called Happy Hardcore. Songs with frequencies as high as the summer sky.

    I leaned out the window. Pine trees, red cottages, and wheat fields smeared together by the speed. When I saw the landscape dance past me I remembered Dad’s crosses. He took me out in the woods. Pointed out pits, hills and ditches and said they were graves, fireplaces and traps. Dead shapes, waiting for the right time to wake up. 

    Dad was a janitor, but he dreamt of becoming an archeologist. He leant scientific books and read them to me like bedtime stories, instructions about how pendulums and squares can be used as instruments to find ancient monuments.

    He believed in earth radiation; the theory that lines make out a checkered pattern around Earth. The past generations knew a lot of things about this radiation. Old amphitheaters and cairns are strategically placed around ethereal force fields. Where the lines cross each other in X:es, a swirling energy arises, whose original purpose was lost a long time ago. Sometimes, when we were out in the woods and came to a particular glade or grove, he’d lift me up and put me down in the middle of one of those crosses. I stood completely still, barely breathing while he measured with a pendulum to see if the earth’s radiation made my aura bigger or smaller. Dad was so proud of my aura.

    I reached out the window and felt the shape of my hand in the wind.

    We stopped at a pizza place. Eli and Sindra had to go get gas, so I went in by myself. When I stood in line for the bathroom, that’s when I saw the horse head. It looked down at me from the wall, with bulging eyes made out of glass. I wondered why they used it as decoration. It looked bizarre and sinister, in every way unbearable.

    When the bathroom was available I quickly ran inside and locked the door. I leaned against it, and tried to focus on my breathing, like Dad had taught me. Where the mirror should’ve been, someone had written "horror vacui” with a black marker. ”Fear of the void”. 

    I washed my wrists with cold water. The water took the uneasy feeling with it in a swirl down the drain. When I felt better I went out to Eli and Sindra, who were already in the car.

    We drove on. The evening came. One of those blue, late summer evenings when the light deepens and the air cools down. The road narrowed down. I got nauseous, it felt like we were moving inwards, in a curve. We parked on the road and I looked up at the stars. I pointed out little bear, but they didn’t care. They were trying to locate the music in the woods. I didn’t really feel like they wanted me there, so I kept my distance. After a while the ground thinned out into sand and the smell of pine trees mixed with sea salt. I saw lights glimmer where the trees opened up to the ocean. Some people were dancing, others were just squeezing through. Eli and Sindra stood further down the beach, next to a fire. They tried to be cool but they looked so tense. I remember how obvious it looked, how they were flickering just like the flames. I turned around and walked into the woods again.

    I found a hill that looked good to sit at, and that’s where I met him. Kåre.

    I remember the hill was covered in strangely shimmering moss. When I turned around he looked at me with small pupils through the haze. The tattoo on his neck, some kind of animal head, so red I thought it was a wound at first. It looked like a children’s drawing, or back in the day when they used to stuff animals without knowing what they looked like, so they just made something up. I pushed away the memory of the horse head in the restaurant, and instead, I thought about that embroidery, the one in Dad’s office. I was scared of it as a child, I never wanted to go in that room alone. I wondered what had happened to it, did I still have it? Grandma made it for him, isn’t that what he said? I looked at the tattoo again and shivered, it had the same, bulging eyes.

    Kåre smiled at me, and I looked down at the hill, speckled with moss. It grew in spirals, I’d never noticed that before, that moss curves, turn after turn, like a swirling paisley pattern. Kåre put something in my hand. It was a green pill, and one side was pressed with a symbol, looking almost like a human gut. 

    “That’s a trojaborg”, I said surprised. “The symbol, it’s a labyrinth. They actually exist, near the coast, by mountains and the ocean, like here.” I looked up at him.

    I used to worry about my high-pitched voice, it sounded like I was always trying to get attention, but now I just sounded rough, like someone else was speaking through me. “Some people think it’s a Christian thing”, I said, “because they think that they put the stones in the middle down first like a cross and then built the paths after that. But it’s not a cross, it’s just an intersection with two lines. The cult surrounding labyrinths is way older than Christianity. We had labyrinths in Scandinavia before, long, long before, when the ocean was like a highway up here…”

    Kåre lit two cigarettes and gave me one. I smoked with him and started to feel euphoric. It felt so good to speak without restrictions, to put together things I must’ve heard once, like Dad always did. 

    “There are labyrinths in marble floors and on wooden doors of old houses. The symbol became a Christian thing, but it was used in old rituals long before that. Sometimes they call it the ‘virgin dance’, and that sounds like a ritual to me. They sacrificed things, too. Think of it as, like, a dance.” I did a little swirl. “Some people think the word trojaborg comes from the word ‘troj’, which means twisting. Rotation. Spinning something around and around and around…”

    Kåre dropped his cigarette and stepped on it, leaned down and looked at something metallic. He had a thin mustache that didn’t match his boy-like body. I didn’t know if he was listening, but I kept talking. “Labyrinths exist in every culture, or at least stories about them”, I continued, “they’re a symbol for the uterus and death at the same time, a spiral towards the ethereal.”

    I didn’t feel any shame, I just wanted to keep talking.

    “Some trojaborg’s are built at places named after bears. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but bears symbolize resurrection ‘cause they sleep all winter but wake up again in the spring. The Saamis bury dead bears sometimes. The farmers pushed the collectors and hunters away but they never stopped sacrificing, they came back. They always do.”

    I closed my eyes and leaned against the stone. The woods were full of sounds, music and someone's high-pitched, rough voice. When I opened my eyes I saw a red Bengal light down by the water. I looked at it for a while, before continuing. 

    “People are still superstitious, to this day. When fishermen were going out to sea and didn’t want any bad luck, they ran through the trojaborg before they left. When they’d reached the middle they ran straight out, without following the paths. They thought the bad luck would get stuck in there. Absorbed by the force.” 

    Kåre stroked my arm with his fingertips. I breathed out, felt a tingling warmth in my chest, and I didn’t say anything else for a while.

    “What did you say about horse cemeteries?” he asked when the sun was starting to rise, and I saw that what was lying on the ground was small pieces of aluminum foil.

    “You mean bear cemeteries?” He nodded.

    “They are often found near the trojanborg’s, some think they were built with stones from old ruins. Graves from people that lived by the shore and hunted seals and whales. Those who came here first, and hunted in the moonshine.” I looked up at the stars that were starting to fade.

    “The labyrinth was a manifestation of the sun cult and later Christianity, a definitive way to shut them out. But I don’t think…”

    “What do you think, then?” He smiled. I didn’t know what to say. I remembered what Dad said. About certain places that generate darkness. Places that make things move around them, wander in cycles. He always told me to watch out for the intersections, the crosses. We’re drawn to them, attracted by the invisible forces, but we have to watch out.

    “If you’ve made sacrifices at the same place for over a thousand years, I don’t think you’ll leave it in the first place. It takes a lot... ”

    I tried to look Kåre in the eyes, but he was busy picking up foil from the moss-covered rocks and putting it in a zip bag. 

    “I don’t believe in coincidences”, I said, “maybe there was something, like something in the ground that made people seek those places out...  And seek them out over and over again.”

    We stood up and walked down the hill, side by side, into the haze of people dancing and screaming.

    The sound of laughter, an exaggerated, broken laughter, woke me up. I was lying in the backseat with my throbbing head in Kåre’s lap. He tried to speak over the music, almost screaming, I remember hearing him say something about how he couldn’t stand up straight anymore. Because it was so strong now, so fucking strong. 

    I couldn’t see Eli or Sindra, the guys sitting in the front seat were complete strangers to me. 

    The broken laughter-guy interrupted Kåre. “Hahaha! You fucking freak! You fucking hippie!”

    The other one, the one driving, asked for coordinates. Kåre answered: “That place has no price. You just gotta have something she wants. You have to deliver.”

    “Deliver what? What does it cost?” the other one asked skeptically.

    Kåre sighed. “Do you know what ‘the left-hand path’ is?”

    A silence, before that repulsive, broken laughter exploded again. “Hahaha! You fucking weirdo! You fucking psycho!”

    “Didn’t think you’d know anyways”, Kåre said.

    The car stopped at a road barrier and we got out, squinting in the bright sunshine. I’d never met them before, and they both looked much older than me, a few years older than Kåre. We climbed over the barrier and started walking down a path. It seemed to lead us nowhere, until the woods opened up and revealed a red little house. Kåre went around the house to the front door and pulled out a key. 

    Broken laughter-guy said: “But like, I don’t believe in that kind of stuff! The fucking hocus pocus shit!”

    I stepped onto the porch and found myself just standing there, looking at an old dartboard. It reminded me of something. It was speckled with marks from the arrows but also some darker spots, so scuffed you couldn’t make out the lines between the different scores.

    My thoughts were interrupted by sounds coming from the other side of the house. It sounded like something falling and breaking, like the deafening sound of iron pipes rolling down concrete stairs and Kåre screamed: “For fucks sake!”

    I looked down at the cracks in the wooden deck and fell into a melancholic state. Thoughts of summer evenings here with people that have been dead for many years, or maybe are sitting alone at a retirement home somewhere with nothing but memories left. Fantasies blending in with my own summer memories, and stories my Dad used to tell me. Summers with his Mom, things that might’ve been just dreams, or someone else’s memory, I don’t know whose.

    A chair with broken legs was standing in front of the house. I poked at it with my foot, it wobbled a bit, and in a swaying, slowdown of time, I remembered. I was completely sure. I’d been here before.

    Kåre had finally managed to open the door. He smiled at me from inside the house, through the window. It was dark in there, but I could see stacks of books and piles of electronic devices, TV:s and stereos. Leaning against the walls and exploding out of the drawers. 

    Kåre gave something in a Coop bag to the broken laughter-guy and they shared a squarelike hug. I observed them through the window. I could see their lips moving, but I had no idea what they were saying to each other. They looked over at me with a big grin, before they disappeared out of my vision and I could hear the front door opening, and eventually, the car driving off.

    I followed Kåre into the woods, down towards the sea. We took our shoes off and ran barefoot through the sand. The sea was quite big, surrounded by compact trees reflecting in the black, shining water. We waded towards a cliff. This was the ocean two thousand years ago, I thought to myself as I climbed the big stone. We took our shirts off and layed down, close to each other. 

    “It’s really weird”, I said after a while, “I feel like I’ve been here before. On this cliff, and in the house too. I feel like that sometimes, like I should remember something, but I just can’t.” The sunlight was blinding me, I squinted at him. “I was brought up in a way that make you different.”

    “Make you different”, he mimicked, but I ignored him.

    “It was just me and my Dad, we didn’t have anything else. He never told me anything about his own childhood. He blamed it on his bad memory, but I never believed him. Maybe you inherit it, the pushing things away, the suppression.” I leaned back on the warm stone. “I’ve always felt rootless.”

    “Me too”, Kåre mumbled.

    “How did you find this place, do you know people here or something?” I tried to seem unbothered, didn't want to dig up something dark in him.

    “I leant it from an old lady, she lives in the woods now.”

    The heat from the sun beamed at my spine, but I still shivered. He rummaged in his backpack and pulled out a Coca-Cola. I drank so fast I choked, but it didn’t taste of anything at all, just a hint of rust.

    “There’s something in the woods I think you’d like to see”, he whispered and stroked my hair.

    We stuffed his backpack full of beer and cigarettes. I borrowed a fleece jacket that smelled of gasoline. Kåre had a coat with dark stains all over the chest. When he leaned against the wall and rolled a spliff, as I kneeled in his shadow to tie my shoes, we looked like a bad sign, an omen, two outgrowns on the same darkness. I remember feeling like we were directed towards a swirling hatred.

    Kåre kicked rocks as we walked down the road. The sun was still shining bright, coloring the clouds. We reached a field surrounded by small, timbered cottages. It seemed abandoned and forgotten, but as if something was kept awake there.

    Kåre and I were the only things visible in the dark windows. I asked him about the old lady he leant the house from. Who was she?

    He kicked away a big stone. “Do you really want to know?” he asked.

    I thought about it for a while, not really knowing why I wanted to know, or even what I was doing here with Kåre in the first place. But there was something about him, something about the way he distracted me from everything else.

    “I usually don’t experience this”, I mumbled, “I usually remember, but when you were in the house and I waited for you on the porch, I just knew I’d been there before. Maybe I’ll remember more if you tell me about her?”

    “Sure”, he said, “if you want to remember. She used to slaughter the small animals on the porch. That says a lot about her, I guess. She found it practical. I helped her clean it up afterwards…”

    “Wait, what do you mean, slaughter the small animals on the porch? What does that mean?” I tried to look him in the eyes, but he looked away.

    “She’d slaughter the big ones by the sea.” The way he said it made it sound neutral, like he couldn’t care less about the animals.

    We walked into the woods again, towards the mountains. The dried moss crunched under our feet. It became softer at places, and the ground gave away. Rocks, pine trees and moss repeated themselves in a landscape without landmarks.

    When I slipped and fell I found myself just lying on the ground for a while. The woods were still now, and the only thing I heard was a faint rumble from far away, maybe it was the highway that sounded just as lonely as the sea. I closed my eyes, the tiredness made me feel soft. When I tried to stand up again the world flickered before my eyes and I had to lean against a tree. 

    In my memories, that’s when I heard the scream. It sounded like an animal, or any creature dying a painful death. It made me completely lose my perception of reality. I couldn’t breathe, like after getting punched hard in the stomach and I had to sit down again. When I tried to locate where the sound came from, it disappeared. 

    I stood up and felt the weight of something hard and cold in my hand, a stone. I must’ve picked it up from the ground, but I couldn’t remember doing so. Shaken by adrenaline, I started running in the direction I saw Kåre disappear in. I caught up with him. He stopped and stood with his back turned towards me. 

    “Did you hear that?” I looked into the woods. “It sounded like an animal”, I continued. “A big animal… It sounded sick, so fucking sick. You heard it, right?”

    I pulled my hand through my hair and crushed a bug that I smeared on my jacket, disgusted by the texture. He didn’t answer. He looked at something, something I couldn’t see. The realization that I was in the middle of nowhere with a crazy stranger suddenly struck me.

    “We have to go back. It’s getting dark.” I tried to raise my voice but I sounded like a pathetic little girl. 

    He didn’t answer, instead, he kneeled down, leaning forward, his hands intertwined behind his neck, rocking back and forth. His ears looked so small. It looked like he was crying, something shiny over his cheeks.

    I lightly put my hand on his shoulder and stroked down his arm. He grabbed my wrist, as fast as lightning. I screamed and tried to break free, but tripped and fell backward. 

    That made him relax. He leaned over me in the dark woods like he was about to say something, but I’ll never know what it was. I struck the stone as hard as I could and hit his temple, a dull sound echoed through the woods. He stumbled back with his hands around his head, and I stood up and started to run. 

    It felt easy, even though I was running uphill, every step felt irresistible like something was pulling me forward. Soft shadows grew out of the gaps in the rocks, trees and stone blended together. I remember seeing a pine tree that stood bent with its crown growing down towards the earth instead of up towards the sky. A tree that grows like that speaks of something so wrong, something so sick, and twisted out of itself. And I can't say why I continued running in that direction. 

    I kept on running up until the ground hardened and the woods thinned out. Some light birch trees circled a glade next to an uphill mountain. It was like stepping into a room, separated from the hungry rocks and dark pine trees. The ground was covered with small, yellow flowers, almost shining in the dark. 

    I started regaining feeling in my legs again. I breathed in hoarse gasps and my eyes flickered in every direction. The direction felt crucial, but at the same time it felt like the choice wasn’t mine, there was something else, something beyond.

    I started climbing, in a desperate neither one of them, straight up the cliff. I climbed in small jumps and bent tree roots. The higher I climbed, the more targeted I felt. I tasted blood in my mouth. On the inside of my eyelids I could see Kåre standing down in the glade, picking up stones and throwing them at me. I imagined him grabbing my foot to try and pull me down, tearing at me like an animal. It was only when I’d reached the top of the mountain that I dared to turn around. 

    Space howered deep blue over the trees. The glade was empty, but down there I thought I could see the shining flowers like small, yellow eyes staring up at me where I stood, swaying on the edge.

    I turned around. A cold, bare mountain plateau opened up in front of me. My gaze was immediately drawn to an uneven circle further ahead. It took a while for my eyes to adjust and it started taking form, swirl after swirl, curling like a snake. The trojaborg. 

    Dad would’ve thought it was magnificent, with stones as big as human heads in the cross towards the center. In the dark, the proportions felt bigger and the paths cleaner than in the ones he’d shown me as a kid. Shadows fell over the entrance. I squinted, it looked like something was laying there.

    A rush of dark euphoria made my eyes water and my mouth stretch out in a big smile. I had found it myself, stumbled upon it in the middle of the woods, it had chosen me. I straightened my back and took a couple of steps towards the labyrinth, but when I saw my long shadow I realized how visible I was, standing alone on the big, empty cliff. The rush became fear and I started moving backwards instead, very carefully. 

    The place radiated a static tension. Just to be there felt wrong, like an act of violence in every step I took. When I reached the edge of the plateau a strong, nauseating smell made me freeze in a violent body memory. We were out in the woods one autumn, me and Dad, when it started to smell just like that, intestines and death, the smell of a ripped animal. We heard dogs barking, I froze in shock and Dad had to carry me back to the car. But now there weren’t any dogs, just the wind.

    I looked at the trojaborg. The dark and shapeless shadow in the entrance had grown and now appeared sharper. I slowly moved closer, pulled in against my will. I saw what it was just a few meters away, when it was already too late, too late to back down. It was a horse, or what once was a horse. It still radiated body heat. A bulging eye stared up at the sky. 

    Dizzy with feelings of dissociation, I just stood there, unable to look away. Its belly was ripped. Intestines spilling out against my white sneakers. A few meters away, in between the trees, something coil-shaped with an unborn’s unfinished features in a coat of mucus and blood. I felt my disgust turning into panic, like when a phobia turns psychotic and violates reality.

    I looked down the cliff. If I tried to climb down in the dark, I’d likely break my legs or my neck. I considered following the plateau into the woods on the other side, but I knew I couldn’t go further into the woods. Something or someone out there was capable of ripping a pregnant mare open. 

    My thoughts were interrupted by a melodic sound, like the echo of distant voices. I crawled backwards up against a rock and imagined a group of people or someone talking to themselves, or maybe calling for a dog. The sound came from the woods on the other side of the cliff. I pressed myself against the rock and crawled into a cave under it. All of my focus was turned towards the trees, I listened out into the silence and tried to make out the sound again. My fear wanted to confirm it, decode it as something with a natural explanation, but every time I thought it would come back I was met by silence. The hope that it could have been voices slowly faded away.

    I lied there, frozen for I don’t know how long, just listening to the silence. I started to relax and my thoughts began to wander. I thought of Eli and Sindra, and the life that went on parallel to this. I saw them in front of me, bored, waiting for the night bus or just for something to happen. They had probably forgotten about me, or in which case they wouldn’t miss me. 

    My legs were numb and tingling. I suddenly couldn’t focus on anything else and decided to try and climb down the cliff after all. I carefully began crawling out of the cave, when I was almost out I heard the sound again, more distinctly this time. I could no longer dismiss it as imagination. Instead, I told myself it must be an animal, some kind of bird, a capercaillie or a grouse. As it came closer, the thoughts of an animal became more and more difficult to visualize. I heard guttural, sharp syllables, long hisses, sounds expressing wills and desires. I stared at the unbroken line of trees as if pure willpower could hold them back. A painful silence followed, as I tried to breath as quietly as possible. My breathing ceased completely when a shadow moved behind the trees and began to crawl over the cliff.

    It slowly came closer, a gnarly and skinny figure, something uneven and powerful about its movements told me it could be moving much faster if it stood up straight. At first, I thought it was heading right towards me, but it stopped at the lifeless horse. Paralyzed, I watched as it lifted its head, breathing heavily as if sniffing for something. It turned its head towards me without its body moving, a faint soaring rose in my ears. The moon was shining through a crack in the clouds, and its eyes were reflecting the light - predator eyes, narrow rips of lust. 

    I pressed my back against the stone until I was shaking. The realization that it was her felt purely physical and had no name. The long hair covered her face in stripes. Mere disgust filled me as she kneeled over the horse's body and pressed herself against the open stomach. She lifted her bloody smile up towards the moon and in a chopping rhythm she began to thrust out what now sounded like a hymn, words with monotone, slashing syllables. Her words grew stronger, it felt like she was singing, like she was calling out for someone. The song reminded me of gale, it came from deep within and carried sorrow, but it wasn’t pure. 

    I tried to convince myself she couldn’t see me. I pushed as far into the cave as possible and imagined I became part of the stone. But I couldn't shut it out, the sound of steps coming closer, branches breaking. More voices, echoing between the trees out there, answering her. They came from the other side, wandering up the hill, towards the trojaborg, moving out on the stone plateau in a spider-like walk. Sounds and movements in a restrained ecstacy. They looked like mirror reflections of her, her friends, her sisters. They were connected by something more than the song, a coordinated motion. I widened my eyes and stared out into the darkness. Their naked skin gleamed like wax in the moonshine when they stretched their arms out and pulled, pulled on a rope.

    At the end of the rope, a shape. I heard the whimpering of a broken vocal cord, the remains of a scream, Kåre’s scream. In an increasing rhythm, they pulled him towards the labyrinth. And with the logic of a nightmare, I suddenly understood what was about to happen, as if I had experienced it before. 

    They forced him into the horse's body. His voice drowned inside the animal. She laced with something shiny and sharp, an iron wire. Threaded it through the skin and started sewing it together. She trapped him inside the horse's belly. The sound of their song grew louder and louder as Kåre’s voice started to fade. I layed on my stomach with my face against the ground and tried to find the words, when all I could hear was their voices intertwining with something stronger, darker, even more evil than themselves.

    I tried to tell myself it wasn’t Kåre, it couldn’t be him buried inside of the horse. I tried to think this wasn't actually happening, but my body was aching and the taste of vomit in my mouth was real. My eyes slowly closed and I faded into a slumber where everything was too late and happened too far away from me. In a way I already knew it when we walked through the woods, it pulled at me, the power beyond us, she wasn’t a stranger. The hymn, we’d sung it. I slowly began to mumble their song, I couldn’t keep it at arm's length anymore. 

    I was halfway out of my body when the stone started to tremble. A powerful wave as if after a thunder strike came from inside the mountain, drowning their voices in a roar. It suffocated all other sounds from the woods. Their song slowed down and turned into screams as they fled in between the trees, leaving nothing but an echo behind. I was hidden in a cave and over there in the trojaborg inside the horse's body, was Kåre. 

    Everything went quiet. I thought I’d lost my hearing, that the sound wave had punctured my eardrums. I got up on my elbows and started crawling out of the cave. The second wave was longer and stronger than the first one. It came from deep within the mountain, the vibrations rushed like thunder in my ears, like stone being crushed against stone. I managed to get out at the last moment, if I’d hesitated it would've crushed me.

    My last memory of the trojaborg is something I’ve tried to re-evaluate in my head, I’ve tried to make it something else, but the same images always come back to me. I’d crawled to the edge of the cliff and was just about to let go when I turned around. I looked towards the labyrinth, I saw the horse so clearly, it rose on its front legs and opened its eyes.

    I let go of the edge and just slipped down, my hands gripping after tree roots and rocks. The moss was wet and slippery but also soft and it catched me when I fell. When I ran through the forest in the darkness it felt like I was shining and pulsating from the fear leaving my body. I finally got to the highway when the sun was starting to rise and followed the road down south, wading through the soaked meadowsweet that grew in the ditches, the smell vapid, stunning me. The sight of a dead fox forced me up on the road. Eventually, a truck stopped and picked me up. I have no other memories of how I got home. I just know I reached my apartment when the sun was starting to set again. 

    When the door closed behind me and I had locked it, a calmness filled me. For the first time in a couple of days, I was completely alone, out of sight of everyone. Inside the silence I heard familiar sounds, the buzzing of my fridge and someone walking around in the apartment above me. The blinds were down and most of my things were already packed in moving boxes stacked up in the living room.

    I felt like hugging myself. I went to the bathroom and kneeled down in the shower. Dirt and moss ran off of me and swirled down the drain. I sat there, long after the water had turned cold. 

    A shirt in my closet still smelled of Dad. I put it on and layed down in my bed, stared at the ceiling and took in what was left of him. I searched for a pattern but all I saw was the animal head, Kåre’s tattoo flickering in front of me. He must’ve known about the amazing force in the trojaborg, it dazzled him. He’d seen the ritual before, she’d shown him, and invited him. He’d seen the dead rise up from the ground and he wanted to use the force selfishly. I pushed the thoughts of him away and turned my questions inwards. I tried to follow a memory far back, a summer on a train, on my way with Dad. On my way home, that’s how I remembered it, but home where? Home to who? The memory split ways and led nowhere.

    I had no doubts that I was Kåre’s intended victim. When we were in the car on our way from the party and I lied with my head in his lap, he said something about left-handed magic. I assumed it was just a superficial hobby, maybe he even knew less than I did. 

    Deep inside of me, I've always known that life requires sacrifice. Sacrifices turns your desires into actions and push deep into the webs of relations, so deep the chaos has to part ways. But a sacrifice is only a maybe, you abandon all rights to feel remorse. Kåre didn’t understand the basic principle of a sacrifice, that a sacrifice is no longer yours when it involves a strong force. My thoughts moved in spirals and drove me into a shallow sleep.

    I woke up cold and sweaty, searching in my memory after someone to tell all this to. Dad's armchair was still standing in front of his desk. I crawled up in it and explored what Dad had left behind. In the top drawer I found his phone book. I started flipping the pages, page up and page down, filled with Dad's handwriting. My gaze lingered on crossed out and circled names.

    A couple of pages stuck together as if someone had spilled something on them and I had to carefully pry them open. A photograph fell into my lap. I picked it up with a growing feeling of anxiety. “At mothers. Summer -79” it said on the back. Reluctantly, I turned the photo around.

    The house looked newly painted and the chairs had cushions with a floral pattern, and there on the chair under the dart board I sat with my legs dangling, next to grandma. I don’t remember ever meeting her, to me she was nothing more than a story my dad used to tell me. She was sitting in such an unnatural way. Her long hair covering her face, I couldn’t make out if I saw her from behind or from the front, as if the photo had been double-exposed. I think she smiled at the camera. 

    I stood up from the armchair and rushed out on the balcony. Feeling protected by the darkness, I found myself just standing there for a while, trying to calm my breathing, looking down at the shadows of my backyard. Who took that photo, was it Dad? Had we been there together, with her, at her house? A light turned on in the house opposite to me. I pushed myself against the wall so I wouldn’t be seen.

    In the living room stood a moving box filled with Dad's books, neatly packed up to the edge. I was overcome with a sense of abandonment and began tearing out the books. One by one I read the titles before tossing them in a pile on the floor. My outburst didn't last long, pretty soon I collapsed into a powerless fetal position. I continued to go through the last ones at the bottom of the box but it took a long time, I started flipping through the books and got sidetracked. I opened a booklet with the title "The Goddess in the Labyrinth" and looked through the text. Mostly stuff I already knew, words that Dad underlined with a pencil, and nothing about left-handed magic.

    The box was empty and I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. I was about to get up when I noticed an old envelope stuck to the side of the box. I picked it up and brought it closer to the light from the window. On the back was our address, the old address. I turned the envelope over, "To my little Jackie, Christmas -81" it said in red ink. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, it wasn’t my father's, even though the envelope and its contents were dedicated to me. I examined it carefully. The envelope was torn open but the contents appeared to be intact. I picked out something that looked like a folded handkerchief. With a faint hum in my ears, I unfolded the fabric until it layed fully spread out on the floor in front of me. It wasn't an embroidery, I remembered it wrong, it was some kind of stitching representing an animal head. I understood why I never dared to enter that room alone, the eyes were bleeding holes. Above it, someone had sewed sharp letters like on a tapestry:

    Twist a man swollen sore

    Twist him with animals roar

    Twist his heart, twist his lungs

    Twist his words in his tounge

    Twist a man in his horse

    Twist screaming animal force

    I will twist the iron wire

    Until you tears of blood cry

    I didn't stay in the apartment that night. I moved out that autumn and moved into a collective in Vårberg. I gave my Dad’s things to charity. I still wake up from that dream. In the dream I stay, without trying to escape. The mountain rumbles and shakes as if thunder is coming from within it.

    I crawl out of my hiding place behind the rock. The darkness does not come from the woods or the night sky, it comes from the trojaborg. Pours out of it in a swirl, counterclockwise, toward the horse's body in the opening. The horse stands up. The darkness beams through it as it throws its head back in a scream. It opens its eyes and the darkness swirls out of them straight at me. I feel the blood crush my veins as the earth stops and starts spinning in the other direction.

    1 Comment
    2024/05/29
    13:09 UTC

    1

    [HR] Shades

    0 Comments
    2024/05/29
    06:45 UTC

    6

    Down the Mine Shaft

    Sweat dripped down Don Carmichel’s face, the sweltering air stank of sulfur. His ankle twisted in in the opposite direction, bits of bone were poking through his dungarees. He dragged himself toward the entrance, gravel cut into his hands. Sharp pain agonized his every move, the torn muscle in his leg screamed. He crawled toward door, he only to get out and seal the exit. It was supposed to have been a simple plan, but simple plans don’t succeed in the face of the enemy.

    Donald Carmicheal was a private investigator just outside of Baltimore Maryland. He had grown tired of spying on unfaithful couples and answered an add in the hills of Pennsylvania. B&N Mining were in search of a good spy to infiltrate their workers. Whispers of a Union traveled and the mining company had no tolerance for a strike. The country was still reeling from the Battle of Blair Mountain a few years prior.

    Don agreed to the assignment and began to work as a miner. The hours were long and hard in the dark coal mines. He would cough up black soot every night and his body ached. He overheard the fellow workers talk about being paid poorly and in company scrip. They would go to work injured because they couldn’t afford a doctor and most of them looked half starved. Don didn’t blame them for wanting better pay and it was hard for him not to take thier side, but he was hired to do a job for B&N. 

    The workers spoke of a rally lead by Stanly Collins, a member of the United Mine Workers. Stanly traveled and began unions in various mining towns around Pennslyvania and West Virginia. His voice was loud and charismatic, and within him the worn faces of the workers found hope . 

     Don reported this to the Higher Ups, and they assigned the private investigator with finding any dirt on Stanly. The man was clean, didn’t drink, didn’t so much as smoke, went to church and doted on his ten year old son. There was no talk of a wife, so Don figured the man was a widower. 

     The higher ups thought about killing Stanley in an accident, but that would make him a martyr and the workers would strike to spite B&N. No, they needed to create a distraction for Mr. Collins, a way to stop him in his tracks. Mr. Collins had a ten year old son, Caleb, that son was their advantage. 

     They asked Don to catch him and hide him in a mine shaft until . It would only be for a couple of days, and the boy would be unhurt. All he had to do was keep an eye on him, after Mr. Collins agreed to call off the strike his boy would be returned back to him unharmed, it was as simple as that. 

    The prospect didn’t sit well with Don, but who was he to argue with the Higher Ups, he’d seen how they handled defiance before. Getting fired and evicted would be the least of his problems if he were to disobey. 

    The Higher Ups told Stanly’s son Caleb worked as hurrier for the mine. He would load coal carts and help push them through narrow passages that grown men were too big to fit through. Caleb would report the horrible conditions back to his Papaw and his Papaw would run his mouth to the UMW. It wouldn’t be hard to find Caleb after a shift and catch him. 

    Don walked on over to where the hurriers worked, the shaft was so short that he had to walk bent over. He jumped as a mine cart sideswiped him, the small brat pushing it yelled out “ watch where you’re going mister.” Don didn’t pay him no mind, the whelp would grow bow legged and stooped, succumbing to black lung like the rest of his unwashed brethren.

    Don was saving Caleb from a life of servitude. Even if he followed in his father’s footsteps and organized unions, how much better could the bowls of the earth be? There’d always be hard work and heavy coal, no union would change that. 

    He found Caleb with a group of other boys. Soot covering his face, only white sleeveless shirt and dungarees. A boy his age should be fishing or playing in the woods , not digging in no mine shaft. His father’s hypocrisy knew no bounds when it came to getting his agenda across. If Stanly Collins cared about his son, he would be in school, along with all the other children. 

    Don walked up to the boy and kneeled to his level. “Are you Caleb Collins?”

    “Yes Sir,” said the boy. His voice sounded tired and older than his years. 

    “I have some bad news, you’re daddy has been hurt awful bad, and I need you to come with me.”

    Instead of looking surprised, Caleb stared at him with deep black eyes. The stare made Don’s blood turn cold. 

    “It’s urgent, he…uh… he needs you now,” Don managed to stutter out, his tongue had turned to clay.

    “Yes Sir,” was all the boy said.

    Don’s stomach dropped in that moment and he almost reconsidered his plan. He took a deep breath. Donald Carmicheal wasn’t terrified of no ten year old. He was going to take him somewhere deep in the mine and hold him until his daddy agreed to negotiate with the Higher Ups.

    As he led the boy deeper down the mine shaft Don’s uneasiness grew. He thought about quitting, telling boy the truth and letting him go back to work, hell, letting the boy leave the mine all together. But the higher ups would put his head on a pike if he even considered this to be an option. 

    “Where are ya taken me?” asked Caleb. His voice had gone flatter and his whole eyes had turned solid black for a second.

    “It… It’s just a little further down the mine shaft, son.”

    “I ain’t your son! My daddy works on the upper levels, why ain’t you bringing me there?”

    “Y…You’re father was on a special project with us, please it’s just a little further-”

    “No he ain’t , the owner’s of this here mine would never let him in on a higher project.”

    “D... don’t make this hard for me, boy.”

    “You have no idea who I am, do you sir?”

    Don turned around and once again, Caleb’s eyes went coal black. Inky tendrils of shadow formed and went up the walls of the mine. Stone cracked and crumbled around them. The boy’s skin cracked and peeled into oozing sores as he crept towards him. 

    “What in hell are you?” Don began to run up the mineshaft, but the inky coils formed on the rocks around him, forming fissures and cracks. The air turned hot and stank of sulfur as the mine began to crumble underneath them.

    “I think you already know.” Caleb’s voice turned flat and was so deep it made Don nauseous and uneasy. It was old scratch himself, coming to collect on his soul. He should have sided with Stanly and the miners. He could have found an assignment with the UMW and helped turn the situation on thier side. Helped them organize a strike so it gave them doctors and schools but now it was too little too late. 

    Caleb followed him , his tendrils grasping for Don through the stone. The child’s skin flaked off as oily tentacles grabbed at Don. The workers panicked and ran out toward the exit, causing a jam at the door, their screams echoing in the chamber the stone began to crumble.

    “Let them go, this is between us, they don’t need to suffer, what would you’re daddy think-”

    “My daddy? You mean my host.” With that the monster’s tendrils went out through the staircase, toppling it and the crowd to the depths below. As they screamed in terror a boulder fell smashing in on Don’s ankle. Waves of excruciating pain went through his body causing him to vomit. The smell of sulfur and half digested fried chicken was too much for him to bear, his lungs tightened for air. The staircase was gone, but a narrow path that led toward the exit, cool breeze exited the doorway, giving him a ray of hope. 

    Caleb slammed down blocking his exit. Inky, oily tendrils snaked around Don’s body and squeezed tight, the veins in Caleb’s forehead grew larger as Don’s life force leached away. His body weakened as his eyes closed for the final time. Half the workers managed to make it out alive, Stanly among them. Cries echoed from the outside as the mine collapsed in on itself. 

    In the weeks following the mine collapse, the B&N mine company negotiated with the United Mine Workers for a fair deal. Stanlhy Collins and his son Caleb quit the mining business and settled into the nearby village of Junction Maryland, where Stanly was elected sheriff. He was thankful to be one of the few that made it out of the mine alive. 

    Though he was unsure where his son came from, he never remembered ever having a wife. Whenever he thought to question the boy, he looked at him with solid black eyes, and Stanly always forgot the question. It was all well and fine , they would make peace in this small town. 

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    2024/05/28
    00:38 UTC

    4

    DOWN BY THE WATER

    DOWN BY THE WATER BY AL BRUNO III

    And now the storm has left the beach deserted, and the ocean crashes and roars against the surf. I am alone and covered with blood. Standing on the slowly retreating waterline, I watch for the first signs of sunrise. I'm waiting. I've been waiting so long.

    But Ophelia said she'd be here.

    She promised.

    *

    It had taken four hours of driving to reach Cape Cod. It was me, my mother and father, and my brother Leon, who was a year and a half older than me, the darling daughter. Ordinarily, my father celebrated his son's victories with men-only trips to New York City or Lake George. But since his beloved all-star was heading off to college in the fall, he decided it would be a family affair.

    No matter how much I'd tried to weasel out of it, father still made me go. It wasn't because they were worried about me getting into some kind of trouble; it was simply an unspoken rule in the Sweet family that I never got what I wanted.

    An hour into the trip, Leon started ragging on me, making snide remarks about my grades, my waistline, and my therapist, then waving his scholarship under my nose. I ignored it for as long as I could, but my Walkman's batteries died as we passed through Sturbridge, Massachusetts, so I decided that would be the perfect time to bring up his DUI. All Hell broke loose in the car; it got so bad that we had to pull over so my father could tell me in no uncertain terms that I was seventeen and I needed to grow up and get my head on straight.

    As always, mother tried to be the peacemaker and failed miserably.

    The rest of the car ride was icily quiet, except for the music on the radio, but father started to perk up as he got closer to the cabin. He was so proud of the deal he'd gotten.

    We turned left on a street called Patti Page Way onto a long dirt driveway. Once we reached the cabin, we understood it hadn't been a deal at all; it had been a robbery. The outside of the cabin was a wreck, with peeling paint, a sagging porch, and a crooked hanging bench. Tiles were missing from the red roof, and the windows were cracked and covered in grime.

    It looked like it should have been condemned, not rented out. My mother and I said we should double back and find a hotel, but my father, of course, would have none of it. "It's already paid for! Non-refundable! You're not even giving it a chance. Let's look inside."

    The inside of the cabin wasn't nearly as bad, but it was obvious it hadn't been cleaned in a while. There was a layer of dust on the worn-out furniture, and cobwebs adorned the corners of the room. My mother went to the bedrooms to check for bedbugs or worse and returned with a nod of reluctant approval.

    "See?" my father said, "It's not so bad, and besides, after you girls clean it up a little..."

    "Us girls?" I dropped my bags on the floor. "I thought this was a family vacation."

    Leon rolled his eyes, and my father looked ready to turn purple. mother tried to get in the middle, "What she meant was that we didn't come all this way just-"

    "Oh, I know what she meant all right." My father looked right over mother and glared at me. I could feel the 'I work all day speech' coming.

    He said, ”I work all day so you and your Goddamn mother can have nice things, and all you give me is grief."

    "It's not fair," I said.

    "Honey, maybe if we worked together..." mother began, but she stopped talking when my father's glare turned her way.

    With that, Leon and my father announced they were going to the store to get pizza and beer. But of course, my father couldn't leave without one last barb at me, "Besides, a little work might help you slim down a little."

    Leon laughed. ”You hear that Chubbs?”

    Face contorted with rage, I stormed out of that rat-hole cabin, shouting, "That's not my name!" If anyone called out after me, I didn't hear. I ran to the beach, determined not to let them see me cry.

    I'd never seen the ocean, except for movies and TV.  It was huge, stretching across the horizon. Looking at it made me feel small, but I didn't mind. My science teacher had told me that the oceans were the first things the Earth created. They would probably be the last things to go.There were big ugly seagulls everywhere and tiny, nervous-looking birds that divided most of their time between sifting in the mud and running in terror at the slightest motion. Small shells cracked under my feet. Slipping off my shoes, I waded into the surf, feeling the waves brushing against and around my legs.

    As I waded through the water, I saw my reflection. For as long as I can remember, I've despised what I saw staring back at me. My weight, the constant burden I carried, distorted my image, making me appear older than my years. I had battled with it for as long as I could remember, dieting on and off since I was eight years old, yet nothing seemed to make a difference. Two years ago, someone mistook me for Leon's mother, and that was the moment I mostly gave up trying to change. Still, despite my aversion, I could not look away as I watched how the ripples in the water pulled me apart and pieced me back together again.

    It was like I was hypnotized. I walked along the water's edge, not glancing up until distant voices startled me. That's when I realized it was twilight, and the ocean had turned a bruised purple color.

    When I got back to the cabin, I found my mother nearly in tears, "Where were you? We were worried sick! We almost called the police."

    "I'm sorry," I said.

    Leon and my father were sitting at the rickety table, a plate of chicken bones in front of each of them. My father stood up and approached me. His breath was sour, and there were shreds of chicken in his teeth. "Are you trying to ruin this vacation?"

    "Look, I just-"

    "You're miserable and ungrateful, and I won't stand for it," He poked me in the chest, just hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave a mark, "You are gonna shape up and fly right? Do you hear me?"

    Leon rolled his eyes, "Oh, like she'll ever get in shape."

    mother hushed him but let my father continue his performance. He said, "I didn't bring you up here so you could screw around and do whatever you want to do! We are here to vacation as a family!"

    "I'm..." the words stung my mouth, "I'm sorry."

    He smiled with satisfaction and gestured to the table, "I didn't like the looks of the pizza place, so we got some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I got you a large meal."

    He turned to go outside and have a smoke, Leon tagged along after him. mother busied herself cleaning up while I ate all the food my father had brought, hating myself with every bite.

    *

    Despite being warned we were going on a deep-sea fishing trip, no one was ready for my father shouting and bullying us all awake more than an hour before sunrise. My mother was barely awake, but he was already ordering her and me to make breakfast. I didn't mind helping, but I did mind that Leon didn't have to lift a finger.

    One sloppily made breakfast later, we were in the car making our way to the marina. Leon was in the front seat listening to my father's stories about the deep sea fishing expeditions he had gone on as a single man in the Navy. My mother’s gaze shifted down to her lap when he said those had been the best days of his life.

    Leon asked about the ship, and my father began to explain the difference between a regular yacht and a sport fishing yacht but suddenly I realized something.

    "Dad, we have to go back," I said, "I forgot my jacket."

    "So?" He said.

    "You said it would be freezing."

    "And I said not to forget anything." he shrugged. He actually picked up speed as he maneuvered the car onto the interstate. Ten years ago, he'd told me I was his princess and he would do anything for me.

    My mother piped up, "It's not such a bother, is it? We don't want her to catch cold."

    "No."

    "That's all right," she patted my arm, "We'll just buy you a jacket when we get to the marina. They must have a gift shop around there."

    "We are not buying her a goddamn thing," my father said.

    "Good thing she's got all that blubber to protect her," Leon said in a stage whisper.

    "Ginny, Let me handle this," my father said. "Maybe she wouldn't be such a brat if she had to deal with some consequences once in a while."

    "Oh," I said, "like your son had to deal with his consequences? How much did you spend to keep him out of jail?"

    The answer was a lot. My father had moved Heaven and Earth to protect Leon and his 'promising future.' It had hurt our family financially and socially, and he had forbidden any of us to talk about it. But at moments like this, I was glad to bring it up; it felt good to remind them that the Boy Wonder had feet of clay.

    "God damn it!" He pounded his fist on the steering wheel, "Can you not be a bitch for five minutes?"

    "I don't know," My reply was lightning fast, so fast that I didn't realize the words had come from my mouth, "Can you not be a bastard?"

    The brakes squealed as my father swerved us onto the shoulder. My mother gasped, and my brother snickered; a line had been crossed, but so many lines had been crossed over the last few years. I barely cared anymore. All I could think to myself was how we used to be a family. What happened to us?

    He unbuckled himself and turned around in his seat, "You think you can talk to me like that? All this over a damn coat."

    "Yes." I said, "Over a coat!"

    "That's it." He said, and I flinched instinctively, "You're grounded."

    "Grounded?"

    We sped back to the cabin, and with every twist and turn of the wheel, my mother and brother grew more and more worried that my father was going to send us plowing into a tree or a ditch.

    Finally, we arrived back at the cabin, and my father slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Without a word, he shifted into park and turned off the engine. We all sat there in silence, waiting for his next move.

    My father turned to face me, "Get out.” He pointed towards the cabin's front door. "Go to your room and stay there until we get back."

    I started to speak, but my mother shushed me, "Just do what he says. Please don't make any more trouble."

    "We're gonna be late," Leon said.

    I sighed and stepped out of the car onto the dusty gravel driveway. My family drove away. They left me behind. The sound of their departure echoed in my ears. I trudged up to the front door, wondering if any of them had spared me a backward glance.

    When I was alone in the cabin, I did not go straight to my room; I plopped down on the couch. I had been looking forward to today; I had been so excited at the thought of being out on the ocean so far out on the ocean, that the shore would be just a memory. I had been so excited that I had forgotten my jacket. Now I could see it across the room, slung over the arm of the recliner. The sight of it made me bury my face in my hands. I stayed that way for a long time. Then I went to my temporary bedroom like a good girl and hated myself for it.

    With nothing else to do, I napped and listened to my Walkman going through every one of the Police's albums, from Outlandos d'Amour to Synchronicity.

    It was just a little while after lunch when the calls began. I answered immediately, thinking it was my parents checking up on me somehow. "Hello?"

    I heard a man’s voice ask, "Is she there?” He was weeping.
    "Who is this?" I asked.

    "Who is this?"

    "I think you have the wrong number," I said.

    “Ophelia is it you?"

    I hung up the phone with a grimace, imagining some idiot with a fake number from a bimbo who'd flashed them a polite smile at first or some fake affection at best. Better them than me. I started to go back to my room when the phone rang again. I waited for whoever was on the other line to give up. Ten rings later, I answered. "Hello?"

    "Ophelia?" They blubbered.

    "That's not my name," I said, "Please stop calling."

    "You sound like her."

    “I’m not her. I’m nobody.”

    The voice became even more desperate and pleading, "I've waited for so long."

    I put the receiver back down again.

    They called back almost instantly; this time I let the phone ring, put on my Walkman, and cranked the volume all the way up. I tried to let the music transport me to a place far away from the cabin, from that phone call, from my family. ‘Message In A Bottle’ filled my ears and I imagined myself somewhere far far away.

    But the ringing persisted. I heard it going on and on in the silence between one song and another. It made me feel uneasy with questions. Finally, inevitably, I ripped off the earphones and picked up the phone again. "Look, I told you already, you have the wrong number," I said.

    “I did everything you asked.” The voice on the other end of the line trembled, “I’ve been waiting for so long."

    "Please." I pleaded, “stop bothering me."

    "I need to see you." He said, "I'm coming to see you now."

    "You don't even know-"

    "328 Patti Page Way." The stranger started weeping again, "Don't you remember? We walked from the cabin to the beach and held hands at the promontory."

    My stomach dropped. I quickly ended the call and retreated back to my room. After a few panicked moments, I put the chair in front of the door. How did they know where I was? I envisioned a local Romeo bewitched by a visiting Juliet. Now Juliet was long gone and Romeo was heartbroken. And where did that leave me?

    Alone and defenseless with my family miles away. I hated myself for arguing over a stupid jacket. Was it really worth it? Arguing with people who would never let me win? Why couldn't I just grin and bear it?

    The hours dragged on, each minute feeling like an eternity. I was terrified and bored; I didn't dare put my headphones back on, so I listened. Every creak and groan of the cabin seemed to taunt me. My nerves were shot as I waited for something, anything, to happen. Was the caller all talk and no action, or would some maniac break down the front door in search of his lost Ophelia?

    A dozen forevers later, I heard the family car pulling up outside. Relief made me feel weak, but I still managed to un-baracade myself from my room and meet them at the door. My family looked sunburnt and exhausted; when I hugged my father, he reeked of salt and sweat, but I didn't care one damn bit. "Looks like someone learned their lesson."

    There was a long pause before he reluctantly hugged me back. My mother entered the cabin holding up the bag of fast food she had gotten for me. When my brother passed my field of vision, he gave me a smirk
    .
    I didn’t care. I didn't argue; I just didn't want to be alone and afraid anymore.

    *

    That night, as I scarfed down my burger, I told them about the creep on the phone. My mother was horrified and said I should have called the police; my brother rolled his eyes and said I should have just left the phone off the receiver, and my father told me next time, I should grab a steak knife before I went into hiding. That night, I couldn't sleep well. The sound of the ocean was louder than usual, making me feel restless.

    The next morning my mother said she wanted us all to go to the beach as a family. My father agreed with a grunt. Leon asked if he could call his friends from a few days ago and have them meet us there. My parents were fine with that.As soon as my brother was off the phone, we grabbed our cooler, beach chairs, and towels. We walked the short distance to the shore.
    The ocean was just as beautiful before. Sunlight danced upon the waves, creating a breathtaking display of shimmering light. I wanted to stare but instead helped my family find a spot and set up our little beach camp. My brother Leon, ignoring our mother's protests that we had just arrived, went off in search of his friends. I told my parents I wanted to go for a swim, and my father told me to be careful. My mother looked me over and asked why I wasn't wearing the nice new bathing suit she had gotten for me. I didn't really want to go into the water in shorts and a T-shirt, did I?

    I explained that I was wearing the pale pink one-piece bathing suit she had bought me- under my t-shirt and shorts. That led to an argument that was as gentle as it was relentless; my mother won out, and I stripped out of my shorts and t-shirt. My father scowled at me and looked away. The salty breeze whipped at my hair, and as I waded into the cold water. Slowly, I let myself sink into the sea, allowing my body to float on its surface. The vastness of the ocean made my insecurity and anger seem insignificatant.

    Looking back to the beach, I saw Leon returning with a small group of new friends: two girls and two guys. They introduced themselves to my parents. Then they stripped out of their street clothes, revealing bathing suits beneath. One of the girls wore a swimsuit exactly like the one from the Christie Brinkley poster. My father did not look away from her. An incoming wave lifted me up and dropped me back down again. When I looked back, they were running into the surf, laughing and splashing each other."

    There was no way I wanted to share my part of the ocean with them. So I picked a direction and started to swim, my limbs moving with practiced ease. I had always been a good swimmer, but everything changed when I turned twelve and started to gain weight. Despite being an athletic kid, I began overeating in seventh grade. Our house had always been full of snacks, but suddenly, I couldn’t keep my hands off them. I don’t know what changed, but everyone else seemed to have an opinion about it and each one was worse than the last.

    Mindful of the riptides, I kept the beach to my left as I swam. I saw volleyball players, solitary people reading, women sunbathing, children playing, strangers all of them but I knew if they saw me they would snicker and make snide remarks.

    After a while, longer than I expected, my muscles began to ache, and fatigue set in. It was time to return to land and rest. Maybe I would walk back or maybe just sit on the sand for a while. In the distance, I  noticed a formation of rocks jutting out from the water's surface. It was wide enough for three people to walk along and stretched all the way back to the beach. As I swam closer, I saw it rose about five feet above the waves. The closer I got, the rougher the ocean became, pushing me towards the rocks. I struggled to maintain control, but the relentless waves made keeping my head above water difficult. Salt water filled my mouth, and I collided with the ugly crag with bruising force.

    I floated there for a few minutes, clinging to the rock formation. Finding a sturdy handhold, I began to climb, my tired muscles groaning with effort. Finally, I pushed myself up and lay flat on my back, staring at the sky and the gulls. I concentrated on nothing more than catching my breath.

    What would have happened if I had drowned? If the angry tide had smashed me against the rocks with fatal force? Would my family even care? Or would they be relieved? Would they make jokes as they searched for a  Plus-Size coffin?

    I shut my eyes tightly and kept them closed until I heard a splashing noise nearby. Then, I sat upright and let my feet dangle over the edge of the rocky outcrop. The water was further below now, and I couldn't help but wonder how much time had passed while I lay there, blind to the world.

    There was another splashing sound, and then her body broke the surface of the water below me; I hadn't seen anyone swimming there. Her hair was dark, and her face belonged on the cover of a beauty magazine. She was wearing nothing but a white blouse that was two sizes too large for her. The wet fabric revealed a body like something out of Leon's wet dreams. I wanted to grab one of the loose rocks nearby and drop it on her.

    She scaled the jagged rocks with the fluid grace of a seal emerging from the water. Our eyes met, and she flashed a smile. "I didn't see you up there.” Dark hair clung to her skin, droplets of water trailing down her face. “I hope I'm not bothering you.”

    I shrugged. "It's a free country." Then, with a hint of sarcasm, I added, "Couldn't afford a swimsuit?”

    Her smile turned playful. "I have everything I need."

    "I bet you do." The bitterness in my voice surprised me, and a twinge of guilt followed. What had she ever done to deserve that? Attempting to recover, I asked, "Uhm, do you like the beach?”

    "I love the ocean," she fiddled with the wet fabric covering her torso, pulling it away from her skin only to have it settle back into place just as translucent as before. I got a strange feeling she was doing it for my benefit. "Unknowable, Uncontrollable. And deeper than any of us could imagine."

    "That's pretty poetic."

    "You have such serious eyes," She said. "Tell me your name."

    I did. Then she moved closer, her face even with mine. Her smile became strange. She leaned in close, I thought she was going to say something, perhaps share a secret, but instead, she kissed me. Electric shocks ran through me. I felt numb. I felt sick. I felt warm all over.

    The kiss broke. "Who are you?" I breathed.

    Before she dove off the rock pier, she uttered just one word: "Ophelia." The name caught me off guard. I was still in shock from our kiss and didn't even hear the splash when she hit the water.

    Scrambling drunkenly to my feet I raced back to my parents, the hot sand of the beach burning my feet, the taste of seawater heavy in my mouth, the cool breeze wafting off the ocean making me shiver. Or maybe it was something else making me shiver. I found my family packing up; my mother asked where I had been, and my father demanded to know what I had been up to. I made an excuse about riptides and losing track of where I was, and they believed it. All the while, Leon and his friends watched me and shared conspiratorial grins. On the walk back to the cabin, the girl in the Christie Brinkley swimsuit said, "Your brother told us all about you."

    I was about to say something sarcastic when one of the guys said, “Why are you wearing lipstick?"

    That stopped me dead in my tracks. I realized the taste in my mouth that I had taken to be seawater was something else. When I touched my lips with my fingers they came back stained red. When had I bitten my lip?

    *

    A noise outside the cabin startled me awake. I went to my cracked bedroom window and peered out into the darkness. I didn’t know how late at night it was but sunrise must have been hours away. The noise was like whispering; it wasn’t just one voice but several. Yet, even as that thought occurred, uncertainty crept in—were they really voices? Somehow, I just wasn’t sure. What I was sure of was that, somehow, the sounds were familiar to me, like something out of a dream.

    I needed to know what it was. So I quickly threw on the clothes I had worn the day before and quietly made my way to the front door, careful not to wake anyone else in the cabin. There were no stars or moon, just the shadowy outline of low-hanging clouds. As I stepped onto the porch I nearly stumbled over the empty cooler that had been left behind by my parents. There was a sickening moment when I thought I was going to fall flat on my face, but I caught myself on the railing.

    The air was warm and thick. Without thinking, I stepped off the porch and began to follow the sound of the whispers that were not whispers. My steps were cautious and shuffling as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Gradually, I  realized I was making my way along the familiar path to the beach.

    The ocean was a mirror of the starless sky; I knew it was there only by the salty breeze and the rumbling crash of the waves. The sound of waves was so loud that it drowned out the whispers, but they were still there. I closed my eyes, trading one darkness for another, and tried to orient myself to the sound. I was sure it was somewhere to the east, but before I could follow it, I heard a familiar voice. It was the stranger from the phone, "Ophelia!"

    My heart began to pound in my chest; sick with fear, I spun in place, looking for him, but I might as well have had my eyes closed.

    "Ophelia!"

    A figure emerged from the blackness, the outline of a man shuffling along the shore. His shoulders were hunched. I could imagine the tears running down his face, the gaunt face looking far older than the body that carried it. “You said you’d be here,” he said, his voice fading into the sound of the ocean, “You promised.”

    Certain he believed he was alone, I began to back away slowly. I didn't dare run. With every step, I feared he would notice me and, despite my very different shape, mistake me for Ophelia. What was it I'd heard my father say to Leon? Something about every woman being the same in the dark.

    The not-quite whispers were closer now. I followed the sound until I found myself where the rocky outcropping that had nearly killed me met the beach.

    Fear and curiosity drove me to make my way along the ugly crag; water lapped at my feet, numbing them almost immediately. More, by instinct than anything else, I stopped at the edge of the outcrop. The waves were knee-level now, splashing against me relentlessly, trying to push me back. There was inky blackness all around me.

    The whispering chorus stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. Impossibily the sound of the waves also vanished and I stood there unmoving, unseeing and unhearing. It made me remember that when I was a little girl, this is what I had imagined being dead felt like.

    "I found you!" The sound of the stranger's voice jolted me. He was close behind me, a fast-approaching shadow. Panicked, I ran blindly and blundered over the side of the rock formation into the dark water.

    Cold oblivion consumed me.*

    I regained consciousness in a cave lit by unseen candles. Strange symbols adorned the walls, and the air was heavy with the scent of saltwater and decay. As my vision adjusted, I saw slender, ethereal shapes moving in the shadows, tending to something—an ugly silhouette that thrashed and gurgled.

    A familiar figure loomed over me. Wet, dark hair and sea-blue eyes filled my vision. Her hand stroked my face, gentle yet firm.
    "Ophelia," I said.

    "You've been asleep for so long." She propped my head up, bringing a clamshell to my lips. The water was salty and stung, but before I could protest, I realized I was naked. My clothes lay spread across the rock floor, slowly drying.

    Humiliated, I curled into a ball, trying to cover myself. "Don't look at me!" I whispered.

    Ophelia grabbed my wrists and pulled me into a sitting position. "You have nothing to be ashamed of." She was naked, too, her skin gleaming as though she had just left the water. "None of us do."

    My heart raced, on the verge of tears. "Where am I?"

    "Among friends." She drew me close.

    I glanced at the feminine shapes lingering in the shadows; they had drawn closer to the figure at their feet. A sound reminiscent of a fish being scaled echoed in the cave, followed by a familiar sob. It was the man from the phone.

    "Who are they?" my voice was barely above a whisper.

    "Ophelia"

    "I thought you were-” I began.

    "We are all Ophelias," she said, her expression darkening, "Born to be martyrs in men's eyes."

    I said, "I don't understand."

    Ophelia’s mouth became an angry frown, ”We can be daughters, lovers, even angels, but we can never be free from that hateful thing they pretend is love.”

    I asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

    “Why don’t you stay?”

    "You don't even know my name." I breathed, “You don’t know who I am?”

    "Do you?" She said with a kiss. She pushed me down onto my back. As her lips moved across my skin, each kiss felt like a cold drop of winter rain. Dizziness washed over me. It was like I was on an elevator that wouldn't stop going up. “Who do you want to be? Are you who others say you are?"

    Ophelia started running her nails hard across my chest and belly. I wanted to escape. I never wanted to leave. It was like she was taking me, making me hers. Blood welled up from the cuts and scrapes. She kissed the wounds she had made, one by one, her lips smearing red. The cave was filled with whispered songs that had no words. Her murmuring joined them.

    When it was over she held me close.

    “I love you,” the voice of the man from the phone said. He sounded like he was drowning, “Isn’t that enough?” He coughed twice and then fell silent.

    The candles began to go out one by one, and shadows began to swallow her, trying to snatch her away from me. I kissed her hard on the mouth, losing myself in her. In a matter of seconds, I was lost in darkness.

    *
    It was late in the morning when I awoke. I was lying flat on my back on the crag. The clouds above were a stormy purple, and the rain was coming down hard. I was soaking wet, and my clothes were plastered to my skin. I heard a familiar voice calling my name, but it wasn't one I wanted to hear. I moaned, half with exhaustion, half with anguish. My skin still ached and tingled in the places Ophelia had clawed at me.

    With trembling hands, I crawled to the ledge and looked down. The tide had gone out. Fifteen feet below me, Leon was trudging along the surf, wet and miserable, and shouting my name.

    "Leon?" I called out. For a hilarious moment, he was utterly bewildered, his square head swiveling back and forth. I called again, "Up here!”

    When he finally saw me, he started screaming, "You are in big trouble! Dad is seriously pissed!”

    "I just went for a walk.”

    "A walk? You've been gone for over a day!" Leon blundered closer until he was directly below me. I could have spit on him if I wanted to.

    I scowled down at him, remembering all the times he had disappeared for an entire weekend without a single phone call, only to return to a gentle reprimand from our father instead of a harsh scolding and a slap to the back of the head. I used one of his excuses, "I was with friends."

    The expression on his face twisted as if he were looking at something disgusting. "Delores told me she saw you here last night!"

    Bile rose up in my throat. "So what?”

    "She saw what you were doing! Are you crazy? Why can't you just be normal? What is wrong with—"

    A stone the size of a bowling ball crashed down on Leon, crushing his skull. He collapsed face down into the surf, blood clouding the seawater.

    I scrambled to my feet to find Ophelia standing near me. "You killed him," I said.

    The waves greedily pulled at Leon's body, twisting and bending it like a rag doll only to push it back up the sand again.

    I know I should have felt something, but I didn’t. “What am I going to do?’"I whispered, my voice barely audible over the pounding of the rain and the racing of my own thoughts.

    “What do you want to do?”

    "I want to be with you." The rain pelted us. It was getting cold and dark, but it didn't matter. I felt safe in her arms., "I want to be with you forever."

    "Then be with us," she said.

    "What about Leon?"

    Ophelia chuckled coldly. ”What about him?"

    "But the police will find out," I said.

    She released me and stepped to the edge of the crag, "In the deep dark," She said, "We are free from judgment."

    The downpour had become torrential. Ophelia's words caused me to gaze longingly at the ocean. Each wave crashed against the shore with a powerful roar, sending spray and mist into the air.

    She kissed my forehead.

    There were no second thoughts, no worries. I turned and started walking back to the cabin. After a few minutes, I turned back to look for Ophelia. Through the storm, I saw four hazy but unmistakably masculine figures standing by Leon's body. Moving clumsily, they lifted his limp form and carried it into the sea.

    *

    From the moment I stepped into the cabin my father started screaming at me, my mother was silent and glared reporachfully. The stinging sensation of my scratches was intensifying to the point of almost being pleasurable.

    Turning away from them, I walked calmly to the kitchenette. Their voices seemed distant as if echoing from the base of a rocky cliff during low tide. Steady-handed, I reached into the kitchen drawer and retrieved a steak knife. My father's insult rang out. "Oh, Jesus Christ! She's going to make a sandwich!"

    Ignoring him was easy. Everything he said was familiar. I waited until his temper broke, and he all but ran at me. He violently grabbed my shoulder, yanking me around to face him.

    The knife was dull, but my strength proved more than sufficient to slice open his throat. Blood splattered across both our faces. His scream was gurgling and wet, his mouth gaping like a fish. He stumbled backward, clutching at his neck, tripped over his own feet, and collapsed. I stood there, watching as my father spent the final moments of his life weeping.

    When it was over, I looked to my mother. She had been standing by watching, just like always. "Angela, please," she cowered at my approach.

    I raised the bloody knife above my head, "That's not my name."

    *

    There was enough kerosene left in the cabin's rusty heater, to start a good fire. I watched the structure burn for a little while. I felt nothing; I hadn't felt anything at all since I left Ophelia's arms. When I was finished I headed for the shore.

    And now the storm has left the beach deserted, and the ocean crashes and roars against the surf. I am alone and covered with blood. Standing on the slowly retreating waterline, I watch for the first signs of sunrise. I'm waiting. I've been waiting so long.

    But Ophelia said she'd be here.

    She promised.

    The tingling under my skin was painful. I ripped at my clothes and tore madly at the scabs. They broke open easily. The flesh beneath them was unblemished and gleaming.

    I waded out into the cold, crashing water, leaving my shirt, shorts, and long red strips of my flesh behind. In the unknowable depths, I would never be a daughter, a punchline, or a scapegoat. I would be free.

    With each footstep, the roar of the waves changed, becoming softer and prayer-like. It sounded like a chorus of voices calling out the name "Ophelia."

    Voices so very much like mine.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/28
    00:20 UTC

    2

    BLACK SHEEP

    There are those among the US hierarchy, that believe war is steadily approaching. And with tension's ever so high. They sought to find a resolution, a path towards security and stability in time's of crisis. The paranoia birthed a number projects, among them was the proposed development of enhanced individual's or "Super Soldiers" as some may call it.

    U.S. R&D and Black Ops cell, Messenger spearheaded and began work on project: BLACK SHEEP. However, because of the projects' implied nature. Messenger was redacted from main official records and given full autonomy to do, what is necessary for its projects'


    Castle Site: 073

    "Dr. Yvonne, subjects' o-one through o-ten are sedated and ready for phase two."

    "Good." said Dr. Yvonne, he looked to his left and observed multiple screens, which displayed each subjects vitals. "MATHIAS, initiate protocol Phoenix."

    "Yes sir." replied a smooth and robotic voice. "Initiating starting serum. Percentage at 10%, vitals are steady."

    Dr. Yvonne observed from a modest size screening room. The room isolated in darkness, with the only light, reflecting off the screens unto the walls on his left and right. If one were to look at the doctor himself, only a small glimpse of his face would one be able to see. He watched and while doing so, gently rubbed his chin. Beyond him he monitored ten of his restrained subjects. Humans, of both sexes that looked between their late 20s' to early 30s'.

    Each laid on a flat metal service. Arms, hands and torso restrained with metal bindings. Needles inserting into their bodies, an openly displayed orange substance entered their bodies. Followed by a light green that flowed through the tubes co. Yvonne stared at his screens, he bit the bottom left side of his lip and seemed displeased thus far.

    "INCRease to 45%. Begin rotation of serum F as well." He lightly but impatiently commanded to the artificial intelligence he called MATHIAS.

    "Main compound at 45%. Vitals are at a downward trend and regressing. Introducing serum F." commented the intelligence.

    One of the subjects began to shake violently. Yvonne seemed unsurprised by the event and continued to monitor the situation. Suddenly the door behind him slammed open.

    "STOP! STOP THE TESTING!" shouted an entering scientist. "YVONNE!" The scientist passively grabbed Dr. Yvonnes shoulder and lab coat simultaneously and forced him to turn around. Dr. Yvonne responded in force and sucker punched them in the abdomen.

    "MATHIAS. Get security here now." commanded Dr. Yvonne. The intelligence quick to responded said "On their way now, sir." Dr. Yvonne displeasing looked at his colleague who sat on their knees. The scientists held their abdomen momentarily before pushing into Dr. Yvonne and tackling them into the instrument panel. Yvonne had struck his head violently against one of the panels. He fell towards the floor. The scientist tried to take quick action and intervene. But as he prepared to stop the testing. They felt a strong sharp pain and suddenly a fierce surge of electricity spread through their body.

    "Dr. Hansen." calmly said Yvonne, as he stood up and touched his forehead. He smeared the blood from his injury on his white lab coat. "I knew one day this would happen. Despite the kind of work we have always done. These subjects made you... have made you a danger to the project. So under, Section B1-J180. You will be placed under arrest and dealt with swiftly."

    Dr. Hansen lay on the floor unable to move from the shock. Yvonne delivered a second shock, as his taser allowed an additional wave. Yvonne stared down at the seemingly shaking body of Dr. Hansen who started to drool from the intensity. Suddenly two armed men stepped into the room. They stared at Yvonne, who simply nodded them as a cue to get Dr. Hansen out. "Oh please make sure she's comfortable. After all without her contributions we wouldn't be where we are now." One of the men nodded as he grab and carried Dr. Hansen out.

    In midst of the commotion. MATHIAS had been subsequently placed on mute. Yvonne pressed the release and provided a verbal authentication. "Yes?"

    "Sir. Three subjects are deceased as of 1434 PM. Seven survive but require immediate medical attention, I recommend the pods." suggested MATHIAS.

    "Do it."

    "Already done, sir."

    Yvonne stared at the subject who survived. Please with the result but displeased by the loss of three subjects. Yvonne sighed and glared at the monitors. He raised an eye brow as he took notice of a specific change in the survivors. "Anomalous, genome." Yvonne grinned as he continued to stare at the screens.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/27
    06:57 UTC

    4

    Blade of the Fallen

    Their headlamps cut through the dim light of early morning as they pushed through the dense undergrowth, the entrance to the cave hidden from casual eyes.

    "Here it is," Akira said, his voice low with anticipation. They had chosen this route not for any particular reason beyond its unexplored depths, a new challenge for their restless curiosity. In spite of all the danger warning signs, in black and yellow at the entrance. 'Entry prohibited'. It was just a lark. They probably wouldnt go that deep. Maybe film something for their Web Serial 'Abandoned Exploration Tokyo'.

    The air grew colder as they entered, the cave's mouth swallowing them into darkness, like the damp, stench ridden breath of a dog's mouth. The walls seemed to close in around them, putridly wet and cold to the touch. Their footsteps echoed unnaturally, a constant reminder of how alone they were. Beneath the chambers of human dominion.

    Hours passed, the labyrinth of stone twisting and turning without end. As they delved deeper, a sense of unease settled over the group. A strange sense of that which isn't right. Like the smell of a corpse.

    "Do you hear that?" Yuki asked, stopping abruptly.

    A faint scratching noise echoed through the cave. They turned their lights towards it, shadows like a fire -- spread.... then the gnawing heads came into view. Shrill cries like tortured infants The light illuminating a swarm of rats scattering into the darkness.

    "Just rats," Hiroshi muttered, trying to shake off the sudden spike of fear.

    They kept on, like Orpheus, deeper and deeper into the beautiful yet morose folds of blue hades. The atmosphere became opressive. The walls seemed to breathe, the air thickening with each step. Again canine mouth, dripping water in pools, what kind of cave fish dwelt beneath the earth's surface?

    The torches flicked around illuminating at random.

    "Look at this," Kenji said, pointing to strange markings on the wall. The symbols were ancient, worn with time, barely visible in the dim light.

    "Kanji," Yuki said, tracing the characters. "But I can't make out what it says. Too eroded."

    Their whispers echoed, multiplying until it felt as if the walls themselves were speaking. A chill ran down Akira's spine, but he pushed on, driven by an unshakable need to uncover the cave's secrets.

    As they rounded another bend, a flutter of wings erupted from the darkness. A single bat, disturbed by their presence, flew past them, he must have more friends down here.

    "This place is getting to me, Mt Fuji has so many caves, God knows how many people died down here and the bodies were never found" Kenji admitted, his voice tense. "Magbe we should turn back? Feels like we're not alone."

    "It's just your imagination," Hiroshi replied, but his voice lacked conviction.

    They continued, the cave's passages narrowing, forcing them to crawl at times. The oppressive air seemed to weigh them down, each breath a struggle.

    Another hour or more deifted by, then the tunnel opened into a vast chamber, the ceiling lost in darkness. This was different to the rest of the cave, somehow man made, carven. It was earthy but decorative. But the torch light was soon to illuminate a deeper mystery.

    Flickering beams revealed a stone pedestal in the center of the chamber, and upon it, a black katana. The blade gleamed, unnaturally bright against the dull stone.

    "What the fuck is a sword doing all the way down here?" Akira wondered aloud, stepping closer.

    "Be careful," Kenji warned, his unease growing. "Something doesn't feel right."

    Akira reached out, slowly... slowly...slowly....his fingers closing around the hilt. As soon as he touched it, a wave of darkness swept through the chamber. The ground trembled, the air thick with an icy presence. There was a strange reverberation which grew, and grew, as if by moving the sword the caves foundations had given way, and now the entire framework was caving in around them.

    "Akira, let go of it!" Yuki screamed, but he seemed entranced, his eyes glazed.

    A low growl echoed through the cave, and shapes began to move in the shadows. Figures, their eyes glowing a sickly yellow, emerged from the darkness—decaying things clad in ancient armor.

    "What the fuck," Hiroshi whispered, the color draining from his face.

    The creeping things advanced slowly, their movements jerky but relentless, like reanimated corpses. Akira snapped out of his trance, dropping the katana, but the damage was done.

    "We need to get the fuck out of here," Kenji said, his voice shaking. "Now!"

    They turned to flee, but the cave seemed to conspire against them, passages closing off, the path twisting back on itself. The horrid things followed, their raspy breaths filling the air with a stench of decay.

    Hiroshi stumbled and fell. "Help me!" he cried, but the others were already too far ahead. The mauling ghouls closed in, their clawed hands reaching for him. His screams echoed through the cave, then abruptly ceased.

    "Jesus! Hiroshi! Keep moving!" Kenji shouted, his voice a lifeline in the darkness.

    They burst into another chamber, larger than the first. At its center stood a figure, tall and imposing, clad in black armor. His eyes glowed with an unholy light.

    "Who...wh...who are you?," Yuki whispered, horror in her voice.

    'Who dares disturb the slumber of the Black Shogun?' The voice rumbled in a deep groan.

    The immense soldier, was clad in some magnetic black armour, his hideous mask, tongue pointed like a demon --sent terror down their spine, like tingles in a wave of rising hairs.

    Kenji spat, pulling a flare from his pack and igniting it. The sudden light caused the hideous creatures to recoil, but the taller thing remained unmoved.

    Akira stepped forward, holding the black katana. "This is what you want, isn't it?"

    The Shogun's eyes locked onto the blade. "Want .... I dont want anything..."

    Reluctantly, Akira placed the katana at the Shogun's feet. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the giant bent to pick up his belonging, giving the gang a slim chance to dash. They knew it was seconds only they had. Seconds....

    The narrow passages seemed to close in, the air growing thicker, more oppressive.

    "Just a bit further," Kenji urged, his voice strained with desperation.

    Horror and annihilation seemed to loom over them as they clambered for the elusive light.

    Horror struck back once more. As they scrambled through a particularly narrow section, the ground beneath them gave way. They tumbled into a chasm, the darkness swallowing their screams.

    Yuki was the first to fall, her body disappearing into the void of blackness. Her final, terrified scream echoed endlessly. Kenji followed, his frantic attempts to grasp the edges futile. He vanished into the blackness, his fate sealed.

    Akira and Hiroshi clung to the jagged rocks, but their grips were slipping. The Shogun's demonic grunting echoed from above, a cold, mocking sound. Akira's hand slipped, and he plummeted, his screams mingling with the others, lost to the depths.

    Hiroshi was the last. He clung desperately, but the rocks were slick with moisture and his own sweat. As he started to lose his grip, he looked up one final time. Resigned to a dark fate. But with a horror in his soul beyond all reckoning.

    How easily can a horrific memory imprint upon the mind, like a photograph. Flash flash, and the spectre of death raises his hand. Hiroshi stared up in horror, and saw the haunting figure of the Shogun standing at the edge, his eyes glowing with malevolent glee.

    The Shogun drew his sword, the blade glinting with an unholy light, eyes burning green like hellfire. Hiroshi's last sight was the Black Shogun of Mt Fuji raising the sword in triumph, his groaning laughter ringing in Hiroshi’s ears -----as the blade cut through the flesh of his face.

    Darkness followed.

    Black water of infinity.

    And a stinging pain.

    BASED ON THE FOLLOWING IMAGE:

    https://creator.nightcafe.studio/creation/nVYSILYP5eQFS2exql3x?ru=FRWwGs0AX1UjYuQI4HZnKI9NUnN2

    0 Comments
    2024/05/27
    04:15 UTC

    37

    My name is Allison and I'm a Snuff Film Star

    No, I don’t have the source for the movies and before you ask, it's not mainstream porn you can find by just googling my name. They’re videos of me being murdered. Where would you even find those types of videos? The dark web, maybe? I don’t know. I don’t like watching myself being murdered.

    What I can tell you is, I’ve starred in over 50 movies and according to the guy who distributes them I’m the most watched and most sought-after snuff star in history, If that's even a thing.

    You’re probably wondering how one would even get into that business. Well, the short answer is by accident. You don’t wake up one day and decide you want to be murdered.

    In my case, I answered an ad looking for an amateur porn actress. I was just starting out in the business and the pay seemed reasonable. When I arrived at the location which was a house in an upmarket location, it didn’t raise any red flags. It all seemed legit until I asked to be paid upfront, and the response was, let's see how you die first. Before I knew it, I was being held down and the cameras began rolling.

    All I can say is dying is like going to sleep during surgery. It's painful at the start and scary, but when your heart starts slowing down you get a rush of euphoria and everything goes silent before the lights go out.

    I couldn’t tell if there was an afterlife. I don’t stay dead long enough to find out. It's like going to sleep without dreaming, there’s a nanosecond of darkness before you wake up again.

    You would think that a guy whose business is death would be easily scared, but when I suddenly woke up as they were loading me into a shallow grave in the woods he screamed like a little girl.

    It took some time to calm him down. You would swear it was him that was just brutally murdered with the way he reacted, but once the initial shock wore off he looked me dead in the eye (no pun intended) and said, I’m going to make you a fucking star.

    I can’t go into details on how I get snuffed out, but I can say, the money is great. More than I could ever make being in mainstream porn.

    The problem isn’t the fact that my employer is a death dealer of women. Actually, no women have been murdered apart from me of course, since I started. The problem is the reaction I'm starting to get the more my popularity grows.

    The surprising thing is, the people who notice me are the most ordinary people you could imagine. Not monsters that hide away in the shadows fantasizing about murdering women. I mean school teachers, doctors, and even young teenagers.

    The biggest shock for me was when I was sitting in a cafe and I was approached by a young dad who had his two young daughters with him. He sat staring at me while his daughters sat eating chocolate muffins. I knew why he was looking at me, even if he didn’t. As I was finishing up my latte I looked up to see him standing next to me with a strange grin on his face.

    “Do I know you from somewhere?” He suddenly asked.

    I was in my comfort clothes, a baggy t-shirt with a pair of sweatpants and the tattoo of a pentagram on my arm was on show. He began studying me to figure out how he knew me and when I was just about to speak, he noticed the tattoo on my arm. It was like a light switched on in his brain and he suddenly realized where he knew me from. His face turned deathly pale and he began to stutter a bit before he hurried himself and his daughters out of the cafe.

    I was never really worried about being noticed before, because the men that watched me expected me to be dead. I also never gave a second thought to my tattoo being the thing that gave me away. I mean how many girls out there have the same tattoo? When I got it done I was told it was a popular choice. That all changed when I got a phone call from my mother.

    My poor mother had no clue about the type of business I was in. She always thought I was into some lifestyle stuff, like a trainer to the stars or something. I think the dream was better than the reality and she always told her friends I was a successful businesswoman of some sort. Technically, she wasn’t wrong.

    All that changed when she rang me in hysterics. She could barely contain herself over the phone. “You’re alive, you’re alive, is all she kept on repeating down the phone. After I calmed her down and reassured her I was very much alive I waited until her breathing had slowed to a more relaxed state.

    “Alison, for a moment I thought I was speaking to a ghost.” My mother was always my biggest fan in life and it broke my heart to hear her this upset.

    “The police were here. Men in suits, detectives I think. They told me you were dead. Oh my sweet girl they told me you were dead. They had found blood and something about a tape or the internet. The bastards gave me a heart attack. I knew you weren’t dead.”

    That night, I went to stay with my mother. Just to reassure her that I was still physically present and to just hug her. Mainly to reassure myself that I was definitely still present in this world. Deep down, I knew what this was about. Of course, someone who wasn’t a degenerate monster was going to watch my movies and try to put a name on the woman who should be somewhere in a shallow grave. But I always thought people would think the movies were just great fakes because you can only be the star of one snuff movie, not fifty.

    A few weeks had passed and apart from my mother losing a year or two of her life things had settled down.

    I had decided to quit, it was never going to be a long-term thing, but if I was going to stop, my final movie was going to be my best. Go out with a bang I always say.

    It was the day of the shoot and on the way to the location, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was being watched. I put it down to my nerves because I was going to die in the most brutal way possible. It was going to be so bad no one was ever going to think it was faked. And the fact it was going to be the last video of me, made it sound all the more believable.

    I knew it was going to be painful, but the pain never lasted and all I was thinking was, it's going to be a spectacular death and it was. But as the euphoria swept over me and I began to slip into the darkness, I watched as men in swat gear burst into the room followed by men in suits.

    As always, I came back to life with a big gasp of air, like a baby taking its first breath after being expelled from the womb. I was expecting to be in the room where I was murdered, but this time I found myself on a cold metal slab. As I looked around what looked like an operating room I saw two men in suits. One was smiling, while the other appeared to hand over money from his wallet.

    “Hi, welcome back. I just bet my colleague fifty dollars that you would come back from the dead,” he said as he put the note into his top pocket.

    “I must say, I am a big fan of your movies. Damsel in the Dungeon is my personal favourite,” said the smartly dressed man as he smiled down at me.

    This was the first time I had ever felt in danger. A sudden panic washed over me as I tried to get up off the table.

    The two men in suits smiled at each other before handing me a hospital gown.

    “Where am I,” I asked nervously.

    “You have nothing to worry about, it's not like we are going to kill you,” said one of the men as they burst out laughing.

    The two men walked me to an interview room and sat me down at a table opposite them.

    “You still haven’t told me who you are and my reasons for being here.”

    The two men adjusted themselves into a more serious posture.

    “Sorry for the confusion. My name is Agent Harris and my colleague here is Agent Butler.”

    “I look across at the two young agents sitting across from me as their frozen expressions fixate on me.”

    “Agents? Are you F.B.I. or something,” I nervously asked.

    One of the agents gave a disgruntled laugh as if I offended him.

    “Close, we’re with the CIA.”

    “What do you want with me? I didn’t know dying was illegal.”

    The two men sat upright as one of them put a picture of a woman in front of me.

    “We need your help with a delicate situation. It’s of the utmost importance to the security of this country.”

    I looked down at the picture of a woman who looked strangely enough like me. Apart from her expensive-looking attire and different-coloured hair, we had the same facial features and we looked to be the same height.

    “The woman in the picture is the wife of the Russian minister for defense Sergei Shoigu,” said the Agent with a sound of urgency in his voice.

    “What does this have to do with me?” I asked.

    “She has a lot of secrets that could be very important to us. The problem is her husband isn’t a nice man. Fortunately for us, he treats her like a dog. So she wants a way out of the marriage, but being the man he is, he’s not going to let her go so easily.”

    “I still don’t get what this has to do with me.”

    The two agents look at each other before fixating their stares at me again.

    “Sergei is a very powerful man. Even if we got her out of the country we couldn’t guarantee her safety. The only way we could do that is if we faked her death, but it has to look convincing and that is where you come in.”

    It suddenly began to make sense. I remember a guy friend of mine who was big into conspiracy theories and would always bang on about how the moon landings were faked in a studio.

    “So would I be correct in thinking you want me to make another movie, given my special talent?”

    The two agents look at each other again, but this time with a smile.

    “She catches on quick. I’m beginning to like her already.”

    I picked up the picture again and stared at the woman looking back at me with pain in her eyes and a painted-on smile.

    “How much does this gig pay?”

    4 Comments
    2024/05/26
    23:19 UTC

    12

    The Doctor Will See You Now

    “Okay, great.” I finally put down the People Magazine and approached the front desk.

    A man sat behind a plexiglass counter and typed away on his computer. At least I think it was a man. The glass was so heavily frosted, I could only make out a flesh-colored blob.

    “Which office do I go to?”

    The blob shifted in its seat. Its voice sounded distant and muffled. “Down the hall. To your right. Room 091.”

    I did as instructed and walked down the empty hall, passing by room ‘001’.

    For the next ninety rooms I simply walked forward, admiring the cleanliness of the hallway’s design. Each office had a sliding glass door and a stylish wood paneling.

    I reached ‘091’ and went inside.

    The door automatically closed behind me.

    It was a typical doctor’s office with an examination table, some cabinets, and a poster of the human nervous system.

    I sat and waited.

    Through the glazed glass door, I saw a figure approach and knock on the glass. “Hello. I’m the doctor.”

    I almost wanted to laugh. “Uh. Yes. Hello, I’m the patient.”

    "Due to protocols, I cannot come in.”

    “Alright.”

    We’ll have to talk through this door.”

    Just like the receptionist, The doctor was nothing more than a blurry shadow. The shadow moved over and tapped on the wood paneling outside the office.

    On the inside where I sat, a slot popped out of the wall. It was a transaction drawer—the kind you might see at a gas station late at night.

    Inside was a clipboard with a survey attached.

    Please describe the symptoms you’ve been experiencing.”

    I grabbed the clipboard, filled everything out , and articulated my disorder as best as I could.

    “This is going to sound absurd, but it feels like I’ve been trapped in this doctor’s office … my whole life. Like I know I had a life before this. With a husband and family. But I don’t know when that was. Or how I got here.”

    The doctor’s silhouette stood motionless behind the glass.

    “I’ve come here yelling and panicked many times, but I’m just going to speak to you honestly now. One person to another. Please. Give me something to jar me. Some kind of upper. If you could just prescribe me an intense stimulant of any kind …”

    I put my face up flush with the glass, to get a better look at the doctor.

    “... Then maybe I could get jolted out of this … this daze or whatever this is. Please.”

    The blurry darkness nodded and scribbled something on a small pad. It was fed through the drawer.

    The paper read: Ephemodexotrol. Second cabinet. Ingest full bottle.

    For the first time, in what felt like many, many months, I had received a different instruction.

    I got goosebumps. My breath shortened.

    It took all the willpower I had to remain calm, and not show excitement.

    “Thank. You.”

    Once the doctor’s footsteps faded away (as they always did), I tore the second cabinet open and spilled everything to the ground. I found a bottle of yellow pills.

    I cradled it against my chest. Tears streamed down my face.

    Was this it? My escape?

    I opened the cap and popped half the pills into my mouth. Then I ran the sink, filled the bottle with water, and chugged the rest.

    This was either going to kill me, comatose me … or finally shock me out of this nightmare.

    I laid down on the examination table, and within seconds got the jitters. The kind you get when you’ve had four coffees too many.

    My heart beat in my eyes. My jaw became a vice grip. I could feel a tooth cracking from the pressure.

    Wake up wake up wake up!

    Claustrophobia sunk in. The walls seemed to breathe. As much as I wanted to let my brain drift off and reset. My body was twitching impatiently.

    I had to go for a run.

    Whipping the slide-door open, I bolted back down the hallway past several more rooms.

    096, 097, 098, 099 …

    The hallway opened up into a large waiting room filled with several empty chairs, a big center table, and many more copies of People Magazine.

    Would you like to book an appointment?” The blur behind the front desk asked.

    I ignored the question and kept running, past an identical hallway with one hundred more sliding glass doors.

    The banality was sickening.

    Nothing ever changed.

    I had long ago accepted that I must’ve gone insane.

    Without stopping, I ran until I burst through the new ‘091’ office in this hallway. I likewise ripped through the second cabinet. There was another bottle of yellow pills.

    Do I take the whole thing? Double the dose?

    My hands decided for me. They clawed off the cap. I swallowed the whole thing like a rabid animal, and left the tap running.

    Wake up wake up wake up!

    I ran past the remaining offices into another waiting room. An identical copy of the thousands of others I had seen. I approached the plexiglass at the front desk.

    Would you like to book an appointment?” The blob’s voice came from the bottom of a well.

    “Yes. I’d like to book a fucking appointment! I want to see my family again!”

    I slammed the glass with both fists. The blurry figure didn’t seem to care “Alright let me see. I may have an availability in a few minutes.”

    Screaming, I threw a chair at the reception. It bounced off the glass.

    I threw another. It did the same.

    Losing my shit wasn’t entirely new, but these drugs had now given me what felt like a limitless supply of energy. A nuclear reactor had grown inside.

    I overturned every chair in the waiting room. Magazines fell to my feet. Jennifer Aniston’s face stared mockingly at me. Top Ten Dresses at Cannes 2016.

    I grabbed one more chair and performed a full spin before throwing it at the reception again.

    We’ve got a spot. The doctor will see you now.”

    The chair bounced off the plexiglass, and flew back at my face.

    ***

    I awoke with wires attached to all parts of me. My eyelids felt like boulders. There was sunshine creeping into the room. It might’ve been morning.

    Mom? Is that you?”

    Is mom awake?”

    Oh my god. Is she moving?”

    Person-shaped blobs surrounded all sides of my bed.

    I waited for the blurriness to leave my sight, but after fully opening my eyes—my vision felt fine. I could count each individual slat on the venetian blinds. I could make out the thin green lines on the EKG monitor.

    Somehow it was just the people that remained blurry.

    She may not be able to talk for a while,” one of the blobs said. Their voice sounded like it was coming through a broken phone. “She was out for quite some time.”

    The other voices agreed, sounding equally muffled. Indistinguishable from each other.

    She can take all the time she needs.” The closest blob intertwined its murky limb with my fingers.

    It must have been Derek. My husband. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like years.

    Don't worry honey. We’ll take care if you.” My husband-shape said. He sounded like he was speaking through a tiny, distant phone.

    I tried to make out his hair, his cheekbones, or even his shoulders. But it's like his entire image had been distorted. Drowned at the bottom of some murky lake.

    I think I burst into tears. I can’t remember.

    ***

    Its now been several years since the incident, and my voice still hasn’t come back. I’ve posted this story to see if anyone else has had to cope with anything similar.

    I’ve since returned to my old house and found pictures of the woman I once was. She was always smiling, always grateful for those around her. That’s sadly not me anymore.

    Everyone in my life is a smeared, indiscernible shadow. Everyone’s voice has now devolved into a lost, garbled murmur. Communication is useless.

    I can’t make out words.

    I can't tell my kids apart from each other. Or their friends.

    I can't tell my husband apart from the folds of my bed.

    Each night when I go to sleep, my husband holds my hand tightly—to show that it's still him. I always appreciate it. He’s been very understanding about the situation.

    I wish I could show the same affection back. The same genuine care. But it's impossible.

    As we turn off the lights, his gaussian-blurred face always comes close to mine, and mutters something soothing in a gentle tone.

    I can never tell if my husband is trying to nuzzle me. Wink at me. Or kiss me. I never know what to say back.

    I simply squeeze his hand back and stare in his general direction, hoping that it’s towards his face.

    I can’t even see his eyes.

    0 Comments
    2024/05/24
    05:56 UTC

    2

    Makaro House

    “This is Jay, Moody, and Kai, and today we are searching for Makaro House.”

    The video was shot in shaky cam, the footage hard to watch without getting a little seasick. Officer Wiley, Detective Wiley now, had seen a lot in his time on the force, but a double homicide perpetrated by this fourteen-year-old kid in front of him was something he hoped he would never see. A double homicide, and carried out against two of his best friends, at that. The two kids in question, Marshal Moody and Kai Dillon, had been friends with Jason Weeks since elementary school, and there had never been any reports of violence or any other alarming behavior, at least none reported to the police. The boys had operated a YouTube channel, JMK Occult, for the last two years, and while their content was pretty typical for kids online, they had been uploading steadily every week since their first video about a strange deer in the North Woods around Cadderly.

    Hell, Wiley even watched their stuff sometimes when he was bored.

    People in the community knew them, and this was out of character for any of them.

    Wiley paused the video, the three boys blundering through the South Woods and chattering like a pack of squirrels, and looked at Jason.

    Jason, Jay to his friends, looked like he had aged a decade. He had a gaunt look usually reserved for soldiers who come back from war. His hair had been long and blonde for as long as anyone had known him, but the kid sitting here now was as bald as an egg and his scalp looked scoured instead of shaved. The shirt he had been wearing in the video was gone. He was still wearing the ring of it around his neck, the stretched fabric like a collar, and the jeans he wore were stained and ragged in places that looked fresh. He'd been found with no shoes or socks, but he was wearing the orange flip-flops of a jail resident now.

    Wiley knew his parents wanted to bail him out, but he wasn't sure if the judge was going to extend him bail or not, given the nature of his crime.

    The way those kids had been ripped apart was something that would haunt him for a long time.

    “So, Jason, Officer Russel tells me that someone picked you up beside the road and you told them that your friends were dead and that you had killed them. Is that true?”

    Jason nodded, not speaking a word as he continued to stare at the wall.

    The woman in question was Darla Hughes, a mother of three who had stopped when she saw a young teenage boy walking on the side of the road in the state he was currently in. Stories of kidnapping and kids held in basements for months while God knew what happened to them were clear in the public consciousness. Darla thought she had found some kid who had escaped his situation, and when she stopped to help him, she said the poor lamb had said eight words and then nothing else.

    “He said, my friends are dead, and I killed them.”

    They had found the kids in a clearing in the woods about three miles in, a site he was familiar with.

    How many times had he and his friends gone looking for the Makaro House?

    Everyone in Cadderly knew about Makaro House, and most people's childhoods had been spent looking for it. John Makaro, a prominent figure in Cadderly's history, had been a prominent importer and exporter in England. He had come to America before the Revolutionary War to try to set up a similar business here, and Cadderly had been a large enough port to satisfy his needs without being so big that a new face would be lost. He established a manor in the South Woods, despite being told that it was Indian Land, and the bill of sale did very little to dispatch the native tribe that was living there. He survived two raids by the natives somehow, but his wife and daughter were not so lucky the second time. As such, he rallied a mob of townspeople to go into the woods and help him flush out the natives who were living there. The raid took weeks, but by the end, they had killed or scattered every member of the tribe that lived there.

    Satisfied, Mr. Makaro built his lavish estates there, but strange things surrounded it from the first. Workers went missing, people reported strange lights and sounds after dark, and a shriveled figure in skins and feathers could be seen lurking after moonrise. Animals on the property acted strangely, and sometimes people found wolves or bears on the grounds. Usually, they were in a rage, but sometimes they simply fled as if they had been drawn there and weren't sure what to do now that they were. Once the house was finished, John Makaro had a hard time keeping staff. None of the hands he had hired to keep his livestock would stay more than a week, and they all refused to stay on the property after dark. His servants would likewise disappear suddenly, and none of them would stay at night besides his butler, who had been with him for years. People said that Mr. Makaro talked about hearing chanting in the house and seeing strange shadows, and when even his butler disappeared one evening, John locked the doors and stayed in the house alone for a long time. People who came to see him said he could be seen wandering the halls like a ghost, calling out for people only he could see.

    When his mansion was seen in full blaze one night, those who were first on the scene said they saw a lone man silhouetted in the flames, his feathers and skins on full display.

    He disappeared when they got close, but he had been seen by many in the years to come.

    “What did you see out there, Jason?”

    Jason continued to stare at the wall.

    “I wanna help you, kid, but you have to help yourself first.”

    He couldn't help but glance down at the kid's fingers as he left them splayed on that table like sleeping spiders. The nails were dirty, the beds crusty with something like blood, and several of them were torn and ragged. There was grime around his mouth too, and Wiley would have bet his next paycheck that it wasn't a Kool-aid ring. It looked like mud or paint, but it was probably blood.

    Jason remained silent as the grave.

    “Jason, none of us believe that you killed your friends. You,”

    “You're wrong,”

    Wiley had been fiddling with the remote, trying not to look at the kid's hands, but when he spoke, he looked up. Jason was still staring at the wall, but his head was shaking as his teeth chattered together. The kid looked like he was staring into the mouth of hell instead of the creme-colored wall of the interrogation room. Wiley almost didn't want to ask him what he had seen, but he needed to know. He needed to know how this kid had killed two other kids, one of whom was bigger than him by a head and sixty pounds.

    “Would you like to elaborate?” Wiley asked.

    He didn't think the kid would for a minute, but finally, he just reached slowly and pushed play on the remote. He kept looking at Wiley like he thought he might slap his hand, but when he let him get all the way across the table unsmacked, he relaxed a little. The video went on as they walked through the woods, joking and laughing as the woods lived their quiet existence around them.

    “We went in at eight, just after Kai's mom went to work. She wouldn't have liked us going into the South Woods, but we wanted to investigate Makaro House. We wanted to do it for our first episode, but Moody said it was something we should work up to. The Makaro House was something big, and we needed to be ready for it. Turned out we weren't.”

    On the screen, the kids kept walking through the woods, checking their compass and making their way carefully through the thick brush. They were still chattering, talking about what they might find when they got there, and whether they would find the clearing or see the mysterious mansion that people talked about sometimes. Legend said that a ghostly manor appeared in the clearing sometimes, the ghost of the house and that people who went inside were never seen again. Wiley didn't believe that, but as a kid, he had to admit that the clearing where the house had sat was spooky. All the wood had long ago rotted, the stones taken away for use in other things, but the land just felt wrong. Wiley had never been there after dark, but people claimed to hear footsteps and see things after the sun went down.

    Wiley pushed fast forward on the tape and watched as the kids plodded on and on.

    Jason wished that he could have sped through that part of the trip.

    They had set out at eight, waving to Kai's mom as she pulled out of the driveway. The packs had been pulled out of the garage after she was down the road a piece, and the three set out for the woods. They knew the rough direction of the Makaro House, but no one really came upon it in the same way. Danny Foster had said it was a three-mile walk from the forest's edge to the property, but Jamie had claimed that he and his friends had walked for what seemed like hours.

    “When we found it, though,” he said, “we found the house instead of an empty lot. We kept daring each other to go in, but we left when someone lit a fire on the grounds.”

    Jason and his friends were hoping to find the house instead of the lot, and as their walk turned into a hike, Kai stopped and looked at the compass.

    “We should have gotten there by now.”

    Moody chuckled, “Maybe we're going in the wrong direction.”

    “Can't be,” Kai protested, “The directions are to go south into the south woods for three miles. Then you'll come to the clearing where Makaro House once sat.”

    Jason didn't want to jinx it, but at the time he thought that boded well for them finding the house.

    They kept walking, Kai good for an endless stream of conversation, and as the sun began to set, Jason found he was out of breath. His tongue felt like leather as it stuck to the roof of his mouth, and the lunch they had brought had been eaten hours ago. Moody had argued that they should turn around and head back, but Jason had finally vocalized that this could mean they were going to find the house instead of an empty lot.

    He was hopeful right until they got what they wanted

    When the sun began to go down, Wiley knit his brows together.

    “I thought you and your friends were only in the woods for a few hours?”

    Jason shook his head slowly, “We were, and we weren't. The time on the camera says we walked for eight hours before I turned it off, but when I got picked up by the side of the road, it was barely noon.”

    Wiley pursed his lips, “How is that possible?”

    The video cut out, the battery in the camera having been exhausted, and Jason nodded at the screen.

    “Those batteries have a max life of three hours. Dad said it was the best battery they had when he ordered it for me, and it was pretty expensive. There's no way one of those batteries could have recorded for eight hours, but it did.”

    The recording came back on, and Wiley was shocked to see that they were standing on the lawn of an old Gothic mansion. The sun setting behind the house made a perfect backdrop for the shot, and the boys were oooing and ahhing appreciatively. None of them seemed to believe what they were seeing, the whole thing a little otherworldly, and there seemed to be some argument about who was going to approach the house first.

    “Is that,” Wiley stopped to wet his lips,” it can't be. The Makaro House burned down hundreds of years ago.”

    “But there it is,” Jason said, his eyes still fixed on the wall, “in all its glory.”

    And oh, what glory there had been in it.

    Moody had gawped at the house as he had never seen one before.

    “No way, there is no way.”

    “That's impossible,” Kai breathed, “that house burned to the ground before our father's fathers were even thought of.”

    “But there it is,” Jason said, mirroring his later statement, though he could not know it, “in all its glory.”

    As the sun set behind it, Jason thought it looked even spookier than it would at night. The mansion rose like an obelisk towards the sky, its towered roofs looking naked without flags or pinions. The boys stood at the edge, trying to shame or bluster one of the others into going there first, but in the end, Jason took the first step. The others looked surprised at his boldness, but they followed closely after, not wanting to be thought less of.

    Jason expected the house to disintegrate as he approached, an illusion or a trick of the light, but as his foot came to rest on the boards of the old house, he felt their solidity and continued to climb.

    When the doors opened for them, the broad double doors swinging jauntily on their hinges, the three boys pulled back as they prepared to run.

    The camera captured their indecision, the portal yawning wide as it waited to receive them, and Jason seemed to surprise even himself as he came forward to investigate it.

    “Jason, What if it's a trap?”

    “This whole place shouldn't exist, and if you think I'm going to pass up the chance to explore it, you're wrong."

    Jason went in, pausing just inside the doors as if waiting for them to crash shut.

    When they didn't, Moody followed him and Kai brought up the rear.

    Makaro House lived up to its Gothic exterior, the inside full of soft dark velvet and antique furniture. There was a fire burning in the hearth inside the sitting room, tables spread with books in the library, and as they came up the long hall that led towards what was undoubtedly a dining room, Jason began to smell something. It was something like a stew or maybe a roast, and the smell of meat brought them to the dining room. A long table sat in the middle, eight chairs on each side of it, and at the end sat a wrinkled old man eating soup from a bowl.

    It was hard to tell before they had gotten close, but the old man looked like he might be Native American. He was dressed in hides, feathers adorning his head and necklace, and he wore a beaded necklace with bones and claws on it. He looked up as they approached, glowering at them evenly, before returning to his meal. He ignored the boys, all three standing back apprehensively before Jason found the courage to speak.

    “Excuse me, sir. Is this your house?”

    The spoon froze on the way to his mouth, and the old man looked like he'd been slapped.

    “My house?” he asked, his voice sounding thin and whispery, “No, child, but it was paid for by my people. We paid with our blood, we paid with our lives, and in the end, the cost was high. I took some of that cost from the previous owner of this home, and now it's only me who lives here.”

    Kai made an uncomfortable noise in his throat, like a dog trying to tell its owner that something wasn't safe, and Jason understood the feeling.

    “Well, we'll leave you to it then. We didn't mean to,”

    “Leave?” the old man said, sounding amused, “oh no. No one leaves Makaro House until they've played the game. It was always a way for our warriors to test their metal, and I have so longed to see it played again. Will you join me? If not, I'm afraid you might find it quite hard to leave.”

    Moody took a step back, and Jason heard his heavy footsteps on the carpet as he tried to retreat.

    “What's the game?” Jason asked, figuring they could outrun this old coyote if it came down to it.

    Jason would wonder why he had thought of him that way, but he didn't have time to ponder it then.

    “Choose your piece from my necklace,” the old man said, slipping it off and laying it on the table, “Claw, Talon, or Fang.”

    “Then what?” Moody asked, Kai moving behind him as if afraid to come too close.

    “Then we start the game.” the old man said, smiling toothily.

    For an old man, he certainly had a lot of sharp teeth.

    “Okay,” Moody said, walking forward as Kai followed in his wake, “I choose claw.”

    “Talon,” said Kai, reaching out to touch it.

    “Fang,” said Jason, and as he put his hand out, he felt a sudden, violent shifting in his guts.

    He was shrinking, the world moving rapidly all around him. He was smaller, but also more than he was, and he was trapped. His legs scrabbled at the thing that held him, and he tore it to pieces as he freed himself. He heard a loud roar and something big rose up before him. The bear was massive, ragged bits of something hanging from him, and Jason was afraid that he would kill him before he could get fully free of his snare. Something screeched then, flying at the bear's face and attacking him. Jason saw blood run down the snout of the bear, and as it tried to get the bird, a large hawk, off its face, Jason circled and looked for an opening. He was low, on all fours, and he could smell the hot blood as it coursed down the bear's muzzle. Blood and meat and fear and desire mingled in him, and as something laughed, he turned and saw a large coyote sitting at the table. Its grin was huge, its snout longer than any snout had a right to be, and he was laughing in a strange half-animal/half-man way.

    The hawk suddenly fell before Jason, twitching and gasping as it died, and he knew the time to strike was now.

    Jason leaped on the bear, its arms trying to crush him but not able to find purchase. He sank his teeth into the bear's throat, and for a moment he was afraid he wouldn't make it through all that thick fur. The bear tried to bring its claws to bear, but as the wolf worried at it with its fangs, he was rewarded with a mouth full of hot blood. The bear kept trying to rake him with its claws, but its movements were becoming less coordinated. When it fell, the whole room shook with the sound of its thunder, and Jason rolled off it as it lay still.

    “Bravo, bravo,” cried the coyote, clapping its paws together in celebration, “Well fought, young wolf, well fought.”

    Jason took a step towards him, but suddenly he was falling. It was as if a whirlpool had opened up beneath him and he was being sucked into it. Jason thrashed and snarled, trying to get his balance, but he was powerless against the pull as it flung him down and into the depths of some strange and terrible abyss.

    He came to in the empty clearing where the house had been, and that was where he found his friends.

    Wiley rewound the tape, not quite sure what to make of this.

    “So this strange man offered to play a game, and then he changed you three into animals?”

    Jason nodded, looking like one of those birds that dip into a glass of water, “I picked Fang, so I was the wolf. The game wasn't fair, we didn't know what we were doing, but I still killed Moody. I killed both of them because I had been the one to approach the house first. I killed them when I agreed to play the game. It's my fault, I'm a murderer.”

    Wiley wasn't so sure, but it was hard to argue with the evidence. The video showed Jason dropping the camera and then suddenly there was a lot of snarling and screeching. Wiley heard the animals fighting, but he heard something else too. Something was laughing, really having a good belly chuckle, and it sounded like a hyena. He couldn't see it, it was all lost amongst the carpet, but suddenly that carpet had turned into grass, and the camera was lying outside in the midday sun. Someone got up, someone sobbed and moaned out in negation, and then they walked away.

    That was where the video ended.

    In the end, Jason was sent for psychiatric evaluation and the whole thing was chalked up to a drug-induced episode. Jason and his friends were drugged by an old man in the woods and while under the influence of an unknown substance, a substance that didn't show up on any toxicology screening, they killed each other. Blood was found on Jason, blood belonging to Marshall Moody, but blood from the fingernails of Moody was determined to belong to Kai Dillon, which really helped push the narrative that Detective Wiley was working with. He told the press to report an old man in the woods who was drugging people and pushed the stranger danger talks a little harder than usual that year on school visits.

    After that day, the tape he took from Jason Weeks was never seen again, but Wiley believed that the boys had run up against something they weren't prepared for. When John Makaro had led the extermination of the Native People that dwelt on his land, he had angered something he wasn't prepared for either. Wiley's grandmother had liked to tell stories about Coyote, the trickster god, and how he could be as fierce as he was cunning when he needed to be. Wiley didn't think they would ever find an old man out there in the woods, but he didn't doubt others would find him.

    Coyote liked his games, especially when the players were people he saw as interlopers.

    Makaro House remained a town legend, and Wiley had little doubt that those foolish enough to enter would be presented with the same game these three boys had been given.

    Wiley shuddered to think how the next challenge might go when Coyote needed more amusement.

    Makaro House

    “This is Jay, Moody, and Kai, and today we are searching for Makaro House.”

    0 Comments
    2024/05/23
    08:51 UTC

    2

    The Horrify Film Festival Yxperience

    The HRRFY.

    It’s the horror movie festival where something genuinely fucked happens every year. And I mean every year.

    Like, there are some screenings that unleash hordes of bats while the movie is playing. You're free to leave whenever you want, but the movie will still play for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

    Other screenings hire actors to turn at you and scream at some point in the movie. You have no idea when, or how many times.

    It's a festival where the word "illegal" can't even begin to describe what happens. You'd only attend if you were a young, stupid edgelord like me who was trying to prove he was hardcore to his friends.

    Trust me. DO NOT GO.

    You have nothing to prove to anyone. Don't be stupid.

    Wait for the lamer film versions to come out streaming. That's what everyone else does. They're neutered edits but they're fine.

    All they lack is the real gleaming thing everyone wants to see at HRRFY, but who cares. At least you don’t get traumatized. At least you’re not risking your life.

    Anyway, if you really want to know what attending HRRFY is like. I’ll be quick and summarize the one screening I went to. It was the 20th anniversary, and I was lucky enough to get in.

    ***

    I had signed up for the HRRFY mailing list, and joined the subreddit. Through a series of cryptic online emails I solved a sequence of riddles and was entered in the lottery for a HRRFY entry.

    Lady Luck took a shine to me, because one day in my mailbox, I received a physical ticket. I had done it.

    I was going.

    The actual ‘ticket’ was a black USB key that announced the location of the festival the night before (which I won’t disclose here) and it did force me to pay for a very expensive flight in order for me to make it on time.

    You see, to prevent getting shut down, the location of HRRFY changes every year. Some years the local police have managed to stop it, but for the most part, authorities have given up. What’s the point of arresting or charging anyone, if all the organizers and attendees actually want to be there?

    Upon arrival, I had to pick between three participating theaters.

    Based on title alone, I decided to go see “Many Drownings” (directed by Oleksander Gołański.) It was in the theater that was furthest away from the downtown core, which meant it was likely the one where the craziest shit was bound to happen.

    That’s what I came here for right?

    I lined up a solid two hours before the screening like everyone else. The entire line was jittering, just vibrating with excited twenty-somethings. Rumors flew left and right.

    “I heard they’re going to force everyone to take acid.”

    “I heard an actor’s gonna run in and shotgun the ceiling.”

    “I heard they’re going to disappear like four more people this year. At this screening!”

    Each year people disappeared. And each year the same people were ‘found.’ And yes this is the worst part, and why should never, ever, ever go to this event.

    Again I will repeat myself. DO NOT GO.

    No one has ever truly gone 'missing' at HRRFY in any legal or physical sense, because every missing person always shows up a day later, convinced that they are fine—refusing to elaborate further.

    There are some small support groups for people who have family members who had gone to HRRFY, and came back irrevocably changed after being ‘found.’

    These few unlucky people lose all semblance of personality. They don’t want interviews, or help, or therapy, or contact of any kind. And they never, ever want to talk about what they saw.

    Some HRRFY fans think that these ‘found’ people were body-snatched. Cloned in a lab or replaced by a cyborg, or something stupid like that.

    But I think there’s a far simpler explanation. The ‘found’ are still the same people. They're just terrified. They got shaken by something that shattered the foundation of their mind, body and soul. They got too scared.

    They got HRRFY’d.

    ***

    I should mention I had a cough the day I went. And I was worried my sickly appearance might give me trouble at the airport.

    So I invested in an intense double N95 mask which I wore for the whole flight, and continued to wear even at the screening of “Many Drownings.”

    It made my face hot and uncomfortable, but it still didn’t stop me from yelling “excuse me, excuse me!” as I ran to snag a seat in the back of the theater.

    I always preferred sitting in the far back. You get a good view of the whole screen, and a good view of the whole audience.

    Beside me sat a big dude named Sylvester, who apparently flew all the way from Australia to attend HRRFY.

    “Worth the full Seventeen hours mate! It’s gonna be epic!” he dropped a massive camping backpack beside me, which I assume contained all of his luggage.

    The lights dimmed, and the production company logos started to play.

    The whispering, giggling and suspense all stacked upon each other to create an electric feeling in the air. I was giddy. It's like the entire audience was embarking on a massive roller coaster.

    The anticipation was the best part for sure. It might have been the only good part.

    Then the movie started.

    It was a wide shot of a gray, stormy sea. The waves were massive, and the thunderclouds were looming. There was no land visible in any direction.

    All we could hear was the sound of waves foaming, swirling, and crashing over and over. Lightning crackled. Rain poured. The camera held perfectly still over this storm as if it was mounted on a perfectly hovering drone. A drone so resilient that it didn’t waver at all.

    I thought it had to be CGI.

    The shot held like this for the next few moments. Everyone sat glued to their seats. Everyone was thinking the same thing.

    What’s going to happen? How are they going to scare us?

    People chuckled. People cheered. People wanted to tease whatever was going to happen—to happen already.

    But nothing did.

    Five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes went by without any change. People started snoring.

    I looked beside me and saw that Sylvester—the most excited audience member of them all—had fallen totally asleep. The jet lag must’ve gotten to him.

    Then I peered beyond the rest of the audience members and saw other people snoozing too. Heads were keeled over, some people were curled in their seats, some had even spilled out into the aisle and were dozing on the floor.

    I looked above the bright screen, at the huge vents in the corner of the theater. I saw a faint white gas emerging from the vents.

    Holy shit. What have we been breathing? I tightened the straps on my N95 mask, and made my breathing shallower.

    The gas must have been pumping since the opening credits—because how else would an audience of two hundred people all fall asleep?

    As I moved my hand through the air in front of me, I could sense the thickness. It was definitely hazier than usual. I took the scarf off my neck and wrapped it around my mouth as well.

    Then I spotted movement in front of the screen.

    It was a tall blonde man, wearing a black trenchcoat and military-grade gas mask. Beside him arrived six hazmat suits who started pointing at various audience members.

    I slunk in my chair, pretending to sleep like everyone else.

    Two hazmats walked over to the front row and picked out a sleeping guy in flannel. They lifted flannel up, under the armpits and by his ankles, carrying him between them both like a hammock.

    The hazmats walked back up to the stage, where the blonde leader inspected the flannel man and tapped his head. Something was approved?

    The hazmats began to swing flannel back and forth, as if they were getting ready to toss him. Despite their masks, I could hear a very muffled, very distant countdown.

    Three…”

    Two…”

    One…”

    The flannel audience member was tossed into the screen.

    I literally watched him fly into the image of stormy waves … andfallinto them. The flannel man sank into the gray water like a rock, leaving a few bubbles and foam. A wave came crashing down. All trace of him was gone.

    What the fuck.

    All six hazmats began grabbing more audience members with much more urgency. It became a minute-long process where they would pick the sleeping person up, bring them beside the screen, and then swing-toss them into it.

    How was this possible?

    I turned slightly to see if there was a projector above me, and realized there was none. Which meant maybe there was no screen on stage.

    Which meant … maybe it was a portal?

    I tried to wake Sylvester by shaking him. I pinched his leg and arm a bunch.

    He was out cold.

    The hazmats started grabbing audience members from the middle rows now. They were emptying the whole theater. What the hell was I supposed to do?

    I waited until they grabbed another batch, only a few rows down from me. When all hazmats had their backs turned—I broke into a run.

    With my left arm, I tightly gripped my mask and scarf against my face, while my right arm vaulted me over seat after seat.

    I had never breathed so hard—through so much fabric—in my life.

    The hazmats all turned to me. “Hey! Hey!” But their hands were full with their next victims.

    I ran all the way down the aisle, to the big exit sign on the left. My heartbeat filled my head. My plan was to dropkick through the exit door.

    I imagined myself breaking through like some flying gazelle.

    I jumped.

    I angled my kick.

    It might as well have been a brick wall. I fell ass-first to the ground, followed by my head. Of course the door was locked.

    Through a muffled mask I heard a sneering scoff.

    “Where do you think you’re going?”

    Above me stood the one wearing a trenchcoat. I could see his piercing gray eyes through his gas mask.

    I rolled aside and tried to run by him. He lifted a foot and tripped me without effort.

    My forehead bashed into an empty seat. It dazed me.

    The blonde leader bent down and grabbed me by the neck, tearing away my scarf and mask.

    “No! No!”

    A sweet, ether-like smell filled my nostrils. I did my best to hold my breath, but I could already feel myself getting light-headed.

    The other hazmats joined in, grabbing me from all sides. Even if I had the strength to struggle, there was no escape now.

    Above me, all I could see was the dark theater ceiling, and some of the light behind me from the cinema screen.

    Three…”

    Two…”

    “No. Please. Don’t do thi—”

    SPLASH.

    I was plunged deep into cold, wet chaos. My head was completely underwater.

    Gagging. Bubbles. Spinning.

    I fought for dear life, dog-paddling like a maniac.

    Churning. Freezing. Panic.

    For a second, my head popped above the water. I inhaled all the air my lungs could muster. I stared across a vast, violent ocean.

    An enormous thirty foot wave came in my direction.

    My whole body lifted higher and higher as the wave approached. I did my best to tread water. It seemed to be working.

    Then a series of smaller waves arrived and smacked my chest.

    SPLASH.

    Spinning. Kicking. Flipping.

    My view alternated between the pitch dark ocean beneath me, and the moonlit night sky above.

    Again I swam to the surface, popped my head out. Ravenously sucked in air.

    There was a small lull in the water.

    Around me I now registered the other theater goers. Most of them were lying face-down or sinking … but a few were flapping about like me, fighting for their life.

    And above all of us, a floating white shape.

    It was painfully bright, I had to lift one hand to look at it.

    My jaw dropped.

    It was the movie screen, hanging completely still in the air. It showed a dark, empty theater. The exact same theater we all occupied moments ago.

    It was tremendously high, above all of our heads. There was no way of reaching it.

    Then I saw another thirty foot wave come our way. It grazed the bottom of the screen.

    I knew what had to be done.

    ***

    One of the theater goers happened to be on a college swim team. She was the first one able to traverse one of the giant waves and climb into the screen.

    Once she was up there, she found a firehose in the theater and reeled it out to us like a rope.

    One by one, we swam as hard as we could, praying to God we could reach the rope. Everyone’s energy was sapped. Your body can only sustain itself on adrenaline and fear for so long.

    By some miracle, five of us got out.

    I was the last.

    I climbed the rope coughing and vomiting. I had swallowed so much water that my stomach felt swollen.

    When I reached the top and they pulled me into the screen, I sobbed. I couldn’t stop crying.

    My life had flashed countless times before my eyes. In bubbling, suffocating visions, I saw both my parents and my brother. I saw my highschool graduation. I saw my favorite Christmas from when I was six years old.

    I had almost lost all of that. I had lost almost everything.

    On the dirty, carpeted theater floor, I lay with my face down, savoring the fact that I now lay on a hard surface. God bless ground. God bless this filthy, popcorn-strewn ground.

    Beside me I heard bantering, hugging, the wringing of wet clothes. Sylvester was the second last to be saved, and he was particularly vocal.

    “Wooooooaaaaahh!” He came and drummed me on the back, lifted me up. “Oh my god dude! Holy shit!”

    I sat on my knees, wiping the tears and snot off my mouth.

    Sylvester clapped his hands, held his face and screamed some more.

    “Holy shit dude! That was so fucking scary! Like literally people were dying beside us. Like I SAW people die!”

    I nodded, shivering in my drenched clothes. “ I know it was—”

    “—That was craaaaazy!”

    He laughed and stood up, patting everyone on the back. He kept clapping his hands like this was some sports event.

    “That was sick! That was siiiiiiiiick!”

    He ruffled someone’s hair then ran up to me with an open palm.

    “High five dude! WE MADE IT! High five!

    “Don’t leave me hangin’ dude!

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    2024/05/22
    02:31 UTC

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