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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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    2024/04/13
    15:26 UTC

    8

    Missing Person: Angela Blake (Found)

    Crescent Hill is a sleepy, woods-flanked slice of Americana. Within its borders are a single police station, a fire station, and a twenty-four-seven diner. The businesses of Crescent Hill are all family-owned, save for a single Dairy Queen on the long stretch of road leading towards the highway. At the start of this story, there are five hundred and fourteen residents of Crescent Hill, though that number would soon be a few less. 

    The woods surrounding Crescent Hill carry an air of mystery and forbidding, their density so that one could conceivably enter from Crescent Hill and never make it through to the other side. In all reality, they are just woods, and the stories have been fabricated, expounded upon, and exacerbated due to how little there is to do there. Often, when I'd been sent out to investigate a child that had gone missing in the woods or a creature hiding in the trees, I'd find the child playing in the mud or a neighbor's dog that freed itself from its leash and gotten into the neighbor's trash cans. There was no resident more notorious for such claims than Eugene Blake. 

    Eugene was fifty-seven years old at the beginning of this case and would be at the time of his death. For fifteen years, he had seen a ghost in every corner and a ghoul behind every tree. I was responding to the two-hundred-fifty-first report he'd made. 

    "Blake?" I called out from outside his mobile home.

    "Hold on there, detective!" He yelled from inside. 

    He had lived in this motorhome for the better part of those fifteen years, drinking his days away when he wasn't on call at the water treatment plant. He wasn't working that day and, as a consequence, was intoxicated by the time I arrived. 

    He stumbled out of the motorhome, nearly falling into the fresh mud at his feet. 

    "Hermann! What took you so long? It's almost three?!"

    "Had another call to tend to. What's the problem?"

    "What's the problem? Why do you have'ta say it like that?"

    "Eugene. Get to it."

    "Fine… Fine… Look, I saw something in the woods; I think it could be a bear."

    "There are black bears in the woods, Eugene." 

    "I know, detective, but the fuckin' thing was all mangled. Torn apart." He says seriously. 

    Often, Eugene gave reports with a tinge of uncertainty: it could be this or might have been that. But his voice was direct, leveled, and assured. 

    "I'll have a look," I said. 

    We walked through the trees for about a minute or so, back towards a naturally formed brook that, upon reaching, Eugene admitted to tossing spent beer cans into. And sure enough, there it was. A black bear, not particularly large, maybe three to four hundred pounds, female, with its stomach slit open and its entrails spilled outward. The bear's face had been torn apart, its jaw broken open. It had begun to decompose, indicating it had been killed and left out more than 48 hours prior.

    "See, I told you. Look at it. What could have done that?" Eugene asks anxiously. 

    He had a point, but the question wasn't "what" but "why?" It could have collapsed for one reason or another, and coyotes could have gotten at it. Why would the entrails be displayed and untouched? And how would they have broken its jaw?

    I escorted Eugene back to his motorhome and went back to the station. There isn't much of a protocol for something like this, but the best I can do is send animal control to examine the bear. But I had something else on my mind. Eugene was the type of person you'd mock behind their back, but you couldn't help but feel sorry for him if you looked in his eyes. There's a reason he'd made two-hundred fifty-one reports over the last fifteen years, a reason he'd lived in a motorhome drinking his life away all that time. Or, if not a reason, justification. 

    Fifteen years ago, his daughter, Angela Blake, aged fifteen, would disappear on the way home from school. She'd taken Pritchett Road as she had every school day for the few years prior. The missing person's report was light on details, as the closest thing to the site of her disappearance was that twenty-four-seven diner, Lucky's. A single patron, swollen with coffee and pancakes, was our only witness, and their description was as follows. "A forest-green sedan, Mercedes, real nice. She got in, and the car sped off, lightning-quick. And the license plate, it was blank!"

    We searched through every corner of Crescent Hills for Angela Blake and the green Mercedes, though I was only a patrolman then. Countless hours of investigation, theorizing, even consulting psychics and fortune tellers, spending our department budget on anything that could get us the slightest bit closer to finding her. It would remain open for a year and then close, unsolved, and it was this that tore the Blake family apart. Eugene and Patricia Blake separated shortly after the closing of the case. I can't blame him, now, for his drinking, for his reports. Maybe he'd just like someone to talk to. 

    But, every time I see him, I'm brought back to that investigation, brought back to the interview where he sobbed, repeating, "She was wearing a blue t-shirt, jeans, black Converse shoes, she had a red backpack," maybe knowing, somewhere deep within that we'd have to stop looking for her and start looking for artifacts left in her passing.

    The missing person's case of Angela Blake would remain closed until the morning after my conversation with Eugene on February 27th this past year. As a patron at Lucky's reported, Angela Blake stepped out of a forest-green Mercedes sedan wearing a blue t-shirt, jeans, black Converse shoes, and a red backpack. And she hadn't aged a day. 

    February 27th, 2:22 pm: Above, swollen clouds threaten rainfall. A gentle wind cuts through the line of trees on Pritchett Road's eastern side, whistling as it does. 

    A forest-green Mercedes sedan, make uncertain, pulls to a stop along Pritchett Road 200 feet from the door of Lucky's. Frank Brennan, who'd taken his break from work to visit Lucky's for mid-day pancakes and coffee, watches as a young woman steps out of the Mercedes and stares blankly across the road. The Mercedes then accelerates to a speed approaching eighty miles an hour instantly. There's no smoke, no tire screech, and, to quote, "Frank Brennan, the car wasn't moving, and then suddenly, it was." We wouldn't receive the call until roughly thirty minutes later, when Linda Greene, manager of Lucky's, would report that a girl had just "shown up." 

    Angela Blake's disappearance had become a ghost story, twisted, morphed, changed over the years to be repurposed for everything from campfire scares to convincing children to come home before dark. It was our rural boogeyman, and everyone in town knew the case. Since Angela's disappearance, there had been no murders, no violent crimes of any kind. The worst offense over the last fifteen years was our Captain accidentally leaving his truck in neutral, having it run over the foot of a poor bastard outside Mill's Hardware. No charges were pressed, and he'd limp the pain away within a month. 

    Even still, despite the reputation of the Angela Blake case, even though she stepped out of the same car she'd been seen getting into, although she wore the same clothes, no one in Lucky's diner could believe that this was Angela Blake. I couldn't either.

    "I'm Detective Hermann. Are you feeling okay?" I asked. 

    "I'm warm," Angela said.

    "Can you tell me your name?"

    "Angela. Angela Blake."

    At the mention of her name, the small gaggle of patrons, as well as Frank Brennan and Linda Greene, gasped and started talking amongst themselves. The girl calling herself Angela Blake could barely keep her head up. She looked like she hadn't slept in weeks; her eyes were glazed over and yellow with strain. She wore thick, black bags under her eyes. 

    "Angela Blake went missing fifteen years ago. She'd be thirty by now." I said. 

    "I'm Angela Blake."

    "Can you tell me about the car you were riding in?"

    "What car?"

    "The green Mercedes. Do you remember who was driving?"

    "I don't know what you mean."

    "You arrived in a green Mercedes. You stepped out onto Pritchett Road, and it sped away."

    "No. I was just walking home from school. I always walk home on Pritchett Road." She responded, her eyes empty, her voice tired and passive.

    "You don't remember a green Mercedes?" 

    "No."

    I paused momentarily, trying to piece this together as she stared through a plate of pancakes. Enraptured by our conversation, the whole diner was quiet enough that you could hear every gentle raindrop patter against the roof. They stared at her with glassy, scared eyes, save for one. A tall, slender man in a black coat, seated alone in the opposite corner, stared as though he were watching a show. 

    "Angela, can you tell me what year it is?"

    This is the first time since our conversation began that she looked up at me. Her eyes were cold and empty, but if she wasn't Angela Blake, I felt that, at that moment, she believed she was. She wondered why I was asking these questions, why the patrons of Lucky's diner were so infatuated with our conversation and her walk home. She stared at each of them, and as I turned to look, I realized the Man in Black had vanished, though his coffee remained. 

    "Mister Hermann, why are they all looking at me that way?" She asked. 

    "There just worried about you, that's all. Now, Angela, please, what year is it?"

    "Why would you ask me a thing like that?" she responded. "It's two thousand and nine."

    Eugene Blake stumbled into the diner in his work uniform. Linda Greene had called his work to look for him a few minutes prior, and Eugene had run out of the plant to his truck and sped down here the moment he'd heard. He's still out of breath.

    "Angie!" He cried out. 

    "Dad?!" She responded. 

    She hurriedly got up, rushed to him, and sank into his arms. In absolute dumbfounded shock, Eugene stood at the entryway to Lucky's diner, staring into and through her as she fell into his arms. He squeezed her tightly. 

    "I'm scared." She whimpered.

    One by one, the patrons at Lucky's diner would leave as Eugene and Angela stood there clinging to one another. In time, Patricia Reed (formerly Patricia Blake) would join them. I sat there with them, watching, waiting for the girl calling herself Angela Blake to slip, break character. But she never did. 

     Linda closed the diner for the day. One of only a few times, the diner had defied the "Open 24/7" sign emblazoned on the signpost. I can't be sure how long I sat there or exactly why, but the longer I did, the more my questions bled into each other. I was left only with a sense I couldn't shake. How could this be Angela Blake? She looked like Angela Blake, wore the same clothing she wore when she disappeared, and came from the same type of car Angela Blake had been seen getting into fifteen years prior. But if this was Angela Blake, this was Angela Blake from fifteen years ago, slipped through time and now appearing on the other end.

    Then, I noticed two large dots on the underside of Angela Blake's wrist—rust in color and splotchy. They were blood, dried. 

    Eugene and Angela Blake moved back into the home of Patricia Reed within a week. Outside of the mystique, the questions, and the confusion around the case, the Blake family had returned to a reflection of the family they had once been. The church, which sat only two hundred but held nearly all of Crescent Hill come Sunday morning service, held a prayer for Eugene, Patricia, and Angela that following Sunday. 

    "After fifteen years of prayers, Crescent Hill's dear Angela Blake has been returned to us. We do not know how or why but must thank god, for our prayers have finally been answered—" He started. And with those words came murmurs from the crowd.

    "There's something wrong with her." One whispered.

    "Shouldn't she be thirty?" Another said. 

    "We thank god for blessing the Blake family with her return and for blessing our church with their presence. Let us all now bend our heads and pray." The Pastor finished. 

    But the congregation on that Sunday morning did not bend their heads, nor did they pray. They stared. As Eugene and Patricia prayed with eyes closed, Angela stared up towards the body of Christ, tortured, mangled, hanging on the cross. And the congregation all stared at her. 

    Theories ran as rampantly through our five-man police brigade as they did through all of Crescent Hill, though ours sounded differently. All we had to go off of was a chemical compound found on the clothing Angela wore, sulfur dioxide, though that was chalked up to her father's work at the plant, and the blood on the underside of her wrist. It had been washed away the night she was found, and she, as expected, had no explanation for it. 

    We didn't know this at the time—though if we had, I'm not sure we would have the means to dissuade them—but the town had been slowly coming to a series of strange conclusions around Angela Blake's return. She was a shapeshifter dressed as the missing girl; she was the devil, and he stole her skin. Those kinds of theories, theories rooted in superstition, quickly dissolve under the slightest prodding or observation, but that did little to dissuade them. 

    The first question I wanted to answer was, "Is this Angela Blake?" Her age be damned, if we can at least identify that this really is Angela, then we can start asking the other questions. With our limited resources, no budget for extravagant tests, and no large hospital to test them in, we settled on a paternity test.

    "A paternity test? Are you out of your mind?" Eugene barked.

    "We're just trying to figure a few things out," I responded. 

    For the first time that I've seen in those 15 years, Eugene was stone sober, clean-shaven, and with his hair properly tended to. He looked foreign to me now. The man who tossed his beer cans in the brook out of his mobile home, seemingly buried deep and replaced upon Angela's return. 

    "Like what, Al, like what?" He asked.

    I pulled him aside. "Eugene, has it not struck you as odd that she's the same age as when she disappeared?" I asked. "Has it not struck you as odd that she's wearing the same clothes she disappeared in, the same clothes you gave a statement to?"

    He looked past me into the living room, where Patricia and Angela sat side by side. "What does it matter if I have her back?" He responded emptily. 

    Maybe it was curiosity, fear, or the desire to put the ceaseless rumors around them to rest, but he would eventually allow us to perform a paternity test. According to this test, the girl was indeed Eugene's daughter. Upon completing the test and receiving the results, Eugene asked me, "Al, this was an unsolved case for 15 years; I have my girl back; can you just leave it unsolved? I want this to be over. I want things to go back to normal." I wish I could have obliged that request; I wish we could have left this story, this case, in the past and allowed the Blake family to resume or reattain whatever their version of a normal life could look like. None of us would be so lucky. 

    On March 1st, around 1 am, a passerby in a pickup truck spotted Angela Blake on Pritchett Road. She was standing in the same position she'd been left in by the green Mercedes, staring into the dense forest on the other side of the road. I was second to be called and third to arrive, Eugene having beaten me there only a few minutes. She sat in the back of Captain Tillo's squad car. 

    "It's nothing, Al, don't blow it out of proportion." Eugene would say. But his words and the look in his eyes were in opposition, the worry boiling over and spilling into the air around him. You could feel it on him, the stench of desperation, of fear, a pheromone dispersed into the air as his soul begged for help. 

    That night, we would come to an agreement. The Crescent Hill police department recommended transferring her to a rehabilitation center a few hours North. A hospital with the proper tools and infrastructure to examine Angela with the appropriate depth. On the other hand, Eugene was desperate for this report to be off the record entirely. Instead, we'd decide that Angela would be seen by our town psychiatrist for evaluation, who would recommend how to proceed. In the meantime, we would sit in on the sessions and continue our investigation as quietly as possible. 

    "Ain't it enough that everyone is talking about her, Al?" He asked. 

    "Can you blame them?" I responded.

    I didn't mean it to come out so biting; I didn't mean for the words to dig into him the way they did, to wound him. But wound them they did, and deeply so. And, in retrospect, I realize it wasn't the words themselves or that I had said them, but that within himself were those same questions, those same concerns, and a desperation to silence them. 

    Captain Tillo stayed there, staring at the road and the line of trees, periodically looking up toward the crescent moon. And he said something to me that I haven't stopped thinking about since. 

    "Ain't it strange we've had nothing bad happen since she was gone? Not a murder, or assault, or an accident of any kind." He shuddered. "Never forgave myself for not finding her. And her being back hasn't softened that feeling a bit… I got this bad feeling, Al. I got this bad feeling about the girl. Like she's back to collect the debt for the last fifteen years."

    The next day, Patricia would leave the house, Eugene and Angela behind, along with a note. The note, written in smudged, hurried handwriting, would become another scrutinized, theorized, and embellished whisper shared over every meal at Lucky's, every family dinner, and every garage beer. To some, it was pages long condemnation and quoted the Bible; to others, it was a suicide note left to provide closure. But, this note was neither of those and said far more than any of those could have in the five plain words scribbled across the page:

     "THAT IS NOT MY DAUGHTER"

    I was desperate for anything that could point to an explanation for Angela Blake. There was, at the time, only a single other case in Crescent Hill, that being the mutilated bear in the creak by Eugene's mobile home. The results, according to the vet, were "inconclusive," but in conversation, he said to me plain as day, "I couldn't tell you what the fuck happened." Due to the state of decomposition, the bear was in and his relative inexperience in autopsy analysis, all he could parse out from the corpse was a single, loose thought: "I can't imagine an animal that would do this." 

    "Angela, could you tell me what you remember from that night? From the night you got into that car?" Doctor Meadows asked. 

    It was quiet in the Blake House that evening without so much as the rustle of a breeze to cut the silence. Despite sitting in the next room, Eugene and I could hear the breath rise and fall in Angela's throat as she searched for words. A group of onlookers had formed outside, desperate for a glimpse inside. Doctor Meadows, the only psychiatrist still licensed in a nearly 50-mile radius, was called in to help us. Technically, we can't interrogate Angela, as she'd not committed a crime. And this, per the agreement with Eugene, was as close as we could get. Doctor Meadows stared at her, examining the flutter of Angela's pupils as they struggled to focus.

    "Angela, can you tell me what you remember?" She repeated. 

    "Warm," Angela said, finally.

    "You remember being warm?" Meadows asked. 

    "Not just warm. Hot. I can feel it now." Tears come to Angela's eyes. 

    "Do you need some air?"

    Angela went quiet again as her face grew red. Eugene sat across from me, staring into the reflection made at the surface of his coffee. He was tired, bags stretched from under his eyes down the length of his cheeks, his brow furrowed in a permanent strain. 

    "My skin is burning," Angela said finally, her eyes widening until the tears had no choice but to fall. 

    Eugene's eyes rose from his coffee to meet mine. 

    "What do you mean?" Meadows asked.

    "My skin is burning. My skin is melting from my bones. I can feel the fire—" 

    "Angela, you're here with me; you're safe, "Doctor Meadows interjected. But it was of no use.

    "—My bones burned, the marrow melts, the marrow melts, the marrow melts."

    Eugene quickly rose, pushed past me, and ran to Angela's side, wrapping her in his arms. But she just kept screaming.

    "The marrow melts."

    I already tried to hand this case off to a better-equipped agency, but none of the agencies would return my call. Hoping it might make some information materialize, I tried leaking this to every major news corporation in America, but none of them had any interest. We had, at present, no information on the car, with no one within fifty miles having seen it besides that patron from Lucky's. Angela had given us no further details, as this session was, until that point, the most she'd said. So, that night, persuaded by a drink-too-many, I returned to Pritchett Street to investigate on foot. 

    The tree line, thick with fog, consumed my flashlight's beam, bleeding it through the trees. I stood there in the road, waiting for something, anything, willing to accept UFOs, Demons, or a Windigo's advance so long as it would explain this case to me. Instead, I found a single, five-and-a-half size sneaker turned over and a foot trail leading into the trees. I followed.

    Hung between two oak trees, held by harnesses made from the clothing she would have worn, with her stomach slit open and her entrails spilled forth, was another girl. At roughly 3 am, after paramedics and police officers had cut her down, she'd be identified as Caroline Tull, aged 15. She was supposed to have gone on a school field trip on February 28th, and her return would not have been for another day or so. Assuming she'd opted out when she didn't show, the school simply marked her absent and docked her points. Her parents, who'd assumed she'd joined the trip as intended, figured she was having too much fun and wanted to adopt some independence. Captain Tillo later told me her family asked only a single question when they were told. "Was it that fucking girl? Was it Angela Blake?" There was one last piece of evidence, something that would only further persuade me of a conclusion I'd already made that night. On the clothes that held Caroline Tull up by a tree branch was the same compound found on Angela Blake: Sulfur dioxide. 

    It took a while for it to strike me, so long that I'd reach my driveway before the thought would occur, and then I'd sit there with it, the car idle, for some time before I let the thought solidify. Angela, the day she was found, had blood on her wrist but no cut from which she could have bled. Who's blood was it?

    "I was with her all night," Eugene said.

    But that didn't dissuade the Mob that started forming at the perimeter of his house. A mob, consisting of concerned citizens with signs emblazoned with scripture and condemnations, barked at every movement inside the home. 

    "How could you think she'd do something like this?" He asked.

    "I'm not saying I think she did anything. But Angela went to that spot the night before, and we found her staring in the same direction as the body was found!" I responded.

    "I don't know what happened. And I'm sorry for what happened to the girl. But I was with her all night every night since she went out there, and that girl wasn't there then."

    "Caroline Tull," I responded.

    "Don't you say her fucking name like it's supposed to get a rise out of me—"

    "That's her name."

    "—Like I have some guilt I'm carrying—"

    "Fifteen years old, like Angela was."

    "Like Angela is."

    "Do you really believe that?" I asked. "Do you really believe, deep in your gut, Eugene, deep in your fucking gut, do you really believe that Angela disappeared fifteen years ago, didn't age a day, and came back?" 

    "Hermann, don't push me."

    "Your ex-wife didn't believe it, Eugene. Your ex-wife knew something was wrong."

    "Hermann, I swear to god—"

    "That's why she left. She knew that whatever that CAN'T BE ANGELA—"

    Eugene struck me on the left side, just under my eye. Quickly, Captain Tillo grappled Eugene and slammed him onto the tile floor. Angela, meanwhile, sitting on the couch in the family room, in the same spot as she had the day prior, didn't so much as look up. 

    "What choice do I have, Al? WHAT CHOICE DO I HAVE?" He'd scream, beg, even. And still, Angela didn't look up. This would be the last conversation I'd have with Eugene, and regardless of what my gut told me, now I wished I had been just a little bit kinder. The Mob that formed around the house would remain through the night, and Captain Tillo would stay there, staring out of them. Before I left, he said, "This ain't right, Al. They ain't right." And, at the time, I didn't quite grasp what he meant or think about it too deeply. But I understand now. It wasn't about Angela Blake, Caroline Tull, or the crowd itself. It was about the people in the crowd galvanized in an ethereal, malevolent way. He looked out onto a crowd of people he knew, and yet he couldn't recognize any of them.

     The following day, around 4 pm, Eugene, with Angela in tow, drunkenly stumbled into the police station. He had a few bruises on his arms and a scratch along his face. "They threw rocks at us!" he cried loudly, demanding we believe him when he told us Caroline's death wasn't Angela's fault. He'd spend the night in the drunk tank, with no family to send her to and her safety in question; Angela would remain at the station, too. 

    I'm going to do my best now to transcribe the conversation as it happened, but the further I've gotten from this case, the more the feelings have overtaken the specifics of the words and corrupted them. It's eight-thirty pm. All officers, except Constance at the front desk, are out on patrol. Angela Blake, who had been unable to answer our questions previously, now sits across from me on the other side of the iron bars.

    "Angela. I'm going to ask you a few questions, okay?" I asked. "Do you remember my name?"

    "No."

    "That's okay, I'm Detective Albert Hermann."

    "What questions?"

    "Questions about Caroline Tull."

    "What questions about Caroline Tull?"

    "Did you know her?"

    "No."

    "I want to ask you about when you were gone. Can you tell me everything you remember?"

    "It's hard."

    "Try. Just try."

    "There was a man in the car. He asked me if I needed a ride. But he didn't ask me with words."

    "What do you mean?"

    "He just looked at me, and he knew what I needed, and I knew he would give it to me, so I got in." 

    "What did he look like?"

    "He didn't look like anyone—"

    "He didn't look like anyone you know?"

    "No. He didn't look like anyone at all. And he looked like everyone. And then he looked like no one again."

    "What happened when you got into the car."

    "Nothing. I don't remember the car. I just remember how his face changed and how the fire felt. It burned my hair and my skin and then my bones. And it felt so good to be free," she said as tears ran from her eyes. "Maybe that's why he took Caroline—to show her too," she said. 

    The knuckle of my middle finger broke as I slammed my hand into the bars, but I wouldn't yet feel it. 

    "You and Caroline Tull had the same metallic substance on your clothing. You and her are connected! Stop fucking with me, and tell me what you know!"

    And suddenly, as if by the switch, her tears stopped, the redness disappeared from her eyes, the veins in her forehead subsided, and she responded simply, "Maybe he'll show you too."

    I would leave her then, out of an anger I used to mask my fear, and the following morning, we'd let her and Eugene Blake go. She was, by police account, a person with a fractured mind in need of medical help. And beyond the connection of Sulfur Dioxide, the best we could do was keep her on suspicion. But the idea of letting her go would quickly become moot. The Mob that gathered around the Blake home would set it ablaze, and it would burn down to embers and ash by morning. And, before daybreak, that same Mob, burdened by a blind, visceral rage, armed with biblical signs and vile threats, would surround the Crescent Hill police station.

    The details around the case, the sulfur dioxide, Angela's comments, and even the bear had all spread first through the police station and then out onto the streets and into the homes of Crescent Hill, carrying with them vague but loud assertions: Angela Blake was a rot that threatened the way of life in Crescent Hill. And that rot must be eradicated. 

    The Mob, which formed outside the police station, yelled, screamed, and waved their signs with an impossible energy—an intensity that should have seen the skin of their throats grow sore or the joints in their shoulders grow heavy. Maybe they did, but they persisted nonetheless. I watched them from beyond the glass doors at the front of the station and looked into the Mob of familiar faces, yet I recognized none. 

    Angela was seated at my desk, and Eugene sat by a window next to the entryway, staring out into the crowd. The officers on patrol either couldn't hear them or disregarded my constant calls for backup. That is, save for Captain Tillo, who I watched try desperately to work his way through the crowd. 

    It began with a single bullet shattering through the window at the front, striking Eugene in the temple. He bled profusely, the small caliber round embedding itself between the skin and the skull. He was conscious, though delirious, and couldn't summon the words to question what was happening. I dragged him behind the front desk, taking cover. 

    A second crash, a flaming bottle slamming into the station's exterior, catching the scaffolding ablaze. The crowd rushed forward, banging against the doors. They slammed, again and again, the door frame warping, the glass breaking. But Angela did not move. 

    Finally, their voices caught up to me. "Kill her!" Like pigs desperate for a meal, they squealed, hungry for Angela's recompense. Finally, they broke through the doors and funneled in. And again, Angela did not move. 

    The fire spread quickly now. So quickly, it would consume the entire eastern side of the station. I tried to get to her, despite the voice, despite the voice telling me to stay, despite the voice telling me to let it happen, I ran to her. But the Mob trampled over me. I felt the bones of my left leg break underfoot, and I watched helplessly as they descended upon Eugene and Angela Blake. 

    Another Molotov sailed through the window on the station's western end and carried an immense wave of heat. Despite the fire burning away their clothes, hair, and skin, the Mob that descended upon Angela and Eugene Blake didn't stop. Eugene died of blood loss; he'd live through thirty-one stabbings and die before the thirty-second. All told he'd have seventy or so before those around him would succumb to the flames. Angela, who I saw beaten and stabbed, did not react nor move. She simply closed her eyes and waited for the flames to take her.

    Captain Tillo would be the one to drag me out. I saw them then up close, faces I'd seen thousands of times before, now unfamiliar, the other officers I'd called for backup, all hissing, crying, and begging for Angela's death along with the rest of Crescent Hill. All of Crescent Hill was desperate for blood. All of Crescent Hill save for one, the man in black, who watched with a gentle smile, enjoying the show. I understood then what Angela meant. The man in black didn't look like anyone. And he looked like everyone. And then, once again, he looked like no one at all. 

    All told, twenty-two people died that night, twenty from the crowd, as well as Angela and Eugene Blake. No one was charged, and no one was blamed, and in the end, it'll likely become another of Crescent Hill's ghost stories. After all, you can't arrest an entire town. Later on, Captain Tillo would end his life by hanging, leaving behind a note that simply read, "I'm sorry." I'm sure he carried an immense guilt for how this story ended; I know I do. 

    The following morning, the residents of Crescent Hill would talk about that night as though it were an accident. A fire had broken out, and the townsfolk had rushed in to save us. The report indicating stab wounds on Eugene Blake would find its way into a bin and be erased from the record. The last I heard was the autopsy report on Angela Blake. Before that, too, would go missing. They didn't find a demon under the skin or a shapeshifter from the deep. 

     They found a fifteen-year-old girl burned until the marrow melted. 

    The End.

    2 Comments
    2024/04/13
    06:17 UTC

    1

    Vespid Discord [Part 2 - Final]

    I - II


    For over a dozen days they had been grinding away at the Arboran.

    Selvin had built up his confidence by attacking the monster a little more fiercely each time. A bite on the head here, a scratch beneath its limb-fronds there. It had turned out to be the most effective hunting practice there was.

    Every time the lanky tree-giant returned, the sweet stench of its sweaty, hormonal anxiety grew stronger. And along with it came another sheathed layer that only emboldened Selvin further. No matter how thick the creature’s bark grew, he was always able to find another seam to slip between, another crease to squeeze under.

    The daily skirmish resulted in the Arboran obscuring himself more and more with denser white sheathes—to a point where the sheathes must have enwrapped it so tightly it could no longer come out altogether. Teseva theorized that it was probably undergoing some form of metamorphosis. A moult. And as it turned out, she was right.

    One morning, both Selvin and his mother emerged from their burrow, shocked at how much taller the Arboran appeared. The length of his limbs had nearly doubled in size, his trunk appeared denser, too.

    When Selvin flew out to examine him, he detected an entirely new sort of energy. The sweaty listlessness was no longer present, replaced instead by a stoic immovability that smelled of mint. The behemoth tree-giant had clearly undergone a transformation.

    “We’ve aged him,” Teseva observed, watching from her pine branch. “See: his skin’s a little fainter. We’re effectively wearing him out if he’s growing this fast.” Selvin agreed: there was something weaker about him. The Arboran had lost all of his sheathe now, and was thus more vulnerable. More exposed. But for some reason, this exposure also hinted at some kind of gravitas. An audacity that the Arboran didn’t have before.

    Selvin dropped beside his mother’s branch and asked if there was any change in plan today.

    “And change your sibling’s first outing?” Teseva looked up at her twelve adult children. They all crowded on one pine branch, jittering with anticipation. “Who knows how long I’ve got left. We can’t be afraid because he’s suddenly bigger. If I taught you, I need to teach them too; isn’t that what you said?”

    Selvin nodded gratuitously, apologizing for even suggesting otherwise.

    “All of you follow me as I fly behind the Arboran,” Teseva instructed her offspring. “I want everyone to practice with their stingers. Remember, think of your abdomens as curling worms. You want to curl those worms high, and you want to aim those stingers straight. I don’t want to see any half-curled worms. We want to pierce him with as many points as we can.”

    ***

    It was his first day replacing Oskar, and two hours in, Johann had no clue what his moody son was talking about. There were a few annoying mosquitoes from the artificial pond, some petulant blackflies, sure, but nothing that appeared to be purposefully targeting him. He had taken his sweet time scanning the termitary, adjusting topographical nodes as needed and making sure his readings were correct.

    There didn’t appear to have been much change in the colony since his last visit months ago, and Johann swiped through his tablet, comparing images from past dates. As his fingers pinched in on the glass surface to zoom, some dozen sensations also seemed to pinch simultaneously into his spine.

    “Jesus Mary!”

    He whipped around and smacked his tail bone. A platoon of red wings zipped past. His hand brushed against his back, and he felt the warm heat of swelling skin.

    I see. Are these them?

    It appeared to be a dozen or so hornets. Or were they yellow jackets? He approached them, and the red shimmers moved back and forth, circumventing him.

    Digger wasps. Interesting.

    Johann produced a butterfly net and extended it, waiting for the buzzing to return. He was no stranger to capturing specimens mid-flight. Bring it on.

    And the wasps soon did. As flashing red blurs, they gunned for the area below his knees. He whipped about with his net.

    Three or more were caught instantly, and a small “hah!” shot out from Johann. But the victory was short-lived, overshadowed by a far sharper agony. A stealthy stab had gotten him behind his left ear. He smacked the side of his head.

    It was a little alarming how coordinated these things were. Johann shook himself like a dog, and pivoted on his right heel, scanning the perimeter. He could see the glimmer of several red wings, hovering, waiting.

    He had only brought one net, hoping to deal with whatever came at him without much hassle, but perhaps one wasn’t enough. As he moved around, the zipping shapes recouped and circled closer to him.

    His palms gripped the rubber lining of the handle. It was already feeling sweaty. How tough can they be?

    ***

    A welcome pride swelled inside Teseva’s thorax. Her children had done well.

    Tael had managed to sting the moulted Arboran thrice, capitalizing on his lack of leg sheathes. Levesta had stolen a follicle of blonde grass, which they now left displayed atop the goliath birdeater. Elvitra had snuck two deep stings into the side of his head, leaving a pair of swollen craters, and every other offspring had managed to get in at least one solid sting, which was very impressive for their first outing.

    “You are all very capable,” she said. “Far more capable than I was at your age, and this brings me great joy.” She sat near the burrow entrance, forming the head of their loosely-shaped oval. Every wasp sat giggling, rubbing antennae, covertly swapping stories and moments from the successful attack.

    “Although I must admit, today’s most impressive manoeuvre was pulled by your older brother, who managed to land a stinger directly in the Arboran’s eye. If it weren’t for the giant’s subsequent blind flailing, who knows if your premieres would have been as successful. You should be thankful.”

    The wasp heads all turned to the opposite side of the oval, and a universal cry rose. “Thank you, wise brother Selvin!”

    Selvin bowed with a degree of humility. “There is no one to thank besides our mother. Everything I’ve learned, I've learned from the best.”

    The wasps all cheered, briefly fluttering their wings.

    "You know, there was a time where I thought I might leave this burrow, let you fend for yourselves as you grew up," Teseva said. “Let you learn on your own, as I was forced to, and as I’m sure my own mother was as well. But something changed in me. An idea dripped into my head, and made me realize that I need to help you. I need to make sure you know what you’re doing.”

    She stretched her stiff joints. “For a time, this desire fell and rose, like the bunching and collapsing of wet sand. And, unexpectedly, this desire left me for a time, rendering me somewhat dismal. Incomplete."

    She turned to Selvin, whose antennae were perked high. "But after receiving some encouragement from your older brother, I renewed my original intention, and I could see that it was worth it. That making sure you knew how to hunt, how to fly, and how to feel thrilled by doing it all was the most important thing I could impart.

    She folded her wings. “Anyway, I’m jabbering on, like some colony queen. What I want to say is this: to defy an Arboran, like you all did today, means that hunting anything else will be an effortless flutter.”

    She gestured around to the dead, rigid bugs around her: the headless orchid mantis, the jewel moth, and the woodlouse. “It’s only a matter of time. Like any of our past foes, eventually, this one too will fall.”

    A yawn overcame her. Teseva stretched her limbs and moved to her now-empty nest. “And when he does, the satisfaction will be immense. You will all be able to start burrows wherever you want, with a food supply for countless generations.”

    Her children all watched her, antennae vibrating. The tranquil composure that Teseva exuded had spread across the burrow. Each of the young wasps folded into one other's abdomens and created a ring of sleepy listening.

    “We are a family unstoppable. And our legacy will be great. I know we have it in us to out-hunt anyone in the garden, and make it our own.”

    The last of her children to doze was Selvin. It was such a happy sight to see her content family. Before Teseva fell into a pleasant slumber, she managed to mumble. “I’m proud of you. Each and every one.”

    ***

    The sedative funnelled quickly into the wasp nest. Johann gave the pump another two squeezes before withdrawing the nozzle. Cottony white gas shot up from the overfilled burrow, appearing for all the world like a tiny geyser.

    He wafted away the foul smell, stepped back, and patted his son. “Like I said. I’m sorry I didn't listen. You were right.”

    The gas rose upward like the smoke of a dwindling campfire, diffusing into the air. It would mingle with the oxygen for a time before being filtered out through the EntoDome’s elaborate ventilation.

    “The nootropic affects each insect differently. I’ll have it noted that it’s not favourable with digger wasps.”

    Oskar nodded, grabbed his excavator kit, and got to work. The dirt around the wasp burrow had to be delicately sifted to prevent a cave-in. With boyish grace, he retrieved the tiny bodies as he spotted each set of ruby wings. Like a miniature paramedic, he collected the vespid shapes one by one and placed them inside separate glass tubes.

    Johann watched over the process with pride. It distracted him from the itching of his left cornea, slowly healing beneath its eye patch.

    “You know Oskar, you’re better at this part than me, frankly speaking. It must be all those models and Lego-bots you built as a kid.”

    Oskar gave a nod and finished with a quiet efficiency. When the task was done, all that remained was a neatly-carved crater. All the recovered wasps had been slotted appropriately into the carrier unit. He stood up to brush the dirt off his knees. Johann helped.

    “I can see it, son. I can see you doing well here. You’ve got patience, an eye for details, and you’re unafraid to speak your mind—which is something a lot of adult staff here are afraid to do.”

    Oskar allowed himself a smile, glanced at the ground, and then his father. “Thanks. But I don’t know. I still feel like I could be doing better. There’s a lot about me I ought to improve.”

    Johann rubbed his son’s head, dishevelling his hair a little. “All parts will improve Oskar; I’m sure of it. I’m proud of you, you know. You’ve done well.”

    0 Comments
    2024/04/13
    04:33 UTC

    2

    The Seven-Sided Pentagon [Part 1]

    Part 1 - The Recuperation Test

    It was an easy test. Outrageously easy. Like, Teacher Chico really wanted us to succeed. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t feel like passing on the test, each for our own very personal reasons, and it was probably very frustrating that he ended up with seven students in the Recuperation. Recuperation, for those who don’t live in Brazil, is similar to summer school, but it only takes two weeks. At the end of those two weeks, you have a test, and then there’s always two alternatives: if you studied or the teacher or director are kind enough, you can pass to the next year. If you fail, you have to do the whole school year again, and you lose an entire deal of your life.

    Of course, there’s always the secret ending option that my Geometry teacher came up with himself, which consists of sacrificing your wife with your Pythagoric cult friends and sending your students to another dimension. This latter option would probably not be very good for the students, but at least you don’t have to study geometry.

    Let me introduce the Geometry recuperation class of 2018, from the Nilo Peçanha Federal School, in Horizontes Antagônicos. This is where all of this takes place.

    There was me, who failed the test, probably because of reasons related to not studying at all for the entire year, and spending my entire free time playing Cities Skyline, Civilization V, Hitman 2 and Skyrim. You can guess I didn’t go to many parties and wasn’t very popular. Now let’s talk about my friends.

    There was Popcorn, real name Lúcio, my best friend, who managed to be even more of a nerd than I was, as difficult as this was, always carrying popcorn around and watching movies. Instead of a gamer, Lúcio was an avid cinephile. Unironically, his mother owned one of the two only movie theaters in town, which explains his seemingly endless access to popcorn. I don’t know why exactly he failed, since his grades had always been well above average, but I did notice he looked like he wasn’t getting much sleep, so I assumed he was spending every night watching movies.

    There was Bia, who actually passed the test. The absolute madlass liked going to school so much she decided to stick around the Recuperation classes. She was studying a lot because she wanted to become a doctor, even if her true passion was art.

    Now that we’re done with my extensive list of friends, let’s talk about the other people stuck in Recuperation.

    There was Juliana, the top mean girl of the school. She had the looks of a pop star and the personality of a trash can. She didn’t even attend the test, probably because she had a hangover from the previous weekend or forgot to come to class altogether. Oh, and she was dating Oregano.

    Speaking of Oregano, nickname for Rogério, was a very unpleasant person, who also had the body of a Football (or soccer for Americans) player, and the personality of a radioactive trash can on fire. As he was the son of the city’s police chief, no one messed with him. Even when he was being obnoxiously violent to everyone who wasn’t a jock, extremely sexist to all girls, and a trash human being. And even when he was caught smoking weed in the school’s bathroom, the police was called, and they said he was actually smoking Oregano. Hence his nickname. Okay, I admit I don’t like him, but in my defense, he didn’t like me as well. Like his girlfriend, he also didn’t attend the test and failed, and probably for the same reason.

    There was Thiago, Oregano’s sidekick, who followed him around like a dog and imitated him in everything he could. I heard he only failed the test because he saw his “role model” had skipped class and failed.

    And finally, there was Ricardo. He was a creepy guy, rarely attending class, and when he did, he sat on the end of the class, staring at everyone and rarely saying anything. He also wasn’t popular, but not because he was a Nerd or introvert, but because he was fucking creepy. Even teachers avoided talking to him too much. He also missed the test, I don’t have any idea why and I don’t want to know, thanks. Oh, and one last thing, usually we think of the “quiet creepy kid in the back of the class” as a slim person. That wasn’t the case with Ricardo Pardal. He was the strongest of us all, he went to gym every night. Seriously, his biceps were larger than my head. If he wasn’t so uncanny, he’d probably be very attractive.

    With our team of people who failed the geometry test complete (and a person that didn’t but stuck around the school anyways), I think we can introduce the one who least wanted to be there: Teacher Francisco (nickname Chico) Andrade. We didn’t know much about him, as he was a member of the rare breed of teachers who don’t spend their entire classes talking about their lives. Chico was always succinct in his explanations, which always took around fifteen minutes, after which he proceeded to give us tons of exercises and sit by his table while observing us trying to solve them. There was one thing that we could say about him: He had a passion for mathematics that I never saw in anyone else. He treated it like it was his religion, and when people committed gross mistakes, he always got visibly anxious and explained the subject again and again to the person until they said they understood. His tests were notoriously difficult and merciless. Some said he once reprobated a third of the class. And that’s why it was so uncharacteristic of him to give us an easy test.

    But the teacher that went to teach us in recuperation wasn’t the same one I described just above. No, he wasn’t a substitute or impersonator (who would even want to impersonate a Geometry teacher?). What I mean is that Chico had changed. He was behaving differently, less patient in his explanations, and he seemed almost… Angry?

    Well, the change in his behavior got really obvious in the third day of recuperation. He simply walked into the class, gave us a folder of exercises and another with answers and basic explanations, and then just left. He didn’t even say bye.

    “What’s up with him? He didn’t even ask if we had questions.” Bia said to me and Popcorn.

    “Maybe something happened to him. We don’t know.” Popcorn said while he discreetly ate some popcorn.

    After thirty minutes, Juliana, Thiago and Oregano, who were loudly chatting on the back of the room, simply got up and left. (But not before saying goodbye, and by saying goodbye, I mean Oregano robbed Popcorn’s popcorn sack and “accidentally” bumped into my table, throwing all my stuff around the floor. No, he didn’t offer to pick things up, he just laughed).

    We waited a bit longer, but when we had finished our exercise papers, we decided to leave too. My friends left the room before me, and when I did I turned off the lights.

    “Dude, isn’t Pardal in there?” Mentioned Popcorn as soon as I was out of the classroom.

    “Oh…” I paced back to the classroom, and turned the lights back on. I thought maybe Ricardo had fallen asleep, since he didn’t complain when I turned off the lights, but he was very well awake. And staring at me with that blank face of his. “Sorry. I forgot you were there.” I said. He just kept staring. “You’re not angry, are you?” And he somehow managed to stare even more blankly. “You… You do know he isn’t coming back today, right? It’s been nearly an hour. You can go home.” He stared. “Uh… Bye, I guess.” I said.

    “Are you okay, man?” Popcorn asked when I got back to the corridor.

    “Don’t worry about me. Where’s Bia?”

    “She went to the principal’s office to complain about Chico. Said he wasn’t doing his job and she had questions about polyhedrons or something.”

    “Classic Bia.” I laughed.

    Ironically, she wasted her time going to the principal’s office, as the principal was near the exit of the school.

    “Hey, why are you two leaving so early?” Asked director Sandra Mourinho. Theoretically, there were still two hours left of amazing geometry class, but a class can’t teach itself.

    “I think you should ask Teacher Chico. He just handed us some exercises and left.” I said.

    “I see…” She seemed to notice Popcorn. “Lúcio, you’re in Recuperation? Never thought I’d see you here. What happened?”

    “Wasn’t feeling very well the day of the test. Sorry.”

    “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you pass. And you too, Vicente. Just put a little more effort in the recuperation test, okay? I’m sure you’ll do great.”

    “Is Chico okay? This behavior is unusual from him.” Popcorn asked, genuinely worried.

    “Well… I’ll be sincere. He was very frustrated with your class. None of his other classes got Recuperation, and he was planning on traveling with his wife for their anniversary or something. He said the test he gave your class was really easy and all of that.”

    “Sorry. I didn’t mean to fail.” I apologized. I was indeed at fault for not studying.

    “But this is also on him, kids. I warned him several times, and all teachers for that matter, that it wasn’t wise to make travel plans. We don’t know if they’ll be stuck here for Recuperation or not.”

    “Also, I should say that Bia went to your office looking for you.” I told her.

    “I know. My grandson installed an app for cameras here in my phone” She excitedly showed us. “I can see the entire school from here. Except for some classrooms, including yours. But don’t worry, the technicians will have it done soon, even before Recuperation ends.”

    “Then you’re avoiding her?” I asked.

    “No, just waiting a bit for her to calm down. She seems very upset right now, she’s even stomping around. As soon as she sits down I’m going there.”

    ///

    The next day, Chico gave us folders of exercises, but this time, he just paced around for some minutes and then sat down, put on EarPods and began watching some movie in his phone. When Bia inevitably asked him about something, he answered the question as fast as he could and then went back to his own shenanigans.

    I was doing my exercises, and so was Popcorn. We preferred, however, not to talk to our teacher, instead we studied with the Geometry textbook or talking to Professor Google. Chico seemed to be still irritated, and him being the one who would correct our tests, we didn’t want to annoy him. Thiago, Oregano and Juliana were not doing their exercises, but they were talking as loudly as they could, and I preferred to think they were talking about the subject. And Ricardo didn’t show up that day. Not that it changed anything when he did, as he just did his math and then stared at nothing expressionless. Most of the Recuperation was like this for everyone.

    On the end of the day, when Chico was leaving, I approached him, and asked how hard the test would be. He just smiled and said that we wouldn’t even feel like we were doing a test.

    ///

    On the day before the final exam, everyone was tense. Even Bia, who didn’t even need to do the final exam, seemed nervous. Like we subconsciously knew something was going to happen. The terrible trio (the nickname I gave Oregano and his pals) seemed for the first time to be actually studying. Even Pardal was there, focusing on his math and doing exercises. I was confident I knew everything he could put on the test, even if I had a talent for making mistakes in the easiest calculations, but something didn’t feel right too. And Popcorn also seemed tense. He was sweating profusely, even with the air conditioner turned on.

    Teacher Chico, for the first time in those two weeks, seemed genuinely excited. He was explaining Bia’s questions with his old passion again, and going around the classroom, supervising our exercises, and asking if we had any questions. I thought that maybe the principal had given him a pep talk, or maybe making our test had reawaken his forgotten passion for Math. Or maybe he had created a test so difficult that it would traumatize us all for eternity and he couldn’t wait to see us fail. Or maybe, he was happy that he’d be finally starting his vacation.

    When the class ended, we were packing our things to leave. Juliana suddenly approached Bia. “Hey Bia, can I take a look at your notebook?” She asked, but in a way that was more a demand than a question. Even before Bia could answer, Juliana took her notebook from her and went on to read it.

    “Hey, I didn't give you permission!” Complained Bia, but Juliana just ignored her. “There's personal stuff in there!”

    “Like I cared about your boring life. You don’t even have to do the test, girl. Chill, ‘Kay.” Juliana said, as she stored the notebook inside her bag.

    “Give it back to her.” Popcorn said threateningly, stepping in front of Juliana and facing her with an ugly expression. Juliana deviously smiled.

    “Who the fuck do you think you’re dealing with?!” Oregano came and pushed Popcorn back. He fell to the floor. “Is he bothering you, Ju?”

    “Don’t waste your time with this loser, babe. Let’s go.” Said Juliana, and they both left the room, followed by Thiago, who turned the lights off before exiting too, leaving us in the dark.

    “Are you okay, man?” I asked Popcorn, as I helped him get up.

    “I will complain to the director that he assaulted you and she stole my notebook. There’s a camera up there now, she ought to have seen it!” Bia said.

    “Like it would do anything. He’s done worse things and got away with it because of his daddy.” Popcorn took a deep breath. “Don’t waste your time.”

    “Still, I need my notebook back. All my notes on Geometry for the National Exam are there.” She was clearly trying as hard as she could not to cry out of frustration.

    “Calm down, Bia. Juliana is a bitch, but not the devil. She’ll give your notebook back after the test” I tried to reassure her. It was partially wishful thinking. Knowing Juliana, she could very well give the notebook back completely torn apart or destroy it just to be a bitch.

    We collected our things and went towards the door. I made sure to look if Pardal was still there this time. He was silent as always at the end of the room, staring at me. But this time, he had a wide smile. I turned the lights back on and left.

    ///

    After a sleepless night of intensive study, I arrived at the school. Popcorn and Bia were already inside the classroom, checking their notes. Pardal was at the end of the room, carefully reading the geometry textbook. Immediately after sitting down, I began reading for the millionth time my notes. I felt a dreadful feeling, I knew somehow something was going to happen, but I thought it was only going to be a borderline impossible test and that there was a very high possibility of having to repeat the school year and my parents being mad at me.

    Not long after, Juliana, Oregano and Thiago arrived. Oregano seemed tranquil, clearly knowing the school would approve him even if he left all questions blank and drew a giant penis on the folder. Thiago and Juliana seemed more nervous. She didn’t even put on make-up that day, and was reading Bia’s notebook while walking.

    There was no popcorn, loud talking or intensive staring today. Everyone was focused. If you have ever done a difficult and important test, you know the anxiety aura that fluctuates around the room when it’s about to start. The tension was almost visible. And the height of this tension was reached when we heard the door handle turning.

    “Good morning, kids!” Chico said as he walked inside the room. He had strange smile that extended from ear to ear. “Please, turn off your cellphones and devices, and put them here on my table, after you finish I’ll give them back to you. You know the rules. No cheating, no talking, if I see you looking at something other than your test, I’ll give you zero. You’re almost adults, so behave.”

    We all put our phones and devices on the teacher’s table, and he opened a drawer, put them all inside, and locked it with a little key that he put on the desk. “Ricardo Pardal, your phone please.” The teacher demanded.

    “I don’t have one.” He answered. Somehow, his voice was as devoid of emotion as his face.

    “Okay then. But I’ll be watching you.” He said, as he went around the classroom distributing the exams.

    I glared at the test as it reached my hands. I could already see the first questions were easier and it got progressively more difficult, but not the impossible challenge I thought it was. After some thirty minutes, I finished all the questions on the front of the paper, and went to the back of it. The questions were harder, but not impossible. I had studied the subject, and felt confident, as I began doing the first question on the back.

    “Teacher… There’s something wrong in the last question.” Bia said.

    “ Focus on your test, Bia. If there is a mistake, I’ll nullify the question later.” He said, still smiling. Almost shaking with what appeared to be excitement.

    I got curious, so I went straight to the last question. There was a pentagon there, that somehow had… seven sides.

    A pentagon that had seven sides.

    Yes, I know pentagons have five sides, but that one had seven, and no, it wasn’t an heptagon, because it’s sum of interior angles wasn’t 900°, it was 540°. Even if it had seven sides.

    The image seemed to spin, like it was animated. The geometrical figure size grew, covering more of the folder, and bright dark lights came out it’s distorted sides.

    My head was aching. What the hell was this? I had studied this subject. I’m not a genius in math, I’m terrible at it. But this time, I knew it wasn’t me who was wrong. It was somehow, Math itself.

    That pentagon was not possible.

    Something dropped on the paper. Dark blood, coming out of my nose.

    “Teacher, I think I’m-” When I looked at him, my head started aching even more. His head was all distorted, made of spinning straight angles, before it adjusted back to it’s normal features.

    For a moment, I thought I was having a mental breakdown, but only a second after, I heard Juliana screaming.

    “Teacher! The angles are moving!”

    “Calm down, all of you.” Chico chuckled. “Took you all long enough to get to the real test.” He said, as he got up. He went to the white board, and opened his bag. He produced a crimson glass jar, dipped his fingers inside it, and then started drawing the same bizarre pentagon in the board using some kind of red paint.

    “Teacher… Is that… Is that blood?” Popcorn asked. I could feel the fear in his voice, because I was feeling the same thing.

    “Yes, Lúcio.” He answered as he kept drawing. “My wife’s blood, to be more precise.”

    “What?!” Bia screamed.

    “Oh, don’t worry. She deserved it… And all of you deserve it as well.”

    “What are you talking about?” Thiago asked.

    “That can’t be true!” Juliana shouted.

    “Someone go fetch the director!” I said. Bia got up and ran towards the door, but as soon as she passed nearby the pentagon the teacher was drawing, she collapsed to the floor with a blood-curling scream, impossibly loud, and distorted somehow.

    “I suggest you all stay very still. The hepta-pentagon is very metaphysically unstable. Looking at it from the wrong angle could compromise your cognitive abilities.” Chico said as he finally finished the design. The seven-sided pentagon on the board seemed alive somehow, pulsating. We heard footsteps on the corridor.

    “What’s going on?” Director Sandra said as she rapidly entered the room. She looked at the girl who was groaning in pain on the floor and the teacher, whose hand was covered in dark red blood. “What the hell is this, Francisco?! What have you done?!”

    “They didn’t want to learn Geometry the easy way, Sandra. Now I’m gonna teach it to them the hard way. If I were you, I’d stay out of this. I don’t want to harm you.” He warned.

    “Are you out of your mind?! I’m calling the cops, right now!” Sandra said as she picked up her phone.

    “No cellphones during test.” He said. Suddenly, a bang, and then the principal was on the floor, a puddle of blood forming underneath her. Not a second later, three people wearing white and yellow robes and what appeared to be Ancient Greek-like theatrical masks entered the classroom. One of them was holding a pistol, smoke still coming out of it.

    “It was supposed to be an easy test.” Chico looked at us, anger brewing in his voice, mixed with some desperation, resentment and grief. “I had to cancel my travel plans because you couldn’t pay attention on my subject! It’s your fault my wife travelled with that scoundrel instead of me! It’s your damn fault that she’s dead now! It was supposed to be an easy test, goddamnit!” Chico screamed, the anger and frustration in his voice reverberating throughout the room.

    “I’m… I’m sorry…” I muttered. One of the cultists approached the teacher.

    “Kyrios, the internal angle sum is already above 970°. We have to open the portal now or the entire room will collapse.” A robed woman said as she looked at a scientific calculator.

    “Yes. It’s time.” He said. The cultists started speaking with distorted, high-pitched voices. They were saying numbers at a seemingly random but at the same time extremely well-organized sequence. My eardrums started hurting and I felt my muscles getting weaker. The others were also groaning in pain or screaming.

    “Stop it! Please!” Oregano begged. I had never seen him expressing fear. I looked back at the other students. Everyone was terrified, in deep pain or passing out. Except for Ricardo, he just seemed confused.

    And then I looked back towards our insane teacher. He was drawing functions and variables and complex equations in the board and wall using his wife’s blood, while the cultists kept singing the mathematical sequence. The impossible pentagon started expanding, roaring in a high-pitched distorting tone, and a dark, muddy water started coming out of it. It engulfed the entire room in a horribly fast pace. The last thing I saw before everything got underwater was Chico’s eyes, full of wonder and amazement. I think he was finally able to show who he really was to us. And at that moment, even if our situations and intentions were completely different, I sympathized with him. I knew what was to hide in plain sight.

    ///

    “Hey! Vicente! Wake up!”

    I woke up coughing water.

    “Are you okay?” I heard Popcorn asking. I spat out more water, my eyes dizzy. I could smell the sea and feel a breeze on my skin. What was very strange, because our city was located very far away from any beach.

    It was night. I could see starts blinking in the sky, but none that I recognized, and no moon either.

    And the stars, they were not bright… They were black. Black starts. Yet they still emitted light. How was this possible?

    I coughed more and asked: “Where are we, Lúcio? What happened?”

    “I don’t know. We seem to be in some kind of island. I just woke up too.”

    “Where is Bia?” I asked as I picked myself up. “How did we get here?”

    “I just said I don’t know, Vicente! I have no idea! …Sorry, I didn’t mean to scream at you. I’m… I’m just scared.”

    “Don’t worry about me.” I looked around, still weakened. Ahead of us, there was a vast dark sea. And behind us, there was a seemingly untouched by man forest, of large, tree-sized glowing fungus.

    “Did our teacher sent us to fucking Morrowind?” I asked.

    “What’s Morrowind?” Popcorn asked.

    “Uh… It’s nothing. Come on, we need to look for Bia. And figure out a way to go back from… Wherever we are.” I said. If only I knew that I would not be going home anytime soon.

    ///

    0 Comments
    2024/04/13
    02:15 UTC

    4

    Vespid Discord [Part 1]

    I - II


    Teseva lay prone on her bed of children. Their white, wormy bodies provided the perfect cushion for her old limbs. As such, she saw very little reason to get up.

    Her eldest son, Selvin, on the other hand, had risen early—as usual. He stretched his red wings and fluttered about the burrow, creating several gusts of air. “Good morning, Mother! How was your rest?”

    Sand rained from the ceiling. Teseva wanted to lie still, but now had to scrub debris off her face. “Fine. Just fine.”

    More sand sloughed. If Teseva hadn’t been so depressed, she might’ve summoned the energy to yell reprimands at her offspring and finally convince him to move out. Instead she bit into the weevil carapace in front of her and chewed.

    “I was thinking we could explore near the termite mounds today.” Selvin brought his mandibles together in a smile. “Some of those termites looked absolutely delicious—what do you think?”

    Having recently moulted into an adult, her son was perpetually bouncing off the walls. Teseva couldn’t blame him. She remembered being a young wasp out in the aboveground, seeking game to chase and more of the garden to explore. If only I could wipe my memory; then I could be enthralled by it all once again.

    “I bet”—Selvin paced—“that if we wait until the Arborans appear outside, the termite mounds will become disturbed again, granting us the perfect chance to catch prey.”

    Teseva swallowed a bit of the weevil’s wing casing. It tasted satisfactory. “Sure.”

    “I can track whichever termite straggles furthest from the colony, and then we can flank one together—what do you say?”

    “Why not.”

    Selvin stopped pacing and tilted his head. “Are you all right?”

    She continued eating, seeking flavour past the bitterness.

    “You seem a little … dour.” Selvin crawled closer, testing the air in front of him with both antennae. “Is something the matter? Are you feeling ill?”

    “No, I’m just…” How could she explain? Teseva had seen too many seasons, and found less relevance with each one. She spent most of her days now seeking distractions, hoping to find entertainment once again. “I’m just a little tired. That’s all.”

    Selvin shuffled closer, brushing his mother’s back with a gentle foreleg. “If you’re ill, you should rest. Don’t strain yourself.”

    Strain? Calcification had been building up in each of Teseva’s joints for some time now, stilting her movement. Had he noticed? She discreetly tested her limbs.

    “Save your energy today, for a better hunt tomorrow.”

    Weariness shivered through Teseva. She became keenly aware of how rigid her legs felt, how grainy some eyelets in her vision appeared. She wiped her face and did her best to stand prominent. “Tell me, Selvin. Be honest ... do you think age has expired me?”

    For a moment, only the faint wriggling of larvae could be heard in the burrow.

    “No mother—of course not! How could you say such a thing?” Selvin fluttered, as if to dispel the very notion. “You’re as sprightly as you’ve ever been!”

    Teseva glanced at the opaque, crinkled shape of her own wings, and compared them to her son’s crisp beauties. “To be truthful, I’ve begun to dwell on my relevance in this world.”

    “Relevance?” Selvin quickly pointed at the menagerie of lesser bugs whose bodies were tucked away in all the folds of their burrow. “Of course you’re relevant! Without you, how would we eat? How would we have been born?”

    Teseva cleared her throat, trying not to sound as dispirited as she felt. “Yes, but I mean beyond just feeding and birthing.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “For instance, what is the greatest prey I have ever caught? Are any of them even worth remembering? And I mean truly.”

    The young wasp drew away, perplexed. Then he turned to the body of an orchid mantis well-preserved in a corner. “I would say that flowery specimen is one of your finest catches. The fact that you managed to subdue him without marring his colour speaks volumes of your ability. And your relevance.”

    Teseva glanced at the pink bug. So dead, and yet it still looked as afraid as it had while alive. “Yes that one is very decorative, I suppose. But he wasn’t much of a fight. Not an impressive feat, if you ask me.”

    Selvin looked further and motioned to the goliath birdeater behind his larval siblings. “Well in terms of fighting—don’t forget about the spider! An astounding feat of tenacity. Not only did you defeat him, but you also managed to lift his remains into our burrow. I remember how effortless you made it look.”

    An ancient accomplishment. Teseva shook her head and sat back on her nest of larvae. They were only days away from turning into adults. She picked at the remains of her weevil.

    “You’re a great teacher too,” Selvin said. “Watching you hunt is the best lesson there is. You want us all to be as successful as you. Don’t you?”

    Teseva stared at her bed of offspring. It seems like a rather sad reason to exist, simply for the benefit of others. Is that really all that’s left for me?

    The larvae wriggled together, sending stray, delicate nuzzles towards their parent. Teseva accepted the many licks to her forelimbs. Yes go ahead, lick your mother. Perhaps it would be best if you all bit in as well, and chewed …

    Above them came a deafening clamour. The larvae froze at the thunderous vibration.

    “Whoa—earlier than usual!” Selvin stared intently at the ceiling, as if through it he could spot the massive creatures walking above it. “You think they’ve come to inspect the termite mounds?”

    Teseva’s feelers drifted, tracking where the muffled tremors went to determine the Arborans’ speed and direction. “I think so.”

    Selvin rose to four limbs and quickly wiped his face. “We should go see!”

    Although her legs were rigid, Teseva lifted her claws from the ground and gave them a rotation. Nothing snapped. Then she jittered her wings, flapping one and then the other. Nothing split.

    “What do you say?” Selvin smiled. “A quick browse for termite pickings? We haven’t hunted in so long.”

    Teseva left the litter and approached the burrow exit. Reluctantly, she cleaned her own face and feelers. “Alright. Let's get it over with.”

    ***

    The weather was glorious. Rays of sunlight were elegantly divided by the panels of the surrounding glass dome, illuminating the multitude of garden shrubs, ferns, and saplings in golden outlines. On days like this, Selvin could remain outside forever; especially when he was following his idol.

    How enchanting she is, he thought, watching her soar with characteristic ease. What are the odds? The greatest hunter in the world, and she also happens to be my mother.

    They rose into the trees. “Up here,” Teseva called, landing high on a pine branch.

    “Here? There’s no prey this high.” Selvin searched the pointy surface for a suitable landing spot. He ended up straddling a pinecone.

    His mother pointed down to the world below: an amalgamation of branching dirt pathways that were designed for Arborans.

    Selvin circumnavigated the pinecone, searching for the sight that had fixated his parent. “I can’t spot anything from here. Why don’t we fly closer?”

    Teseva remained quiet. With a single limb, she slowly pointed directly at the lone Arboran, which stood still and adjusted some shining metal between its branches. “Our prey.”

    Selvin stumbled, casting a pine needle downward. “Our … wait … What?”

    The inedible tree-giant was easy to spot. His outer bark was a silky white sheathe that whorled with each immense movement, sending waning vibrations up the pine.

    “Are you suggesting we hunt an Arboran?”

    Teseva gave no response, and instead flew to a lower branch. Selvin simply watched.

    The Arborans were easy enough to examine, especially from a distance. To counteract their colossal size, the world incurred a curse of slow-movement upon their weighty limbs, and like much of the greenery around them, the tree-giants would often stand still for prolonged segments of time. Periodically they introduced more shining contraptions and glass cylinders into their world, and sometimes even more plants.

    Such strange, pale monsters, Selvin thought, incomprehensible. But like all of nature, they must be serving some critical purpose in this garden’s cycle.

    “They have heads, don’t they?” Teseva finally said. She looked up at Selvin and pointed at the area behind her antennae. “And if they have heads, that means they also have a nape. A place that leads to their ganglia: just like in cicadas, just like in spiders.”

    Selvin was taken aback. “But Arborans are neither of those things.”

    “And this one is alone.” Teseva climbed further down the branch. “A rare opportunity. Did you know their vision is practically useless? They can only see what is directly in front of them.”

    Selvin’s feelers drooped.

    “I’ll wait until he comes closer to our nest,” Teseva said. “Then I’ll swoop in behind his neck. If I’m precise with my stinger, there’s no reason I can’t puncture a key segment of his brain and subdue him.”

    Awe sprouted in Selvin. He had never even considered the anatomy of a tree-giant, and it came as no surprise that his mother knew it so intricately. It would be astounding to behold such a plan as hers in action, but at the same time, the young wasp couldn’t shake his concern. “Mother, are you sure this will work?”

    Teseva glided to an even lower branch.

    “And what if the Arboran’s skin is too thick!? Are they not made of bark? Mother, your stinger may not be able to pierce it!”

    But she was already gone, leaving the branch wobbling and needles in mid-fall. Selvin was unable to move, stuck somewhere between horror and admiration.

    ***

    Selvin had never seen his mother so alive, so limitless. When they returned to the burrow, she crawled along the ceiling, loosening sand.

    “I bet we can do it!” she hopped down. “If we can get a couple stings in, I bet his body’s defences would be overloaded.”

    Selvin shielded his siblings from the falling earth that sloughed from the ceiling with her leap.

    “We take a stab at him every day. Gnaw him down. Until eventually he collapses, and we can feast on a corpse that’ll feed us for eternity.” His mother settled herself into the claws of her orchid mantis trophy, resting in its clutches as if mocking it. She casually snapped off the dead bug’s head. “I think it’s a magnificent new goal. What an achievement that would be. A dead Arboran outside our nest. What do you say, Selvin?”

    The young wasp met the fierce spirit that blazed in his mother’s eyes. He tried to look away, but found himself unable to. He scrubbed his vision. “Well. I mean. Yes. We should do it. We must try, anyway.”

    “Not just try,” Teseva bit into the mantis’ head, swallowing its eye. “We must succeed.”

    ***

    “What do you mean ‘quit’?” Johann tented his fingers beneath his chin to hide his agitation. He found it hard to make eye contact with his son. “Oskar, you have to understand, this isn’t a quit-and-come-back scenario. This isn’t selling oatmilk gelato on False Island. This is a job students apply for regularly. A job many adults apply for regularly. If you leave, they’re not going to let me hire you back.”

    His blonde-haired teen stared dejectedly at the floor, crumpling his bug-netted hat between his sweaty, freckled hands.

    “You now have a face shield. Gloves. An Ento-suit covering you head to toe. What are you so afraid of?”

    Oskar momentarily glanced up at his father, and then stared out the conjoining window of his office, which offered a glimpse of the simulated nature in the EntoDome. “They chase me every time. The same ones.”

    “They’re not sharks, Oskar; you’re not even an entity to them. All they see is a big moving shadow. You might as well be a tree.”

    The boy reached back to touch his ear; he’d shown Johann a swollen puncture there as evidence to the attacks. “It’s like they choose me. Specifically me. They slip beneath the mesh, and they keep finding new areas to sting. I’m not joking.”

    A hint of laughter wanted to escape from Johann, but he grit his teeth. “You know there’s students who undergo four weeks of interviews for this place, right? They leave their families, their countries, leave their whole lives behind to do what you’re doing.”

    Oskar heaved his shoulders, sighed.

    “And you’re telling me you can’t handle a couple of bee stings?”

    The hat between Oskar’s hands fell to the floor. He ruffled his hair, as if double-checking that there wasn’t something still in it. “It’s not just stings, dad; they bite me too. Repeatedly. Please. All I’m asking is for a little break. Just let me work in the labs for a bit. I’ll do anything else.”

    An urge came into Johann’s arms: to shake his son, to tell him to man up. But the time where one could enact such parental chauvinism was long over. It would reflect poorly on Johann.

    Instead, he stared at the termitary diagrams around his desk and fingered a couple. “Alright, that’s fine. That’s okay. I’ll take over the surveying for a bit, and we can work something out later.”

    The boy stood up, still staring at the floor. “Really? Thanks. I mean, I appreciate it. And also ... I’m sorry.”

    Johann lifted his son’s chin. “It’s your first time. And I know it’s a lot. Get yourself feeling comfortable again. Once you’re ready, I’ll put you back in the dome.”

    Oskar grabbed his coat and field kit, nodding his head, muttering further ‘thank you’s. He retreated backwards towards the door and left with smiling reticence.

    Johann stood for a moment, unsure about his leniency. The thing about parenting, he had realized, was that every decision can feel wrong. Even the right ones. Was he right to have given his son such a massive leg-up in the industry? Surely yes. It would have been stupid to ignore the opportunity to work here. But was he right to arrange so many responsibilities for his boy this early? Maybe not.

    As Johann sat down, he heard the sprinklers start. He looked out the window into the dome. The black nootropic was being sprayed from the ceiling, falling like some inky rain. His windows smudged with dark, murky lines.

    The bugs in there were smarter, yes. Increased memory, cognition, social-dynamism, and a bunch of other behavioural stuff that wasn’t Johann’s field. But he’d never heard of any of them stalking researchers, or of acting vindictive.

    He glanced at Oskar’s hat left on the ground. Its rigid visor held the rest of the airy material in place. Did they actually squeeze through the folds of his clothing? What could scare him so badly?

    3 Comments
    2024/04/12
    01:43 UTC

    2

    I had to kill my best friend

    My friend and I got lost in the forest

    Ray and I, lifelong friends bonded by our love for the outdoors, embarked on our monthly camping trip deep in the heart of the forest. The air was crisp with the scent of pine, and the sounds of nature enveloped us.

    As the sun began to set, I felt a pang of unease as we realized we were lost. No matter how we turned, we returned to the same clearing. The eerie silence that settled over the woods unnerved me, and I couldn't shake the feeling that we weren't alone. Suddenly, the looped path leads to an abandoned campsite. The tents are torn and scattered, with signs of a struggle but no trace of the campers. The fire pit is cold, the food is gone, and the equipment is scattered. The air is thick with a sense of foreboding. There were three tents, but they were all torn.

    Despite our unease, we decided to stay the night, hoping to make sense of our situation in the morning. Using the flashlights on our phones, we set up a makeshift shelter from branches and torn tent pieces. We huddle in our sleeping bags for warmth, sharing our dwindling trail mix supplies and energy bars. As night falls, the darkness seems to press in around us, making every rustle and creak sound more ominous. Our breath clouds the air between us, and I can feel the weight of our shared fear pressing down on my chest.

    Throughout the night, I'm plagued by nightmares of the torn campsite and the missing campers. I jolt awake several times, disoriented and terrified, only to find Ray watching me with wide, worried eyes. He offers me water or food, but I'm too shaken to eat. The sky begins to lighten, and we both know we must escape this nightmare.

    When the sun finally breaks through the trees, we crawl out of our makeshift shelter and stretch our stiff limbs. The abandoned campsite still looms before us, and I can't shake the feeling that it's somehow connected to our predicament. Ray suggests we search the area more thoroughly, hoping to find some clue as to what happened or how to return to civilization.

    We divide the tasks: I head south, following a creek that might lead us out of the woods, while Ray investigates the surrounding hills, hoping to find a trail or some sign of civilization. I trudge through the underbrush, my boots sinking into the soft earth, the sounds of the forest echoing all around me. The air is thick with the scent of damp leaves and earth, and the occasional birdcall pierces the silence.

    As I walk, I can't help but feel a growing sense of unease. Despite my best efforts, I keep looping to the abandoned campsite. Every time I approach it, the tattered tents and scattered equipment look more ominous, as if they're taunting me. I push forward, determined to find a way out of this nightmare.

    After hours of aimless wandering, I finally catch a glimpse of movement in the distance. My heart leaps into my throat as I realize it's Ray returning from his search. He's exhausted, his clothes torn and dirty, and his face etched with a grim determination. I hurry to meet him, relieved to see a familiar face.

    "Ray, I can't believe it," I begin, shaking my head. "I kept looping back to that campsite no matter which way I went. It's like there's some kind of force keeping me here."

    He nods in agreement, his expression grim. "Yeah, me too," Ray says, defeated.

    We sit down beside each other, our backs against a fallen tree. "Look, we can't stay here much longer. We are running out of our food supply." Ray says

    "I know," I reply, "but I don't know where else to go. Every time we try to leave, we end up back here." I gesture toward the abandoned campsite, feeling a chill run down my spine.

    Suddenly, Ray jumps up and heads toward something he sees in one of the tents.

    "Wait, Ray! What are you doing?" I asked, scrambling to my feet and following him.

    As we come to a stop, Ray reaches down and picks up a can of beans. "Look," he says, holding it up for me to see. "There's still some food here. Maybe we can find more." With renewed hope, we search the tents more carefully, scavenging for anything edible. After a few minutes, we uncover a small stash of canned goods hidden under some torn-up sleeping bags. Our hearts lift as we realize we may have enough to last a few more days.

    But as we sit there, eating our cold, rationed meal, I can't shake the feeling that something is still not right. The fire in the pit continues to dance and flicker. The shadows that dance across the trees take on a sinister quality as if they're mocking us.

    "Thanks for doing the fire," I say to Ray.

    Ray looked at me with immense confusion. "I didn't start it, I thought you did."

    "What? No, when I went to get some wood because I was going to start one, I returned, and the fire was going." I reply

    "And I went to look for more food but when I came back, you had the fire started."

    They stare at each other briefly before Ray says, "You know what, I probably did start it. We've been doing this for so long it's probably just muscle memory."

    I can tell that even Ray doesn't believe that. We both know that something isn't right. The fire keeps going against all logic. It's almost as if it's mocking us. I shiver, wrapping my arms around myself for warmth. The air grows colder, and the shadows seem to grow darker. I couldn't help but think about the fact that we had run out of water. We had just filled our big water bottles at the fill-up station we found on our way in, but we had only planned to camp for two days and were going onto the third.

    Before I knew it, I was fast asleep next to the fire, wrapped in my sleeping bag. I was awoken in the middle of the night by someone running off. I bolted up and woke Ray up after turning my flashlight on. I explained what I heard so we investigated the campsite.

    As we searched the area, my heart pounded in my ears. Suddenly, I tripped over something hard and fell to the ground. I reached down and felt something cold, realizing it was a human hand. I screamed in terror and fell back, colliding with Ray. We scrambled away from the body, our eyes wide with fear.

    The body was that of a man dressed in rags, his skin pale and cold. His eyes were wide open, staring at nothing, and his mouth was frozen in a silent scream. We couldn't help but notice the strange symbol carved into his back.

    Ray reached out and tentatively touched the body, feeling for a pulse. There was nothing. "He's dead," he whispered, his voice shaking.

    I couldn't take my eyes off the strange symbol on its back. "What does it mean?" I asked, my voice barely audible.

    Ray shrugged, looking just as frightened as I felt. "I don't know. Maybe it's some kind of mark. A sign that someone or something is watching us."

    My heart raced at the thought. "But why would someone carve it into their back?" I asked, still staring at the cold, dead body.

    "Maybe it's a cult thing," Ray offered, his voice barely above a whisper. "Maybe they do that to mark their members or something."

    I shuddered at the thought. "But why would they leave him here to die? And why are they after us?"

    Ray didn't answer, his gaze fixed on the body. I could tell he was just as frightened as I was, but he was also trying to process what was happening.

    As I panicked, I started trying to find someone to blame. My eyes lock on Ray, and I accuse him of being responsible for all this without thinking. "You did this, Ray! You brought us here," I shout, pointing my finger at him while sobbing.

    Ray looks shocked and hurt by my accusation. "What? How could you say that?" he yells back, his voice filled with anger. "I didn't ask to be brought here any more than you did!"

    Before I can say anything else, he lunges at me, pushing me to the ground. I scream as he pins me down, his hands shaking with rage. "You don't know what you're talking about!" he shouts, tears streaming down his face.

    He has his hands around my neck. My vision blurs as I struggle to breathe, and I can feel the blood rushing to my head. I kick and claw at him, but he's too strong. He's been my friend for so long, but I don't recognize the person holding me down like this.

    The weight of his body on top of me feels like an anchor, dragging me down into the cold, hard earth. I can taste the dust and dirt in my mouth as I gasp for air, but it's no use. My lungs burn with every shallow breath I manage to take.

    I couldn't take it anymore; feeling around me for something to defend myself with, I gripped a rock and plunged it into his temple. He immediately falls to the floor.

    My heart is racing, blood pounding in my ears. I stare at the lifeless body, unable to comprehend what I've just done. Ray's body twitches and I'm suddenly filled with dread. I reach out to touch him, feeling for a pulse, but it's already gone. Tears stream down my face as I realize what I've done. I can't believe I just killed my best friend.

    The weight of guilt presses down on me like a thousand tons of brick. I struggle to reach my feet, and my legs feel weak and unsteady. I look around frantically, trying to figure out what to do next. The forest is eerily silent, as if holding its breath, waiting for me to make a move.

    The body of my best friend lies motionless on the ground, his lifeless eyes staring up at the sky. I can't believe I just took his life. Tears stream down my face as I stumble away from him, my hands shaking uncontrollably. I don't know how I will live with myself after this.

    Panicked, I ran. I have only a destination away from here. The forest seems to close in on me, trapping me in a nightmarish maze. Whenever I think I've found a way out, I return to where I started. The trees are conspiring against me, trying to keep me here forever. My panic-stricken heart pounds against my ribcage as I sprint through the underbrush, my lungs burning with every breath.

    I try to remember what happened, but the memories are jumbled and confused. It's as if I'm watching a horror movie where the main character can't quite piece together the events leading up to the gruesome climax.

    Fueled by panic, I hastily buried Ray's body in a makeshift grave, my mind reeling with disbelief at the ordeal. I had a laughable "Funeral" where I sobbed to Ray and apologized for what I had done. I remember being with Ray, feeling safe and secure in his presence.

    After a little under an hour of mourning, I started to remember the dead body we found in one of the tents. He also deserves a "Funeral," even if I didn't know him.

    I gather supplies to bury him. As I work, my mind drifts back to remembering the first time I saw him. He was just lying there, his lifeless eyes staring up at the sky. Then I pictured Ray, I had never seen anyone die before, and it was far more gruesome than anything I could have ever imagined.

    I approached the body, preparing to lift at my knees. As I begin picking him up, his face is more visible. It's Ray.

    My heart drops in disbelief as I stare at my friend who I just murdered and buried no less than an hour ago. How is that possible? There's no way he was unburied! I was with him the whole time!

    I sprint back to Ray's grave, shaking with fear; I frantically dig through the dirt, my hands trembling as I uncover the ground. It's empty. Again, how the fuck is that possible?

    Once again defeated, I returned to the fire pit; it was not lit this time. I attempt to start it, but my hands are too shaky, and my mind is racing a mile a minute. After giving up on that, I took a swig from my water bottle, not remembering that we had run out officially last night. It's been almost 12 hours without water, and my body would not let me forget that.

    My body was feeling strange from what I assumed was the lack of water, but my anxiety had gone down dramatically. "Is this what happens before someone dies?" I say to myself as I fall into a deep sleep.

    When I wake up, I'm in a hospital room. The sunlight streaming through the window is unnaturally bright, and it takes me a moment to remember where I am. Then, I see the figure sitting in the chair beside my bed. It's the forest Ranger. His face is pale and drawn, and there's a look of exhaustion in his eyes.

    As if sensing my gaze, he turns to meet my eyes. "How are you feeling?" he asks softly.

    "Confused," I manage to croak. "What happened?"

    The forest ranger takes a deep breath before answering. "You were found unconscious in the woods a few miles from here. You'd suffered from severe dehydration and exhaustion. The medics say you're lucky to be alive." He pauses, then continues, "There was an investigation. We found the body of your friend Ray buried nearby. The medical examiner determined that he'd been dead for several hours before you were found." Remembering what I did to Ray made me feel immense guilt.

    "What happened out there?" I ask

    The ranger explained that I would need to wait for officers to come and take my story. For the entire day, I spent time with doctors, nurses, and the cops, explaining what happened, admitting to killing Ray, the loop we couldn't get out of, the dead body, and the mysterious sounds around our campsite.

    After the officers were satisfied, they left. They said they had no choice but to prosecute me for the murder of Ray.

    The next four years were spent in trial and the authorities investigating. It turns out that the forest we were in was a cult territory. They call themselves "The Cult Of Fear." Apparently, they would spike the water at the refilling stations with a mild hallucinogen that would cause fear and anxiety and could make people feel trapped or stuck in a loop. I guess the whole thing with the cult was that they would sacrifice people who were full of fear. They still don't know why or what the motive is, but they have found a couple members who claim the cult moved.

    So this is my story. I was able to post bond, so I had time to collect my thoughts and tell my side of the story. Tomorrow is sentencing, and I have all of my affairs in order, expecting to go to prison for the rest of my life.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/11
    00:40 UTC

    4

    Black cloud

    Black cloud. By: StoryLord.

    The Ford F150 rumbled through the parking lot, its tires crunching against gravel as I maneuvered into a prime spot near the entrance of Walmart. Daniel, my energetic five-year-old, bounced in his seat beside me, his excitement palpable. With the engine silenced, I swung open the door and stepped out onto the pavement, the crisp air tingling with anticipation.

    Walking around to the backseat, I reached over and unclasped Daniel's seatbelt, his small hand instinctively finding mine. His fingers intertwined with mine, a silent signal of trust and companionship amidst the bustling environment of the parking lot.

    As I lifted him out of the car seat, his feet dangled eagerly, itching to hit the ground. With a gentle thud, he landed on the pavement, but his enthusiasm quickly turned into a request, his arms outstretched towards me. "Upy," he pleaded, his voice a melodic chorus of innocence.

    A grin tugged at the corners of my lips as I obliged, scooping him up into my arms once more. "Alright, fine," I chuckled, the warmth in my voice mirroring the affection in his bright eyes. His laughter filled the air as I held him close, his joy radiating in the simple act of being lifted off the ground.

    We reached the entrance, the automatic doors sliding open with a whoosh of chilled air that greeted us as we stepped inside. The bustling store greeted us with a cacophony of sounds and sights - people milling about with baskets, carts overflowing with groceries, and the unmistakable aroma of freshly cooked food wafting from the McDonald's area on the right side.

    The warmth of the store enveloped us as we navigated through the aisles, Daniel's hand securely clasped in mine as we weaved through the throngs of shoppers. The temptation of the delicious food from McDonald's beckoned, its savory scent tantalizing my senses, but I resisted the urge, knowing we had groceries to purchase first.

    As we entered the bustling store, my eyes scanned the area and landed on an unoccupied basket near the McDonald's food place. I quickly grabbed it, feeling a sense of relief at not having to search for one amidst the crowd. Placing Daniel in the basket cart seat, his infectious smile warmed my heart as I began pushing the cart towards our destination.

    Navigating through the aisles, we made our way to the food section, the shelves lined with an array of products waiting to be chosen. Daniel's eyes lit up as he spotted the colorful cereal boxes, his excitement bubbling over. "Lucky Charms!" he exclaimed, his childlike enthusiasm ringing through the aisles.

    I couldn't help but smile at his excitement, reaching for the box of Lucky Charms and placing it gently into the basket. Daniel's gaze followed my every move, his eyes shining with happiness as he watched his favorite cereal join our growing collection of groceries.

    Reaching the section with dairy products, I carefully selected two packages of eggs, knowing they were Daniel's favorite ingredient for his beloved egg and cheese sandwiches. With a sense of anticipation, I imagined the delicious aroma of toasted bread, melted cheese, and freshly cooked eggs filling our kitchen.

    Continuing our journey through the aisles, I picked up a loaf of bread, its soft texture promising the perfect base for our sandwiches. With each item added to our basket, I felt a sense of accomplishment, knowing that our trip to the store would result in satisfying meals and happy memories.

    As we reached the frozen dinner aisle, I focused on selecting the items we needed, pushing the basket along the cold aisle. Daniel's eyes darted around, taking in every detail as he eagerly vocalized his preferences. Amidst his excited chatter, I paused to open the freezer door, retrieving three packages of frozen pizza before closing it shut with a satisfying click.

    Continuing our journey down the aisle, Daniel's voice piped up once more, his excitement palpable. "Ice cream!" he exclaimed, his enthusiasm contagious. With a small smile, I reached for a few packages of ice cream, including his favorite - ice cream sandwiches. Adding them to our growing collection, I couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction at fulfilling his simple yet joyful request.

    As we moved away from the frozen dinner aisle, Daniel's innocent request filled the air. "Daddy, can I have some toys?" he asked, his voice filled with excitement and anticipation, accompanied by a beaming smile that tugged at my heartstrings.

    "Of course, buddy," I replied, matching his smile with one of my own. The simple joy on his face reminded me of the importance of cherishing these moments and indulging in the little pleasures that make childhood so magical.

    As we approached the toys aisle, Daniel's face lit up with a blend of amusement and excitement, his eyes darting around to take in the array of action figures and Minecraft toys lining the shelves.

    "Which one do you like?" I asked, matching his cheerful tone. Watching him explore the colorful world of toys brought a sense of joy to my heart, knowing that this simple moment would be etched in our memories forever.

    "Minecraft toys," Daniel exclaimed in his childlike voice, his excitement palpable. I couldn't help but smile, remembering his love for all things Minecraft. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I felt a surge of happiness knowing that I could make his day with such a simple pleasure.

    I carefully selected a few Minecraft toys and placed them in the basket, watching as Daniel's face lit up with joy. His request to hold one of the toys warmed my heart.

    "Of course you can, just be gentle with it until we've paid for it," I replied, a hint of laughter in my voice as I reminded him to handle it with care. Seeing his excitement as he clutched the toy close, I couldn't help but feel grateful for these precious moments together.

    As we made our way to the checkout area, Daniel happily occupied himself with the Minecraft toys, his excitement palpable as he played with them in the basket. Suddenly, the lights flickered, causing a moment of confusion among the shoppers, including Daniel and me.

    "Daddy, what was that with the lights?" Daniel asked, his voice tinged with curiosity and a hint of concern.

    "It's nothing to worry about, buddy," I reassured him, my tone calm and reassuring. Despite the flickering lights, I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for Daniel's sake, hoping to alleviate any anxiety he might have felt.

    As we stood second in line at the checkout, I glanced up and noticed three police officers hurrying towards the entrance area, their urgent movements catching my attention. With their hands pressed to their walkie-talkies, they spoke in hushed tones, their expressions tense and focused. Though I couldn't make out the words they were saying from our distance, their sense of urgency sent a shiver down my spine, and I couldn't help but wonder what might be happening outside the store.

    As the lights flickered again, this time more pronounced, a sense of unease spread throughout the store. Confusion hung in the air as people looked around, their expressions mirroring my own bewilderment. Suddenly, the monitors began to beep urgently, adding to the chaos.

    Then, without warning, the entire store plunged into darkness, leaving us all enveloped in an eerie silence broken only by the panicked screams of shoppers. In the darkness, I felt Daniel's small hand grip mine tightly, his cries mingling with the chaos around us.

    Scooping him up into my arms, I held him close, his trembling form pressed against my chest. "It's okay, buddy, Daddy's here. Everything's going to be okay," I reassured him, my voice a steady anchor in the midst of the turmoil. Despite the uncertainty of the situation, I was determined to comfort and protect my son, offering him the reassurance he needed in that moment of darkness.

    As the lights flickered back on, a collective sigh of relief swept through the store, mingled with disbelief at the sudden darkness that had engulfed us moments before. However, any sense of calm was shattered by the piercing wail of sirens echoing in the distance.

    A wave of dread washed over me, sending chills down my spine, and I felt Daniel's grip tighten around me, his fear mirroring my own. Around us, other shoppers shared in our apprehension, their faces etched with worry and confusion.

    "Is it a tornado?" a woman's voice trembled as she voiced the question that lingered in all of our minds. With a sense of urgency, I reached for my phone, intending to check the weather for answers. However, what I found on the internet sent a bone-chilling feeling.

    As I scanned the news on my phone, my heart sank at the alarming headline: "Don't go outside into the mist." The words echoed in my mind, sending a chill down my spine.

    "What?" I whispered, the weight of the situation pressing down on me as I held Daniel close in my arms. The realization that we were facing something beyond our understanding filled me with a sense of unease and uncertainty. Gathering my wits, I knew that our safety depended on making the right decisions in the face of this newfound danger.

    As I looked up, I noticed the sense of urgency rippling through the crowd as people began to swiftly exit the store. A man nearby, his face etched with a mixture of urgency and fear, caught my attention as he scrolled through his phone.

    "Know what, screw this, you can have my spot I'm out of here," he offered abruptly, his voice tinged with urgency. His gesture took me by surprise, but I could sense the genuine concern in his words.

    "Thank you," I replied, gratitude flooding through me as I realized the gravity of the situation. With a firm grip on Daniel's hand, I prepared to face whatever lay beyond the store's walls, knowing that we needed to act quickly to ensure our safety.

    Gently, I knelt down to Daniel's level, his grip tightening around me as he resisted being put down. "Baby, you have to stand up on your own so we can make this faster," I explained softly, my voice laced with reassurance. "I promise I'll pick you back up and even let you sit on my lap. It's going to be okay."

    After a moment of hesitation, Daniel finally relented, releasing his hold on me so I could set him down. With a comforting smile, I assured him once more before turning to assist the cashier in packing up our groceries, grateful for Daniel's cooperation amidst the chaos unfolding around us.

    Sensing Daniel's unease, I gave him a quick reassuring rub on the head as I lifted him back into the cart seat. Despite my attempts to comfort him, his expression remained somber as we made our way towards the exit.

    As we walked out, I couldn't help but notice the eerie emptiness that had settled over the store. The aisles that were once bustling with shoppers now stood deserted, and even the receipt checker was conspicuously absent from their post.

    A sense of foreboding settled over me as I navigated the empty store, Daniel's silence speaking volumes as we stepped out into the unknown. With each passing moment, the gravity of the situation became increasingly apparent, and I knew that our journey was far from over.

    The chaotic scene outside the store intensified as I began loading our groceries into the trunk of my car. Frantic shoppers rushed past, their actions mirroring a sense of urgency and panic that hung in the air. Some threw their groceries haphazardly into their cars, abandoning all semblance of order in their haste to escape.

    My heart raced as I watched people sprinting down the driveway aisle, their faces contorted with fear and desperation. Among them, a man with blood dripping from his forehead screamed a warning, his voice echoing through the chaos. "DON'T GO INTO THE BLACK CLOUDS, SOMETHING IS IN IT!" he yelled, his words chilling me to the core.

    The urgency in his voice spurred me into action, my instincts urging me to protect Daniel at all costs. With a sense of determination, I quickly closed the trunk and hurried back into the safety of the store, knowing that the true danger lay beyond the ominous black clouds looming in the distance.

    As I followed the direction where people were running from, my heart sank as I witnessed the ominous black mist looming in the distance, stretching as far as the eye could see. Its sheer magnitude sent a shiver down my spine, and a sense of dread washed over me.

    "Shit," I muttered under my breath, my mind racing with thoughts of how to keep Daniel safe in the face of this new threat. Without hesitation, I scooped him up into my arms and sprinted back towards the safety of the store, the chilling siren wailing in the background, its dreadful sound piercing through the chaos.

    As I reached the entrance, relief flooded over me as I stepped back into the familiar surroundings of the store. Others who had been packing up their groceries followed suit, seeking refuge from the encroaching danger. With each step further into the building, I felt a sense of ease wash over me, knowing that, for the moment, we were sheltered from whatever lurked beyond the ominous black clouds.

    As we huddled together inside the store, the tension in the air was palpable as we watched the black mist inch closer and closer, engulfing everything in its path. Suddenly, our phones began to buzz simultaneously, alerting us to a message that sent a chill down our spines.

    DON'T GO INTO THE MIST STAY INDOORS, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A POWERED BATTERY RADIO, WITH CANNED GOODS AND FOOD SUPPLIES

    The urgency of the message reinforced the gravity of the situation, and a sense of unease settled over us as we realized the severity of the threat we faced. With trembling hands, I checked my phone battery and made a mental note to gather essential supplies to ensure our safety while we waited out the approaching danger from within the confines of the store.

    As I glanced upwards, a sense of surreal dread washed over me as I beheld the sight of the dark smoke of mist shrouding everything in its path. The once familiar surroundings—the cars, the trees, the ground, the grass, and even the sky—were now obscured by an otherworldly darkness.

    It was a scene straight out of a nightmare, the thick mist swallowing up everything in its wake with an eerie sense of finality. Despite the familiarity of the environment, it appeared distorted and unreal under the oppressive cloak of the encroaching mist.

    I couldn't help but feel a chill run down my spine as I realized the enormity of the situation we were facing. With a heavy heart, I knew that we were now trapped within the confines of this ominous phenomenon, forced to confront the unknown dangers that lurked within its depths.

    As we stood there, transfixed by the unfolding horror before us, a mixture of shock, disbelief, and fear permeated the air. The reactions of those around me mirrored my own sense of unease and apprehension.

    "Oh my God," one woman gasped, her grip tightening around her frightened daughter as they stared into the abyss of darkness.

    "What the fuck?" a man exclaimed, his voice tinged with disbelief and a hint of anger, his confusion echoing the sentiments of many.

    "This can't be real," I muttered, unable to tear my gaze away from the pitch blackness that now enveloped everything in its path. It felt as though we were staring into the void itself, the weight of the unknown pressing down on us with an eerie intensity.

    In that moment, surrounded by the oppressive darkness of the mist, I couldn't shake the feeling of unease that settled over me, a chilling reminder of the fragility of our existence in the face of forces beyond our comprehension.

    As the lights flickered one final time before plunging us into darkness, a collective gasp echoed through the store. With no source of light but the dim glow of our phones, the sense of isolation intensified.

    Frantically, I checked my phone, hoping for a connection to the outside world, but to my dismay, I found no internet signal. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks – we were now officially alone, cut off from the outside world and left to face the unknown in the depths of the mist.

    In the eerie silence that followed, a sense of vulnerability washed over us, a stark reminder of our isolation amidst the encroaching darkness. With no way to communicate with the outside world, we were left to rely solely on each other as we braced ourselves for whatever lay ahead in the abyss of the mist.

    In a worried and scared tone "Daddy?"

    1 Comment
    2024/04/10
    03:11 UTC

    1

    The Other Me

    They say that everyone has a doppelganger, but meeting one will mean your doom. I used to believe that was just some stupid urban legend until that horrific day.

    It happened after a long day of working at a crappy fast food place with an equally abysmal salary. The customers were acting belligerent as usual and the manager barked orders at all the workers like we were his slaves. I hated every second of working there, but I had to put up with it because I had bills to pay. The end of my shift couldn’t come fast enough that day. I marched out of that dump and headed to the nearest train station to return home.

    I live in a major city so just about everywhere is packed with people, especially in a train station late in the afternoon. That wasn’t the case this time. The station was quiet to the point of being uncanny. There was always some ambient noise of chaotic city life blaring at all times, but at that moment, not a soul could be heard or seen.

    " Where the hell is everyone?" I muttered out loud. No commuters were in sight despite this being one of the busiest times of the day. To make things even more bewildering, the entire station was immaculately clean. It was pristine to perfection. Anyone who has been to New York knows that place is practically one huge cesspool of filth, rats, and bad attitudes. This was like an entirely different world. Taking full advantage of the lack of booth workers and security guards, I hopped the turnstile and made my way to the platform. I usually get a jolt of adrenaline from fare evading without getting caught, but that feeling was gone for obvious reasons.

    Once I boarded my train after it arrived, my eyebags felt like they were made of lead. Dealing with rudeass customers all day must've really drained all my energy. It's not like I had anything better to do so I sat down and nodded off for a bit. I remember having this weird feeling before going to sleep. The train was just as barren as everything else but I couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. I tried searching around for someone but the sweet embrace of sleep had me hooked.

    I remember jerking up awake to the loud hum of static blaring in my ears. It was the same kind of static you would hear from a broken TV. I thought the train speakers must've been malfunctioning until I heard a strange voice come to life.

    " We are currently receiving countless reports of an unidentified hostile organism that we'll refer to as "Alternates". Until we have a complete understanding of the threat, it's important to stay home, lock all doors and windows, and have access to a loaded firearm or any ranged weapon at all times. You will know if an alternate exists solely based on their physical characteristics:

    If you see another person that looks identical to you, run away and hide.

    If you see a person that has a biologically impossible characteristic, run away and hide.

    If one manages to break into your home, refrain from any kind of communication or contact with the threat.

    These intelligent lifeforms utilize elements of psychological warfare to take advantage of their victims. While we heavily discourage any form of contact or communication with an Alternate, we make exceptions at attempts to executing them yourself."

    What the hell was that? Hostile organisms? Alternates? Whatever that announcement was sounded more like a sci-fi movie plot rather than something you'd hear on the train. I almost passed it off as a prank, which would help explain why the station was so deserted, but I thought better of it. There was no way anyone could convince a bunch of New Yorkers to miss their train just for some stupid prank. This was the city where everyone was in a rush to head absolutely nowhere at any given moment. It also didn’t make sense for the MTA workers to leave their positions unattended. What exactly was going on here?

    " Hello Eric."

    My blood turned into ice at that moment. I heard it. I heard... my own voice call out to me. I jerked my head to the left and saw a hooded man towering over me. For a brief second I was relieved that there was finally someone else here. Then I realized that this stranger knew my name. Even more important than that, he looked just like me.

    The same red hoodie.

    Battered blue jeans.

    Black Converse shoes.

    It was the exact outfit I was wearing and though the raised hood obscured his face, I could see we shared the same looks as well. It was like staring into a mirror.

    " W-Who are you?" I stammered.

    No response. The man silently stood there while locking his gaze with mine. His cold, soulless eyes bore into me like he was a doll. I got up from my seat and tried distancing myself from him, but he had other plans.

    " Please don't run, Eric. I miss you."

    This time it was my grandmother's voice. She was the closest thing I had to mom up until she passed away a few years ago. Hearing her voice after so long, coming from a creature like that, broke something inside me. I began crying without even realizing it. Heavy streams of tears poured down my terrified face.

    Despite the train coming to a stop, none of the doors would open. I tried in vain to pry them open.

    " Please don't leave me. I've missed you for so long. Don't you love me? Let me love you." The creature spoke in my grandmother's voice again and it was edging closer to me. Its facial features distorted heavily with each passing second. I could see the bastard's eyes narrow and its neck elongate like it was made of rubber. It charged right at me, and with nowhere to go, I had to brace myself for a fight.

    Once it tackled me to the ground, we began trading punches and kicks as we fought for our survival. It was strong, but I refused to die there. I battled against the pain and used its long neck to my advantage. It made for a major weak point, so I jammed my housekeys right into its throat, letting the blood splash everywhere. The creature grabbed at its would and took that as an opportunity to go for the kill. I bashed that thing's head against the floor until my knees rested in a pool of blood. I felt the creature go limp in my hands, a sign of victory.

    Eventually, the train doors opened, allowing me to haul it out of there. Once I got out of the station the familiar sounds of the city back to me. The streets were littered with crowds of people walking in every direction as impatient drivers burned rubber on the asphalt. The city had returned back to its normal self. I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window and saw that all of my wounds were gone. There wasn’t even any blood on my clothes.

    To this day, I haven't told anyone about what happened in that train station. I like to pretend it never happened even though it still haunts me. I've heard internet legends of people who supposedly slipped into alternate realities. These realities allegedly mirror ours but have enough differences to create an uncanny effect. I don't know what triggered my trip to that other world and I'm not sure I want to find out. Riding the train doesn't feel the same anymore. There's always this unsettling feeling in the back of my mind that I'll slip into that other world again. I don't know what I'll do if I have to meet another doppelganger.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/10
    01:00 UTC

    2

    Escape From Pickman's Grove

    ESCAPE FROM PICKMAN'S GROVE by Al Bruno III

    Most of the streetlights on Pickman's Grove were broken, and the windows were boarded up. The manhole covers had been pried away from the sidewalks, and the stink that wafted up from them hung in the hot summer air.

    Anna walked as quickly as her seventy-year-old legs could carry her, but the sounds were growing closer.

    All her friends had warned her to stay away from the town of River City. "It's just not safe for a woman your age," they said, "there are such terrible stories."

    The stories were terrible, that much was true: the disappearances and the reports of strange sounds and shadows that stalked the unwary at night. But Anna went just the same. The lure of rare antiques was too much for her to resist. Besides, she'd brought her best friend with her, and Tabitha still had her driver's license and was a master of Tai Chi. What could possibly go wrong?

    The answer, of course, was everything. Everything and then some.

    She could make out the sounds now, a chorus of snorts and meeps that were growing closer by the second. She risked a look back and saw six shapes loping after her. Their clothes were filthy and torn, their flesh was pale and rubbery.

    Her granddaughter Michelle had given her one of those smartphones and an app she could use to get a ride to and from the grocery store anytime. It had worked perfectly in her neighborhood, but what about here? Anna fumbled with it, fighting past the half dozen apps she had left open to get to the one she needed.

    More shapes were starting to creep out of every alley and doorway. They began to surround Anna. She grew weak at the knees, tears welled up in her eyes.

    This is it. She thought, I am going to die, and no one will ever know what happened.

    A jet-black Monte Carlo squealed to a halt in front of her. There were Uber stickers on every window. The passenger door sprung open. "Get in!" a deep voice shouted, "Hurry!"

    Anna hurried.

    Once she was safely inside, the car door shut all on its own. Anna glanced back and saw dozens of the things, but they stayed back, snarling and meeping with frustration.

    "What's your name?"

    Startled, she looked to the front of the car and saw the driver was wearing a blue cowl, cape, and red spandex. She tried to answer him, but all that came from her mouth was a stammering noise.

    "That's ok," he smiled reassuringly, "you'll feel better once we're out of here."

    One of the pallid creatures threw a brick. It bounced off the glass of the rear windshield.

    "And speaking of getting out of here..." The Monte Carlo sped away with a squeal of its tires.

    A superhero driving a Monte Carlo? Anna thought with disbelief. She knew about superheroes; her home city of Woldercan was

    teeming with them, but those heroes flew, ran, or swung from skyscraper to skyscraper. She had never heard of one driving a souped-up Monte Carlo for Uber.

    It was ridiculous!

    "Who are you?" she asked.

    The driver chuckled good-naturedly, "I asked you first."

    "Anna," she answered, "Anna Bauer."

    "Pleased to meet you, Anna Bauer." he glanced at her in the rearview mirror, "I'm Captain Hero. Maybe you've heard of me?"

    "No. Never."

    "Oh," the Monte Carlo paused at a red light. "I'm a Local Hero. I keep the population safe from the forces of chaos. It's a bigger job than you might think."

    Anna had no idea how to respond to that.

    "So," a smartphone was mounted to the dashboard; the masked man poked at the screen purposefully, "Where are you headed?"

    "Home," she said.
    Captain Hero chuckled again, "And home is?"

    Anna gave him the address, and he nodded, "I'll have you there in a jiffy."

    Four headlights began to bear down on them. Captain Hero looked in his side-view mirror; his voice was calm with curiosity. "Now, what is this?"

    The light still hadn't changed. Anna looked back again and screamed, "It's them! They're coming!"

    "Trucks?" the masked man turned in his seat, "Since when do they drive?"

    The lights turned green. The Monte Carlo revved its engine and barreled through the intersection with two pickup trucks in hot pursuit. A handful of the monsters had crowded into the rear cab of each. They threw bricks and stones as their vehicles drew closer.

    The Monte Carlo took a hard left. "What are they?" Anna asked as she held on for dear life.

    "Sewer ghouls," Captain Hero said, "bit of a local problem."

    Anna was struggling to get her seatbelt on. She breathed a sigh of relief when it clicked into place. The trucks were getting closer. One mounted the sidewalk and crashed headlong through a pile of abandoned boxes.

    "So," he asked, "what were you doing in Pickman's Grove anyway?"

    The question stunned her, "Antiquing."

    "I see," he nodded, "you can find some great little shops there, great bargains too."

    "My friend drove us. Her car was stolen. Then something grabbed her from out of the shadows."

    "The poor dear."

    One of the trucks was close enough to bump the Monte Carlo. Captain Hero pressed a button on the dashboard, and a stream of liquid squirted out of the back bumper. The truck fishtailed and crashed.

    Anna asked, "What did you do?"

    "Oil slick," he replied, "but don't worry. I use canola oil. It's better for the environment."

    The second truck came roaring up beside them. The sewer ghouls in the back started bashing the car with their homemade weapons. Anna squealed with terror.

    Captain Hero said, "Don't worry. I had this Monte Carlo specially augmented. It has weapons, a nitrous oxide injection system, and the sound system will knock your socks off. Let me show you."

    Smooth Jazz began to fill the car.

    "That's the college station. Professor Hinkley has a show every day from ten to midnight," Captain Hero jerked the wheel, clipping the driver's side tire of the second truck, "after that, this talk radio woman comes on. She calls herself 'Morning Wood'. A bit too edgy for my tastes."

    One of the sewer ghouls lept out and landed on the hood of the Monte Carlo just before the truck spun out and crashed sideways into a lamppost.

    "By the way, would you like a complimentary energy drink? There's a cooler to your left. Mind the clearly labeled specimen jars. They're for a case I'm working on."

    "No, thank you," she said.

    The ghoul on the hood clawed at the windshield and spat. With a push of a button, Captain Hero sent windshield washer fluid spraying into its eyes. It howled and tumbled from the car.

    Anna cleared her throat, "I've never heard of a... person with your lifestyle doing this for a living."

    "Well, being a caped crusader doesn't pay the bills like it used to," Captain Hero explained. "So, this way, I get to make a living, set my own hours, and defend truth, justice, and the American Way."

    A new vehicle careened out of a nearby garage. The wide, bulky, almost-tractor-like shape had a feral-looking man in a tuxedo behind the wheel. Captain Hero stared at his rearview mirror in wide-eyed shock. "Is that a Zamboni?"

    The Zamboni fired a rocket, the blast missing the back of the Monte Carlo by inches. The nearby explosion was enough to momentarily launch the Monte Carlo into the air. It soared along for two seconds, then touched down onto two wheels. It rolled like that for a few yards, then dropped back onto its four tires.

    Captain Hero shook his head ruefully, "Where are they getting this stuff?"

    Anna was starting to feel carsick and airsick all at once, "They don't have any more rockets do they?"

    "Sadly, in my experience, these things come in pairs." A blinding flash filled the rearview mirror, "Speak of the devil."

    He hit the brakes and twisted the steering wheel, the car spun in a semi-circle. The rocket sailed past the Monte Carlo to impact the side of a long abandoned Burger Clown restaurant. The structure crumpled and began to burn.

    "For years I've wanted to chase these creeps out of the tunnels, but they got a lawyer and set up all kinds of restraining orders," Captain Hero explained, "something about squatters' rights."

    Now, they were facing the speeding Zamboni. Captain Hero slammed his foot on the accelerator and charged straight at the vehicle. Anna's stomach clenched, the Zamboni's headlights flared, and the music of John Coltrain gently caressed their ears.

    At the last second, the Zamboni driver turned away, his vehicle hitting the curb and toppling over onto its side. The tuxedoed ghoul shook its fist at them as they sped away.

    The rest of the drive to Woldercan was uneventful. Anna spent most of the time trying to figure out what she was going to say to Tabitha's bridge partner.

    The car finally slowed to a stop in front of Anna's house. Captain Hero checked his phone and said, "That will be $28.50."

    "What?" Anna said, more confused than upset.

    "Sorry ma'am it's surge rates right now."

    Anna pressed the button on her app to pay for the trip. "I'm on a fixed income. I hope a fifteen percent tip is ok."

    "Every little bit helps," He got out of the car, slid across the hood, and opened the passenger door. He gently took her hand as she got out, "Although truth be told, keeping nice people like you from being subjected to unspeakable rituals and then being eaten alive is its own reward."

    "Is that what was going to happen to me?" Anna looked at her phone, wondering how to increase the gratuity to twenty percent.

    His dashboard-mounted cell phone chimed, and he glanced at it. "Hmmm looks like a couple of joggers have been cornered by an angry night-gaunt. Talk about a ticklish situation."

    "What is a-"

    The man in red spandex leaped into the Monte Carlo with a flourish of his blue cape. The tires squealed as he sped away. Anna put her hands to the sides of her head; this had been the strangest night of her life.

    The Monte Carlo's tires shrieked in protest as the vehicle sped back to her in reverse. The masked avenger poked his head out the driver's side window and said, "Oh, and if you liked your service I'd appreciate a five-star review. It really helps."

    Anna nodded, "I'll get my granddaughter to help me."

    And then, with a thumbs up, a cloud of dust, and a hearty "Captain Hero AWAAAAAAAAYYYYYY!" he was gone.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/09
    15:28 UTC

    5

    Chatterfish

    Chatterfish

    The sun, a pale disc in the gloomy sky, cast weak light on the lake. The water, placid yet deceptive, reflected a surreal gray hue that seemed almost unnatural. Mossy trees, their trunks gnarled and old, leaned precariously towards the water's edge, whispering the tales of yore to anyone who'd care to listen.

    John sat on the rickety boat, his fishing rod cast deep into the still waters. The old, frayed hat he wore did little to hide the lines on his face, deep trenches that told stories of years drowned in cheap booze and gnawing guilt.

    The cool metal of the beer can in his hand was a fleeting comfort. He took a long sip, the sharp sting of alcohol a reminder of a life steeped in regret. At his feet lay an empty bottle, label faded, but the memories attached to it were as sharp as ever. With each gulp, the voice in his head grew louder. The past wasn't content staying buried.

    A tug on his line yanked him from his reverie. He reeled in, expecting a struggling fish. Instead, what he pulled from the water made his heart stutter. A fish with a human face. And that face, God, it was him. The young man from that blurry, drunken night. The night that scarred John’s soul.

    The fish's eyes, hollow and accusatory, bore into John. Its mouth opened and closed, and though no words came out, John heard them loud and clear in his mind. *"Murderer."*

    Drops of water slid from the fish’s face like tears, reflecting the pale light in a dazzling spectacle. Every droplet seemed to contain a universe, a world of guilt and sorrow.

    "Can't be," John muttered, his voice hoarse. He threw the fish back, but its eyes, those haunting eyes, were seared into his mind.

    The line between past and present blurred. The ripples in the water seemed to mock him, and the chatter of the fish's teeth echoed in his ears.

    Was this the lake? Was it the same place where, as a drunk teenager, he'd buried his darkest secret? Or was this just another pit stop in his endless run from the law and his own conscience?

    The lake, in its silent majesty, kept its secrets.

    The boat, an old relic that had seen better days, creaked under John's weight. It felt as though the wood might give away, plunging him into the lake's cold embrace. The smell of decayed wood mixed with the acrid scent of old fish guts, a reminder of his illicit activities.

    Pulling in his rod, John tried to shake off the image of the face from the fish. It was just a fish. Drunk hallucinations, he convinced himself. Yet, every time he closed his eyes, the memory came flooding back. The chattering of teeth. Those eyes full of judgment.

    "I need another catch," he mumbled, a pathetic attempt to distract himself. Casting his line once again, he felt that familiar tug. Heart pounding, he pulled with all his might.

    Another fish, its human-like face distorted in pain, its teeth chattering a mournful rhythm, emerged from the water. Panic surged as the ghostly face confronted him, dredging up buried memories.

    He threw the fish back violently, as if distancing it from himself would also distance the memories. But the lake wasn't done with him. With every cast, the grotesque fishes with all-too-familiar human features emerged, accusing and mocking.

    Torn between the undeniable reality before him and the implausible nature of these creatures, John's grasp on sanity wavered. His hands trembled, not from the cold but from the weight of his guilt. Each chattering fish seemed to echo his past, a relentless reminder of the young life lost to his recklessness.

    The twilight sky cast eerie shadows on the water, turning it into a vast, unending mirror of his sins. The once-calm lake now churned and bubbled, each wave crashing louder, resonating with the chaos in his mind.

    Desperation seeped in as he rowed to the shore, every stroke a futile attempt to escape the lake's judgment. But with each pull, he felt himself drawn deeper into its dark depths, ensnared by his own guilt and the haunting chatter of the fish.

    The lake, once a haven for John's solitary soul, now bore a malevolent energy. It felt alive, aware. The shadows from the overhanging trees stretched long fingers over its surface, as if reaching for John's trembling form.

    Sitting at the edge, his feet dipping into the chilling waters, he grappled with the torment of his mind. Was it the liquor playing tricks? Or was this some divine, twisted retribution? A punishment for the sins of his youth?

    The memories, often drowned by alcohol, surged back with a vengeance. That rainy night, the screeching tires, the sound of a bone-crunching impact, and the hasty, fear-fueled decision to hide the evidence in a lake. But it was a different lake, wasn't it?

    The insistent chattering reached him again, slicing through his thoughts. He looked down to see a shoal of those hideous, human-faced fish, each face a reflection of the man he'd wronged. They circled his feet, teeth clacking, eyes accusing.

    "Why are you here?" John whispered, as much to himself as to the monstrous creatures.

    In a blur, one fish leapt, brushing his hand, its cold, wet human-like lips murmuring words he strained to understand. Phrases emerged –

    *“Face me...”*

    *"Confess...”*

    *“Redemption...”*

    Was this a chance at absolution? Or a twisted trap?

    Driven by the need to understand or perhaps escape, John dove into the water. The world below was a silvery dreamscape, the lake's secrets hidden in its depths. As he swam deeper, the boundary between reality and nightmare frayed.

    He saw a car, corroded and covered in moss – his car from that fateful night. Inside, a skeletal figure, forever trapped, forever waiting. The man's bony hand extended, beckoning.

    Emerging gasping from the lake, John was consumed by a maelstrom of emotions. His past actions and the eerie lake's revelations clashed, creating a tempest within.

    He was now a man teetering on the edge of sanity, caught between a haunting reality and the illusionary safety of denial. The lake, with its chattering fish and buried memories, challenged him to confront the truth and find redemption. But at what cost?

    The atmosphere around the lake tightened, the air thickening with an ominous energy that made breathing laborious. The whispering trees seemed to close in, their twisted branches casting grotesque shadows that danced in the dim light. The water turned darker, murkier, as though absorbing the malevolence around.

    John, soaked and shivering on the lakeshore, was a picture of a man confronted by his own demons. The real and the unreal collided in his mind, shaping a horror that had no bounds. The incessant chatter of the fish became a cacophony of accusations, their words intertwined with the whispers of the wind and the rustling of the leaves.

    “Yes, it’s him…” The revelation hit John like a tidal wave. The fish, their human faces contorted in agony, were embodiments of his guilt, manifesting the soul of the man whose life he’d stolen. Every chattering tooth, every accusatory gaze, was a reminder of his heinous act and the lies he’d woven around it.

    But was redemption an impossible dream for a man so steeped in sin? John’s heart raced as he grappled with the question, his mind a whirlwind of despair and hope. The lake, once a silent witness, now roared its judgment, waves crashing against the shore with a fury that mirrored John’s internal tumult.

    “No, but…” John’s voice broke the cacophony, a desperate plea to the heavens and to the soul he’d wronged. His confession, raw and guttural, echoed around the lake, the truth finally breaking free from the shackles of his conscience.

    The environment responded as if reacting to John’s inner turmoil. The wind howled louder, the trees bent lower, and the water churned more violently. The boundary between the living and the dead, the real and the unreal, frayed even further.

    In the midst of this maelstrom, John felt an eerie calmness. The chattering ceased, the accusatory gazes softened, and the lake, the ominous entity it had become, seemed to listen, to understand.

    As he confessed his sins, tears mingling with the lake water, John questioned whether forgiveness was attainable for someone like him. The lake offered no answers, but in its depths, in the silence that followed the storm, John saw a glimmer of hope – a possibility of redemption in confronting the darkness within.

    As John staggered away from the lake, his clothes clinging to his shivering body, the moon shone ominously in the sky, casting an eerie glow on his path. The scent of alcohol was pungent, a stark reminder of his intoxication and blurred reality. Every step seemed to echo through the ages, each footfall a haunting reminder of his past transgressions.

    An engine revved in the distance, a ghostly sound that sent shivers down John’s spine. The headlights approached, blinding and relentless. The silhouette behind the wheel was familiar – too familiar. A younger, yet unmistakably similar version of himself, eyes glazed over with intoxication, was driving straight towards him. Reality seemed to fold upon itself, memories and time entwining in a cosmic dance.

    John was powerless to move, to escape his fate. The impact was brutal yet swift, a moment of pain followed by an eerie calm. He felt his broken body being lifted, carried back towards the lake by the hands that mirrored his own. The world spun, and he was submerged, sinking deeper into the watery abyss.

    As he descended, he clung to consciousness, witnessing the transformation of his reality. Memories swirled around him like the water that invaded his lungs. He recalled a fact about planarian worms – how they retained the memories of what they consumed. A realization dawned, a revelation that twisted his perception of existence.

    He was the fish, chattering secrets of the deep. He was the drowning man, consumed by guilt and darkness. He was the lake, silent witness to countless sins. He was the man he had killed all those years ago, and he was the killer, bound to an endless cycle of retribution.

    Floating in the depths, John understood the interconnectedness of all beings, the cyclical nature of life and death, guilt and redemption. He was part of a greater whole, a universal truth that transcended time and space. And as the darkness claimed him, he embraced his multifaceted existence, accepting his sorry role in the cosmic dance of fate.

    “I am,” he whispered, his final thought echoing through the water, joining the chorus of chattering fish and whispering winds, becoming one with the symphony of the universe.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/09
    01:25 UTC

    2

    Operation Playdate

    Tricia leashed her gentle giant, combed the fur around his collar, and planted a prolonged, theatrical kiss on his fluffy head.

    She fought the instinct to sling on the delivery vest hanging from her back door; there was always extra cash to be made, but why turn their morning out into a job? This was time set aside to catch up with her magnificent beast.

    After locking her basement suite, Tricia and her boy set out. She kept tight hold of the leash, keeping it within a meter in length. Her dog was no longer immune to the evolving palette of fleas, ticks, and worms barraging the city. Sophisticated crawlies were widely known to burrow into pets, causing anything from mild itching to fatal neoplasia.

    “Maury, get away from that.”

    “And that.”

    “Maury.”

    “Are you listening?”

    She would not permit him near any bush, puddle, or large pile of leaves. In a determined beeline, she guided Maurice for forty minutes past the abandoned streets, boarded up shops, and tent cities. Up the hill they climbed, until they reached an area where streetlamps worked reliably and benches had dividers that prevented one from lying down.

    Ironically, the bright, bustling gentry-hood was even harder for Tricia to look at. The cheery business logos ignited the urge to check her watch and feel for the slots in her imaginary vest. Wherever she glanced, the memory of a dozen city shortcuts would beckon, along with the yearning for that familiar notification sound.

    No, I am not working. Maurice and I are hanging out.

    Only when she approached the entrance to Oakrise did all these stresses wane. Even Maurice felt the tension drop, as if he too could read: Welcome to Oakrise Neighbourhood Dog Park.

    It was the largest dog park in the city, offering ten acres of hedgerows, grass fields, and a myriad of walkways. By some miracle it was still kept a public space, despite being surrounded by affluent homeowners and infallible retail.

    Here, Tricia loosened her grip on her beloved, allowing him to linger amidst the magnolia and hawthorn trees. There was much smelling to be done—and of course, much marking of territory.

    Flashing pink, the watch on Tricia’s wrist tried to reel her thoughts back to work. She quickly turned it on silent. The two of them ambulated past the park’s central plaza towards a promising-looking field. A couple of figures leaned against a distant fence, laughing communally.

    “Well, well, Maurice; look who we got here.”

    It was easy to tell they were technocrats. Mono-coloured tees, crisp black jeans, and sometimes—if it was windy like today—acid dye hoodies. She knew a couple of them. It was hard not to, living in the vicinity and constantly checking feeds like she did. The most famous ones had names like Marke, Brendt, Zaq, or Evyn. Names trying hard to sound self-made, unique even, but conveniently ignoring the silver spoons that were lodged deep in their throats.

    They each had a canine, of course, and as Tricia approached, she could deduce their extravagant breeds from her gigs as a dog-walker.

    One of them was a brown-black Azawakh, a rare stock. Its tail, although normally curly, appeared artificially coiled to a point of such comical fakeness that it resembled a mattress spring. I hope they didn’t hurt it doing that.

    There was also a wistful mop roving in circles, which had to be a Pekingese: a dog encouraged to appear more like living hair than an animal. Tricia noticed that they had intentionally neglected to trim its bangs, obscuring its tiny eyes. Wow. What a choice.

    The third, and perhaps most “punk-rock” of all, was a Jack Russell mutt; a dog which by any other means, would be a steal off of Begslist, but was here instead, selectively purchased no doubt for its opalescent Husky eyes. Even from afar, Tricia saw their sky-blue glint and shook her head in dismay, knowing full well that each of its regular, brown-eyed siblings had probably been dumped at the pound. Humans are terrible.

    Through feeds, Tricia knew these higher ups had some ritual of coming out for a lunchtime laugh, where they exchanged dog pats and checked out each other's animal, as if that could tell them something about the other’s portfolio.

    She hunched over to tend to Maurice, unpacking her frisbee and dangling it like food. “You ready for some infiltration?”

    Maurice’s tail began to wag, and he gave a good bark.

    “Let’s play some harmless … fetch!

    The disk soared across the green. Its bright shape zipped above the pampered dogs, thwarting their meticulous training as each of their ears turned skyward.

    Maurice bounded with the grace of a racehound. Despite his bear-like size and uncombed shag, the beast could reach top-speeds that outperformed even Tricia on a bicycle. It had been this wild, boundless energy that first drew Tricia to adopt him. That and his dopey grin.

    After a few retrievals, they had edged closer to the three men, who had now taken out their vapes. Tricia pretended not to notice. She showered her beloved brute with a feast of compliments and kisses, drawing all nearby attention. Very quickly, the Jack Russell (known for their spontaneity) could no longer resist and bounded towards Maurice on the next toss.

    “Spritzer, come here!” one of the technocrats called. Then he coughed in an exhalation of sweet, skunky pot-vapour and thumped his chest. His posse laughed.

    “It’s okay,” Tricia smiled. “Maurice is friendly.”

    She watched the Jack Russell up close and could see the intermittent shine of silver specks in his fur. Bingo. Anti-fleas.

    The trio’s conversation lowered to a mutter. After more laughs and shrugs, the remaining dogs were permitted to join.

    Maurice woofed and chased the others in a friendly circle. The game of fetch was now over. Operation Playdate had begun.

    Take all the time you need, Tricia thought.

    She wished she didn’t have to go through with this subterfuge every season, but anti-fleas, especially for those living on the ground floor like her, had become a necessity. It was the latest money grab from individuals that still romanticized the idea of owning a dog in the city. Any owner who wanted their pet to reach half its lifespan would be ignorant not to purchase pet-defence Fauna each year. Unable to afford the cost herself, Tricia was forced to pilfer the crawly inoculations from those canines more fortunate.

    She approached the men and pulled out her own vape, a metal, cerulean thing she had obtained as swag from her local bank. In advertising terms, the colour evoked trust and security, but in social terms, it hopefully signalled that she worked at the nearby branch and was easy going.

    They acknowledged her presence with polite glances and fleeting smiles. They waited to see if she’d say anything for nearly twenty seconds. None of them had the brass to break the ice. Man-children, Tricia thought. Through and through.

    The boldest of the group eventually lowered his sunglasses. “That’s a big girl you’ve got. What’s her name?”

    Tricia exhaled raspberry vapour. She could’ve corrected him on her beloved’s gender, but it was too early to appear disagreeable. In fact, she thought it would be funny to let him think otherwise. “Oh yes, that’s Maury; she’s my Chow Chow Samoyed Keeshond terrier”.

    The three nerds nodded. None challenged the claim.

    “You’re on lunch break?” Tricia asked.

    They exchanged looks, as if daring each other to speak. “Actually no, we’re done for the day.”

    “We’re at ThoughtCast.”

    The third started saying something incoherent, and then turned away to hide his laugh.

    “Love social media.” Tricia lied. “I check the feeds each morning.”

    Sunglasses faked a smile. “That’s what we like to hear.” It was a weak joke. More awkwardness passed.

    “You work at Metro Bank?” The second-least cowardly asked.

    Tricia drew some more vapour and pointed past the perimeter of trees. “I do. At the one on Forty-first.” She looked back at Maury, and could see he was already rolling between the other dogs.

    “Good, steady job,” Sunglasses said. “You guys handle all my investments.”

    “Mine too,” the coward said. “Weight off my shoulders.”

    The third, still giggling from his vape, finally managed to chime in. “Hey. Your watch: it’s flashing pink.”

    Tricia lifted her wrist and quickly squelched the delivery offers. Stupid thing. “Hah. You know how it is.” She pocketed her watch-hand. “Can’t resist a side-gig.”

    The three of them shifted ever so slightly, heightening their postures.

    “Oh no doubt.”

    “Tough city to afford.”

    Tricia fought the urge to check on Maury. But too many glances and her ploy would seem obvious; she had to keep this middling distraction going, no matter how awkward.

    “I actually started delivering during my walks,” she said, checking her nails, keeping it casual. “I walk Maury three times a day, so I might as well squeeze an extra buck in while I’m at it, right?”

    Two of the men nodded in silence. The third, after taking another toke, said, “Yeah, that’s what Mojito’s walker does too. She sneaks in deliveries, phone-calls, all her side-hustles in one go. A multi-task queen.”

    Sunglasses gave an agreeable grin to this, then turned to Tricia. “Do you offer dog-walking as well?”

    Tricia hesitated. “I mean, not as much anymore; I’m pretty busy with the bank. Though I do have a few personal clients who pay premium.”

    The eyebrows on all the man-children spiked. The cowardly one glanced at his own dog (the Pekingese), and then eyed Tricia very closely. “How much is this premium?”

    “Oh, I doubt you’d be interested.” Tricia turned away. “These are clients I’ve been with for years; they’re practically friends.”

    “Schawn and I have been looking for walkers,” Sunglasses said. “It’s hard to find a good one.”

    Tricia nodded and saw that the dogs had stopped playing, taking an interest in the field’s smells instead. She called Maurice over with a whistle. The bear-dog galloped towards her. The Jack Russell followed.

    Tricia exhaled. “Well, why don’t you tell me a little about your pets, and I’ll think on a figure. I only walk dogs that are a good match for my own, you know.”

    All the animals coalesced by their owners, showing off their pink, panting tongues. Tricia pet deeply into Maurice’s fur, gingerly searching for any silvery flea-killers. Nothing yet.

    “Well, this is Spritzer,” Sunglasses said, petting the Jack Russell. “As you just saw, he gets easily excited, but he’s also super obedient when you use the right commands. He’s been featured in a commercial once.”

    The other two nodded, verifying this trivial fact.

    “And this is Gimlet,” the coward patted his mop. “My girlfriend always wanted a Pekingese, so like, I went out and ordered one. Watch, she can do a somersault.”

    He snapped his fingers, and despite all the hair, a somersault was indeed performed.

    Tricia smiled at each introduction, and even at the stoner who kept silent. “Well as something of an aficionado, I will say, these are some fabulous beasts.” She stroked Spritzer and Gimlet, gently pulling them close against Maurice, making sure their furs brushed against each other.

    “It seems like they can get along okay. If you want, we can do a trial month.” She adjusted her hair and smoothed her shirt. Enacting a mockingly sensual, smoky tone that she used to get delivery tips, Tricia floated a monthly offer that equated to almost half her rent.

    The stoner laughed. “Are you serious? Mojito’s walker is a tenth of that price.”

    All the more reason to never see me again. Tricia forced a smile.

    “Well hold on,” Sunglasses raised an arm. “Experience goes a long way. And I’d sooner trust a go-getter my age than one of those older burnouts.”

    The other two raised their brows.

    “If you’re willing to quote lower for the first month, I’d be open to paying a higher price later.” He lifted his glasses and offered her his glinting, cheery eyes, as if it was a reward to see his pupils.

    Must have been the vape, Tricia thought, tucking the metal away. Trustworthy and easy-going. That, and he’ll eventually want my number. No question.

    Tricia bent down to scratch Maurice behind the ears, and detected the faint, sinewy hop of a bug avoiding her fingers. Mission accomplished. All she needed was a single anti-flea. It would replicate.

    “That sounds good to me.” She grinned. “I like your guys’ vibe.”“That’s great,” Sunglasses said. “My name is Owyn, by the way, spelled “Y-N.”

    “Trish.”

    They shook hands. The other two watched with mild incredulity.

    “I can tell you're good just by how well your dog behaves,” Owyn said. “She totally adores you.”

    “Oh she totally does,” Tricia agreed, still scratching Maurice’s head. Without a pause in the scratching, she rolled Maurice over and exposed his naked belly in all its glory, including his glaringly pink, unneutered male genitalia. It flopped side to side.

    “Yeah I’ve had Maury for two years.”

    ***

    For the rest of the day, Tricia and her beast hung out by the low hedgerows near the park’s exit. It was a great spot because most park-goers avoided the growing eyesores of the invasive blackberry vines. They considered it a stain on the park’s image, but Tricia didn’t care. It just meant she could snack on all the blackberries she wanted while throwing frisbees over the hedgerows.

    “Go long, Maury!”

    “Good boy.”

    “Jump!”

    “Amazing catch.”

    A few times, his majesty did fall amidst the bushes, and even tumbled in the dirt, but it didn’t matter now. Tricia could see the shining flea-guardians proliferating in his tousled coat, fending off any threats.

    In a similar way, Tricia felt her own worries being deflected by the surrounding greenery. It was the right call, leaving her vest at home, that and she had also finally removed her watch. Who cares about time? We’re hanging out.

    There was truly a priceless feeling to being alone in nature, relaxing with your trusted animal. It was something that the distraction economy (and the man-children obsessed with it) could never understand.

    Tricia popped a large blackberry in her mouth; its sourness oozed down her taste buds. “You know Maury, we ought to ‘adopt’ you a brother. For when you're home alone while I’m out making runs.”

    Maurice leapt over the hedge bush, damaging it a little.

    “You were getting along pretty nice with that wily Jack Russell. I think he’d have a better time with us, don’t you?”

    Maurice came to Tricia’s knees, dropped the frisbee from his mouth, and gazed up with that big dopey smile. He gave a good, deep bark.

    “I knew you’d agree. Next chance we get, let’s snag him.”

    0 Comments
    2024/04/09
    00:18 UTC

    6

    The Black Sunshine - Part 1

    The battered truck careened around the serpentine, narrow road. Within the cab, the air hung heavy with the odor of stale cigarettes and the pungent stew of cheap whiskey.

    The driver, his hands adorned with jailhouse tattoos that snaked up his wiry arms, trembled as he fumbled with a cigarette. His dirty blonde hair was unkempt, falling just above his lean, angular face. A light dusting of patchy facial hair covered his jaw, while a long scar carved a path from his temple to his chin.

    Beside him, a more robust figure with a thick, dark beard and a full head of hair watched through half-lidded eyes, a lazy smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. His dark complexion was a stark contrast to his white t-shirt and well-worn jeans.

    As the cigarette finally caught flame, the truck's wheels dipped violently into a pothole. The sudden jolt sent the cigarette tumbling from the driver's lips, bouncing off the dashboard in a shower of angry sparks. It landed in his lap, the fabric smoldering where the embers had begun to burn.

    "Damn it, Billy!" the passenger chuckled. "Keep that up, and you'll turn this truck into a rolling inferno."

    Billy laughed humorlessly. "Wouldn't be the first time. But go ahead and yuck it up, John. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the lit cigarette flying towards John, the glowing ember arcing through the dimly lit cab before bouncing off John's white t-shirt, leaving a smoldering ash stain in its wake. John's gaze drifted downward, his eyes settling on the offending mark. "That was my best shirt," he said. John reached down, plucked the cigarette from where it had fallen, and brought it to his lips, taking a long, slow drag.

    "Brother, just keep your good eye on the road," John said, nestling back into his seat.

    Billy's jaw clenched, the muscles in his face tightening as he watched John's nonchalant reaction. In a sudden, swift motion, he reached over and snatched the cigarette from John's hand. "Give me my goddamn cigarette."

    Billy took a long drag, the smoke curling around his face as he exhaled. He turned on the AM radio, filling the cab with the crackle of static and the distant twang of country music.

    The truck continued down the highway, the engine's steady growl mixing with the occasional crackle of the AM radio. John was sprawled out in the passenger seat, his mouth hanging open as he snored. The static on the radio grew louder, the music becoming distorted and strange. Suddenly, a brilliant flash illuminated the sky, casting an eerie glow across the tall cornfields. A streak of light ripped through the darkness, like the finger of a fiery god. It was gone as quickly as it appeared.

    "John, wake up!" Billy exclaimed, shaking his brother's shoulder. "Did you see that? Tell me you saw that!"

    John looked at Billy, his eyes heavy with sleep. "Huh? What's going on?" he mumbled, rubbing his face.

    "You missed it, man. There was this crazy light in the sky, like a... a meat... a meter... a meater-right!" Billy said, stumbling over the unfamiliar word.

    John snorted, a smirk spreading across his face. "A meaterr-right? You mean a meteorite, you dumbass?"

    Billy scowled, his face turning red. "Aw, shut up. You know what I meant."

    "You always miss the good stuff, you know that?" Billy added, shaking his head.

    But John wasn't listening. He was too busy fiddling with the radio, trying to tune in to a clear station.

    Billy, on the other hand, was off on one of his crazy tangents. "You know, John, you never know what kind of weird alien shit could be crashin' down to Earth right now. I heard about this place out in New Mexico..”

    John just grunted, finally settling on a country station playing some old Hank Williams tune.

    "I'm tellin' you, man, there's all kinds of weird stuff out there. Crop circles, cattle mutilations, abductions... And now we got this meteor-right or whatever the hell it was? 

    John, dismissing Billy, simply muttered, "G'night, brother."

    “There he goes again. Sleep tight, princess.” 

    _________________________________________________________
    Comments are welcome.

    1 Comment
    2024/04/08
    07:52 UTC

    11

    A Letter to My Coat

    I write this as a letter to you, my most frequently used coat. I remember when I found you at the department store. To everyone else, you were just like any simple button up, but I could tell there was something valuable about you. Not in the monetary sense; you weren't made of interesting parts or decadent materials, but you were rich in character. There were a couple like you on the clearance rack but I knew you were the one I wanted.

    So I took you home with me and slipped you on. You were a bit too tight at first and it was a struggle to remove your tag, but my goodness was it worth it. The fabric that lines you is so soft and warm, then the outer layer, the part everyone sees, is so simple yet perfect in that simplicity. I would take you everywhere with me and I would never get comments about you being out of place. Over the years you’ve taken some damage a couple of loose threads and stains, though that’s not a complaint I think it makes you far more desirable.

    The grit contrasts with your overall plush making you even more comfortable to have on. The only problem is when you try to behave like you’re another piece of clothing, or worse something not meant to be worn. There have been a couple of instances, especially over the past few months, where you’ve tried to convince yourself you’re something you’re not. You’ll be stubbornly holding onto the coat rack. Make it hard for me to wear you, try to roll off me, and worst of all, attempt to patch yourself up when you know you can't do that without me.

    Which is why I’m writing this letter that I’ll put in your pocket tomorrow. I implore you to stop this nonsense for your sake, I know we don’t always agree but this is much more damaging to you than me. I don’t understand how you don’t know your purpose after I’ve been here so long and explained it to you a plethora of times. You are my wonderful, pecan-colored, coffee-stained, patch-covered, formfitting coat. Your existence is a wonderful thing it greatly improves my life and I get frequent compliments when I wear you. I don’t know why you keep craving for something you’re incapable of having in every sense.

    In all honesty, it's getting frustrating to deal with, and I fear you’ll destroy yourself if you continue. You don’t have as much autonomy as you seem to believe. All these attempts to get away from me, to ruin our symbiotic relationship will always result in you coming back. It's in the fabric of your nature to want to be worn by me, no matter your attempts to deny it. To show you how this is causing you harm, I’ll discuss the most recent incident.

    I was on one of my nighttime hunts with you accompanying me as you often do. I had just cornered my prey and prepared to strike when you intervened. As I lifted my weapon, you stiffened around the joints of my arm forcing me to stop. I ran after my target regardless, but my inability to move my arm greatly hindered me. With each step I took you’re hold got tighter. My skin grew a bluish hue the longer you held until I had no choice but to rip you in a lengthy struggle. It was one of the most painful things I’d experienced in months and what should have been an easy win was ruined.

    You were completely out of line by trying to stop me. The level of entitlement you displayed is almost unbelievable. You are my coat, you are here to keep me warm and move with me. I’m wearing you, not the other way around. You’re lucky I bothered stitching you up when I got home. The only plus to that whole ordeal is that your scars are alluring. Even then, you complained about my skills in repairing you.

    “Oh God, it looks so unnatural, everyone will notice!” you whined like that wasn't my intention. You already know that I like the damage you take to be visible, and if you wanted to avoid this you shouldn't have held me back.

    I can always take you off and move onto another coat, but without me, you’re an even more useless, bruised shell. You’re not expensive, historically important, detailed, or artistic enough to stand on your own. A bland brown layer of fabric would not survive without someone to slip it over them, and while I love the imperfections you hold, most don’t. I’m fully aware that I am possessive but it’s necessary for me to be when you’re an object.

    Besides, I don’t know why after three years of taking you with me on my hunts, you’re now deciding it's something that needs to end. Just last year you’d complain about the morally dubious nature, but you wouldn’t get in my way. If there’s something I’ve done during those activities that deeply rubbed you the wrong way I’m genuinely sorry. I know that it can get quite gruesome. But if that’s the case you need to communicate what it is. Is it that I’ve gotten so messy that I can’t trust taking you to a public washer? Am I too rough when I scrub you by hand in a hurry? Something else?

    I promise whatever it is I can fix it. Even if it's about you being unable to handle the violence. As I said before, I get why it's hard for you. You have to wrap yourself around me as I wrangle and put the long pigs out of their misery, but I must remind you that what I’m doing is necessary. The things I kill aren't like you or me, they’re not warm or logical. All they do is tear one another apart for the smallest differences in perception or appearance.

    Unlike me, they hate any type of flaw, doing everything they can to cover it up. Color matching each patch and stitch, desperately hoping no one will discover the damage. They are far past their expiration date, I’m doing their entire species a favor whenever I take one out of their misery. It may appear brutal, especially considering how I repurpose their hide but it's truly for the best.

    I truly love you and after all the time we’ve spent together, I’d hate to have to trash you. However, it seems like an increasingly likely possibility. So I plead with you to stop these attempts to get away, to interrupt the system that’s been working so well for us. Cause as much as I care for you, I don’t need you, but you need me. Allow these words to seep through the fibers of your fabric, and consider your next actions thoroughly. As I can destroy you just as easily as I can repair you.

    Every thread that makes you can be ripped in an instant by just one of my thread cutters. The fluff that lines your insides plucked off you like the feathers of a sickly chicken. The patches I’ve attached to you, easily removable with nothing but my teeth and nails. The material that you’re made from, can be frayed, stained, and bleached one after the other within an hour.

    With that being said, I would not find pleasure in tearing you apart. I enjoy scaring you but I want it to stem from more natural causes. Torture is boring because it’s expected, the wounds you have are entrancing since I can’t predict the situation that’ll lead to them. Anyway, I’ve made my point I sincerely hope you go back to cooperating with me after this.

    4 Comments
    2024/04/08
    02:31 UTC

    3

    Backyard Novelty

    Even before he reached the back gate, little Yuri could imagine how angry his father would be. His bearded form would suddenly appear on the back porch, furrowing his brows, and then he would yell in that voice that made it hard to breathe. It was so often hard to breathe.

    Yuri deeply inhaled now, expanding his ribs. He removed his glasses and exhaled a foggy breath, giving them a wipe. Today I will be strong, Yuri decided. Today I’m finally going to do it.

    Swinging arms high above his head, Yuri marched across the lawn to the back gate. The latch was easy to lift, and the old cedar door was easy to open.

    Once on the other side, Yuri quickly crouched low, knowing he could barely be seen through the wooden slats. As long as he moved slowly, he could be mistaken for just another garbage can in the back alley.

    Yuri skulked towards the new recycler unit, feeling the thrill of getting away with his pretend bravery. He had wanted to see the forbidden machine ever since it had been installed.

    His father had received it as a fancy gift for knowing fancy people, and in a sense this was a mark of pride for Yuri. But it was also a mottled and confused pride, because sometimes Yuri’s father would regret owning new things, no matter how nice, and his voice would become low and disappointed, like it often did around Yuri.

    It was as if all of father’s things were only as valuable as they were distracting, Yuri thought. In the end, everything became a waste of time.

    But the boy was too young to brood, and this new machine looked fun. Yuri placed his hand on the smooth conical surface; it sort of resembled the pointed hat he had been given on his birthday. Except the top was cut off, so it looked more like a volcano.

    He quickly glanced back at the porch through the wooden slats, double-checking for any sign of observers. Then, very delicately, his tiny frame crawled up the slopes of this silvery volcano. There were no handholds, he had to rely heavily on his knees.

    Once he reached the top, Yuri carefully removed an empty glass from his back pocket. It was a miniature vodka bottle his father had left lying around the house. Yuri straddled the volcano’s crater, and carefully thumbed the lid on top. It opened without resistance.

    He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to find inside. Cogs? Saws? Spikes that recycled glass into dust? But instead of anything mechanical, Yuri gazed at hundreds of crawling, organic shapes. They were living insects. Termites.

    Yuri practically slipped off. He had seen termites on streamshows before, but what were they doing here? Cautiously, he looked closer. The shine of old glass glimmered between their red bodies. The insects were chewing and breaking it down, making the shards into something else. Into marbles?

    Dozens of termites held beautiful, clear marbles between their toothed jaws. The marbles were being circled about, cleaned and smoothed, some of them no larger than grains of sand.

    Wow. Yuri was entranced. The vodka bottle dangled between his fingers. He wanted to drop it straight down the middle, into the heart of the operation. Then he’d stay and watch the bugs dissolve the glass. He leaned over, lowered his hand ... and then his glasses slid right off his nose.

    Blurriness. Fear. Yuri scrambled, trying to reach for his fallen sight, but it was soon lost in the hazy red soup.

    He dunked his arms, reaching and poking into the machine. He swatted using the vodka bottle, listening for the clink of his glasses. He heard nothing but the patter of tiny glass marbles. Desperation struck, and Yuri began to hit the sides of the recycler, resulting in a muffled cacophony.

    Yuri then recognized the unmistakable whine of the porch door’s hinge. It had swung open.

    “Мудак!” His father exclaimed, clearly angry at someone or something on the phone.

    Yuri couldn’t see what was happening, but he could feel the crawl of burns travelling up to his elbows. He began to frantically brush them away. One of the red blurs fell on his knee and produced a pain so fiery that Yuri fell off the recycler.

    The next couple minutes spiralled into slaps, cries, and rolling about. Yuri could hear his father’s conversation travel across the lawn, towards the back gate, but there was little he could do to hide. Even as the gate opened, Yuri wasn’t able to stand up in time, nor wipe away his tears.

    The dark, bearded blur arrived, muttering grievances, holding a cellphone in one hand and a bottle shape in the other. In a span of half a minute, the blur tossed the bottle down the open recycler, closed the lid, and patted Yuri on the head. Then it strolled back the way it came. No break in stride. No break in conversation.

    Yuri dried his eyes, sat cross-legged, and exhaled slowly. Although shallow at first, his breathing was quickly brought back under his control. He tried to determine what he was supposed to feel in this moment. Afraid? Ashamed? Would his father yell at him when he returned inside?

    Rising to his feet, Yuri felt his scalp where his father had patted him. It seemed just like with everything else, the recycler wasn’t all that important—not anymore.

    His father had made such a fuss about keeping Yuri away from the machine, saying how it was the most valuable thing he owned, and now it just stood here among the other garbage cans. Idle and neglected. Yuri couldn’t help feeling the same way.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/07
    20:02 UTC

    4

    They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

    As soon as the first rays of conscious awareness began to creep back into Camilla’s mind, they were accompanied by the stark realization that something was terribly wrong. Her surroundings were completely unfamiliar, albeit unsettlingly unthreatening at a glance.

    She appeared to be in a large, luxurious, and well-appointed penthouse straight out of the 1950s. She was slumped over on a stool in front of an island counter with a speckled scarlet Formica countertop, across from a young woman in a red and white vintage dress. Camilla's attention was immediately stolen by the woman's vibrant blue eyes, raven pigtails, and wickedly insidious grin.

    “Coming around then, are we Ducky?” she asked as she took a sip from a martini glass.

    “What… what happened?” Camilla asked, her rising panic quickly overpowering her confusion and grogginess as she checked to see if she was restrained or hurt before looking around for any possible threats.

    “You passed out. Nothing to be embarrassed about; happens to me all the time,” the woman said with a gesture to her martini.

    “No, who are you? What am I doing here?” Camilla demanded as she stood up from the stool.

    “Ha! Black-out drunk by mid-afternoon? If you weren’t such a lightweight, you’d make a good drinking buddy,” the woman chortled. “To refresh your memory, my name is Mary. Mary Darling. My brother James brought you here because you wanted to write an article about our collection of retro appliances, remember? Apparently, the Zoomies have quite a bit of cultural nostalgia for the post-war era. Per my duties as hostess, I offered you a drink, and I guess you’re not used to cocktails as strong as I make them because it put you out like a light.”

    Though her memory was hazy, Camilla knew that Mary was lying. She wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t hungover. She knew it wasn’t alcohol that had knocked her unconscious. She had spoken with James about writing an article, but other than that, she had no recollection of where she was or how she had gotten there.

    While it was obvious that the Darlings had abducted her, until she had a better idea of exactly what it was they were up to, she decided that it was best to play along.

    “Oh. Right. The article. I remember now,” she said uneasily. “I’m sorry. Yeah, that drink must have hit me harder than I expected.”

    “Nothing to apologize for, Ducky. I’m in no position to judge you,” she said as she finished off her martini. “Mmmm. Any night when James isn’t here to put me to bed, I usually wake up sprawled out at whatever random spot I dropped at. Whelp, now that one of us is sober, on with the tour!”

    “Is it alright if I record our interview?” Camilla asked, quickly checking to see if she still had her phone on her. She was relieved to find that she did, but to her disappointment saw that she had no reception or WiFi. “Shoot, I’ve got no bars here.”

    “Oh, I assure you there are plenty of bars in this house,” Mary laughed as she gestured at the nearby cocktail bar. “I do apologize for the lousy reception, though. If your little doodad there can work without it, feel free to record away.”

    Camilla nodded and began recording video on her phone, keeping the camera focused on her presumed captor as much as possible.

    “Hello everybody!” Mary said energetically as she smiled and waved at the camera. “My name is Mary Darling, and welcome to my kitchen. We’re going to start our tour today with my main refrigerator, easily the most essential appliance of any modern kitchen.”

    With a twirl of her skirt, she waltzed over to a broad, six-foot-tall, beach-blue refrigerator with chrome trim. It had a convex door, branded with a cartoon atom and the name ‘Oppenheimer’s Opportunities’ in a retro, calligraphic font. The door was partially covered with the usual accoutrements; a notepad, a small chalkboard, some odd bills and receipts, along with a few photographs of James and Mary Darling. Most of the photographs also included a dark-eyed preteen girl who bore a disquieting resemblance to the twins.

    But what stood out the most was that just above the lever handle, there was a small analogue device with several knobs and switches that didn’t look like it had originally been part of the appliance.

    “This right here is the 1959 Oppenheimer’s Opportunities twenty-one cubic foot single-door Nuclear Winter refrigerator,” Mary said proudly. Camilla was tempted to point out that the concept of Nuclear Winter didn’t really come about until the 1980s, but couldn’t work up the courage to interrupt her hostess. “When my brother and I first moved into our little playroom here full time, we knew we were going to need housewares that were sturdier than anything on the open market. You can imagine how delighted we were when we found Oppenheimer’s! They make a wide range of electronic appliances powered by atomic batteries so that you can count on them even if the grid goes down. This beauty here has been running non-stop for sixty-five years now and it’s got no thought of retiring. It retailed for a whopping $249.99 back in the day, and it was worth every penny! The body itself is made out of a proprietary titanium aerospace alloy that’s virtually indestructible.”

    To demonstrate her refrigerator’s quasi-mythical indestructibility, Mary pulled out a butcher’s knife that she had been carrying in the sash of her dress and began slashing at the bottom half of the door with a violent ferocity that sent Camilla stumbling backwards out of fear for her safety.

    “Enough! Enough! I believe you!” she shouted.

    “You see! I didn’t even scratch the paint!” Mary bragged as she holstered her knife. “Nothing like a modern appliance; this thing was built to last! But it wasn’t just durability that sold us on this model. It’s functional too!”

    She swung open the door, revealing six chrome shelves that were mostly laden with heavy packages of meat wrapped in butcher’s paper. The packages were all neatly dated and labelled in a feminine flowing script that Camilla suspected belonged to Mary. Though the cut of each meat was clearly marked, Camilla’s eyes jumped from package to package as she tried to find one that said what kind of meat it was.

    But all she could find were human names.

    “The height of each shelf is fully adjustable with the push of a button. Each one slides out for easy access, or detaches completely for cleaning,” Mary continued her presentation, pulling the shelves out to create a tiered staircase. “That’s an especially useful feature for my little Sara Darling. Even though she’s more of a daddy’s girl, she still likes to help me in the kitchen, so it’s important that everything’s accessible for her. And since everyone’s so concerned about accessibility these days, I suppose it would also be helpful for a cripple or a midget. As you can see, I’ve customized the interior to my family’s specific needs. We don’t have any need for a vegetable crisper when we’ve got plenty of organ meat. All the vitamins you could ever want in those, and no nasty ethylene gas or phytotoxins to worry about! Of course, keeping this much meat fresh is obviously the top priority, and it would be an absolute shame to risk freezer burn on grade-A cuts like these. That’s why in addition to an airtight seal and atmospheric control, the Oppenheimer 1959 Nuclear Winter uses radiation to keep its contents one hundred percent germ-free!”

    “I’m sorry. Did you say radiation?” Camilla asked nervously. “Why would you use radiation in a refrigerator?”

    “It was the Atomic Age. We put radiation in everything!” Mary explained with a manic grin. “It’s just like how you put AI in everything these days. What could go wrong, right? Oh, there’s nothing to worry about, Ducky. The radiation is only on when the door is closed. The titanium alloy is completely radiation-proof, plus the paint is lead-based! The interior of the fridge is exposed to beta and gamma rays from the atomic battery, penetrating any packaging or containers and completely sterilizing the food inside! It may be mild, but since it’s near-continuous germs can’t get a foothold, so our meat stays abattoir-fresh for months!”

    Mary pushed all the shelves back inside the refrigerator and gave them a gentle shove to the left. They spun around as if on a carousel, despite there being no room inside the fridge for that to be possible. Mary stopped them when they reached a segment filled with ceramic baking dishes and tinfoil-covered platters.

    “Now I’m the first to admit that I’m not always sober enough to cook, which doesn’t always stop me! But for the times it does, I keep lots of meatloaf, casseroles, and roasts on hand so that I have plenty of leftovers to serve my family. Luckily for me, even my good china bakeware is no match for the ionizing radiation of the –”

    “Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait,” Camilla interrupted. “What did you just do?”

    “Hmmm?” Mary hummed in mock confusion.

    “You spun the inside of the fridge around like a Lazy Susan,” Camilla clarified. “How did you do that?”

    “Oh, that! Yes, that’s one of the modifications my brother James made,” Mary explained. “As wonderful as Oppenheimer’s appliances are, James could always make them better! He was able to expand the interior space out into the hyperdimensional volume of our playroom, so I never have to worry about running out of space for all my savoury creations.”

    “That’s… impossible,” Camilla said as she shook her said in disbelief. “Everything else you’ve said until now has been ridiculous, but that’s impossible.”

    “Come in and take a look for yourself if you don’t believe me,” Mary suggested as she spun the shelves in the fridge around with a theatrical flourish.

    Camilla adjusted her glasses as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing, tentatively approaching the fridge. As she tried to work out how the illusion worked, Mary stopped spinning the shelves when she arrived at a completely empty compartment.

    “You want to know what really made me buy this fridge, though?” she asked. “I asked the salesman how many bodies he thought I could fit in it, and without any hesitation he said ‘at least ten if you pack them in tight enough’.”

    With superhuman strength and speed, Camilla felt Mary shove her into the fridge from behind, slamming the door shut.

    “Hey! Hey! What the hell?” Camilla shouted as she pounded at the door from the inside.

    She tried to push or kick it open, but it wouldn’t budge. The seal was as airtight as Mary had said, and there was no way to open it from the inside. The instant the door had shut, the overhead lightbulb had gone out, replaced by the faint and eerie radioactive glow from the atomic battery below.

    “Oh no. Oh no,” Camilla muttered, squatting down and trying to force its shutter back into place. Pipes that had already lived longer than some people began to creak as an old motor sluggishly pumped Freon up and down their length. A vent that ran along the top of the back wall of the fridge began to exude a pale yet heavy misty that slowly began to sink to the bottom of the compartment.

    “Can you hear in me there, Ducky?” Mary’s voice asked over a crackling intercom.

    “Let me out!” Camilla demanded as she furiously pounded against the door. “Let me out!”

    “Don’t worry about the radiation. It’s too mild to be a short-term hazard,” Mary told her. “I don’t kill my victims with radiation anyway. It’s too drawn out… and it ruins the meat. No, I just want to see if I can kill you with the modifications my brother made before you run out of oxygen.”

    Camilla felt the interior of the fridge start to spin as she watched the door slip out of sight.

    “There we go. Not that I didn’t trust the door to hold, but I have some sauces and preserves in there that I’d really rather you didn’t smash,” Mary announced.

    “You’re fucking psychotic!” Camilla screamed as she threw her weight against the side, trying to tip the fridge over. “Why didn’t you just put me in here when I was unconscious?”

    “And how would I have shown you my beautiful Atomic Age refrigerator if I’d done that?” Mary asked in reply. “Sorry, Ducky, but you ran afoul of me when I was in the mood to play with my food. No quick death at the end of a knife for you. I mentioned that I can adjust the shelves with a push of a button, right?”

    A sturdy chrome shelf came sliding out from behind Camilla, catching her off guard and shoving her against the wall.

    “Fucking hell!” she cursed as she struggled to push against it.

    After a few seconds, it retracted itself at Mary’s command. Camilla spun around, bracing herself to catch it when it came at her again. Instead, one of the lower shelves came flying at her, bashing in her shins.

    “Christ!” she sobbed, collapsing onto her injured shins the moment the shelf withdrew. She clenched her teeth in rage at the sound of Mary’s sadistic cackling.

    “Oh my god! Before we got started, I was seriously asking myself if the novelty of killing someone with a fridge would be worth it, and it absolutely is!” she declared as she fired off the middle shelf again, this time hitting the kneeling Camilla in the forehead. “I hope it doesn’t void the warranty though. Oppenheimer’s guaranteed that so long as the atomic battery lasted, they’d always be able to repair it.”

    “The… battery,” the nearly concussed Camilla muttered as her eyes drifted down at the glowing green square in the center of the floor.

    With the use of a hitherto useless Swiss army knife on her keychain, she slipped the blade in along the battery’s edge and frantically began trying to pry it out.

    “Oh, you little… no respect for other people’s property, I swear,” Mary muttered.

    With the press of a button, the shutter for the battery nearly closed all the way, but the knife’s blade kept it from closing completely. Taking great care not to let it slip, Camilla continued to pry away at the battery in the sliver of radioactive light that was left to her. A lower shelf came flying forward again, but this time she succeeded in ducking it.

    Grunting, she tried to pull back the shutter to give herself more light, but the mechanism holding it in place was incredibly strong. She had succeeded in pulling it back only a fraction of an inch when its brightness suddenly flared.

    The blinding pain caused her to drop the knife and jerk upwards in retreat. As she rose, a shelf slammed into her throat and pinned her up against the wall at full speed. Choking and gasping, she desperately tried to force the shelf back as it slowly but surely crushed her windpipe. She pulled and pushed and rattled it, tried to shake it loose or kick it free with her feet, but nothing worked. As she squandered the last of her oxygen fighting against a shelf and her vision began to fade, she realized with a grim irony that Mary had been right.

    Oppenheimer’s really had built that fridge to last.

    ***

    “Hello, Mommy Darling!” Sara chirped as she happily skipped into the main living area and towards the fridge to get herself an afternoon snack. Mary politely acknowledged her presence, but was too caught up in her soap opera to engage her in conversation.

    As soon as Sara had the door open, she began spinning the inside to get to the desert compartment. She jumped back just in time to avoid being crushed by Camilla’s asphyxiated corpse. It hit the floor with a dull thud, bloated and blue, an expression of horror and agony etched into its face as it stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.

    Sara stared at it for a few seconds before overcoming her initial shock and turning towards her mother.

    “Mommy Darling, this body is still good. Can I use it for my trolley set? Pretty please?”

    0 Comments
    2024/04/06
    20:01 UTC

    3

    Dancing With The Stars: Termite Edition [Part 3 - Final]

    I - II - III


    As she thought she might, Chisel came to love nursing. She could finally dispel the pity that had gripped her perception of the workers. They didn’t deserve it. The nurses, foragers, and soldiers were all satisfied in their purpose.

    Blindness wasn’t an impediment; it was their strength. In darkness, clear smells guided them faster to feed hungry larvae, help injured siblings, and manage the colony with ease. Chisel felt a newfound honor to be living among a colony that was so much more self-sustaining than she’d thought.

    She was discussing this insight with some of the older nurses when the smell of something royal piqued everyone’s feelers.

    Duke Frett and his guards came in, crunching past old egg shells. Their eyes searched the chamber. Chisel raced over, excited to see them.

    “Duke Frett! Greetings! Has the matrimony finished?”

    The trio spun to face her, settling all their antennae.

    “Duchess Chisel, there you are. King Dalf has a sensitive demand of you.”

    “It’s nurse Chisel now; soon to be Milly’s aide.”

    “Yes. And I’m a burrowing wolf spider.” Frett coiled his antennae amidst hers, commencing linkspeak.

    “There have been unforeseen events that require your cooperation. We are having an emergency coronation. And you are the successor.”

    “I’m… Wait… What?”

    “You are the next in line.”

    “To become queen?”

    “In so many words, yes.”

    For a moment, the opportunist in Chisel beamed. The dream she had since larvahood had come true. But-

    “What about Milly?”

    “Pardon me?”

    “Queen Armillia. What’s happened to her?”

    Duke Frett awkwardly chewed on air. “I regret to say it appears she has fallen ill.”

    “Ill?” There was a blank wall in the nursery in expectation of Milly’s first supply of eggs. “She was a healthy queen not three nights ago! What do you mean, ‘ill’?”

    “A case of queensickness, I’m afraid. She has, unfortunately, passed away.”

    Chisel broke off the linkspeak. “That’s impossible.”

    The Duke’s long antenna swept back and forth. “Excuse me. Please reconnect.”

    “Queensickness?” Her disbelief was palpable. Some of the nurses perked up.

    “Duchess Chisel, sensitive topics should be-”

    “This topic is my closest sibling in the Mound!”

    The Duke clenched his pincers as more nurses faced their way. He shot out a pheromone that cast their curiosity aside. “Might I propose we move somewhere more secluded?”

    They travelled deep into the royal halls. Chisel felt hyper-alert, analyzing each step. As they crawled, she couldn’t help but notice the distance between the dukes’ and duchesses’ chambers. Have they always been so far apart?

    When they arrived outside Frett’s cell, he opened the hardened mulch door and offered Chisel first entrance.

    “Send them away,” she said.

    “Pardon?”

    Chisel gestured at the two soldiers. “If you have a private message from the king, then I don’t want them overhearing it.”

    “They’re my personal guards.”

    “Are you looking to upset your future queen?”

    There was an audible grind in the duke’s mandibles, but eventually he fired a scatter-scent. The soldiers left in silence.

    Frett’s room was massive, carved smooth to an almost uncanny extent. Piles of food pellets circled an open centre, where a chandelier of roots hung from the ceiling.

    Chisel walked toward a depression on the ground that looked disturbingly familiar.

    “Wait ... Hold on,” Chisel said, “Isn’t this Queen Rosica’s old chamber?”

    The duke remained silent, as if ignoring the question might resolve it.

    “It must be.” Chisel’s antennae grazed the floor, “I visited here for my litanies, only I came in by the … throne.”

    Where she remembered it, there was now only a congealed pile of wood attached to an empty, cracking wall.

    “Have you come to make observations?” Frett asked. “It is not the reason I summoned you.”

    Discomfort was piling up faster than Chisel could handle. The chamber reminded her of the molt loaded with Rosica’s dark message. The pleading screams.

    “Tell me right now, one royal to another.” Chisel scanned the floor, then faced Frett. “What happened to our late mother? Was she actually queensick?”

    Frett coiled and uncoiled his feelers, taking several moments to reply. “It was queensickness. Yes.”

    The floor revealed a series of claw marks, indicating a struggle that pulled towards the dilapidated wall.

    “Really? Or did Dalf kill our mother?”

    “What are you talking about? Is that an accusation?”

    Chisel looked around, grasping at what may have happened here. Did he not think I would notice? Is he that hardheaded?

    The duke’s antennae followed Chisel. “King Dalf is offering you the queenhood! Don’t you understand?”

    Chisel clamped onto the duke’s antennae and entered linkspeak.“The same queenhood he offered to Milly? Who’s now gone?”

    Frett tried to wrench away, but his feelers were too long. She could read a flurry of half-transmitted thoughts. “What’re you- Stop this. You’re tearing my-”

    “Tell. Me. The truth.”

    He was trying to hide behind an array of alarm and scatter smells, but to no effect on Chisel. Beneath the jerks and pulls, she kept detecting the same couple thoughts, popping up like bursts of water. The Gods. The Gloves. The Gaians.

    Chisel wrenched herself free, retracting her antennae. “The Gaians? What do they have to do with this?”

    A fury took hold of the duke, his feelers now jagged. “You are not to know!”

    “Well. I do now.” Chisel positioned herself between him and the exit. The air thickened further with the duke’s odours.

    “You’ve grown lazy, Frett, relying on all these commands.” As the smells filled her spiracles, she tasted what would normally paralyze a worker with compliance. “Is this how you usually get what you want?”

    He spat unchewed wood, holding his mandibles apart.

    “Intimidation then?” Chisel stood up on four legs, taking on the aggressive stance she’d rehearsed to death. “Would you like to fight someone who had sparred every night before the Crowndance?”

    Frett held still, considering the bluff. Chisel could see he was slow of crawl and creaky of limb: a life of issuing commands did not provide great exercise. She rose up and beat all four of her wings, blowing the duke to his back.

    “What are you doing!” He screamed. “Have you gone insane!?” He frantically tried to righten himself.

    A hot feeling billowed inside Chisel. Was this insanity? “If I’m queensick, then I’ve nothing left to lose.”

    Frett’s antennae fell limp. He backed away at her approach. In a leap of opportunity, he tried to scurry through the centre roots. Unfortunately, his jagged feelers were easy to snag.

    “Aggh!! By the Mound-No!”

    Chisel advanced.

    He only entangled himself further in his panic. His eyes became wider, more helpless. “Back away! Back! You want to know the role of the Gaians? Is that it?”

    She loomed over him.

    “They’re abductors! Monsters. It’s all beyond Dalf’s control.” He pointed at the crude repairs of the room’s cracks. “They knew exactly where her chamber was. Their instruments can tear through any number of walls.”

    “What…” Chisel remembered the flashes of panic from Rosica. The vision of shadows pulling her away.

    “Rosica had guards, but they weren’t of any use. Gaian metals are impenetrable, unstoppable.”

    The adrenaline between them started to fade, replaced by dismay.

    “Dalf knew it would happen. It’s happened countless times. It’s been happening since before you and I were born. For as long as The Mound’s existed.”

    Chisel fell back to six legs, unable to hold her balance. “What do you mean? And what about Armillia? What happened to her?”

    “We tried to hide her. Truly, we did. We put her in our deepest chamber, but the Gaians ... somehow they knew. They ripped her right out, just the same.”

    Chisel followed the thin fissure in the broken wall across the entire ceiling, down to the cell’s opposite side, where it broke into rivulets on the floor. This entire room had once been scraped clean. Throne and all.

    “How could you do this?” Chisel said. “How could you go on letting this happen. Without telling anyone?”

    All of Frett’s limbs hung limp, his body barely distinguishable from the fungus roots. “What else was I supposed to do?” He gazed up at Chisel imploringly. “What would you have done?”

    ***

    Helga watched the grey pixels assemble in the main tunnel, filing down toward the base again. “It’s a miracle we didn’t cause more upheaval. A series of drastic changes to hierarchy would cause a normal hive to turn on each other.”

    The queen of only four days was now inside her new capsule, staring at Johann’s massive fingers. He tapped at her gently. “They’ve just learned to adapt faster. They accept our intervention.”

    Our ‘intervention’ should have waited at least another week, Helga thought, but she was tired of arguing.

    “With four days as the official turnaround, the next step is expansion,” Johann said. “I’ll tell Devlin to grant us the time to start other colonies.”

    The rest of his planning turned to white noise as Helga fixated on the monitor’s live feed. She was set on recording this new mourning, or dance or whatever the termites were doing in response, but an error message kept appearing.

    “I want to save a video; why does it say limit reached?”

    Johann looked over. “How much have you been recording?”

    “Everything.”

    “As tomography videos? Helga, that’s literally terabytes of data. Just delete some old ones.”

    She turned to the Mound, then back at Johann. “But this is my research. I can’t.”He placed the capsule on the cart, pointing at the queen. “No. This is your research. Always has been.”

    “Well this is the only perk I care about.” Helga jabbed a finger at the screen.

    “Helga, do you know how many people want this job?”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    Johann tented fingers against his chin.

    “Oh, yes please; I’ve been dying to hear your latest unwanted opinion.”

    With the air of a lawyer doling the best counsel in the world, Johann spread his hands. “You’re not being paid to tape the history of stoned termites. You’re not being paid to keep track of every event, bloodline, and religion you think they’ve created. You need to dial this obsession back.”

    Helga stared at the error message, still trying to click it away. ”Well, I’m glad you’ve been quietly mocking me and my ‘pointless’ research this whole time.”

    “I was not. I think you’ve done a lot of valuable analysis, and led with great intuition—”Helga grabbed the capsule. “No. You’ve been ignoring me more and more. I barely had a say in this.” She pointed at the queen inside. “We extracted too early.”

    “We did not; the queen is fine. She’s already laid two eggs.”

    Helga inspected the capsule, spotting two tiny eggs. The young queen looked defeated, head curled under her thorax.

    “Don’t you see?” Johann said. “We’ve toughed it out—our project is finally getting the expansion it deserves.”

    How sad, Helga thought, being rewarded for handing off monarchs like candy. And not the creation of an incredible new culture.

    “I want my research saved.”

    “Helga.”

    “I’ll buy some external storage. I’ll bring my own drives.”

    “Helga. You don’t own any of these videos. This is all proprietary. You can’t keep it.”

    The capsule jostled in Helga’s hands. The queen inside began to skitter back and forth, trying to flutter with wings she no longer had.

    “Put it down.” Johann said.

    For a moment, Helga wanted to open the thing and drop the queen right back inside the Mound.

    Instead, she left it on the cart and ripped off her gloves.

    “What are you doing?”

    She spun on the soft earth and followed the boot marks she left coming in, warping them into overlapping tracks.

    “Helga, come on. We’re just getting started. You’re not actually going? Not before the value in all this skyrockets?”

    ***

    King Dalfenstump sat drowsily on a throne composed of servants. It took hundreds of sittings to find the right shape of workers, but in time, the effort produced the most relaxing chair imaginable.

    He asked the throne to walk circles in his giant chamber; a slow, meandering crawl is what best rose him from sleep. Today was the new Crownmating after all, and he would have to be mobile.

    Was that the right name for it? He wondered. Crownmating? It seemed a bit direct. Crowndance had been such a stroke of genius, finding a new title would be difficult.

    His servants slowly began to move his limbs, rotating each ball and socket. He remembered back—*what was it, ten queens ago?—*when Queen Mycaura won the duel. Back then, he could hardly stop himself from bouncing off the walls. Now look at you. Old as a worm, barely able to stand.

    The King still missed Mycaura; his first queen would always be dearest. He had almost sent the entire colony to retrieve her. Which would have been genocide. Thankfully, his cooler intuitions had prevailed, the black rain allowing him to think methodically.

    It was this quick thinking that had allowed him to broker an agreement between them and the Gaians. The agreement offered the colony peace and health. No rule since his, which had lasted thirty seasons, had found such success.

    It was a simple exchange. The Gaians took their queens, and in turn granted prosperity and protection. He had arranged it all using a brilliantly inferred, mutual understanding with the Gaians. It was a fact he’s shared with few. Only a couple dukes could understand the necessity of the agreement.

    The living throne moved Dalf to the corridors, towards the Pit. He abhorred going there, but the masses needed it. They needed a loud spectacle and a showcase of queenly lineage.

    He’d enjoyed it back when they still had the traditional Queen-duel for succession; it had been a nice romp, until it caused too many deaths. The Sparring-Ring was fine for a time as well, until injuries became too serious.

    The last variant, the Crowndance, was Dalf’s least favorite. It was boring, overdrawn, and a waste of everyone’s time. A Crownmating was all it needed to be. Dalf could simply choose his want and cut to the chase. It didn’t need to be a whole ordeal.

    The wheezing throne eventually reached the Pit and unloaded his majesty on the royal bench. Awaiting him were his dukes, curious to see how this new ritual would work. They all lifted their limbs to volunteer help; Dalf only allowed a few of them to chaperone him to the stage.

    It had been some time since he stood in the centre pit; he couldn’t remember the last occasion. Long enough that it felt unnecessary. His chaperones left, firing pheromones to herald the start of the new ceremony. Dalf did not look up, but he knew the workers were caught in a fervor. The simpleton children love their wretched smells. Don’t they?

    As the adulation dimmed, Dalf saw his chosen one approach. The duchess who had been his second preference at the last Crowndance. She even wore her regalia, a frilled collar-thing with petals. Dalf laughed. It’s superfluous, but why not?

    She spun around, trying to impress the crowds like before. Clearly no one briefed her on how this new ceremony works.

    Between her whirls and twirls, she switched from six legs to four. Dalf didn’t halt her enjoyment. It was a cute display anyway: a little nod to their ever-changing customs.

    He watched her wings circle and shine, waiting for the moment they lifted her onto two legs like before. A mildly impressive, but mostly useless feat.

    Sure enough, the wings did flutter, revealing a strong sliver of wood. He watched her grip this smooth stick. Watched her stand on two. Then he watched the wood slam into his mouth and puncture the back of his throat.

    ***

    Frett blasted the atrium with celebratory smells, and the other dukes and duchesses did likewise, assisting her in her efforts.

    So long as Dalf couldn’t speak, Chisel knew, the workers wouldn’t notice anything wrong. She sank her jaws into his still-spasming head and spat the crown stones to the floor. They tasted of dirt and blood.

    She looked at him, convulsing on the ground. He was still alive, struggling to move. Her feelers entwined his firmly in linkspeak. “Do you hear them cheering? Their jubilation? The workers are rejoicing your death.” Dalf twitched, half rising with something to say.

    Chisel snapped his neck.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/04
    17:43 UTC

    2

    Dancing With The Stars: Termite Edition [Part 2]

    I - II - III


    The Mound’s arterial gangway led deep into the largest open space in the colony: the Pit. A cavernous bowl, its ascending ridges acted like balconies for attending termites. All of them leaned downward, fishing with their antennae, trying to pick up whatever sounds, smells, or vibrations they could from the bottom stage.

    Chisel was waiting to enter this stage from a side tunnel. Under precise directions, her maids added the final touches to her Crowndance regalia. Normally some fashion modifications were expected—some minor wood piercings or perhaps a moss scarf—but Chisel wanted to truly dazzle royal eyes. Especially the king’s.

    A series of slivers were shallowly embedded beneath her neck to create the appearance of a frilled collar. Her maids also pushed a set of circular pecan-flakes past her front limbs, up to her knees. Around her torso, a thin piece of grass was wrapped to mimic the form of a tight stem.

    “So many accessories,” Milly said, her own maids fussing over a single mushroom cap. “You look striking.”

    Chisel stood on four legs and held her front two in midair, mimicking the shape of a flower (an outdoor plant she’d often heard about).

    “Thank you,” Chisel said. “I’ve refined this design for many seasons. I’m excited to show it off.” Based on glances from the other preparing duchesses, Chisel could tell her audacity was paying off.

    “I wish mine was so ornate.” Milly’s antennae adjusted her mushroom cap. “How did you think of such adornment?”

    Chisel did not have an answer for that. When the Black Rain struck their colony, every termite was affected differently. The blind seemed the least changed. Perhaps because their lives so heavily relied on pheromones, their minds did not need to dramatically re-sculpt. In comparison, the dukes and duchesses (who were seldom forced to labour) had begun to spend much of their idle time playing with these new thoughts. Chisel felt lucky this new cognition struck her particularly well.

    “Milly, I think your attire displays the power of simplicity,” Chisel said.

    “Really? You think so?”

    “Yes. Only you could wear such a fine hat.”

    They entered linkspeak and bolstered each other’s confidence. Once again, they agreed that no matter who won the crown, the other became their aide—and they could share all future ideas on apparel.

    Their exchange ended when a pair of escorts summoned Chisel towards the Pit. The ceremony was officially underway.

    Banishing her nerves, Chisel entered the stage with the grace of an undulant worm, careful to sustain all of her composure. She had graced this centre with her fellow royals during other prime events like investitures and fungus banquets, but being the sole seat of attention was an entirely different experience. The near-thousand termites above had gone silent, following her every step with the tips of their antennae, tracking her as if bound by invisible strings.

    She looked up and scanned their eyeless faces, feeling her usual pity for them. Despite their undivided attention, the workers here would only react to what pheromones the king and his dukes decided to release. Audience expression was mere amplification of royal opinion.

    Chisel reached the middle of the stage. She aimed the tergal glands atop her abdomen high and fired a long-accrued dose of pheromone directly overhead. The geyser of particulates informing all attendees: I am the Chisel, Duchess of the second brood, daughter of Queen Rosica. Feel my prowess.

    Her message rained onto the floor amongst the dukes, whose feelers sampled the air hungrily. The only unmoving antennae were those of King Dalfenstump, who watched patiently with large, dusky ovals. He could be spotted from anywhere thanks to the dark, gravel crown embedded in his tall, ruby head.

    Behold your new queen, Chisel thought. Locking eyes with him, she stood up on four legs and began her dance. Walking on fours was not easy, but she’d been rehearsing for a long time.

    For this performance, Chisel allowed herself to adopt an aggressive persona. She sent sparky leers to the observant dukes, demonstrating what she hoped appeared as effortless balance. She raised the pecan flakes at her joints and swayed, just how she imagined a flower might sway from the tickle of air on the surface-world. She settled in to her dance, moving forward two steps, then clicking with her jaws.

    One, two, -- clack! clack! clack!

    Three, four -- clack! clack! clack!

    The sound rang its way throughout the bowl, bouncing off ridges. The advantage of being eldest was going first, which meant audience feelers were at peak receptivity.

    After a few more clacks, she heard the workers respond in kind. She unfolded her wings for the great reveal, snapping grass off her torso. Chisel retrieved a hidden pecan-stick from her back, stabbing its point into the ground.

    The stick had been carefully whittled close to the length of her body, and by using it as an additional limb, Chisel was able to pull off a feat previously unheard of: standing on only two legs.

    The dukes began to murmur, exchanging their tiny glances. She caught the hanging jaw of a royal, who began to drool unchewed wood. Smells of infatuation misted upward, creating an intrigued crowd whose clacking grew louder.

    Using her stick, Chisel began to walk forward, elegant on two feet. She was something ethereal, like the legendary Gaians who created their Mound.

    She shot glances at the king, luring him, trying to tease out a response. She approached the royal bench, flaunting her balance. Up close, the prickle of the dukes’ pheromones converged into a miasma of messages. Such beauty. What awe. A viable queen.

    She turned her modest pace and approached the king, staring at him eye-to-eye. She demonstrated a bow from her upright position. With slow control that allowed for absolutely no wobbling, she lowered her mandibles and produced a healthy clump of perfectly-softened heartwood, dropping it at the base of Dalfenstump’s seat.

    The king peeked at the offering, then back at Chisel. His antennae twisted in consideration, his mouth chewed on something coarse. Chisel’s pulse froze as she waited for a remark. Perhaps a compliment. A thank you. Anything. But Dalf’s dusky eyes stayed the same, betraying no hint of his thoughts.

    ***

    “So they want us to narrow the gap,” Johann said, wiping the pho from his mouth. “‘Aim for a turnaround that’s under two weeks,’ they say. So what do you think: would tomorrow be too soon?”

    Helga held her chopsticks midair. “To extract? Of course that’s too soon.”

    “What’s the soonest?”

    Helga slurped her soup. She was trying her best to embrace how commercial entomology had gotten. It meant she had a job, but this isn’t why she had chosen the sciences. Like everywhere else, the loom of private enterprise was inevitable. Progress had a perverse relationship with greed.

    “Two weeks is the minimum.”

    Johann’s fingers formed a little tent beneath his chin. It was his infamous tell before a blunt statement. “But doesn’t the king just need to knock the queen up? Then we can extract her and start the whole cycle over again.”

    Helga slurped her soup louder. She knew this wasn’t his expertise, but she was surprised how far his intuition had fallen since grad school.

    “The king’s pheromones need prolonged interaction with the queen in order for her to reach proper size and function. Even under the Nootropic, I don’t think we should extract a new queen sooner than two weeks.”

    “Well, the client wants it sooner.”

    Well, can’t we push back? We’d be risking colony stability.”

    “Devlin is making us play ball.”

    Helga sighed. Devlin had no place being in charge; a wannabe researcher who dove into this business without a clue of how insect cultivation worked. “I hate this.”

    “I thought you liked Vietnamese?”

    Helga threw him a glare. “You know what I mean. How have you put up with this for five years?”

    Johann shrugged.

    “What happened to tolerance for exploratory research? There’s plenty of other potential I’m uncovering with the termites; it’s all in my notes, if anyone would bother with them.”

    “Helga, you just got to be patient. It’s your first contract here. It’s going to be limited.”

    “That’s one way of putting it. We don’t even know what they’re using these queens for! That’s what’s most frustrating.”

    Johann started to saw a spring roll. “You want to know what the queens are for?” The rice-wrapped shrimp slowly split in two. “They’re for recycling.”

    “What?”

    He pulled out his phone and summoned a picture of what looked like a lumber mill for Barbie. Below a slogan read: All-Purpose Compost.

    “What the hell is this?”

    “You know how it’s trendy to have you own little beehive: contribute to pollination in your neighborhood and all that?”

    Helga swiped through concept art.

    “Well, soon you can have your own little termitary and process your own wood, cardboard, and plastic.”

    “Plastic? How is that even possible?”

    “There’s another team that’s found a way.” Johann popped his half of the spring roll. “They’ve been working with the Nootropic to adapt the termites’ diet.”

    Helga sighed. “So what you’re saying is ... we’re farming hyper intelligent queens-whose full potential is unknown-for yuppy backyard novelties**.”**

    “If you want to put it that way.”

    Helga nudged her half of the spring roll back to her brother; it may as well have been styrofoam with the new knot in her stomach. “How long have you known about this?”

    Johann tented his fingers beneath his chin. “They told me a few weeks ago. And I figured it might upset you. Which it clearly has. So here we are.”

    “So here we are.”

    ***

    It must have been a matter of longevity, Chisel thought, that’s why he chose Milly; it’s the only explanation that makes sense. There was no doubt Chisel’s performance had been the strongest: the audience had been unanimous with their cheers and clacks. But her sister was six seasons younger, which meant her queenspan could triple that of Chisel’s.

    It was logical to line up an unwavering rule, and seek stability for their recently fickle colony. But was Milly truly the right queen?

    It was a question she could find no answer to, only resentment: and resentment was counter-colony*.* Instead, Chisel focused on her transition.

    She followed a group of nurses into the rearing chamber, a large hall packed with eggs, grubs, and food piles. To aide the new queen, Chisel now had to embrace the idea of becoming a caretaker. Over the next several days, she would learn to raise an egg from larva to callow.

    She had always wondered what it would be like to work alongside her siblings: to understand their process, their language. Perhaps by grasping the essence of their lives, Chisel could advise the queen with a deeper and more effective nuance.

    ***

    Helga scraped her boots across the scutch grass and walked around the enclosed biome. She looked up at the glass ceiling, squinting at the setting sun.

    Johann sighed behind her. “All right—you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

    “I’m not bothered. It’s just ... I’ve been thinking.”

    “That’s dangerous.”

    Helga rolled her eyes. “I’m serious. The longer I’m here, the harder it is for me not to think I was better off working at the university.”

    Johann stopped pushing their cart. “Helga. This is—”

    “A great opportunity. I know. But now that I’ve seen it firsthand, I can confidently say: the university was better.” Helga counted with each finger. “Pressure-free research, flexibility. Not to mention weekends.”

    “Are you comparing that against access to all this?” Johann opened his arms, indicating, well, everything: their research cart; the giant Entodome that enclosed the artificial savannah; the termite mound surrounded by the million-dollar HALO scanner.
    *“*Helga, You go back to the school and you’ll be using equipment that’s decades old. I know working for clients can be frustrating, but you’ve got to take stock of what’s going on here. This is bleeding edge; you’re not going to get this anywhere else.”

    Helga instinctively shrugged with open palms, like she had when they were young. It’s funny how some things never seemed to change. An older brother who was always nagging. Whose pursuits always seemed sophisticated, but were really just flashy lights hiding something far more banal. “I just don’t understand how you can be okay with this.”

    “Okay with what?”

    “This commercialization.”

    Johann snapped on his gloves. “As long as you’re patient,” he said, “there’s plenty of opportunity. It will all come in time.”

    And in that time, what’ll become of the passion that brought me here in the first place? Helga thought. What happened to yours?

    She grabbed a pair of forceps and aimed them at the Mound. “Let’s get on with it.”

    0 Comments
    2024/04/03
    07:04 UTC

    4

    Dancing With The Stars: Termite Edition

    I - II - III


    Chisel’s antennae darted through the hovering scent, her brain continually igniting with the same urgent message: Queen Rosica dead. Great mother gone.

    Hundreds of her siblings obstructed the tunnel floor. Their feelers and limbs were helplessly tangled in a whirlpool of grief, trying to suck Chisel down from the ceiling.

    As duchess of the second brood, Chisel was among the few termites deserving the gift of sight. With it, she could avoid this snare of pheromonal grouping. She could see it in a way that her instincts could not: as a cluster of blind workers, enslaved by each other’s pheromonal glands. A pile of conjoined pity.

    She would love nothing more than to rush in and remind them all that a new queen was coming: that she herself could soon be chosen! But such a sentiment, although well-intentioned, would be presumptuous, mutinous even. Counter-colony.

    Instead, Chisel chewed stray splinters on the tunnel ceiling, observing her sad siblings as they all awaited the funeral procession. The ceiling wood was firm despite the rapid decay of their home, and Chisel enjoyed the rugged taste.

    By the time her innards warmed with digestion, there came a chanting from the tunnel’s far entrance.

    Mother of our Mound.

    Who offered you and me

    Benevolence profound.

    We pay respects to thee.

    Duke Frett entered. He swivelled his abdomen high behind him, jetting alarm pheromones and chanting with each step. His long, curling antennae led several soldiers, who paraded a papery molt of her late majesty.

    As they neared, Chisel stole a direct look at the queen’s final shed, the thin skin quivering above the backs of the soldiers.

    Although you may be gone

    A life returned to earth.

    Your Memory lives on

    Among those given birth.

    The sad tangle of workers began to unknot, raising their antennae in waves. They surrounded the soldiers like a sea of children, each dying for a final touch of their mother.

    “Make way,” Duke Frett called. He allowed the snout-nosed soldiers to step forth and fend off the enlivened crowds. The duke then lifted his abdomen, likely preparing to fire a pheromone for scatter.

    But a grief-stricken worker lunged into the queen’s molt. Its thin walls tore open.

    In an instant, the workers fell into a frenzy. They poured onto their paper mother, oblivious to her tearing and flaking. The tattered skin dappled everyone in the tunnel with grey confetti.

    Chisel waited for the duke to shout something—a rally, or perhaps a diversion—but whatever leaked from the queen’s shell had also smitten the duke’s entourage.

    She watched as a large flake drifted from the tumult and somersaulted in her direction. She could have crawled back, or blown it away with her impressive wings, but its mystery proved enticing. So instead, Chisel allowed the skin to land on her face and sink into her jaws.

    An all-encompassing nostalgia struck. Images of the royal nursery, a swollen abdomen, and Queen Rosica’s bright, luminous eyes. The eyes started soft, patient and gentle. Just as Chisel remembered. But soon a bitter fear came over her. A dark shadow grasped Rosica, appearing from nowhere, as if it had burst through the very walls. Screams filled her. Chisel reached out to her mother, grazing the tips of her claws. But the screams drifted off, leaving only a cold void.

    “By the Mound! What’s going on?!”

    The voice snapped Chisel back to reality, nearly startling her off the ceiling. She dropped the flake and turned to meet the worried black eyes of her beloved sister, Duchess Armillia.

    “Are you all right?”

    Milly was like Chisel in every way: copper-toned, wiry, with two wings folded across a roomy abdomen. Except the juvenile was cleaner, unblemished: still glazed by the shine of youth.

    “That molt was incensed,” Chisel said, wiping her eyes. “Pumped full of alarm pheromone.”

    “Alarm?”

    “Yes. It’s as if Queen Rosica was storing some kind of distress. Must have been a whole gland-full.”

    Milly began fanning the fragrance away. “Well I hope she’s satisfied with her posthumous havoc.”

    They both observed the workers below, each one devouring every shred of queen-scent they could find. The duke’s soldiers were still entranced in the panic.

    “How strange of mother,” Chisel said. “Why would she want to cause this?”

    Milly’s wings violently blurred. “Well, I hate to say it, but the rumours were probably true.”

    “What rumours?”

    “That she lost her head. Queensickness.” Milly scoffed. “I knew she wasn’t fit.”

    A coarse grain slid down Chisel’s throat. Queensickness was said to strike if royalty were lazy or counter-colony. It was an inert disease, said to originate inside one’s gut: from bacteria of the very wood they consumed. It was the Mound’s own way of managing their lineage and preventing the rule of bad monarchs.

    Milly’s wings started to tire. “She must have been queensick and too terrified to tell anyone. Vented her panic into her final molt like a fool. I’m glad her shell is ruined; it doesn’t deserve commemoration.”

    Chisel flickered her eyes amongst the workers. Though they were blind and distracted, they were not necessarily deaf to their royal gossip. She stretched out her feelers and wrapped them around Milly’s. The two duchesses entered a private form of linkspeak.

    “I always thought Rosica was strong,” Chisel transmitted. “Why would she fall sick?”

    “She was probably hoarding eggs, stunting them into child-maids for personal depravities.”

    Chisel found that hard to believe. Their mother had always seemed benevolent, utterly dedicated to the colony.

    “Rosica was struck sick because she was selfish. With queendom comes temptations-”

    “-and temptations must meet resistance,” Chisel finished. They were both raised under the same litanies in the royal nursery. From larvahood they knew the crown might befall one of them. Chisel just hadn’t thought it could happen so soon.

    With gentle claws, she broke off their linkspeak and began petting the wings of her younger sister. They began to groom each other, meticulously removing specks of dust and moisture, brushing between each linkage in their bodies.

    “It’s hard to believe.”

    “I know. It is. But here we are.”

    The two of them had long held an unspoken agreement. If either was crowned, the other would join alongside her as an aide. But until that happened, they both knew there could be no clemency. The Mound must be ruled by its rightful queen.

    “Alll right.” Duke Frett’s coughs finally broke through the fugue. “Well, that was a nice parting gift from our mother.”

    The soldiers cleared a circle around the duke, who lifted his rear. “And with that, the funeral is complete. May Rosica rest in our past.” He fired several plumes, arching them over the blind workers.

    “Now, we file down to the Pit and determine our future. The Crowndance awaits.”

    It always felt a bit like playing god, but Helga had to admit that she enjoyed monitoring their progress. It was like witnessing some kind of miniature civilization.

    As predicted, the tomographic scanner showed that the termites were now gathering in the tree stump’s lowest gallery.

    “I called it Johann; they’re movin’ down.”

    “Let me see.”

    Helga swivelled the screen over to her brother, who stood up from sampling the termite mound.

    He carefully lifted his lab coat above the many roots and tripods. “How long has it been?”

    “Under eight hours.”

    Despite all its paraphernalia, their research cart was quite light. Helga easily glided it towards Johann, who inspected the mounted screen.

    “Wow. So they’re choosing a new queen in less than half a day?” His glasses flickered from the light of the monitor. “It’s like ... electing a president the night after an assassination.”

    Helga laughed. Her brother’s best quality was the levity he brought everywhere. She had missed working on projects with him.

    He tapped the display, lowering his eyebrows to what Helga thought of as business mode. “This is great. We’re officially on track for hitting the quota.”

    “Does this mean the client will finally ease up?”

    “Hopefully.” Johann squinted at the black and grey pixels. He finally located and pointed to the termite digitally marked as ‘KING.’

    “So I guess now our brides-to-be fight, and the winner gets to mate with this lucky fella?”

    “No.” Helga walked back to the mound, ensuring the scanner was at proper height. “They went and did away with duelling several months ago.”

    “Uhm, no ...” Helga could hear the frown in his voice. “They went through this routine last time. I remember.”

    “Those were just displays of aggression.”

    “Isn’t that the same thing?”

    Helga shook her head, still facing the equipment so her brother wouldn’t see her smile. Behavioural patterns had never been his passion. “Nope. They even went through a period of non-lethal sparring before that. Now” —Helga lowered the metal ring to the base of the stump— “now they just sort of dance to become queen.”

    “Dance?” Johann asked. “For queenhood?”

    “Another side effect of the Nootropic.” She glanced at the black jug hanging off their cart: black as ink and reeking like absinthe.

    “I’m surprised it’s gone that far,” Johann said.

    Oh it’s gone much further, Helga thought. But she couldn't blame him for not knowing. Her notes may be rife with recordings of the strange, societal ‘quirks’ the Nootropic brought, but that wasn’t what the organization cared about. No, they were dousing thousands of termites for the express purpose of making more queens.

    Johann reached into the lowest drawer of their cart and inspected the nursery pod.

    “Well regardless, here she is: a fully-fledged beauty in less than two weeks.”

    Helga stole a glance. Despite being extracted only eight hours ago, the queen appeared calm in her artificial home.

    “And look, she’s already laid her first dozen.”

    It would be impressive, if it weren’t so sad, Helga thought. The poor insect senses the absence of all her workers, and knows she has to start birthing.

    But there was something to admire about a little queen rolling with the punches.

    “Suppose this means we can send her on her way.”

    Helga nodded. It was customary to hold on to queens for at least a day to make sure they could still proliferate. This one looked ready.

    “Great,” Johann clapped. He swivelled the monitor cart to rest between them both. “Well, I think we’ve both earned our preview of Dancing with the Stars: Termite Edition. Don’t you think?”

    Helga appreciated his attempts at morale. She hit record, and watched the clip autosave as ‘miscellaneous 215’.

    She wished she could at least rename them, but that was not allowed; there was no allotment for personal or open research.

    Helga didn’t let that stop her, though. She had her own additional vids and notes, done on her own time and saved to a directory nobody observed. Much like the queens, Helga just rolled with the punches.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/02
    02:59 UTC

    5

    Supernatural

    This is my first book kinda, I hope you enjoy it because I have been working on this story for a few weeks, enjoy. 😊

    This is my first book kinda, I hope you enjoy it because I have been working on this story for a few weeks, I'll post the next chapter soon, enjoy. 😊

    Chapter 1.

    You know before the Great War, Lucifer used to be God's favorite angel, ha those were the days. so where do I begin? Well, he's the devil, who invited Daddy issues, waged a war, and was banished to hell. so grab a drink, you'll need one.

    Title: Supernatural - Chapter 1: Divine Commission

    In the vastness of the heavenly realms, where celestial wonders unfolded in divine harmony, Lucifer and Michael were summoned to the throne room of God. Their presence added a solemnity to the atmosphere as they stood before the Almighty.

    "Father?" Their voices echoed respectfully, acknowledging the magnitude of the divine presence.

    "I have summoned you both for a special purpose," God began, His voice carrying the weight of authority and love. "I am embarking on a new project, one that will shape the destiny of Earth."

    Michael's eyes widened with curiosity, "Is this about the Earth, Father?"

    God nodded, a gentle smile gracing His countenance. "Indeed. I want you both to create two beings, a male and a female, to inhabit the Earth. The one whose creation is deemed the best shall receive worship and reverence from their design. You will hold great power and influence among the angels, respected for your creativity and wisdom."

    Lucifer's gaze flickered with intrigue and determination. "This is a monumental task," he remarked, already envisioning the possibilities.

    "Ok, um, where do we begin?" Michael's voice held a mix of excitement and uncertainty as he looked to God for guidance.

    "Come with me to the garden," God replied, God stands up, His presence imbued with a sense of anticipation. Without physical movement, the surroundings of the throne room transformed dramatically. The once grand chamber dissolved, replaced by a breathtaking landscape of lush greenery, blooming flowers, and a symphony of natural sounds.

    "This garden shall be your canvas," God explained. "Use the elements here to sculpt your creations. Remember, they are not just beings but reflections of your creativity and the divine essence within you."

    Lucifer and Michael nodded in understanding, their minds racing with ideas and visions for the beings they were about to craft. The stage was set for a grand competition of creation, one that would not only shape the fate of Earth but also test the bonds of brotherhood and loyalty in the heavenly realms. Thus, the first chapter of the Great War began with a divine commission to create beings in the likeness of their creators.

    "Dad, you created all of this in just 7 days?" Michael's astonishment was palpable as he surveyed the vibrant scene, filled with diverse flora and fauna.

    Lucifer, too, took in the beauty around him, his eyes alighting on the various creatures inhabiting the garden—birds soaring gracefully, butterflies flitting about, and majestic beasts like lions and giraffes roaming freely.

    "Where are we making them?" Lucifer asked, his mind racing with excitement.

    "Here," God gestured towards a specific spot next to a tree laden with fruits. "You will mold them from the earth in that location. I will then breathe life into your creations."

    Michael, intrigued, inquired, "So what's so special about that tree?"

    "That," God explained, "is the tree of Life. It symbolizes not only vitality and sustenance but also the essence of divine knowledge and power. By partaking of its fruit and imbuing your creations with it, you will establish a unique bond and authority over them."

    They exchanged glances before turning their attention to the towering tree. Lucifer led the way, digging into the earth with precision. Michael observed before joining in. Lucifer sculpted the ground into a head, meticulously carving features. Progressing to the torso, he painstakingly crafted each detail, from the shoulders down to the feet. Returning to the head, he fashioned a second, morphing it into a bird, then a lion. He duplicated his creation, forming a female counterpart, completing the task in a mere ten minutes.

    "I'm finished!" Lucifer exclaimed, pride evident in his accomplishment. He was confident no one could replicate his feat.

    "Impressive, Lucifer. You may indeed hold sway over this new domain," God praised, patting Lucifer on the head.

    God's gentle touch and encouraging words filled Lucifer with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation. However, as Michael began his creation, Lucifer couldn't help but feel a twinge of apprehension and competitiveness.

    Approaching the figures, God knelt down and breathed life into their nostrils. Their chests rose and fell rhythmically, yet they remained in a profound slumber.

    "Now, it's your turn, Michael," Lucifer taunted with a smirk.

    Michael stepped forward, focusing his gaze on the earth. With deliberate movements, he gathered handfuls of soil, shaping it into a form. Carefully, he molded the figure, shaping the head, defining the features, and sculpting the body with precision. Each detail was crafted with intention, reflecting Michael's meticulous care.

    As he worked, a sense of reverence filled the air, underscoring the gravity of the moment. With a final touch, God observed with quiet approval, acknowledging the significance of Michael's creation. It was a testament to his skill and reverence for life, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the unfolding story of creation.

    With focused determination, Michael meticulously crafted every detail of his creation, pouring his creativity and care into each aspect. His attention to detail and the lifelike features of his creations surpassed even Lucifer's expectations.

    Lucifer's initial smirk faded as he witnessed Michael's masterful work. Despite his inner struggle to contain his emotions, he couldn't deny the excellence of Michael's creation. The intricate details, the lifelike features, and the resemblance to their divine image left Lucifer in awe.

    "Wow, Michael, I'm impressed," Lucifer admitted, a hint of admiration in his tone. "Your attention to detail and the way you've crafted them in our image is truly remarkable."

    God, too, was visibly pleased with Michael's creation. "Well done, Michael. Your craftsmanship and dedication are exemplary," God praised, acknowledging the effort and skill put into the creation.

    Michael, however, remained humble in victory. "Thank you, Father, but I'd rather you be their king. This is a team effort, and you will breathe life into them, making them truly divine creations."

    God's smile widened at Michael's humility and unity. "Very well said, Michael. This is indeed a collaborative effort, and together, we shall bring life and purpose to these beings."

    With that, God prepared to breathe life into Michael's creations, ushering in a new era for humanity and solidifying the bond between the divine and mortal realms.

    "how about all angels bow to this marvelous creation, for they are in my image, and they're like gods."

    "Great idea, Father," Michael's voice resonated with admiration for the new creations.

    Lucifer's expression darkened as he heard God's suggestion. He felt a surge of anger and disappointment, a desire for recognition and power bubbling within him. Determined to address his concerns, he approached God.

    "Dad," Lucifer's voice was edged with frustration.

    "Yes?"

    "A word?"

    Lucifer took God's hands and led him away from Michael, wanting privacy for their conversation.

    "Dad, I thought you said we would be kings of them, not the other way around," Lucifer's eyes flashed with defiance.

    "Son, your brother made his choice. It's his creation, and whatever he says goes, got it?" God's tone carried a hint of finality.

    "But dad!" Lucifer's voice rose with anger.

    "No buts. Now go back. I have to make them alive."

    Lucifer stormed back to his place, his emotions swirling with resentment and determination. He clenched his fists, plotting his next move. The tension in the air hinted at the brewing conflict—the seeds of discord sown in the celestial realm, paving the way for the Great War.

    if you made it this far please leave a vote you don't have to but, it lets me know you liked it 🥹🫶🏾

    part 2

    If you don't wanna wait I already have the full chapters posted on Wattpad.

    Title: supernatural

    General: Syfy, Bromance, adventure, action.

    Status: Ongoing.

    Tags: #fantasy #horror #brothersconflict #bromance #horror-thriller #lucifer #romance #religion #historical #god #demons #brothersbestfriend #angel #mystery #supernatural #satan #goddess #angelofdeath #adventure #syfy #paranormal

    Description: Once the favored angel of God, Lucifer's fall from grace unfolded amidst celestial turmoil and familial strife. Branded as the Devil, his rebellion and subsequent exile to hell were fueled by deep-seated Daddy issues and a cataclysmic war in heaven. So, settle in with a drink; this saga promises a journey through ages of cosmic upheaval and personal vendettas.

    Link:https://www.wattpad.com/story/360477536?utm_source=android&utm_medium=link&utm_content=share_writing&wp_page=create&wp_uname=StoryLordd

    0 Comments
    2024/04/02
    01:37 UTC

    3

    THE VACATION - PART 3

    KAROH, THE VOID KING! a being of pure darkness he wants to destroy all who stand in his way. He wants to corrupt the very source of all creation the Tree of Life and bent it to his dark will. Centuries ago he made a hundred more abominations that were born into this world, and the dark ages started. In an attempt to correct this wrong, each Arch-Angel sought out one worthy human to transfer a small fragment of their power to, thus the Chief-families came to be. However evil was watching closely so the seven primes or ancients of the void copied this process and found strong, dark humans to transfer a piece of their power in.

    But evil did not know of the family's intention, and that would be their downfall. A great veil was put up in order to keep the void at bay and close all rifts and portals but also to protect the other parts of the world. Cutting off humanity from the void and it's nightmares, with any magic whatsoever, to make sure nobody could break the veil or bring these dark creatures within this safe new world. The more evil tips the balance of power, the more the veil begins to tear in places, It's my duty, as a guardian of the veil to protect it and the light side of the balance. The veil has been weaken which those creatures like the ones outside can pass through.

    The Chief-families were mixing houses and bloodlines to have a child, that has powers from all four Arch-angels 29 years ago they archived that. Aria, I have protected her since she was born, guarding he r and her veil. Jarrod spoke of when the veil was put up, the Lycans were the ones who helped the light more than the other creatures. He also said some of his best and closet friends were Lycans that their race was honorable...well most of them. They willingly chose to help the light and Chief-families for this the Gods blessed their species, every hundred years so Lycans birthed, that two great white wolfs would be born, not only bigger,stronger, and smarter, but with a extra supernatural power.

    Jarrod said he had the honor of fighting alongside both of them, and these Arch-Wolfs have, deep red and violet eyes and the abilities of Pyrokinesis, and Telekinesis, making both of these males a force to be reckoned with! One of them saved my life from the creature that did this, he lifted his shirt to show deep scars, the same one who awaits outside for us now! But this is not the end Karoh found a way to cross over to earth in secret using a human disguise. The five teens looked up in shock as Jarrod continued the reason why was because to create offspring who could carry on his legacy. He waited patiently for seven young virgin women and hypnotized them one by one to follow him than he impregnated them in an abandoned cabin in the woods. All seven offspring were born within hours and either ate or clawed out of their mothers. The five teens looked on in disgust and fear as he went on that's how his biological heirs were born each holding a piece of his power they would be known as the five Void Princes, and two Void Princesses.

    Sadly it gets worse Jarrod told the teens a Voidling named Bael repeated this process some time after the Void King and came out with his own son Ernesh he only answers to Karoh,his children, and Bael. Mitchell interjected and asked what about the ancients since they hold great influence over the void supposedly as the others agreed. Jarrod said that would be the case but Bael isn't any normal voidling far from it for you see Bael is the leader of the ancients. The teens gasped at this reveal as Jarrod continued Ernesh is a blood descendant of Bael and a general of the Void Army. But a miracle happened nine years ago a huge battle took place massive armies of the void tried to get on earth through great sized cracks in the veil the Void King himself took part in this battle.

    The teens were really feeling more weight from this info now Kyrie asked "Why do you think the Void King participated in this battle." My guess is he got tired of watching from afar and wanted to get in the action himself and that would prove to be his undoing Jarrod said while he wasn't paying attention his wife used a powerful artifact. The five listened intently a supernatural stamp designed to imprison anyone it hits while he was focusing on the Pyro Arch-wolf and the Chief-families she jumped up high to his chest with the support of one of the Lycans. He threw her up with force by the time he noticed she was upon him and pressed the stamp down, the sigil from the bottom became physical and expanded within seconds it than phased right through the Void King his body became light than was sealed in a big statue like coffin. But you see kids the stamp uses all of your energy to power and make it work so she used her last bit of strength from fighting to make it count.

    As the teens had a somber look a somber look on their faces Mitchell spoke up sorry about Ms.May she was always kind to me when I was a kid. Jarrod looked at him and similed while nodding as he continued her body, stamp, and statue started to fall to the ground the telekinetic Arch-Wolf caught her body and the stamp. Unfortunately the statue was caught by Ernesh he came from the side and jumped up a good 10 feet and was able to catch the statue when he landed back on the ground Bael took the statue from him than he teleported away. With the Void King gone the remaining forces ran through the rift not before a handful of our forces chased and mowed them down Zion piped in saying "so if the Void King is gone his eldest should take the throne right." Jarrod replied yes normally but because we didn't destroy him only sealed he's technically still alive so his first born a Void Prince most likely did not want to take the throne because they can still reawaken him if they get their on the stamp.

    Jarrod continued but the good news is in the event which they manage to reawaken him which is unlikely but still still possible he would no longer have his original dragonic form. He will just be energy while having to build himself a new form which will take some time Jennie asked Jarrod how don you know all of this information. He answered her by saying this is important knowledge for new people who join in on the war the Gods told the Arch's they told Aria she told us for new recruits who want to join in. So are you all ready for this all five nodded in excitement and curiosity the table they were sitting at suddenly lowered into the floor to reveal a staircase leading down to a sub-level of the mansion. After the teens descended the staircase, they found themselves in a ceilinged metal room with different staging areas.

    They saw a sparring area, firing range, and more surprising areas such as: Energy vacuum chamber, Mech testing chamber and much more. An even bigger flat screen came to life on the far side of the room as Jarrod began to speak. We only have 5 hours till nightfall, lucky for us though, this room has a magical delay that can only be activated for emergency scenarios. The delay is a one-time use though, and to recharge another would take a week at least, so were going to make every minute count! The delay will pause time for exactly four hour on this mountain, giving us a total of nine hours in training time. Don't worry about spending your energy, after everything Mana will be given to you, a divivne fruit that grows on trees of life and will replenish every part of your being mentally, spiritually, and physically.

    Now, there is a special attack that Wendigo can perform which you need to know. They compress their muscles really low for one big move. As they compress, so does their energy and power, letting them move in one straight line with hyper speed. However, continued Jarrod, it's not much because it takes them about ten seconds to charge this attack up, and a proficient creature or skilled warrior can foresee it easily. This trick makes them the top ambushing predator and should NEVER be taken lightly! Jarrod told them to go upstairs and take many weapons and items to get familiar with them and their purpose while also knowing how to use them.

    When the teens returned, they were greeted with a beautiful, Intense looking woman was starting back at them through the screen. Which Mitchell remembered, Luna she said hi Mitch it's been awhile look at how you've grown. He smilled at this she turned to the others my name is Luna, and I'll be training you. Jarrod will return here tonight to aid you in the coming battle, and I will teach you not only to survive, but to be triumphant. Listen carefully you five, said Luna with a seriousness in her voice, with the special armor and weapons this place has, as well as magical and holy relics, your victory is very probable.

    Plus, added Luna cheerfully, we have some friends in the area already heading to you as we speak, so if those repulsive fools want a battle, they're about to get more than they asked for! Now, bring everything down quickly, but we just brought everything Jarrod asked for, Zion started before being hushed by Luna, EVERYTHING! GO GO shouted Luna with the intensity of a commander. As the five teens set out to retrieve the mansions hidden treasures and begin their transformations.

    Part 3 - Fated Allies

    Mitchell and Kyrie stood on the first floor balcony, watching the sun begin it's decent behind the mountain, as they waited for their fate. Kyrie turned to Mitchell and said to think our innocent vacation would turn into this. Yeah but i'm not complaining we have a chance to do something for the good of all Mitchell said as he watched the sun slowly disappear behind the mountain. If they survived the upcoming night, nothing will ever be the same, thought Mitchell, how could he go back to a normal teenage life and pretend that nothing happend, although still afraid, his life had more purpose in the past eleven hours than his seven-teen years! He wasn't even sure his old self existed anymore, not after everything that was said, and not after all training they all just went through with Luna, using weapons and items beyond his dreams. I feel like everything, one way or another, is going to be okay. Me too, said Kyrie placing her hand on Mitchell's shoulder.

    SO DO I, came a sinister wretched voice from the left corner of the balcony, which was easily ten feet off the ground, making the creatures head visible from it's neck as it peered down at them over the high porch railing. Ernesh, said Mitchell in a disdainful tone, as the creature grinned at him showing unnaturally long teeth, that had just a little bit of saliva down them, probably wanting to no doubt consume Mitchell on the spot. I see your familiar with me now, spoke the creature in a disturbing and well mannered voice. It's voice now sounded proper and smart, for a moment Mitchell almost mistook it for a British accent, due to it's grammar and tone. Mitchell noticed in the fading light the creature did have eyes. Where he thought to be empty black holes in it's head, were two round spheres of black, that carried no light form the sun, like they absorbed all light.

    Well kids, seeing as you MY name, from Jarrod no less, it's only fair to know yours. My name is Mitchell, I'm Kyrie she said standing next to him as the front door suddenly opened as their other three friends came out. They looked at the two friends than look to the left where all three saw the creature grinning oh, who might these ones be, it said with curiosity as the three kids revealed their names to it. Alright kids i'm going to level with you five, said Ernesh seriously, I need what's inside that locked room, why don't you just take all the other goodies and...leave. This is not your fight, leave and enjoy your lives instead of just simply throwing them away? Like you would LET us go, Said Mitchell said accusingly, we would just end up food.

    Not true young sir, answered Ernesh surprised, I assure you my word means something. Also, you have enough hi-tech armor and weapons, not to mention magical relics, to get away quite easily, and you KNOW it young sir. If we let you take the mountain, how long until you start ushering armies through the veil into the rest of the world, OUR world...My answer is NO! Mine two, said Kyrie as the others agreed standing next to Mitchell definitely! Let me say this in another way, said Ernesh, with a bit of his true voice coming back out before returning back to it's proper state. Jarrod's Lieutenant has betrayed him. In return for a position of power, he helped us in guiding an Ancient with a retainer of forty soldiers, who shall arrive within the hour. You have not a SINGLE hope, even with the tiny pack of Lycans I smell moving this way now! Where are the great creators now, said Ernesh laughing crazily? Rhetorical question kids, no need to respond, Ernesh said trying calm himself.

    Cutting off their conversation was a figure walking quite loudly to the front of the property as all six of them turned their heads, Ernesh said turning back to the five well it appears a yummy snack has arrived if you kids will excuse me. As he walked back into the trees to ambush the figure the teens rushed back to the front window. As the figure got closer to the mansion Mitchell noticed it was a Caucasian man that looked very handsome. Like what models want to become he had blue eyes,white spiky eyes, and was carrying what looked like a box in his right hand. Ernesh appeared in front of him from the trees he than lifted up a finger to signal to the other creature to come at him from the side. When the other creature came from the side it raised it's clawed hand and brought it down fast but to the teens shock the man gone he than reappeared besides the creature jumped up, and kicked him in the side sending him flying into the mansion.

    Which activated it's defense by lighting up blue with the runes sending it back to the man he than held out his left hand to the incoming creature and lifted it into the air. The man made a fist and crushed it like it was nothing the skin,bones,meat at of it and not a drop of blood spilled Mitchell thought when he unclenched his fist what was left of it made a wet sound as it hit the ground. The teens were in shock and awe but Mitchell saw Ernesh stood there with his hands behind his back he than rubbed his claws together while dark energy surrounded them and a small blue crystal appeared. After Ernesh vanished but appeared behind the man with a clawed hand already up in the air to avenge his fallen comrade. He brought it down but was surprised when he hit drit the five saw him reappear behind him and punched his back.

    Which send him flying forward into the mansion the runes activated once more lighting him with blue fire and sent him back to the man However, this time he held out his left hand and moved it to the right. Ernesh's body was moved to the right by a powerful wind it looked like to Mitchell he crashed into some trees knocking some over with blue embers still on him while the man walked to the front porch. Why isn't the security system coming on for him, said Jennie very low where only her friends could here. The barrier repels those who are evil or want to do harm, spoke a voice that sounded son smooth to Mitchell's ears. I COULD open the door, but that wouldn't be okay, is it? What if he's not being truthful, whispered Adam, he might be doing something that's not setting off the barrier? All five were interrupted by the front door opening and quickly closing.

    The handsome man stood smiling at them, not seven feet away, holding the black box which Mitchell saw was covered in about ten different locks. Sorry, it appeared like it was going to take awhile, said the man, and nightfall is almost here. He was correct, thought Mitchell, as he looked out the kitchen window, watching the last of the golden light fade to black. The Wendigo was right about the betrayal of Jarrod's lieutenant, within the next hour, a small army of these horrific creatures will appear a mile and a half to the north, or right in front of the mansion. The peak of the mountain was transported away years ago, that's a story for another time.

    However,Due to this the mountain's peak is now flat and big, with an area of 3 miles long and wide to battle in. As I said, The Ancient and his army will appear on the far North side, that's where I'm sensing the disturbance, which is an abnormally weak spot or "Rip" in the veil. Taking away their element of surprise will not work, said the handsome man, not in the slightest. The handsome man knelt down and opened his box, showing the different and unique items. He removed a black key first, about the size of a wrench, with runes covering it like a blazing fire.

    Although the key was surprisingly light, it carried an aura of pure dread, Like Mitchell was holding something no human should ever touch. This made him quickly give it back to the handsome man, where he put it back and withdrew the second item. A shiny golden horn was handed to Mitchell, and, unlike the key, the horn discharged positive energy and felt party warm to touch. It had charming looking sigils and Mitchell noticed it was actually made of a stylish white metallic substance that radiated golden energy. Ending the trifecta of the box's contents, the man pulled out the third and last item.

    He presented a pristine looking crystal jar, with a white like mist energy infused within the crystal itself, making it glow ever so slightly. The handsome man spent the next 10 minutes telling when and how to use the special items. The man gave no explanations as to what the items were, or what they did upon being used in battle, only the order to use them, and precisely how and when to use them. I'm sending you a dear friend of mine to help you against the Ancient one, in fact, said the handsome gentlemen to Mitchell, I believe you briefly met each other. Before Mitchell could ask what he meant, the man continued on.

    If my friend perishes...PLEASE open the crystal jar I gave you and let his essence go inside, he'll be drawn to it, then release the essence, in the locked room please. AH, yelled Mitchell looking at his hand and watched his blood float from his palm, where a small cut appeared, his blood floated to the box, where it split and flew into all the locks, making it shut closed. Mitchell watched as the small cut on his palm heal suddenly while the handsome stranger spoke. This box is now yours Mitchell, nothing, except your free will can open it now. Good luck and may the gods protect you, said the handsome man as he quickly left the mansion,and walked into the night.

    Mitchell walked over to the box which he owned now, and knelt down to open it. The box opened without effort for him, and doing so he saw a note that was not there before, and picked it up to look at the contents where it read: Mitchell, do not underestimate Ernesh, he's not like the rest of his kind, both personally and genetically. He used a teleportation stone to instantly transport behind me but although they are a single-use artifact, I felt more, that means he has at LEAST one more stone with him. I've been spying on the Darkness for a long while now, and Ernesh, although not as powerful, is more capable and intelligent then the Ancient Voldling he awaits. He has a talent for surviving and always find a way to come out on top, regardless of the odds he faces.

    He is a rare combination of intelligence,power, and patience, in fact the monster is a genius, He ALWAYS has a plan B and C. He will more than likely use the teleportation stone to save himself and transmit to a new and safe location, but DO NOT take him lightly or gave him ANY opening! Remember your training with Luna, and do everything I instructed you to do EXACTLY, if you do so, Victory will shall be your my friends! Mitchell closed the paper and let out a deep sigh while shaking his head. An electronic humming sound came from the living room, and upon the five inspecting the situation saw a secret flat screen TV slowly ascending from the floor. Hey kids, a strong female voice said right before the five teens reached the flat screen. Hey Luna, Zion said happily, thanks for sending the man to give us stuff, but...Why didn't he stay? Seemed like he could have TRULY helped to, but Luna cut him off before he could finish.

    We have no idea who that was and if he didn't destroy the Wendigo, I would tell you ton throw that box in the Super-incinerator downstairs! I'm still thinking of it, but, we don't have time to come up with a game plan. No, we must have faith that the creators sent him to us, and Aria herself said we could trust the man fully, son that's more than enough for my doubts. Now, I'm going to need you guys to open the back sidling glass door and...Prepare NOT to freak out...your backup has just arrived. You'll soon see why Jarrod had to make the back entrance so large, Please allow them to take their pick of artifacts and weapons. Sure, answered Mitchell, we have everything at the ready, he said nodding at the wall behind the couch, where he and the others had a lot of weapons and magical items lined up on the back wall.

    OH, LUNA, yelled Mitchell quickly, Ernesh mentioned a traitor helped, it's already been taken care off, interrupted Luna, just do everything I said with those weapons and mechs and you'll be fine. I'll pray for you all...God bless, and with that final statement the screen went back into the floor taking Luna with it. Well, Adam said while waking towards the back sliding door, which was very huge indeed, spanning about fifteen feet high, I'm gonna go ahead and open the door for our Frriiieeeennndddsss, Adam said the word slowly, from the shock of what stood before him. Adam stood in place like a deer, not being able to mutter a word yet. Four hulking Lycans stood outside the door waiting, watching the area behind them as to not be caught off guard by Ernesh. The one at the front at the door handle with a dagger like claw while staring at him, the awe-struck teen came out of his daze and opened the back door while apologizing.

    Although the teens were informed of the arriving creatures by Ernesh's comment on the balcony, none of them expected what stood before them. Two off them had dark brown fur, one black, and the last had a shiny silver coat, That was rare. That's not what took them off guard, it was the fact that all of them were wearing battle armor! It looked to be a fusion of a metallic substance, with both Hi-Tech and magical components, made into some kind of royal knights armor. It covered eighty percent of their body, with some gaps in places to not slow them down, with armor being thicker in the Lycans vulnerable areas. The armor was also covered in magical runes that glowed a divine white tint like their eyes, Which looked like their irises were composed of lunar energy...Like a full moon which tonight was not.

    On top of this unique aspect to the battle attire, Their weapons appeared to be fused into the armor. The lighter parts of the armor seemed to move efficiently, matching any moment they made, giving a visible stability, somewhere between a solid and liquid. Mitchell could see that at least two of the Lycan warriors were high ranking, for one the larger dark brown Lycans wore golden armor, the sliver furred one wore a shiny platinum armor shined Flawless. The last two, one the same size as the golden leader just with black fur, and the other dark brown furred one who was larger than the others in bulk and height, both wore a dark grey armor that still had all the technical and magical components as the other two, just without the precious flair. So, who's Mitchell,Kyrie,Zion,Adam,and Jennie, said the Lycan wearing the golden armor? I'm Mitchell and he told everyone's name while pointing at them.

    I am General Onyx, Said the Gold Lycan Leader, this is my new Lieutenant, Aster, Pointing a clawed index finger at the silver wolf, who was just a bit shorter than the rest, but greatly muscled. This is Throne, he said pointing at the other dark brown Lycan about his height, and this pile of muscle in the back is Wolfbane, referring to the extra-large black furred Lycan. Wait Mitchell said worriedly, Ernesh said the Lycan lieutenant had betrayed you all, and helped the Wendigo and Void bring an army through! That's why he said NEW Lieutenant, said Aster. That's right, said the general, I ripped out that traitor's throat myself, and if I had been more alert from the beginning none of this would be happening, I take full blame for this oversight, said the general in a partially defeated sounding tone. It's not your fault, said Aster, that's right Wolfbane added, we all trusted him sir! Excuse me said Mitchell, there is still a bunch of weapons and items here if you need it, All of us are pretty stocked up as it is.

    Yes, I can see that Onyx said in surprise, do you have any experience using the sword and shield Mech-Suit, the general asked, pointing to the light but extremely High-Tech armor the five wore, in which an illuminated S with a sword going through it vertically, was lit up in the center of Mitchell's armor, where Zion,Kyrie, and Adam had an illuminated shield with a glowing S in the middle. Yeah, Adam jumped in joyfully, since I have martial art skills I took along with Zion and Kyrie, Since Jennie is a fencer and Mitchell a sports player they obviously took sword. Do you all know about the Nano-Dislodge Sequence? In the case if you take to much damage to abort, while still dislodging the suits remains at the enemy like a torpedo? Yes, said Mitchell, I mean once you understand the basics, it's mostly easy, added Jennie confidently. Good, said Onyx, pleased with the teens answers, now help set up these rocket launchers and orb staffs by the front door, the others should be gathering any large missile weaponry from the inside. While that's happening Mitchell, I'm going to need you to tell me everything the handsome stranger gave and told you, but more importantly...why said Onyx.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/01
    18:39 UTC

    4

    Lover's Rock

    My teeth are fragmented or gone. I don’t smile. I smiled when we were in love. Remember those days? We did everything together. We would have done it all–it all–it all for one another. We were inseparable. We were one–were one–were one body-bowl, ladled into with two souls, and then you got your fucking teeth fixed and decided you didn’t love me anymore.

    I don’t even know who first told us about

    // Lover’s Rock //

    starring

    Me

    You

    Us

    I

    Not-You

    Love

    Time Passing

    & Growing Apart (as itself)

    It may have been BDSM Sally, back when she was with Seth. [...] called me up before our anniversary (yours and mine: dating for four years) and said, Norm, whatcha got planned for the big day? I would have said, Oh, I dunno. She would have said, Norm, you fool. You gotta do something! I would have said, I know, I know, while listening to her voice and thinking about her breasts, and about your breasts too, I would have been thinking as she told me about a place in Mexico where Lovers go, where only Lovers go–go–go…

    “What is this place again?” you ask on the bus.

    Bumpy ride. Hot sun.

    “It’s called Lover’s Rock,” I say.

    It’s permanent and fucked, Norm, BDSM Sally would have said to me. But hear me out. Hear me out, Norm. You like tattoos? I guess I do. It’s like that except with smashing your teeth on a rock-smashing–smashing–smashing until there’s nothing fucking left. Just you. Plural. That’s how I felt with you, Marianne: My singular was dead. We’re on the bus, going down some dusty Mexican road to a cave and your head’s resting on my shoulder, we’re sharing earphones, one in my ear and the other in yours, listening to You Forgot It In People, and the sun’s shining through the window and the air’s blowing in and the dust’s blowing in, the A/C’s busted and people are talking in Spanish and no one gives a fuck about anything—except us—and even then only about that sliver of existence called togetherness.

    We get there. The bus stops. We get out. “Get the fuck out! What?" you say, as we watch the people disperse. “That’s right, a cave with like this rock inside—no, no, a literal rock—right, and when people who love each other, they get there, there’s like this ecstasy. I mean I don’t know how it works, but it does, and you feel this ecstasy, feel it between two people, and you just start to bite this rock—yeah, yeah, yeah, literally! and just fucking wreck your face against it! Wreck your face against it together!”

    I get nervous just before we get there. It doesn’t look like anything but I check the map and it’s the right place, at least according to BDSM Sally (or whoever told me about it.)

    “Come on,” I say.

    We hold hands and doing so walk into—

    I’m sorry.

    I’m sorry.

    I’m sorry.

    (“What do you mean I’m not qualified. I have a fucking degree in finance!”)

    (“We just don’t think you’re the right fit.”)

    (I can feel the blood start coming out my pores as it does whenever I get angry, and I’m angry. “It’s because of my teeth—my face. Just say it. Fucking say it!”)

    (“No, Mr. Crane. It’s about company culture. You’re just”—I can see him pressing the button to call security.—”not the right fit.”)

    ( [I made a scene.] )

    [“It’s nothing to do with looks. We pride ourselves on diversity.”]

    {{“Get the fuck away from my daughter.”}}

    {{“Call again and I’ll call the cops. You get it, freak?”}}

    —the cave (cavern. grotto. lair. burrow. subterrain. subterranean homesick blues was on the radio when i first saw you. tunnel. cellar. crypt) which stretches before us, elongating as we walk, holding hands, towards Lover’s Rock–Lover’s Rock–Lover’s Rock: and your grip on my hand tightens: and my grip on your hand tightens: and we both feel something’s happening because (you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows) it feels [to me] we are becoming one [madness / passion / infinity] and the rock itself is nothing much but it doesn’t matter because we’re already running towards it, tearing our clothes off, slip-slip-slip [of the tongue] -ing on the floor and crashing towards, diving at, attacking and self-destructing against Lover’s Rock, our heads bouncing off (in sprays of blood) Lover’s Rock, on hands and knees scraped on intermixed scattered bits of teeth, crawling and screaming and being Lover’s Rock, and it hurts and it's amazing and we are–we are–we are–together, and we are–we are–we are we, biting each other, biting Lover’s Rock, and our teeth are shattered and bodies breaking but our soul is clear and loving each other is all that matters because we know nothing will ever ever ever feel like this again.

    [

    “Come on, I wanna see you,” I’ll say seven months later back in L.A.

    You’ll refuse to come out.

    People will have been staring at me. I won’t care.

    Because I’ll have you.

    You look like a battered broken freak too,

    I’ll think.

    And then you come out and you smile the worst kind of smile and I’ll see your teeth are fixed and I know: I[‘ll] know we're over. “I’m sorry,” you’ll say. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I couldn’t—anymore.” And in an instant all the damage we did to your beautiful face will disappear to look as perfect as your reconstructed teeth, but the damage on my face will remain. Forever, it remains.

    ]

    When it’s over I taste of our blood. The cave is small but there’s so much depth in the silence—broken by our breathing, the rising and falling of your chest. We’ve done something fucked and permanent and I don’t regret it,” I say. “I don’t fucking regret it,” you say. I scream, “I don’t fucking regret it!” and on the bus back to the city people stare at us but we don’t give a shit because your head’s on my shoulder and we’re listening to our music and the world exists within us only. The external we’ve left at the altar of Lover’s Rock.

    {{

    In the mirror I am purple, yellow and blue.

    Sometimes I wrap my face in bandages and go out with nowhere to go.

    Our love is gone.

    Where are you?

    I am a monument attesting to its existence if only in some Mexican cave in a moment of madness ever-lasting I am a carving of a human on a human, missing half of itself.

    }}

    FADE TO:

    A setting sun into which no one rides. On a wallpaper peeling off a wall. Of an American house with a faux-brick wall. Being eviscerated by a sledgehammer. Demolished because the housing market is crazy and you could fit at least a duplex onto this piece of land. Like our love, American houses are not built to last.™

    // MEDIA ENQUIRIES //

    ©>!ould things have turned out differently?!<

    !Wha!<™>!akes life worth living?!<

    !Sometimes I want to d,!< i.e. End Credits.

    0 Comments
    2024/04/01
    17:50 UTC

    4

    Hollow Part 2

    There was still enough daylight for a good exploration so I took off down the stairs and behind the cabin. I saw two trailheads at the edge of the backyard. I took the one on the right just to prevent ending up anywhere near Mrs Klein’s property. I really needed to clear my head, so I took a deep breath and made my way down the well kept trail. All of nature was calm as I walked and walked, eventually getting completely out of sight of my cabin. I passed a couple of small ponds that were fed by the trickles of a brook that I had to carefully cross, as to avoid getting my shoes wet. The trail hugged the mountainside and soon I was heading upward, the views growing more and more idyllic. I gave myself an hour to walk the trail out, so I could return home with ample sunlight. I eventually came to a stop in a small clearing on the trail that had a seriously breathtaking view of the valleys below. From where I was I could see Coldwater Springs, and way on out I could see other small towns, peppering the eternal green waves of the Appalachians. It was then that a mighty wind began to rush upward from the fields below, passing through the trees and making beautiful noise. The tones coming from the lowest points of the forest to the highest treetops truly made a choir-like sound.

    “Wow” I said aloud. It really was as if the mountains were singing. It was gorgeous to witness. I sat down and took it all in with my eyes closed, for a brief moment forgetting about all of the strange things that were distracting me from a relaxing vacation. “You idiot” I reminded myself. I should be thinking of the sweet widow who had passed, not my own selfish feelings. I felt so bad for her, and I hadn’t even met her properly. But still, any respects that I could rightfully give her in my mind were tarnished by the unexplainable fact that I saw her the night before, and was told an hour ago that she had been dead for weeks or months.

    I troubled on this as I continued to look out over the pristine landscape. The wind stopped, and with it the wonderful music. At least at first. After a moment, from deep down in the valley, I heard another sound. It was similar to the wind song before, but sounded lower in pitch. Like a chorus of low whistles. It also wasn’t nearly as pleasing to the ears. In fact, it sounded like the bleating horn of a train from hell. I stood up and tried my best to see where this noise was coming from.

    There was the tree line about two tenths of a mile down the mountain from me that I could pinpoint the noise coming from. I squinted hard and raised a hand to my brow. I saw a large shadow standing at the very edge. The same size as the animal from the night before. My eyes hadn’t deceived me. This thing was at least ten feet tall. The demonic sound abruptly stopped, its echoes flying throughout the hollows around. Stretching outward from the huge shadow, I could see what appeared to be two arms, as thick as oak trunks, grabbing on to a couple of nearby trees on its right and left. I held my breath, my eyes unbelieving and my mind scrambling to make thought.

    The creature began to violently shake the fully grown trees at its sides like they were Pom poms. At the same time, the choral noise of the damned started up again, blasting up the mountain like devil trumpets. It was the most unsettling noise I had ever heard. Details were still shadowed. However, to my shock, two glowing orbs formed where the beasts eyes would be. Beaming, boiling red eyes. My bones became ice and all the breath escaped from my tense chest.

    This monstrous creature continued to thrash the trees around and bellow from the forest edge. I had to do something. I had a little bit of distance on it, and the high ground. It also seemed to like staying in the shadows, otherwise I saw no reason why it wasn’t already chasing me. It knew exactly where I was so there was no use in trying to hide. I also knew a predator like this would simply wait for night to fall and then come take me if I stayed where I was. I had to act. I took off in a dead sprint back toward the cabin.

    Carefully staying on trail, I glanced to my left down the mountain. The creature was on the move toward me through the trees, running on all fours like a Kodiak. I cursed and screamed. I focused back on the trail, knowing speed was everything to me. I began down the mountain back toward a hollow. I needed to find a way to beat this thing to the cabin and get in my car and get the hell out of here. I looked quickly back at my pursuant. It was gaining on me. It must’ve been moving at least 30-35 miles an hour. I screamed as I turned again to the trail in front of me.

    I came off the cleared mountain trail and back into the dense forest, running full speed, dodging anything that could trip me up and doom me. I had to do something. Quick. I suddenly came across a fork in the trail that I didn’t remember seeing on the way up. I must’ve come from my left, I thought, as I originally took the trail to my right coming from the cabin. Perhaps this new trail to my right led back to the cabin the other way. It also appeared to move back up to the mountain side, which could give me more clearing and more precious, waning sunlight. I darted right at the fork and redirected uphill. Another ominous blast from the beast shot through the air. It saw my change of direction for sure. I didn’t have the courage or the time to look back and see how close it was getting, but that roar was way louder than it was before.

    I laser focused ahead on the trail, my body completely entering survival mode. The adrenaline was crazy. I could run like this forever, even uphill. I saw a clearing ahead that I figured to be the opposite side of the mountain top that I was just on. I broke through the tree line and slowed my pace slightly, getting a good look at the trail and my surroundings.

    My heart dropped. The trail didn’t continue back down. After about a hundred feet of clearing the path led straight to the mouth of a small cave entering into a short bluff in the mountainside. I turned around and my entire body went stiff.

    There was the creature, in full detail, standing on two legs at the tree line, the closest I had seen it.

    Standing about twelve feet tall, it had the body type of a bear, with longer, more human like arms and legs. It’s arms were fully outstretched, as if it knew it was closely presenting itself to me for the first time. It’s paws were adorned with foot-long, pale claws, as big around as steak knives. It was covered in thick, dark hair. The most striking feature, however, was its head. It was similar to a grizzlys head, except as tall and wide as an air conditioning unit. Also, instead of ears and nose, three short, black horns sprang up from its skull, forming a triangle. It’s jaws opened and seemed to dislocate, dropping unnaturally wide and revealing two rows of disgustingly orange, railroad spike-sized teeth. It had remained silent and still there at the forest edge as I watched in horror. Then, the things face was suddenly blazed by two, hellish red, volleyball sized eyes. Right after this lighting, I learned where all the whistle noises were coming from.

    Arms still outstretched, and towering at the tree line, the beast puffed out its chest and took a deep, rotten breath. Suddenly, from all over its torso, holes opened up. Ghastly orifices, there must have been at least a dozen, in all shapes and sizes. On the bigger ones I could see a short, sharp circle of teeth. They were mouths. The beast let out the huge breath and all the mouths roared together, that berating, dissonant, evil and ear-shattering chord.

    I didn’t have time to take it all in. Still in an instinctual flight, I turned and ran across the remainder of the clearing and into the mouth of the cave. I had to take the chance. Perhaps the creature can’t fit in this place. I couldn’t just stay out in the open with that monster waiting nearby. I entered the opening as the dreadful noise continued to shoot over the clearing and rang through the stone tube.

    I paused for a moment, getting my phone out and turning on my flashlight. I shined it down the dark passageway I found myself in. To my surprise, it wasn’t so much a natural cave as it was a tunnel. It stretched far past the extent of my beams, impossibly dark beyond. In a swift walk, I carefully made my way through and what seemed to be downward into the mountain.

    Nothing changed geologically for several minutes as I continued on using my slowly dying phone’s light. In the back of my mind I knew I had to find a way out soon or I was doomed, regardless of my predators success. My quick walk came to a halt as I suddenly was thrust out of the smaller tunnel and into a huge room within the mountain. As I stopped, I shone my light around, unable to see the dimensions of this huge cavern. Walking about one hundred feet toward the center I came upon a huge column, as wide and tall as a four story townhouse.

    Finally having my bearings on the size of the huge cavity, I walked around the gigantic stone support with my light. It was covered in some kind of artwork. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be decorated in seemingly ancient drawings of all sorts of age-faded colors. I backed up so I could get a fuller view of the prehistoric paintings.

    Soaring up at least twenty feet, a macabre mural revealed itself. It depicted a large mountain, with several supposed human beings standing on top. They were holding spears and swords and were leading a tied prisoner toward the mountains edge. The sun was shown large and orange above them, but about a quarter down the mountain the sunlight stopped, throwing the etchings of a green forest below into surrounding graphite-scratched darkness. At the base of the mountain was the likeness of the monster itself. It was depicted as being about as half as big as the mountain, it’s arms out wide, holding onto two humans with its long claws, piercing their bloody skin. It’s head was facing upward, eyes red and mouth ferociously agape, placed under where the humans up top were leading their prisoner. It was the scene of a sacrifice. The humans were throwing prisoners off the mountain and into the dark maw of the beast. The drawings must have been thousands of years old.

    I held a hand to my mouth as I took it all in and backed away. Whatever this thing was, it had been in these mountains for millennia, if not longer. An immortal and indestructible evil.

    My silent puzzling of the artwork was cut short by the all too familiar, devastating howl of the beast throughout the large cavern. It wasn’t in there with me yet but it was growing close, wherever it was. Shining my light around I could see tunnels of all sizes shooting out into the mountain. The terrible noise seemed to be coming through the largest opening, big enough to drive a bus through. I sprinted over across the natural room and into the smallest tunnel I could find that I could still fit through.

    I was off in the fastest run I could muster while also carefully navigating the slender pathway. Another loud blast behind me let me know the creature had made it’s way into the large cavern where I was just moments before. My pathway began to lead uphill. This was a good sign as perhaps i was going to be coming out of the mountain soon.

    Suddenly the walls of my tunnel began to vibrate, and dust began to fall from the ceiling. Oh no. There’s no way the thing could fit in here, right? No. The shaking was in short bursts, rocking the entire earth with each forceful blow. It was trying to collapse the cave and bury me. I was in a full upward sprint, phone light in hand, as each hit and roar from the monster behind me almost knocked me down. Small rocks began to fall from the top of the cave. My time was almost out. One of the falling rocks hit my hand, knocking my phone out. I didn’t have to time to pick it up so I screamed and pressed on blindly with arms jutting out ahead of me.

    Just when hope was about lost I finally saw a small light up ahead. I ran as hard as I ever could as the monsters plan was almost complete, larger and larger rocks falling to the floor behind me and the foundation of the tunnel cracking. Shockingly, the underground path ended in a wall with a metal ladder built in, leading up toward the source of the light. I grabbed on and climbed with no regard of my hands or feet, moving as quickly as possible, as finally the entire tunnel below me collapsed.

    Clouds of dust rushed upward past me, filling my lungs and causing me to wretch. I kept climbing, seeing an opening ahead into the light. At long last I came to the ladders end and threw myself out of the hole entirely. As I cleared dust from my eyes, I saw that I was in a room. A basement, in fact, with a single dirty window offering the low lights of sunset from outside. I sat in utter shock as I caught my injured breath and had a look around. Relief took over me, although it would take years to fully comprehend what I had just experienced. My terror was soon refreshed though, as I stood up and got a look of the basement. It was built up with cinderblock walls, and there was a wooden staircase leading up to a door, deadbolt locked and fastened with rusted chains. What was this place? Two large, metal poles held up the ceiling from the center of the room. I looked around and saw, in one corner, a wooden table, covered with several pairs of handcuffs, rope, and two long, rusted knives. Overlooking the table was a wall full of photographs. I walked over to get a closer look. My mouth fell open in absolute horror.

    They were missing persons posters. There had to be at least 50 hanging. Ranging in ages from young children to grandparents, the photographed faces on the posters seemed to cover decades of reporting. Studying the dates of the prints, I saw flyers from as early as the 1960s. Something very, very bad had been happening here. It was time to leave.

    As I made my way over to the staircase to attempt a break out through the locked door, I heard an upstairs door open, and footsteps slowly traversing above me. I froze. The heavy footsteps slowly seemed to be covering the room right above me, almost in a circle. Thinking as fast as I could, I went back to the table and grabbed some rope. I wrapped some around my right hand and formed a fist. I walked over to the single, dusty window and looked for any way to open it. It would only be barely big enough to fit through, even if I do find a way to break it. The footsteps above me were nearing the area by the basement door. My time was very short.

    In three adrenaline fueled bursts, I punched out the glass window. Immediately I heard keys jingling and the locks of the basement door being turned. My knuckles were bleeding bad in spite of the rope covering. There were long, stray shards of glass remaining in the window pane. Luckily the bottom of it was mostly clear so I quickly hoisted myself up, disregarding my hands and back as they got carved up by the razor-sharp remnants. Halfway out the window, I heard the basement door being flung open, and footsteps racing down the stairs. I forced the rest of my body out of the small window, sending waves of sharp pain through my legs as they grated the glass. I stood up, feeling grass in my injured hands, and took off in a sprint. After a moment of horror and confusion I realized exactly where I was. I was at the third, vacant house right next to the cabin I had rented, across from Mrs Klein’s. I sprinted about a quarter mile downhill and onto the gravel road. By the grace of God, my car keys were still in my pocket, so I raced back over to my cabin and hopped in and cranked it. I backed out of the driveway, giving my cabin one last dastardly look, before twisting my car around and accelerating. I of course glanced over at the home of Mrs Klein, still boarded up save for the busted-in front door. There was yellow tape everywhere. I glanced to my left and my spirit fell. A huge pickup truck was barreling down the driveway of the vacant house toward the road. I slammed my gas pedal and took off as fast as I possibly could. I had at least half a mile on the truck by the time it romped on to the gravel road from the driveway. It had a lot more power than my car, however, and was gaining ground fast behind me. I knew I was still about a mile from the highway so I had to keep pushing it hard. As the truck began cutting the distance between us I glanced in the rear view mirror and could see the forms of two men in the front seats. I looked forward and persisted in my escape, slamming my foot down as hard as I could, with no regard for the well being of my car. Ahead, I could finally see the end of gravel and the beginning of further hope. I knew I’d still have to make it to town, but flagging down a passing car would be a lot easier on the highway, at least giving me another layer of a chance. I came up on the asphalt at high speed and jacked it hard, fishtailing me across both lanes of traffic l, before I could make a wobbly path to the right side of the yellow paint. I once again slammed hard on the gas as I glanced in the mirror again with bated breath. To my amazement, the truck had hit its brakes hard and was sitting still at the edge of the gravel road, engulfed in a large cloud of dust.

    Giving little of my disturbed mind as to question why the truck had halted short of the highway, I sped on. My elbows were locked straight and my right leg was flexed on the gas. I didn’t even blink as I eventually made my way back through Coldwater Springs. All I could do was drive on. My brain and body were shattered. All I knew is that I was free.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/30
    18:28 UTC

    4

    Dart Gun

    The figure had been creeping between trees for some time now. Their dark jacket stood out like an ink stain against the white blossoms.

    Could they be lost? Some farmhand in the wrong field? Claude slammed the truck door and stepped outside.

    “Excuse me,” he called out. 

    The dark jacket stopped moving, then slunk behind the white trees. Claude bit his tongue. That was stupid.

    The apiarist had wondered what his first blunder of the day would be, and that was apparently it. He waited for another glimpse of the jacket, or some rustle in the branches, but the only movement now visible was that of his pollinators doing their job. The blue bees sparkled like hovering little sapphires, zipping back and forth across the blooming trees.

    Claude returned to his semi and opened a metal case from beneath the passenger’s seat. Even dismantled, the dart gun looked imposing. He assembled it with trepidation. His preference was to pretend it was a beekeeping accessory (like the border security assumed). A pheromone device. But if the wandering jacket wanted trouble, he’d have to be ready. 

    Hive thieves had become increasingly prevalent. Probably because they were paid well for a relatively small heist. They only needed a single queen to sell to rivals.

    Claude slipped the loaded weapon inside his breast pocket and climbed into the bed of the truck. From this vantage point, he could see a pallet of beehives aligned with the first tree of every row in the orchard. If the figure returned to try anything funny, he’d have to tag him. Remember it’s not bullets. Claude told himself. It’s only bees. 

    The glass dart would explode with queenscent, alerting all nearby bee-workers, who would further spread the alarm —resulting in a swarm. Any perpetrator with common sense would run away after a few stings.

    Many senior apiarists had done this successfully, warding off all kinds of troublemakers. Claude hoped he could do the same, and perhaps atone for his many blunders. His head shook just thinking about them: blown tires, damaged hives, arriving at the wrong client ... his employer had been very patient throughout everything. Though they told him if he ever wanted a senior position abroad, he would have to step it up.

    And I can, he thought, searching the orchard for the ink stain. He wanted nothing more than to return home and pollinate the fields of southern France, bringing proper food back to the place he was born. Local tomatoes. Local apples. He’d feel like a hero.

    Claude smiled as he spotted the dark figure emerging past a row of short trees. The man’s outfit matched the look of a groundskeeper, rain hood fully extended.

    The stranger called out. “Hello there!”

    Claude tried his best to sound authoritative. “Hi.” 

    The man came slow, skulking with a movement that seemed to indicate some arthritic limp. The wrinkles on his face looked kind. “Don’t mind me, I’ve just been sent to do a count.”

    “A count?”

    “Ayup. Just seeing if any trees reacted poorly to our last watering. Ph levels were off.”

     As he came closer, Claude spotted a backpack sagging at the man’s rear. Thieving tools? Lunch sack?  It could have been anything.

    “I used to beekeep too ya know.” The man pointed at flying glints of blue and gave a laugh. “Though never with this variety. I worked back when they were plain old honeybees, the last of them anyway.”

    “Right.”

    “What do you call these new lab-borns? They all have different names don’t they?”

    Claude was under strict orders not to reveal his company’s name, nor that of any product. “They’re hybrids.”

    “Hybrids. Ayup. Bred with some kind of wasp I’m guessing.”  He came closer, a few strides away from a pallet, admiring the white hives. “I remember prying open these kinds of lids and scooping out fresh honey. It always tasted better off the comb.”

    Claude hopped off the truck.

    “I’d be curious—” the man lowered his hood, revealing a bird’s nest of white hair “—is there any chance I could take a peek?  Run a finger on one of your combs? It’s been so long since I've tasted field honey. Decades now that I think of it.”

    Claude reached the pallet first and held out his palms. “These hives are sensitive. I can’t let you near them—I hope you understand.”

    The visitor’s hands rose like a child caught in trouble. “Oh, yes, for sure. I don’t want to cause a stir. I just thought—I was just curious is all.”  

    Claude watched him turn away and thought that was it. But then the man seemed to nod at someone else. Something struck Claude in the chest.

    He fell back-first, lungs totally winded. Claude breathed with desperation, in and out, as if trying to fill a tiny balloon. Eventually the balloon found air, and Claude began inhaling. Up and down. In and out. Nothing seemed punctured. 

    He reached into his coat and drew the dart gun, but its trigger fell limp. The front barrel had been blown apart, apparently having been hit by something. A bullet?

    As Claude played with the broken weapon, he realized his hands were now coated with a warm, sticky gel. Oh no, he thought, the queenscent.

    In a weak stumble, Claude rose to see the old man rummaging through his hives with someone else. This someone aimed a rifle. “Down! Or I’ll shoot again!”

    Claude raised his arms and tried to think fast. Bees slowly gained interest around his fingers. “Please. Don’t do this. What do you want? A queen?”

    The balding man looked up, all friendliness gone. The two criminals exchanged a mutter and then beckoned Claude over at gunpoint.

    “Show me what they look like.”  The old man pointed at the open hives, slats expertly removed. As Claude came over, bees amassed over his hands like growing balls of energy. 

    “Th-th-there’s a hidden bottom to each box,” Claude said, “That’s where the royal chambers are.” He tried to point, but the buzzing on his arms had grown too thick.

    “God.” The rifleman backed away, swatting his front. The older thief lowered a facemesh, but still had to retreat. In a few moments, hundreds of millions of bees flocked to where Claude stood, searching for the source of the queenscent.

    The two thieves stumbled for a time, sorting through hives, but their job became impossible amidst a cyclone of angry stingers. They had to flee. 

    In the coming months, Claude would look back at this moment and laugh, pleased to have fulfilled his duty in such an unorthodox fashion. But until that time, Claude would be fending the swirling blue for several hours, arms swelling to the size of tree stumps.

    He fell in and out of consciousness, dreaming of the French countryside in which he grew up. His hope of one day going back.

    In his dreams he was a little boy directing bees with his arms, ushering prosperity throughout the land, bringing back apples, oats and berries. The bees followed the slight waggle dance of his fingers, and obeyed every command.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/30
    05:39 UTC

    1

    Hollow Part 1

    In East Tennessee, tucked away deep in the shadows of the looming Great Smoky portion of the Appalachian mountains, lives the tiny, sleepy, all but forgotten town of Coldwater Springs. Once a promising tourist destination, the town enjoyed a couple of decades of success, given its attractive geography and proximity to growing areas like Johnson City and Knoxville. However, old money and new highways pushed southbound to places like Gatlinburg and Pidgeon Forge, leaving behind the not as accessible Coldwater Springs. Essentially overnight it became a ghost town, an empty mountain hollow no different than the countless others that crawled out hundreds of miles in all directions.

    I, however, found this place to be the ideal destination for my yearly solo getaway. As a single man in my late twenties with highly introverted needs, renting a cabin in a place like Coldwater Springs and getting out of sight for a few days seemed like the perfect way to de-stress and realign myself. So, after saving up my allotted time off, and tapping into my vacation account, I made the four hour trip from my place in Nashville to the foothills and ultimately monsterous mountains of East Tennessee, leaving early enough to get there before sunset. I had found a cabin for an absolute steal, a few miles outside of Coldwater. Blasting my classic country road trip playlist, I was finally relaxed, essentially floating on the voice of Lefty Frizzell as I turned off a long, lonely highway, onto a not as long, but twice as lonely, gravel road.

    “Now this is more like it” I said to myself.

    Although the sun was still high, shadows poured over the mountain tops and onto everything within my view as the gravel road snuck in between the earthly behemoths. For at least two miles I didn’t come across one house, or even power lines. I began to wonder if I had turned onto the correct county road, and the smaller voice within me questioned whether or not I was being led out here to become another mysterious Appalachian statistic. I laughed it off, given that the blue line of my GPS still shot out in front of me, and seemed to be nearing its end.

    “You’re here to chill, buddy. Just enjoy yourself” I whispered to my rear view reflection.

    Finally, I saw electric lights and three mailboxes as I reached the end of the gravel road. I recognized the address of my cabin, the center and furthest residence. I looked around at my temporary neighbors. To my right, darkness and no signs of any human activity. I read from my host online that two of the three cabins were year round rentals and the other was owned by a sweet, elderly widow that loved to help out vacationers and was even well known for sharing from her huge garden. Looking over toward her home, I could see porch lights up higher on the mountain, a few hundred feet. Pleased with the truthfulness of the online listing, I began down my rented driveway. About a quarter mile uphill, I was greeted by my own set of porch lights shining from a beautiful little cabin.

    A green roof, painted dark brown logs, and electricity. Ahh. My needs were simple but very important. Although the late afternoon shadows covered most of my vista, I could already tell that the place was even more beautiful than the pictures suggested. I parked, grabbed my bags, and walked up the porch steps and through the front door. It was a one bed, one bath dream house. The smell of pine washed over me and the lodge decor stole my heart. A deerskin lamp had already been turned on, splashing warm light over the interior. On my right was my bed, with wooden frame and a stitched quilt covered in brown bears. On my left was a kitchen area, and I saw several Appalachian cookbooks on the counter. I would have to check those out for sure. The walls were covered in game and fish trophies of all kinds, from elk to largemouth bass. There was no tv and no WiFi, which was fine with me. I had brought a short stack of novels that I planned on picking clean during my week long stay.

    Having unpacked and settled in, I strolled out the front door and onto the string-lit porch. The night was cool and growing ever dark. The white noise of the deep forest was rich, with a chorus of nocturnal creatures singing out full voiced, celebrating another evening of life. I looked across the hollow and could clearly see the home of my neighbor, well lit against the shadows of the heights. Much to my surprise, she was standing on her porch, looking over at me. I couldnt make out many of her features given the backlighting, save for her silhouette, with white hair visible and sitting like a crown on her small, dark frame. She stood as still as the pines that made up her home.

    With exaggerated movement, I gave her a big wave with my right arm, letting her know I was supposed to be here, just another tenant in search of few beautiful days of escapism in her neck of the woods. She didn’t return the gesture, however, staying perfectly still there on the corner of her dimly lit porch.

    “Maybe she can’t see me” I thought to myself.

    I felt the need to at least call my host and try to get a number for her house so that I could let her know who I am and why I’m there. Luckily there was a landline phone at my cabin and I had the mans number saved. He answered after a couple of rings and I let him know I that I had arrived safely and was very pleased with the place, and told him I saw the neighbor and would like to call her and at least audibly introduce myself.

    “Oh, you saw Mrs Klein?” He said. “That’s good to hear. Haven’t heard from her in a few weeks and was starting to worry. I haven’t had any other renters in a while and haven’t made my way there either in a hot minute.”

    He gave me her number and I once again thanked him and we ended our conversation. I dialed her up and held the phone to my ear as I walked back out onto the porch, waiting for my call to be answered. Looking back over toward her house, though, I was almost shocked to see that all of the lights had gone dark. I couldn’t see a thing, much less any signs of a wakeful human. The phone rang and rang to no avail and to no voicemail.

    “Must’ve gone to bed” I whispered to myself.

    Having not thought too much of it, I returned my attention to further settling in and enjoying my evening. Within ten minutes, I was posted in a comfortable chair on the porch in the cool night air, already several pages into a mystery novel and several sips into a glass of Cabernet. Yes, this was just what my tired soul longed for. I was finally giving myself what I had needed for months. My senses were all satisfied, and the comforting music of the woods at night really wrapped it all together with a bow. After a while I found my eyes growing heavy from a long day of traveling, and I leaned my head back in a moment of blissful surrender.

    I jolted awake after what could’ve been a couple of minutes or several hours. Something was wrong. Something seemed off. In my disorientation I finally realized that the peaceful sounds that had rocked me to sleep were all gone. The woods around me were dead silent. It was like the night had quickly drawn and held its breath. I instinctively held mine, too, as to let my hearing sharpen given the strange and sudden situation. I sat there for several minutes, book still in hand, completely still and quiet, anxiously needing an answer for this strange muting of nature.

    Suddenly, from a couple hundred feet down in the dark hollow below, I heard movement. The brush rustled, sharply cutting through the silence. Birds scattered from the tops of trees above the noise. From my point of view it seemed to be moving left to right, coming no closer but going no further from me. I was laser focused, trying to get a blind read on what the hell it could be. Suddenly the rustling stopped. I remained frozen in my chair, unblinking, staring out into the night. As my eyes got used to the dark I was finally able to make out a large shape down where the noises were coming from. Although distinct features were lost in my poor vision, I saw the outline of a huge animal. It towered above the brush, maybe 10 feet tall and several feet wide. It was only barely moving, slightly swaying. Whatever it was, it knew I was there. After another few moments of silence, the large shadow sunk down to the forest floor, and rattled further down the hollow, away from me. Although possibly delirious, I could’ve sworn I heard a whistle. A low, slow, human-like whistle. The animal kept moving away until finally it was out of earshot. A couple minutes later, the night resumed its orchestra, and all the insects and frogs began to sing again, the mysterious danger having left. After a long moment of relief, yet disbelief, I finally gathered the courage to slowly stand up and creep my way through the door and back into the cabin.

    I locked the door behind me, breathing heavily. I walked over to the window, my mind racing. What was that thing? My first thought was a bear. This is black bear country, after all. Yeah, that had to have been it. Black bears usually aren’t much of a threat to those of us who aren’t unsealed garbage cans. Yeah, that’s what it was. Easily explainable. I kept reassuring myself, although in the back of my mind I knew that what I saw was way larger than your run of the mill black bear. I reminded myself that my eyesight was skewed, making shadows stretch and making objects appear bigger than they actually are. I began to calm down, as logic seeped into my anxious mind like strong medicine.

    “Okay, okay, we’re good. We’re fine” I told myself out loud. I made sure the door was locked tight and that all the windows were shut snugly. I kept the porch lights on and lit a candle by my bedside, further comforting me, and reminding me where I am and why I’m here in the first place. I sat on my bed, book in hand, ready to resume my reading. Before I began, I scanned the inside of the cabin once more and glanced outside. Looking to my right through the kitchen window , I noticed a dim light across the hollow, once again coming from the neighbors house, whom I now know to be owned by one Mrs Klein. I stood up and walked across the room, putting my hands on the window pane and leaning over the sink to get a better view.

    My skin began to crawl and I felt my heartbeat accelerating. The light was not from the porch this time, but from inside the house. From a wide window, I could see the dark, unmoving outline of the elderly woman facing toward me. She had turned on a lamp and just seemed to be staring toward my cabin. I still couldn’t distinguish many features about her, but under her snowy hair I could see her eyes, flown wide open, as if out of pure terror. They were almost glowing. This startled me to say the least, as my own eyes widened out of fearful instinct. After not even ten seconds of this long distance staring contest, the old lady’s lamp was extinguished and her cabin was once again drowned in total darkness.

    I blinked hard several times and backed off the sink. Seeing curtains on the windows edge, I pulled them tight, cursing myself for not noticing them earlier. I did the same to every other window in my cabin. I went back and sat on my bed, bewildered and tired. What a strange night.

    “No, it’s all good. Everything is explainable” I reassured myself. “Tomorrow I’ll go introduce myself to her and probably love her instantly. This will be great. AND that animal was probably just a little black bear. Just gotta keep my powder dry and make sure there’s no trash left out”

    Feeling a little better after my own pep talk, and thinking realistically, I was finally able to unwind into the world of my book, and ultimately into the world of dreams.

    I slept through the night and woke up around 9am, when the beams of morning finally found their way down the mountainside to the hollow. I stretched and yawned, feeling refreshed after a surprisingly good nights rest.

    The night before felt like a weird dream, but in the light of day it all seemed a lot less scary and strange. I was excited, even. Today I would spend some time exploring the land around my cabin. It sat on dozens of acres, with trails and ponds and creeks all around. Before that, however, I would go meet Mrs Klein and hopefully develop a good rapport, and maybe even a lifelong friend. I also needed some groceries and other items from town, and I was looking forward to seeing Coldwater Springs in all of its overlooked glory.

    Yes, the day was planned. I started a pot of coffee and took a shower. After I was cleaned off I got dressed, caffeinated, and was out the door. I cranked the car and began heading down my driveway and over to Mrs Klein’s place. I parked by her mailbox and started walking the long driveway uphill. I didn’t see a car, but I saw a closed separate garage, so I assumed it was in there. Her cabin was very similar to mine, maybe a little bigger. The porch was definitely bigger, with large rock steps leading to it from her gravel driveway. On the left side of her house was her apparently ever popular garden. It really was huge. However, upon nearing it, I noticed that the vegetables looked anything but healthy. Weeds had all but overtaken the entire thing. “As if I could do any better” I thought to myself, not wanting to judge. I made my way across the rock steps and up onto her porch. A large stack of letters and packages were strewn around on her doormat, which displayed in large text the words “YOU MADE IT!” My brow raised after seeing all the unopened mail so haphazardly left all about. Oh well, I was just there to shake hands and explain myself.

    I knocked three times on the front door. I waited, listening for any stirring whatsoever. After about twenty seconds of silence, I knocked again, this time a little louder. Ouch. It hurt my knuckles to knock hard on her door. That was odd, given everything was made out of pine. It had no give, though, and was hard as stone. It wasn’t until I noticed the slim windows on each side of the door that I realized why it was so firm. 2x4 boards lined up over the door from the inside, completely sealing it shut.

    “What....the....” I said aloud, jostling the locked doorknob. I walked over to the wide window to the right of the door, the one I had seen her looking out of just hours before.

    “No” I whispered. It was completely boarded up as well, with not even a centimeter of space to peer inside. This could not be real. I then walked around the entire cabin, looking for any door or window that may have been open. They were all nailed shut, leaving the cabin completely entombed. I ran to the separate garage and tried to open the sliding door. It was open! I pulled it all the way up and looked inside. There sat a dusty old Z71, but it looked like it was in good shape. That gave me a little relief. I still had no explanation for the house being boarded, given I had literally SEEN her in her OPEN window the night before.

    I walked back to my car and drove back up to my cabin. I had to call my host and tell him the news. I walked in and dialed him and he answered. I told him everything.

    “Okay, okay, that’s a little weird, but I’m sure it’s all fine” he told me, “few months ago she mentioned maybe moving over to Asheville to live with her younger sister. Figure she would’ve let me know, but hey, that’s neither here nor there. She’s a grown woman. Go ahead and go about your day, and, just to be safe, I’ll get the sheriff out there for a wellness check”

    I thanked him and hung up. Hopefully by the end of the day I’d have a lot more information about her whereabouts. I got back in my car and took off down the long gravel road, back toward at least an inkling of civilization.

    Turning back onto the highway at long last, I rolled my windows down, taking in the scenic Appalachian views and fresh air. It truly felt like I was in another world, a world of peace and striking beauty. The highway twisted and turned through towering mountains and past roaring rivers. After about 20 minutes I came upon Coldwater Springs proper. I drove around the old town square, which surrounded an age old courthouse. Most buildings were condemned and desolate. I did however see a small country grocery on one corner. I parked and walked in to find a charming old market. I gathered a few items and proceeded to be checked out by a smiling, middle aged woman, with reading glasses around her neck and a red apron around her waist.

    “Well where are you from, handsome?” She sweetly asked.

    I laughed politely and told her I was from Nashville and was staying a few days out in a cabin off of highway 67, about twenty miles north.

    “Oh my, you’re really out of your way, huh? “, she replied, her eyes narrowing. She paused for a brief moment, glancing down quickly and then back up. “Well I hope you enjoy your stay. You know, out there where you are, they call those the Singing Mountains.”

    Slightly taken aback by her reaction to where I was staying, I asked why they call them by that name.

    “It’s because when the wind rolls through those hollers, it sounds like a choir singing” she said with an intermittently silver-toothed smile that I hadn’t noticed before.

    I returned a smile at the explanation, satisfied. I asked her if there was anywhere to get a bite to eat in the area, as I was starving and didn’t plan on being home for a little while longer.

    “Oh yeah you’re gonna want to try the Coldwater Duck-In just down the road. Best burger and catfish in town.” She answered, as she finished ringing me up.

    That sounded really good, so I thanked her and grabbed by bags and walked back out to my car. I had a little cellular signal so I plugged in the restaurant on my GPS and away I went. Not even ten minutes down the road past the town square I pulled up onto a humble little dive that sure enough had the name Coldwater Duck-In. A little shack of a place, it had plenty of cars and motorcycles parked out front, and neon signs boasted about having the best burgers and coldest beer in town. This worked for me. I walked through the front door and into a quaint little bar and grill, complete with pool tables and televisions and even an old school cigarette vending machine. There were several groups in there already enjoying their fares. I got a few looks as I cozied up to the bar shyly. I’m sure they weren’t used to seeing new faces around here.

    “Hey friend, what can I get ya started with?” A forty something man with dark hair and tired eyes asked me.

    After glancing at the menu for a second, I asked him for a light draft beer and a regular cheeseburger with fries.

    “Good choice, you’ll love it. Where ya in from? Don’t think I’ve seen your face before?”

    I told him my story and where I was staying, laughing as I told him how the lady at the grocery store referred to the area as the Singing Mountains.

    His face fell.

    “Singing Mountains, huh.”

    A slight hush fell over a couple tables who were close enough to hear our conversation.

    “How’s it been out there?” He asked.

    The reaction of the man and the people around us made me nervous, but I answered and told him it was beautiful and peaceful, although I had to mention the animal situation from the night before. I asked him if there were a lot of black bears over in that area.

    He leaned in close and his voice got real deep and soft.

    “There’s a lot more than bears out there in those woods, son” he told me sternly and absolutely, before leaning back up and walking away to the kitchen.

    After an anxious few minutes nursing my beer, he returned with my burger, which looked amazing. I thanked him and dug in, cleaning my plate in less than half an inning of a college baseball game that was on the bar television.

    I stood up to pay him, but he refused.

    “On me son. But, if I can offer you a word of advice, I’d keep inside after sunset over where you are. It be can dangerous. Now come back and see us.” He told me, before giving me a small grin, and a quick head nod.

    I thanked him, way too anxious to ask why it would be that I would want to stay indoors at night over where I was staying. I was also way too scared to ask about the whistling I heard from the unidentified beast in the forest, which I had forgot to mention.

    I got back in my car and spent the early afternoon driving around the area. I stopped and walked a trail at a local state park and saw a waterfall, and took tons of pictures. It was truly paradise. I felt so far removed from my daily troubles back in the city, and I even began to forget the strange warnings the man at the restaurant had given me, and the odd goings on of the place I was staying.

    I wanted to get back with enough daylight to explore the land around my cabin, so I ended up back past the town square and onto the northbound highway toward the Singing Mountains. Once again I was lost in the heart of true country music as I got back onto the gravel road.

    Fields flew by me as I made my way back near the end of the drive. I kept smiling and breathing deeply until I finally noticed there was a commotion coming from way up ahead where the road ended. There was a sheriffs truck, two police cars, and a white unmarked SUV parked outside of Mrs Klein’s house. The SUV was pulling out of her driveway and rolled down the rode, passing me. The men driving had gaunt faces and shot me a hardened look as they went by.

    What. Was. Going. On?

    I continued past them and rolled to a stop by Mrs Klein’s mailbox. A man in a tan uniform was on her porch talking to a couple of officers. I assumed him to be the sheriff in question. Next to them was the front door, gaping, having been breached with force. I clenched my jaw at the sight.

    The sheriff noticed me and shot looks at the officers before returning his gaze my way. Alone, he walked down the porch stairs and into his truck, which then back down the steep driveway over to me. He got out and walked toward my window, which I rolled down with haste.

    “Afternoon. You the fella staying over at Jeff’s place?” He asked.

    In my poor memory, I hadn’t even registered that my hosts name was Jeff, so I stared at the sheriff in a moment of confusion before answering yes.

    “Well he called me to come visit Mrs Klein on your behalf, I believe. Is this right?”

    I nodded.

    “Well, I’ve since called him back as well” he continued, “but I figure you should know too, since you’re the reason I’m out here in the first place” he paused with a big breath, “Mrs Klein has sadly passed. Now I don’t suspect any foul play so I don’t need anything from ya but thought you should know.”

    I was shocked. He could read it all over my face. I didn’t know what to say. Finally I found the energy to ask him what happened and to ask him about all the boards.

    “Not entirely sure, son. Mrs Klein was a tender hearted woman. She never caused any trouble and she was always sweet and helpful to Jeff and his visitors. However...” he paused again with another breath, “she would sometimes act a little...off. Would rant to Jeff and myself and others about conspiracy bull and strange creatures and whatnot. Just her age I reckon. Must’ve had an episode, boarded herself in so she’d be safe from all her delusions or whatever, and, well, forgot to make a way out.”

    I told him that she was acting strange the night before, staring out her window at me and not answering her phone. I told him she must’ve boarded it all up in the early hours of the morning. He lowered his brow and looked at me like I had just spoken some alien language.

    “Son, the coroner just drove off with the body, and he says she’s been dead for weeks, maybe even a couple of months.” He paused, “Now I don’t know what you’re smokin over there, but I know Jeff wouldn’t allow it, and I sure as hell don’t allow it. So get on, keep your nose clean, and we’ll be in touch if we need anything else” he told me, tapping the top of my car and cursing under his breath.

    I drove slowly on past them and over to my driveway and up the hill, not even remotely registering what I had just been told. Blankly staring through my windshield, I fumbled for my keys and opened the door, using muscle memory to get out and walk up the stairs and into my cabin, where I more or less collapsed onto the bed.

    That simply had to be wrong. She had to have been alive last night. I know what I saw. Right? I wasn’t sure anymore. I sprang back up and rushed to the phone. I dialed Jeff but got no answer. I tried again. Nothing. I couldn’t be in there anymore, not where I could look out the window and in my minds eye see the dark figure standing, watching me in the lowlight from across the hollow.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/29
    16:17 UTC

    6

    Working Retail For An Abomination

    What can I say? I'm the employee of a horrifying shapeshifting monster but it's just the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it.

    And it was all working fine until Sharon was eaten. Sharon was too obvious and now the whole cover-up will be blown.

    You'll hear it in the news so I might as well tell you now. Yeah we knew Dwayne was a monster, like a real one. We think he might have come from space, but it doesn’t really matter now.

    He would eat customers, that much is true. For the most part, only old elderly ones that came alone at night. But those weren't the ones we were worried about.

    It was the high-risk customers (once every four months or so) that we had to be vigilant about. It always happened around his own system of "holidays."

    What were his holidays? Well let me explain:

    June 7th: Stomp Day

    Stomp Day was Stomp Day. You arrived at 8:00 a.m. sharp and were paid A LOT of money to stay for the next 14 hours (instead of 8). At about a dozen different times throughout the day, you’d stomp the ground as hard as you could.

    The idea was to hide it. Like: “sorry I was carrying this big load of plywood, and so I accidentally STOMPED as I almost lost balance!”

    Or you could just stomp on a pallet jack to prevent “swerving.”

    You’d be surprised at how many discreet ways you can stomp right by a person’s face and get away with it.

    The purpose of the stomping was to make customers flinch, which had something to do with building up a certain level of unease in the store. At the end of the day, the employee who could get the most flinches was awarded 3 months pay, and an all-black Rubik's Cube ( I'll get to that later.)

    The hardest part was that you were competing with everyone else, and you were only allotted seven tries at specific time stamps in the day (or time-stomps as we called them.)

    Everyone’s time-stomps were different, mine were 8:21, 9:00, 10:37, 11:40, 21:32, 21:33, 21:34. It was easiest just to set alarms on your phone (I always brought a spare battery for my dying iPhone 10.)

    Anyway, if you could get someone really startled, Dwayne would show up and be very apologetic and tell the customer they can get a free DeWalt power drill from the back. He would take them into the loading bay, and into that room none of us were allowed in (you’ll see it on the news.)

    And then well, the customer would be gone forever.

    But trust me, no one noticed. It’s why we were able to get away with it for so long. Dwayne had some intuitive way of choosing single, fairly antisocial people (usually homeowners?) So when they disappeared, it took a while for friends and family to catch on, and the police never had any leads.

    October 14th: Saint Quelber’s Cleaning Day

    Before you go asking who Saint Quelber is—we have no fucking clue.

    I should explain that Dwayne definitely does not speak English as his first language. I’d love to get some linguist or geneticist to tell me where he could possibly be from.

    Apparently, Quelber is some priest? An angel? Maybe Dwayne’s mother? For whatever reason, Dwayne settled on the name “Saint Quelber” and we just rolled with it.

    There wasn’t any hard start to this holiday, you could book any kind of 6 or 8 hour shift, but if you were working on Saint Quelber’s, you’d better bring a bandana or N95 mask.

    Dwayne would basically fumigate the entire store with some chemical I can only describe as minty bleach. We would put up signs throughout the store that said we are having a “cleaning day.” Customers seemed to put up with it.

    Everyone just grabbed a courtesy Covid mask from the front, and did their shopping as usual. But the closer you got to the back of the store, the stronger that minty bleach smell got.

    I should mention it wasn’t like a hazy smoke or anything, it was completely translucent. More of a mist.

    If you were working on this day, you had to carry a rag in your backpocket and clean any stains you spotted on the floor or shelves. The substance in the air basically made any stain come out instantly.

    Yeah I hated to think what it might have done to my eyes and skin, but I never had any adverse reactions (thank God.)

    Inevitably, some customer with asthma or a cold or something would have a coughing fit, and start spewing up phlegm. If the customer met Dwayne’s criteria, he would graciously offer them the employee washroom in the back where they could go “clean themselves up”.

    And then … yup you guessed it … he would eat them.

    But listen, we knew he ate people, I’m not pretending we didn’t. We’re definitely guilty of that. We just never directly killed anyone ourselves. We were at worst, accessories to murder, or coerced into compliance.

    In fact, I know it seems like we only enabled his behavior (which is true) but we were kind of forced to play along. It'll make more sense when I explain the next holiday.

    March 24th: Annual Graduation

    If you want to work at Dwayne’s depot, you have to sign a year-long contract. It was very explicit.

    Dwayne always explained to new employees that he’s sick of high turnover, so he would guarantee you a customer service job (fairly well paying) as long as you committed to a year.

    Obviously the law states you can give your two week’s notice at any job and leave, but Dwayne makes you sign an incredibly sophisticated contract that supposedly “circumvents” this law.

    As you’d imagine, this deters a lot of people, which is totally fine. Dwayne only seeks the committed.

    And so he filters out applicants until he gets someone who is desperate for a stable, decent-paying job with little experience. EG: High school dropouts like me.

    Anyway, after a year of work, you are allowed to quit, but only on graduation day, which is generally 365 days after you started.

    On your graduation, Dwayne invites all the employees into the loading bay, and he sings you a song which is unlike anything you've ever heard, and is genuinely impossible to describe.

    Afterwards he gives you a white rubber band with a certain number of tally marks (which I think corresponds to how many people you helped him eat that year.)

    And then you can either move on with your life, keep working part-time at Dwayne’s, or commit to another full year with a triple wage increase.

    We all told Sharon to wait. Just hold out until her graduation on March 27th. Once she got her first white rubber band, she could leave.

    I'll admit to that in court. Listen, I'm being super upfront about all of this.

    But she couldn't, She was a week away from her graduation when she snapped. Apparently she had snuck into Dwayne's room and saw something. Probably the eating process.

    On the day of her meltdown, I was at the opposite end of the depot when she grabbed a megaphone (which we sell in aisle 30 for about $80.)

    I heard the buzzy click of the megaphone turning on, and then I heard Sharon’s hysterical shouts.

    “We work for a monster!”

    “People have died here!”

    Etc. Etc.

    I rushed over to shut her up of course, as did two other employees, but she refused to be subdued.

    Very soon, Dwayne showed up, wiping his mouth and demanding to know what was going on. She tossed the megaphone at him and ran.

    And so, Dwayne chased her into the parking lot. The open air customer parking lot in BROAD DAYLIGHT—in front of like twenty people.

    Dwayne caught her by the hair and shrieked an unfathomable sound. Like a space-lion roar or something. He pulled one of those black Rubik's Cubes out from his pocket and basically like … sucked Sharon into it?

    Customers freaked out. Cars sped away. It was a fucking scene.

    We all stared with our jaws dropped, not knowing what to do. Wayne just stared back and said, “what are you looking at? Get back to work.”

    The reason I think that Sharon was eaten was because the black cubes were how Dwayne ‘stored’ his prey.

    And yes, before you ask, I do have two of them. They were awarded to me on some very successful Stomp Days. No, I have not opened them, I have no clue how they work. And yes, I will be giving them to the police.

    Honestly, it may not sound like my hands were tied, but my hands were tied!

    Where else was I supposed to work? I don't have a degree, and don't qualify for anything in finance, STEM, healthcare or whatever. I applied to every other place in my neighborhood. I could only land a job at Dwayne's.

    Obviously I should go to jail, and I will, but I can't possibly deserve more than 18 months? Like 2 years tops with good behavior?

    Thanks to Dwayne, I’ve been able to afford the crazy high rent in this city, pay for food, and now I have enough to pay for school too.

    I'm just writing this all out here so you can see my side of the story. Before the news media spins everything out of control.

    Anyway, please DM me if you know a good lawyer.

    After this all blows over, I'm going to medical school with a goal to save at least 254 lives. 254 because that’s how many tally marks I counted on my white rubber bands.

    Peace and love y'all

    -Monique K.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/28
    18:23 UTC

    10

    Tall Betsy

    “Have fun, but be in before dark, or else Tall Betsy’ll get ya.”

    The warning of Clay’s father, along with a signature whiskey-scented laugh, reverberated through the boys memory as he wandered back home, the broken-egg yolk sunset mocking him as it shrank and shrank into oblivion. He could feel the back of his neck start to electrify and the collar of his shirt was damp with anxious sweat.

    “Tall Betsy. Heh. Nothin but an old wives tale. Speakin of wives, where’s yours old man? Huh? She run off like the other one did AND my mom did?” Clay thought to himself. The most genius comebacks are always conceived several hours after you need them most.

    After dinner, Clay had gone out with the other neighborhood boys over to the Nelson’s huge backyard for a pickup game of baseball. Clay had the reputation of being the best hitter in his class, and that night, he’d been on fire.

    “Don’t you think it’s about time to wrap it up, Clay? You’ve already hit five homers on us…and don’t you wanna get home quick?” Terry Nelson, pitcher for the losing team, had hollered at Clay from the mound.

    “Nah, just a couple more Terry…seven is a holy number!” Clay had yelled back, squatting into a hitters stance that had already become notable to the high school baseball coach.

    “That’s fine…but we’re all staying here tonight, and you gotta run all the way home before dark! Aren’t you worried?” Terry’s voice seemed understandably annoyed, but also had a twinge of concern as well.

    “Bout what?” Clay had asked condescendingly.

    “You know…” Terry had looked around to the other boys, who all showed wide eyes, shaking heads, and all in all a silent message of ‘don’t even bring it up’.

    “You know…Tall Betsy…t…taking your head off?” He had spat out weakly.

    Clay had laughed, making sure to use a little extra bass than normal. “Don’t worry bout me. I don’t believe that crap anyway. Throw the damn ball.” He had definitively made up his mind.

    “Okay buddy…just know you’d be able to stay with me too…if your dad would ever let you.”

    Clay resorted to a slight jog as he navigated through the streets from the Nelson’s back to his house. His baseball bat bounced on his right shoulder to the point of pain, so he switched it over to his left shoulder. He crossed through the very few downtown streets that existed in his community, the old brick buildings looming over him. He glanced up at a couple of second story windows that had been shattered, and they glared back at him like sore, black eyes. The clock tower on top of the bank read 10:26.

    “No way that’s right.” Clay whispered to himself as he jogged through downtown and over the railroad tracks that marked the beginning of the poorer side of town, where he lived.

    Soon the only light was the orange glow from the bulbs on the power poles, which really only helped Clay see tree limbs, about twenty feet up, that needed to be trimmed. The streets were dark and deserted. As he jogged by trailers and old shotgun houses, he could see residents closing front doors and throwing down window blinds, their shadows backlit by living room lamps.

    “What is their deal.” Clay thought to himself. He really didn’t believe in old folktales like Tall Betsy. Parents just want their kids home before dark because they worry about terrible accidents and bad people, the real monsters of everyday life. Clay was old enough to understand that, and not just give in to superstition. He thought it was childish for his buddies to still believe in it.

    But as Clay came within about a mile from his house, where he was almost certain he would be feeling the wrath of his father’s worn out leather belt, something suddenly felt wrong. Clay stopped and took a breath, as he had been jogging nonstop over two miles at this point. He looked around. The residual orange glow from the light poles just barely lit the small, impoverished houses on this part of Oak Avenue. Even the slits between the blinds and the windows had gone dark. Clay swallowed a mouthful of spit. He could feel his heartbeat in his temples as he scanned around the street in front of him. Then, suddenly, he had reason to feel frightened.

    From way down the street, a maniacal, cackling laughter erupted up into the night. Clay froze. It had the timbre of a rusted, serrated blade. It continued on for several seconds, before the ghostly echoes dissipated around him. Clay felt his jaw clench as he locked his attention down the street where the horrible noise came from. His eyes darted all around any points of light, trying to find the source of the laughter.

    After a breathless moment, a new noise announced itself to Clay’s ears. The ditches hugging both sides of the road were piled high with fall leaves, and a heavy, thunderous thumping, mixed with tell tale crunching, began. A couple seconds passed between each heavy thump. Clay shot his eyes to both sides of the road, repeatedly. Which side was it coming from? The left? The right? BOTH?! He couldn’t tell. His legs were cemented, even though his calves were flexed to the point of pain.

    He passed his eyes between the tops of the two nearest poles, quickly itemizing everything he could dimly see. Branches, branches, dead leaves, dead leaves, darkness, darkness, moss, no moss. Wait…moss??

    Clay stared at the small canopy of orange light under the pole on the right side of the road. Suddenly he noticed the thumping had stopped. About five feet under the bulb hung two veils of pale moss, swaying every so slightly in unison. Clay hadn’t noticed it before. In fact, he couldn’t recollect any moss he’d seen every growing that high and hanging that low. He couldn’t even see the bottom of it. It just swayed side to side even though there wasn’t any noticeable wind. But then it started swaying back and forth and Clay noticed something else. Emerging into the hazy light, from right between the top of where the moss hung, was the down-curved hook of a nose, easily as long as Clay’s forearm. In an instant he realized he wasn’t looking at moss at all. He was seeing white hair, falling dead from the summit of a head at least fifteen feet off the ground.

    Suddenly Clay felt his legs spring to life after being concrete for several minutes. He heard a high, prepubescent scream escape his mouth. He didn’t dare look back under that light pole. His focus was dead ahead, into any shred of light that could help guide him home. As he sprinted past, that same cackling laughter from before pierced his hearing like a swarm of bats. It rang sharply behind him as he ran down the road, slowly growing faint as he covered ground. Clay’s mind had been completely turned off. His muscle memory and a desperate reserve of energy were in charge of him now. He scurried the final mile home in about five minutes, which he would’ve noticed as being way faster than he had ever ran a mile, if he could even process a single thought not pertaining to survival.

    He slowed up as he approached his small, dark house that sat at the end of a poorly underdeveloped street. In fact, their closest neighbors lived several houses down, the units in between abandoned and boarded up. Clay caught his breath in the shadows, the nearest orange light pole bulb hundreds of feet behind him. He quickly looked back down the road. He heard no thumping, saw nobody. His frightened instincts began to relax as he rested his hands on his knees. It didn’t even occur to him that his baseball bat was gone, having been tossed as soon as he started running. He let out a long sigh…but then quickly inhaled as he realized his next horrifying showdown…with his dad.

    He had forgotten all about the fury of his father. Oh man, he was in for it now. He had escaped getting murdered by Tall Betsy only to get murdered by the back of his dads hand. Clay thought for a moment. Lately there had been several nights where he had been able to sneak in right at sunset, his father passed out on the front porch next to a brown bottle. If his dad was indeed asleep, perhaps Clay could sneak in and convince him that he had arrived home right before sunset, and in a hungover stupor maybe his dad would believe him. It was worth a try.

    Crouching low, Clay began to sneak close to his house, his senses ultra-heightened, listening for his dad and looking for any slight movement in the shadows. He crept around the left side of the house, avoiding the front porch, where his father routinely sat in watch. He couldn’t make out any chairs or tables or his fathers outline in the deep dark, but he could, however, hear a very slow rocking sound. It was his dad. He was sitting in his favorite chair on the front porch, and the slowness of the rocking made it apparent that he was indeed knocked out. Clay felt a surge of relief as he made his way around the back of the house, silently approaching and opening the back door, having lifted up the mat and grabbing the key.

    Even in the profound darkness of the house, Clay had memorized where every creak and groan in the floorboards were, so he was able to blindly navigate the hallway into the living room. The good news was that a short candle from the kitchen scattered a very dim yellow glow, helping Clay further navigate his way through the house to his bedroom. The bad news was that he had to pass right by the front door, and therefore be well within earshot of his dad on the porch. Clay prayed to God that he wouldn’t wake him up.

    With the grace of a ballerina Clay worked his way through the living room and ever-so-slowly moved past the screened in front door. With the minuscule candlelight he was actually able to make out shapes from the porch so he paused as the slow creak from the rocking chair once again came to him. He could see the shape of a bottle on the table next to a shadowed mass that leaned slightly back and forth and could only be his father, except something was strange. He could tell the chair was occupied given the thickness of the outline, but the shadow stopped after the back of the chair. He could even make out the shoulders of a man, but after that…nothing. Nothing at all. No. No way. It had to be the dark playing tricks with him. Had to be. Had to be.

    This was Clay’s unhinged belief in the moment he had snuck by the front door and analyzed the shadows on the porch. It’s amazing what you will believe in the most frightening moments of your life. It’s also amazing how quickly beliefs can be shattered in similar moments. In this case, Clay’s belief that the dark had played tricks on him was quickly annihilated when, from behind him, he heard a dense, cumbersome thump. It seemed to come from the hallway that led to the living room. Clay had left the back door open. After a couple of seconds, another thump. Then another. Then silence.

    Although his lips were closed, Clay’s jaws were open wide, trembling with realization. He felt himself slowly turning around toward the sound, shuddering almost to the point of collapse. He got a look at the living room.

    The dwindling candlelight was more than enough visibility for Clay. There, right there in the room with him, was an enormous, old, old woman. She was drastically oversized for his house, her back bent forward as she crouched at the ceiling to even fit. Long, wispy flows of white hair hung to the floor. Disproportional to her seemingly thick torso, two skeletal arms branched down to her bent knees, with strange, outstretched fingers twisting back up toward her head. Her face was shadowed. Clay was paralyzed, body and mind.

    Thump…thump……thump…….thump.

    All at once she was standing right over Clay, who craned his neck up as far back as it would go, as he looked into the black nothing where her face would be. A laugh fell down at him. This time, a much lower, slower laugh, almost a horrible coughing. With each audible wretch her shoulders lurched. In his final moment of consciousness, Clay could feel long, ice cold fingers cradling his head, sharp nails digging into his scalp and cheeks, with damp, stinking white hair falling all around him.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/27
    22:59 UTC

    2

    Fear of the Fold

    Fear of the Fold

    Alfred Alders stands outside the doors of the sanctified stone building. Two steeples towering above at either side of him. A circular stained glass portrait of a man holding a stark white lamb hovering a few dozen feet over his head. It’s been many a year since he’s even thought about the church, let alone set foot in one. Weighing unevenly side to side he also weighs in his mind, “What happens if I take one step past those doors and burst into flames. God forgive me if the first day I go back I burn it down.” A couple politely rattles him from his daydreams and the elderly well dressed Mrs. states as if seeing through the back of his unkempt head, “There’s nothing too great for Father Longrin, and I’m sure he can put a word or two in to Him for you.” Both her and her marginally too young looking husband laugh in a way only years can offer.

    “Right, right. I’ll be right behind you folks.” Sheepishly muttering fairly under his breath.

    “Here goes nothing.” Fully out loud this time.

    Taking his right foot and planting it firmly in the precipice of benevolence nothing happens. No lighting from above. Earth doesn’t shatter and swallow him and everything else up. A righteous fist doesn’t swoop down for smiting. Alfred lets out a heavy and long held sigh.

    “I guess someone is watching out for you after all.”

    This voice makes poor Al jump in his skin. It’s calm and sweet but a hint of vile fumes seems to hang off the words put out into the world. He turns to look in the direction it came from and is met with the most beautiful vision of a woman, better yet, an angel, he’s ever witnessed. Flowing black hair with waves more pure than the seas. A golden green gown with a deep red jeweled necklace to accent. What struck him the most were the almost grey eyes. Not a true grey, like the sky right after the rains. Sun and sky started to stream through and bring all the color back into life. Alfred felt some of that color now.

    “I, uh, well maybe I should get to my confession before we decide that.” Alfred replies with a dopey albeit sincere smile.

    “Hm, better get to it. Father has been waiting for you and he isn’t terribly patient.”

    The way she coos this almost as if right into his ear send shivers down his whole being.

    “What do you mean he’s been waiting for me?”

    “A Shepherd always knows when one of his flock is lost.” She replies and spins on her heel leading the way towards the front of the chapel. Motioning seamlessly toward an intricately large confessional to the left.

    Alfred strolls along the center of the pews after her. Bathed in the light streaming through the other stained windows all around. Images of God and man, angels and apostles. Some of war, some of peace. All of them beautiful. Faces scattered in the pews he walks by. None looking up at him. Seemingly entranced in prayer or recompense or whatever else their human hearts need at the time. Before he even realizes it he’s standing in front of the confessors door hovering by the handle. He barely remembers walking over to it. As if guided by a conveyor leading him to this moment. He takes one last looks around and each member is sullen eyed smiling at him and nodding their heads. He sees his visage of an angel near the pulpit nodding him forward as well. A wave of euphoric understanding washes over and he enters.

    “Forgive me Father, for I am a wretched sinner. It’s been thirteen years since my last confession.”

    From the dark past the carpentered grate separating them, Alfred hears a deep rumble of a voice reply.

    “My child, I remember. All is forgiven. It was a heavy burden you took on yourself that night. Baptism in blood is the truest form of worship. As you see my daughter was brought back in His image for our faith.”

    “How is it possible Father? I just don’t understand.”

    “Faith needs not understanding. For the face of God smiles on those who believe.”

    Alfred felt his face grow hot from, anger? No it must’ve been embarrassment. He felt ashamed to question what he’d been taught for so many long years.

    “But Father, I didn’t see him that night. I ran after plunging that blade into her chest. How do I live with this?”

    To this he heard that same gravel cascade from the other side of the booth.

    “Look outside my son.”

    Alfred opened the door of the box. Emerged from behind the pulpit with Elenora, yes that was her name. How could he have forgotten? With Elenora stood gracefully next to Him was God. What else could it be. He hurt to look at but was everything Alfred has always been taught. Flowing white ropes doused in crimson red. A Lambs head on a Lions body. Massive on both accounts. Flowing mane of golden hair glittering from His neck. Two arms protruding stoutly from each shoulder and three more coming from the cheeks and forehead. The penitents who had been strewn about the pews now lined in front of the Great Beast. Elenora first stroked the radiant mane then the face of the madame who he had spoken to earlier. Then standing back the three great arms gripped the woman firmly, yet tenderly and devoured her whole. It was right, this is what Alfred had been missing and he finally knew it. So did all around him. The few remaining had tears of joy streaking their faces and offered to let him go before. Elenora nodded an approval he had been craving for those thirteen years. Alfred stood before God and heard the question he only heard in his dreams before. A voice that pierced and terrified, stitched and healed. Right inside his mind.

    “What do you desire my Son?”

    “Absolution.”

    0 Comments
    2024/03/27
    21:09 UTC

    3

    Krew [Part 5 - Final]

    I - II - III - IV - V


    We flew to Germany. Tickets were expensive.

    I met Becca’s family. They were wonderful.

    After months of waiting, dozens of nights of watching 90’s shows, listening to new “best of” playlists and scrolling through my phone, the moment had finally come.

    It was our thirteenth night in Berlin, and I told Becca that I was going to a club famous for its EDM raves, (she knew I had an appreciation for German techno). Although Becca was not a huge fan herself, she told me to have fun, and that we would catch up later that same night. She would go to a bar with one of her cousins.

    In truth, of course, I was going to the Friedrichstadt-Palast. A large, pretty famous theater in central Berlin that could accommodate up to 1,800 spectators. The throngs outside curled for over two blocks, but people in line told me not to worry: “das ist normal.”

    Tickets weren’t cheap. The equivalent of a hundred Canadian or so. It was a near sold out screening because apparently—the film was supposed to be good.

    I was curious from a typical filmgoer’s perspective whether or not the movie would be to my taste at all. Was it even possible for me to like it? Can I really enjoy something that has been responsible for so much trauma?

    By some miracle, my seat was on the floor and not on a balcony. I sat in the west wing surrounded by an odd mix of audience. Half were the expected critics, cinephiles and Berliner upper crust all wearing their sophisticated evening attire, but the other half were … strange. It's like they’re expecting some kind of heavy metal concert. They were wearing all leather, latex and lots of clothespins. Several have pentagrams inscribed on their clothing. I recognized plenty of the expected band shirts. Black Sabbath. Slayer. Behemoth.

    A tanned, cheerful presenter went up and explained that he was very proud to present this “exquisite gem” of a film to Europe for the first time, and that the filmmaker was in the audience with us tonight. There would be a Q & A after the screening.

    I took a quick scan of the crowds to see if I could recognize somebody, but the audience was too massive. A flesh colored soup in every direction.

    Soon the lights went down, the projector turned on, and several sponsors were briefly flashed on screen. Armani. Uber. Mastercard. Something called ZDF, Potsdamer Platz and RBB Media.

    Then the movie started.

    The opening scene is loud. It’s a festive night outdoors with lots of candles, lanterns, instruments and plenty of characters eating meat off skewers. It had to be set in the early 1900s, 1800s, or maybe 1700s? (I don’t know my medieval times). We’re introduced to a bride on the eve of her own wedding. I realize she looks identical to Polina.

    A skewer goes through my stomach.

    I’m mentally bombarded with images from that set three years ago. I see Polina getting wet from our march in the woods, I see her moaning under the twisted oak tree. Then I see her looking mangled and despondent after repurposing Kon’s dead body.

    This actress on screen is Polina. No one realizes we are watching a ghost with a stolen body on screen. A wraith in cold flesh.

    I exhale the thought. Squeeze my eyes shut.

    It’s just a movie. Just pretend it’s a movie. That’s all you're here to see.

    After a few moments I pry my eyes open, and do my best to forget. I try to get carried away by the movie’s plot. And to my surprise, I do.

    Very quickly we learn that Polina is to be betrothed to a sharp, brutal man. It's someone she clearly does not want to marry. In the last hour of freedom (before she is expected at the altar), the camera follows Polina as she wanders away from the party towards a small pond, seeking solace in the night.

    In subtitles we see Polina speak to herself. Pity herself. She looks into her reflection in the pond and says, “I would rather marry a pig than that awful oaf.” The water warbles a bit, buffeted by wind.

    As luck would have it. Her husband-to-be chokes at the dinner banquet—on one of the meat skewers. There’s a scene where multiple people attempt a primitive Heimlich maneuver to no avail. The groom’s family ends up in tears, and the priest calls the wedding off. But despite everything, Polina’s folks still get to keep her wedding gifts as compensation. Including a large black swine.

    The wedding guests leave despondent or drunk, or some mix of both, while Polina on the other hand, is secretly euphoric. It's the closest I had ever seen her to revealing a smile.

    That night she visits the swine by herself at the pigsty. She is so relieved that she goes to thank the animal. Much to her surprise, it begins to talk.

    “I’m your new husband.”

    Polina is of course scared. Confused. “You’re my new husband?”

    “Yes. Your wish has been granted, and you must treat me like your husband. If you betray this gift, your soul is forfeit.”

    Polina’s pupils widen, she covers her mouth. Through narration we learn that animals could only speak back then if they had been imbued with the Devil’s magic. Although terrified, Polina reluctantly agrees to visit and feed the pig each night.

    Through title cards, we learn a week has passed. Polina appears just in time to calm down a raucous swine. The pig is aggressively headbutting the fence of the pigsty

    “Why are you treating me like an animal? Am I not your husband? Should I not be wearing your husband's clothes?”

    Polina has no rebuttal for this. And so the following night, we watch her walk up to her town’s small cemetery and dig up her fiancee's grave. The burial soil was not very deep (because the region is mountainous), it is dug up in a quick montage. Her betrothed had been buried in the finest suit he owned, and in between worried stares, Polina removes it piece by piece.

    In the morning, Polina’s youngest brother wakes up the family with laughter. “The pig has found a suit! The pig has found a suit!”

    It’s a laugh riot. The family assumes that someone in the village is playing a very funny joke. Maybe the neighbor’s teenage son? Everyone is surprisingly accepting of the pig’s new clothes, and no one draws the connection to Polina’s dead husband-to-be.

    Polina pretends to find it amusing too, and says she would like her gift-pig to remain this way. Everyone is instructed not to undress the pig. And so no one does. The clothes are too filthy to touch anyway.

    On Polina’s next nightly visit, the swine has a new demand.

    “So you’ve dressed me like your husband. That much is true. But how come I must eat my dinner out here, out of a trough? While the rest of your family eats inside?”

    Polina has no rebuttal for this. So the following night, she invites the pig inside. “He gets along well with the children,” Polina explains.

    Although the children are not overly ecstatic, they do indeed play with the pig, offering it some of their dinner. With a certain measure of reluctance, the family accepts this novelty, at least for the night.

    But the following morning, the swine still demands more.

    “How come after dinner, I am led back into this pen, and not to a bed? How come I am not permitted to share a bed with my wife?”

    Polina has no rebuttal for this. And so, after sneaking the pig more of their dinner the next evening, she waits until everyone else goes to the communal bedroom, and then she leads the pig into her own bed in the living room.

    She leads the pig first onto the straw bed. He practically occupies the whole thing.

    “Now lay with me.” The swine says.

    Teeth clenched and shoulders raised, Polina slides onto the small patch of sheet that’s still accessible. Her ankles are seen colliding with the pig’s hooves. She shifts to lay as distantly as possible, but the pig squirms closer.

    “Wrap an arm around me.”

    Polina begins attempting this, and abruptly stops. She is simply too disgusted to continue. She rolls off the bed.

    “A wife must lay with her husband,” The pig says.

    “I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

    “You will. Or your soul is mine.”

    Without much choice, she lays back down, facing the pig. With all the willpower she can muster, Polina raises an arm and wraps it around the pig’s head, as if she were coddling a child. Or a lover.

    “Now kiss me.”

    The pig opens his large gaping maw. A glistening, pink tongue flaps out, searching for interaction. There is still some rotting food in the back of the pig’s molars.

    At this point, I pull my head back and look around the audience, swapping petrified expressions with the middle aged Berliners seated around me. No amount of special effects in the world can fake what is being shown on-screen right now.

    It is indisputably a live-action animal pig with a live-action actress.

    They are about to kiss.

    Are they actually going to?

    They do.

    I hear reflexive gagging, and mutters from the audience.

    “Mein Gott … ”

    “Widerlich.”

    “It must be fake … ”

    But it’s not. I can only muster about two seconds of willpower to watch this pig lick a human’s mouth like an over-excited dog.

    Polina screams and brushes the pig aside. It squeals loudly, rolling in the bed.

    “Kiss me! KISS ME!”

    When I look back at the screen, Polina’s father emerges from the bedroom, eyes wide with shock. “The Devil has my daughter!”

    The pig shrieks around on the bed, flopping and flailing like any real life animal would.

    We see the father grab an ax, lift it, and then the film cuts to black.

    Fade in: it's the next day. The pig lies headless on a large wooden plank, while Polina’s mother cooks its haunches over a fire. There is yelling and stomping, the camera pans over to the father who points and spits at his daughter. Polina is curled in a corner, sobbing.

    She is banished to the forest. If she is ever caught close to the house again, her father will have no choice but to kill her. He will not risk spreading her evil to the rest of the family.

    With nothing but her gray dress and a small sack of food, Polina treads away and into the dark, foreboding woods, forbidden from even looking back at her home.

    The camera glides behind her as she stumbles through the branches. Polina moves awkwardly across deepening areas of peat and mud, before she realizes what’s underfoot, she trips into a bog. Polina sinks down to her waist, struggling tragically and inefficiently. She sinks down to her neck, and calls for help as loud as she can. Within a matter of seconds … she chokes. We see bubbles. Fingertips. Polina drowns. Another cut to black.

    When we return, Polina wakes up beside a large oak tree. The very same tree I climbed in four years ago. I feel goosebumps like I’ve never felt before. I am frozen in my seat.

    “Am I alive?” The subtitles hold on the screen. The actress has now changed, she is gaunter, paler. She looks like Polina did on the day I first met her. She turns to the camera, and asks the audience the same question. “Czy ja żyję? Czy ja żyję?”

    “Am I alive?”

    “No you are not.” The pig’s voice returns. “You have broken your promise. You have killed me like a common swine.”

    Polina takes a step back and circles around the tree in reverse, searching for the source of the voice. “I didn’t mean to!” She yells.

    “Your soul is forfeit. It is mine.”

    Polina takes her hands in her head. “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!” Something invisible pushes her over, attacks her. She tries to shove it away but it's too strong.

    There’s squealing. Screaming.

    This is the sound I recorded. This is what we shot beneath that tree. What happened was real.

    “And because you have cooked and eaten me, I shall rebuke the same.”

    Something invisible takes a bite of Polina’s shoulder, she wails and falls to the ground.

    Then the film abruptly cuts to action shots of her escaping. She is terrified. Running wounded through the forest. The camera is jumpy and chaotic. I soon recognize this segment as the POV shots that Olek took as he ran through the woods on his own. A fern branch brushes past the lens.

    I feel a panic attack coming on. I can’t be here. I can’t be in this theater. I get up, and attempt to squeeze by the patrons, but I can’t get past. The film is too loud and the other patrons are literally too glued to the screen to even notice me.

    I plonk back down and recognize the cabin. The old lodge cabin we had visited that day. It’s wooden, mossy and dilapidated. With clever angles, it looks like it could be medieval, made in some rural woods, but I know it's modern. This one anachronistic detail is what allows me to breathe.

    It is still just a movie. Just a recreation. A farce. This is fake. It's all fake.

    But then comes Konrad on screen. Or at least what I know to be the reconfigured body of Konrad. I recognize the shoulders and cheekbones a little, but the rest is all Polina. The audience won't be able to tell.

    This Polina walks out to a fire, searching for warmth. And out from the fire … emerges a ten foot demon.

    The thing from hell.

    Everyone in the theater reels back. Gasps erupt.

    The thing that had seared its way into my memory that fateful day. It was what Olek had been trying to capture on screen the whole time.

    “I’m not interested in capturing some ghost, or possession.” Olek had told me when he forced me into that circle of cult-members. “No no. I want to catch the uncatchable. The impossible.”

    I held the boom unwavering and pointed it at Polina. I could hear the fierce snarls coming out of the fire. Polina shrieked as the small flame erupted into a conflagration, opening some awful portal that never should have been opened. Olek had invited the unthinkable into our plane.

    Even now, simply staring at a projection on screen, I am as captivated as I was back then.

    It was a cross between a baboon and a boar, except it had flaming tusks, and mouths for eyes. The beast cried out and gored Polina, killing and roasting her.

    And because you have cooked and eaten me, I shall rebuke the same.

    The sound of her smoldering screech is the last thing I remembered recording.

    Now here it was again. An unholy image. Dark magic. Actual footage of a devil on screen. It is horrifying, terrifying, but at the same time … mesmerizing. This one shot of the demon feasting upon Polina is traumatic and real. The audience can inherently feel that something genuine is happening. There is something on screen that is more than just an image. It is impossible to look away.

    My heart jumps through my neck, I can feel it in my eyes. This moment on film is the precise cause of all misery in my life. I can’t unsee it. I can’t unhear it.

    It is proof that evil is real. That there is something worse than the worst thing you could possibly imagine.

    The screen becomes too bright. I feel faint.

    When I come to, there is riotous applause. The lights in the theater have been turned on, and everyone is now on their feet, giving a standing ovation.

    I am confused. Not just because I missed whatever portion of the movie came next, but also genuinely mystified. A full theater standing up, and giving unanimous applause?

    I wait to see if it is out of politeness, surely after a minute they will stop. But they do not. The clapping only grows stronger.

    I look around and could feel the beguilement. They are enthralled. Hypnotized by what they just saw.

    The applause goes on for over fifteen minutes. Eventually the presenter goes back on stage, still continuing to clap, uninterrupting the applause for another ten minutes.

    The director appears and holds his hands up high over his head. He closes his eyes. It goes on like this for another five minutes, until finally, after one last set of cheers and whistles, the pandemonium settles down.

    “Thank you,” Olek says.

    Catharsis is not what I felt. This was not the closure I was after. I felt like I had bared witness to something only I knew the true meaning behind, and I didn’t know what to do.

    On stage, Olek still wore his signature black trench coat, except this one was hemmed and stylized in a high fashion sort of way. He answered benign questions from the presenter about the location, script and budget, but nothing that cut into the heart of what everyone just saw.

    And then when the floor was opened up to audience questions. Everyone continued to shower praise.

    “Who did your cinematography? It was beautiful.”

    “Where did you find your actors? Unbelievable.”

    “How did you pull off those VFX? How?”

    Something inside me became livid. I looked around to see if there was anyone as put off as I was. Does no one else know what Olek truly is?

    Does no one else know what happened behind the scenes?

    I was beside myself. I lifted my hand to ask the next question. But there was a sea of hands, would they even pick me?

    Fuck it. If no one is going to say it, then I would. Olek was in the middle of responding to some meager question when I stood up and yelled.

    “Murderer! MURDERER! The man on stage is a murderer!”

    Patrons within earshot turned to me, the room fell quiet. Even Olek appeared taken aback.

    I began to rattle off the names of the Polish teens who went missing, reading from a list I kept in my pocket. “Adrian Kowalski! Paweł Nowak! Martyna Wiśniewska! …” I was probably butchering the pronounciation, but I yelled them anyway.

    A security guard started to walk down the aisle, approaching my row. Olek is also approached by some other organizers on stage. He shook his head and grabbed the mic.

    “Please do not arrest her! Please do not! This is actually all good to hear.”

    I finished hollering the names. Questioning voices swirled around me.

    “She is thinking of a tragic event that happened in the Polish film community,” Olek added a fair bit of grief to his voice and took a pause. “A man named Łukasz Dębrowski shot an infamous video in Poland where seven students went missing.” He lifted his hand, “I … was one of those students”

    Sharp inhales travelled through the crowd. Several wow’s.

    “Yes. It was a traumatic experience, but it was also, for me, revelatory. It was one of the chief inspirations behind this film actually. It is important to remember those who have suffered, so in the future we need not suffer again.”

    Audience-members turned to me, looking for my response. But what was I supposed to say? Was Olek lying? Was the real Łukasz actually found and arrested?

    Before I could assemble a reply, someone else asked a question, and very quickly I was forgotten. Just another fly on a wall.

    Just another attention seeker.

    Once the doors opened, I squeezed out of my seat and ran outside. I wanted to get as far away from the Polish warlock, as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, with close to two thousand seats vacating—I was trudging through molasses.

    To make things worse, as I snailed out the exit funnel, I just so happened to bump into Becca, who was pleasantly surprised to see me. I had no idea she was even at the screening.

    I did not want to pause, or mill about in the slightest, but I couldn’t just blow off my partner.

    “Anna! Oh my god! I didn’t know you were coming to see Krew! I would have saved you a seat!”

    I gave a half-assed excuse about my rave being cancelled, and then finding something else to do. Becca seemed to accept this and then introduced me to some filmie friends she had made recently at a bar. I shook their hands between a river of people.

    “We should get a couple drinks!” Becca pointed to the bar across from the coat check. “Everyone’s too busy going to the bathroom. This is the perfect time! Come on!”

    I really didn’t want to linger here. I really just wanted to go. But I calmed myself by picturing Olek exiting out the back. Chances are he was leaving like everyone else. I could distance myself by staying.

    So despite my reservations, we sat at the bar. I wore my toque and zipped up my jacket. I didn’t want to be recognized as ‘that person at the Q&A’, but as soon as we started talking, I realized that was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

    “Could you feel it in the room?”

    “You mean, the energy? The magic?”

    “I have never watched anything that has made me feel the way that movie does!” Becca held both hands on her head, a smile from ear to ear. “That was insane!”

    I nodded and tried to fake a grin. It was easier to pretend I was on the same page, but on the inside, I was dying.

    “And that’s the guy?” One of Becca’s new friends asked.

    “That’s the guy!” Becca slapped my thigh, stinging it a little. “Anna, you’ll never believe this, but I’ve got some amazing news. You’ll never believe it!”

    I knew that Becca had been trying to line up work for spring through a few of her contacts, and she didn’t want to tell me because she didn’t want to jinx it. She had been pining hard for B unit camera op on Yellowjackets …

    “Im shooting his next one. I’m officially his next DP!”

    “That’s fucking awesome!” The other filmies said, clinking their drinks.

    The information passed through me. It didn’t register.

    “Isn’t that great Anna?” Becca hovered her martini close to mine.

    “Isn't what great?”

    “I’m shooting Olek’s next movie. My first art house, I’ve caught my big break!”

    I stared at her and tried to cobble together some kind of smile, I tried to cobble together any kind of response at all. I couldn't. “No, you’re not. That’s … what?”

    “I know! Crazy right!” She bumped my glass and took a big swig.

    I crumpled on the inside. No. Please. This can’t be happening. I mumbled out some paltry congratulations without actually thinking about it. She kissed me on the cheek. Then I whispered to her ear, “You can’t do it. You can never do it. Please don’t.”

    “What did you say?” She indicated ‘another round’ to the bartender.

    I didn’t have the energy to explain. I needed to get out. I needed to get away from here. Olek could show up without me knowing. He could find me.

    “I’m sorry. I’ll … I’ll meet you at the hotel.”

    “Anna, are you alright?”

    I shrugged and stood up. Then I left completely unceremoniously as our second set of drinks arrived. The filmies swapped confused glances, Becca stood up, but didn’t follow.

    “I’ll see you at the hotel?” She called behind my back. I didn’t reply.

    I was a complete mess on the uber ride back. This is a dream, this can’t be happening. There’s no way any of this is real.

    I bolted to our hotel room in a flurry and ran to the sink. I set the water to hot and splashed it onto my face. I set the water to cold and did the same. I alternated like this, over and over.

    I wiped my eyes and sat down on the bed, questioning my sanity. I took deep long breaths, emptying my lungs completely before filling them back up. I did this for about five minutes, until I could feel my heart slow down.

    I closed my eyes. You’re gonna be okay. You’re safe here. You’re gonna be okay.

    Then a light breeze tickled across my neck. Which was odd because I did not remember leaving the window open. Did I turn on the AC?

    When I looked up, he was there. Leaning against the coat rack.

    Olek was in my room.

    “What a coincidence,” he said.

    I stayed seated on my bed. Said nothing. Enough impossible things had already happened on this night that I refused to even believe he was here.

    And yet he was. Leaning on the coat rack.

    “Berlin huh?”

    I tried to look away, but found it difficult, his gray eyes were locked onto mine now. There wasn’t any sense of menace, or immediate danger. Just a sort of nonchalant observation. Like how a wolf might study a lost fawn.

    “Did you enjoy the movie?”

    I briefly considered jumping. Running. Doing anything to get out of this situation, but he was blocking the door. I was dealing with someone who could literally apparate. What could I do? What could I even attempt to do?

    “You know I had a lot of trouble changing my identity. It was a lot of effort to fix that.” He took a step towards me, and lifted a single finger, pointing it. “Do you want me to fix it again?”

    Ice cold dread coursed through my entire body. It felt like I was in that cabin again, shivering in a thin, damp dress. With a lot of effort, I found the ability to speak, and sputtered out what I could. “N-n-no. No. I won't tell anyone. I'll never speak of it again.”

    He walked over to the window, closed it, and put his hands in his pockets. “You were the first one I’ve let go. My experiment with mercy, you know?”

    Outside was dark, the rain had started to trickle. I could see a few streams sliding down on the window, streaking Olek’s reflection. “Do you like mercy?”

    I cleared my throat. Nodded.

    “Good. I think your friend will too. I look forward to working with her” He lowered the blinds on the window. Drew the curtains.

    “Speaking of mercy. I let Polina go, did you know that?”

    My eyes were glued to his own again. I couldn’t look away. My bed had turned into the soiled, rotted cot that I had clung to in that cabin.

    “I couldn't keep bringing her back. She was truly depleted. After that last shot … she’s forever gone.”

    His dress shoes squeaked one after the other. His black coat tailed behind. In a moment's time Olek had sat beside me on the bed.

    Don’t move. Remain steady. Don’t show fear.

    “It is very hard to find a new wraith. It needs to be someone who has suffered for a very long time. Someone who is always suffering.”

    He put a hand on my shoulder. Patted it once. Twice.

    I pictured gunning for the door. I pictured struggling to fend him off. I pictured doing nothing at all.

    “You're within reach.” Is all he eventually said.

    Then he sighed and stood up, walking calmly back to the door. I had a burst of adrenaline. I was ready to jump forward. To leap on his back. To run screaming towards the window.

    But Olek wasn’t even paying attention to me. Instead, he glanced at his phone, and scrolled through some text. Tapped a couple things. After putting it away, he seemed to remember I was still in the room. “There’s a party happening. An underground club. You’re welcome to join if you want.”

    I was far beyond a place of shock, and yet somehow this still shocked me. Is He actually inviting me to a club? What in the actual fuck?

    He seemed to be able to read my face.

    “Suit yourself.”

    He turned around the corner out of sight. I could hear the door handle unlock, followed by the latch I put on. With an old creak, the door swung, and in about a dozen footsteps, the czarownik’s presence vanished down the hall.

    I ran over and shut everything—applied all locks.

    Then I went back and sat down on the bed. Do I call Becca? Do I call the police? Do I call the hotel? … Do I … Did that … actually just happen?

    Am I dreaming?

    I grit my teeth and eyes, feeling the muscles of my face contract.

    Behind my scrunching eyelids I erase everything. This reality. This moment in time. This present universe. Everything’s wiped. This can’t be happening.

    After a few minutes I find myself lying on the bed. Unaware if I laid down myself.

    I must have just woken up. That’s all.

    I’m not entirely convinced, but I pretend that I am.

    I pretended it was all a dream.

    Pretending is what I’m good at.

    Pretending is all I’ve got.

    The film shoot in Toronto would go for over a month. Becca said she would send me pictures everyday, of any fun stuff that was happening on set.

    I told her she could send me pictures—but nothing of the crew, nothing of the cast, and no equipment, cameras, or anything else. Nothing.

    She agreed, and very few pictures were sent.

    At work I asked if I could be removed from the Bridge Studios circuit, I didn't want to deliver mail to that district anymore. So my boss transitioned my route to downtown. It was a lot busier, (with a lot less parking) and I couldn't listen to my music as much, but that's okay. At least I was keeping my mind somewhat clear.

    Sometimes I would see a news van with a reporter standing outside, and other times I would see twenty-somethings making a student film. Depending on the day, I’d be able to look past it and breeze by, but not always. Sometimes I would get reminded of my boom pole, my headphones, and then get plunged back in.

    I would get flashes of the horns, the mouths, the flaming tusks. I would see that thing from hell again. Then I would pull over and spend several hours easing my way out of multiple panic attacks.

    It just was what it was.

    I pretended it was normal.

    I knew that I needed a true distraction. A paradigm shift. Something that could reset my brain away from my fear, unease and vulnerability.

    So halfway through Becca’s shoot, I had finally bit the bullet on my credit cards, and signed up. I enrolled at the Digital Music Academy.

    On the first day, we were each assigned a MIDI keyboard. They looked expensive and brand new. Each MIDI came semi-weighted with a built-in pad controller, and my hands flickered across the keys with ease. It was a very nice feeling.

    There were two teachers overseeing twelve students. Both instructors were going to train us exclusively in person for three days a week, over three months. I was allowing myself to get excited.

    I couldn't remember the last time I felt excited.

    We introduced ourselves, everyone got a minute to explain their favorite genre of music. I said mine was trance-house with pop vocals. Someone recognized one of the more obscure artists I dropped. It felt good.

    The older instructor walked around, explaining how we would be using Ableton Live. There was an in-software tutorial that he recommended following alongside his directions, and that today we would be composing a melody with a simple 4/4 beat. The goal was to get familiar with the program.

    The younger instructor followed silently, handing out headphones for each of our stations.

    That’s when my heart sank.

    I tried to ignore the brand, but I couldn’t.

    They were Sennheisers. The exact same headphones I had used every day on set. My hands shook. My throat ached. Using all the willpower at my disposal I forced them onto my head. It’s just plastic. It can’t hurt me.

    There is no way I can give up on this class.

    “Everything alright?” The younger instructor asked.

    I nodded quickly. “Yeah yeah, just trying them on.”

    “Good. Try opening our test file.”

    Our computers were all given the same demo song to manipulate, it would help us understand how track layers and automations worked. I gave mine a play and recognized it as some 2010’s dance hit.

    As a class we analyzed the placement of the drums, treble and bass layers, but I was trying hard to discern what the background vocals were. A choir of children? Seagull calls?

    I scanned through the tracks in the software and couldn’t find them. As I delicately pressed the foam cups to my ears, I realized the high pitched sounds were not of kids singing or of birds calling.

    It was squealing.

    At first it started soft, barely distinguishable from my thoughts, but soon it grew, both in volume and duration. I pulled out the headphone jack. The playback didn’t stop.

    The instructor came by and asked if I was okay again. Apparently I was crying.

    The squeals turned into screeches, the screeches turned to wails, the wails deepened into thunderous, demonic howls. And somehow overtop of it all came chanting. Dark, harmonic chanting.“ Anna. Annna. Annnnnnn—”

    I dropped the headphones onto my neck. and wiped away my tears.

    “Yup. I'm fine. Everything's fine. I’m just—I can handle it.”

    “You sure?”

    I wasn’t, but what did that matter at this point? How could I even begin to scratch the surface of what I was trying to overcome? I had to find joy in something. I had to move on. I would force myself to find joy in this. I pretended to smile.

    “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

    The teacher looked into my eyes to try to understand what I was going through, but there’s no way she would. It must’ve been like that moment when I looked at Polina. At her sad, defeated eyes, bearing the weight of something that was impossible to explain.

    I was the same as her now. I was just like Polina.

    I held my face and started to sob. I couldn’t stop.

    KONIEC

    0 Comments
    2024/03/27
    07:00 UTC

    3

    The Whisper

    Marcus awoke to the rumble of thunder, covered in sweat; a bright flash filling his room a moment later. The sound of rain falling on the window and ceiling was both comforting and chilling. Sure, it’s relaxing, but the gloom of an overcast sky and raucous claps of thunder set something off deep in his brain— A thousand micro-stresses and what-if scenarios fueled by the Earth’s precipitation cycle. Every drop representing a different anxious thought, intruding and making itself comfortable. What if there’s a power outage? A flood? I could step outside and be the one in a million that gets struck by lightning.

    There’s little peace to be found within an anxious mind. Those who have survived hell on Earth may seem like stronger people to you, but Marcus knew he was not, nor would he ever be, immune to the horrors of living. Marcus was never able to sit still. No basic comforts in the silence of day to day life. Really, no silence in day to day life, period. Thoughts come and go like the rain falling from the sky. Even when it stops, it always comes back.

    Marcus sat up and reflected for a moment. If for nothing else, than to procrastinate actually getting out of bed. While the rain brought with it plenty of worries, it was admittedly still better than a typical, sunny day. Living with perpetual anxieties and deep rooted misery was hard enough without the sun itself taunting you. Today, everyone would be down, or at least, inside.

    Marcus wasn’t a nihilist, nor a cynic. He was just so tired of being… tired. Tired of the thoughts breaking the windows of his mind, crawling in, and helping themselves to a seat. He was sick to death of wondering what it would be like to experience calm.

    The worst of it was the whisper, however. It didn’t start as a voice. It started as an itch. An urge to wash his hands an extra time, or go back up the stairs and make sure he really did lock the door. After a few years, and several failed medications later, the compulsions became a lot worse. His hands were often a deep red, if not cracked open and bleeding. He shaved every hair on his body to make cleaning himself easier. His efforts to make himself feel better only made him hate himself that much more.

    Eventually the itch found its voice. At first it was subtle, quiet— asking him questions, begging for reassurance that whatever ritual was necessary in that moment had really been done. Marcus often said “Yes, I’ve done exactly what you asked.” but the whisper had its doubts, asking sweetly “Could you do it one more time, just to be sure?” and the cycle continued.

    The whisper was one thing; the eyes, another. Marcus wasn’t fond of the whisper, but at least it was intangible. He could hear it infrequently, and it was, at least, nice to him. He knew the whisper had his best interest at heart and that it would never hurt him. The eyes though, were another story.

    One day, Marcus noticed an eye had grown out of his computer. Right where the webcam was. He was frozen at first. What do you even do in a situation like that? “You cover it up, of course.” the whisper murmured, and Marcus did. He did so with his phone camera as well, and with the microphone he used to use to play games. The eyes stared at him with such cruel, real hatred. They watched everything he did and never left him alone. Before he knew it, Marcus had covered an eye in every room of his home. Sticky notes on every wall like a crude wallpaper.

    After contemplating and bargaining with himself regarding how badly he truly needed to get up, he finally did. Slowly lifting himself, and feeling the soft carpet beneath his feet. His hands ached, every joint slowly tearing open tiny wounds that tried so desperately to heal. A drop of blood traced a path down his hand and fell to the floor. “Great.” Marcus grabbed an alcohol wipe from his bedside table and cleaned the blood. After throwing the wipe away, he carefully used his elbow to turn on the faucet, carefully used his other elbow to press down on the soap dispenser and finally washed his hands. The excessive heat of the water burned his skin, while the soap did its thing. On his way out of the bathroom, his hand grazed the counter. He sighed, and washed his hands again, carefully retreading the time tested ritual. This time, however, his other hand touched the door frame. The whisper began to stir in his ear, irritated.

    Marcus was used to this. Washing his hands had always been a time consuming process, but something in him snapped as his hand touched the doorframe. He’d only been awake for a few minutes and already he’d bled on the floor and had to repeat the ritual to quiet the whisper. He wanted food; he was hungry. But cooking would be another long process, full of start-stop hand washing in between different recipe steps. He’d already lost weight; he didn’t know why, but assumed it was due to undiagnosed cancer he couldn’t afford to go to the doctor for. Unexplained weight loss and sweating every night had made him overly fearful. “Wash your hands, Marcus.” the whisper cooed.

    “I just did.” Marcus responded.

    “I know, and I know it hurts, but please, just one more time?” the whisper pleaded.

    Marcus didn’t respond. He knew he should ignore the whisper, he could see new eyes growing around the window as his thoughts raced.

    “They’re watching you, Marcus. Wash your hands.” the whisper said, a coldness in its voice.

    The last time Marcus ignored the voice, he’d passed out in his closet, curled up in a ball. He’d remembered he was crying, and then his breathing…stopped? Or was it just really difficult? He’d been hyperventilating, he knew. The internet had let him know later that he’d suffered from a panic attack, but to Marcus it may as well have been a heart attack.

    His hands moved towards the sink. Arms shaking as he tried to fight the impulse. As much as he willed his arms to stay, they still made their way to the sink. Elbows bending to prepare for the ritual. One to turn on the water. One to dispense the soap. Slowly and carefully—without touching anything—lather the soap for twenty seconds and rinse. Marcus knew the ritual, but he was tired of performing it. This was one of dozens a day. Not including all the other rituals the whisper made him follow.

    Another eye opened on the wall. Staring at him. By this point, four eyes had opened, each fixated on him. Peering into his heart and soul with that real, genuine hatred. He could still hear the whisper instructing him.

    A loud boom of thunder shook the room. He heard the mirror rattle against the wall. The whisper was silent for a moment. Then, as soon as he heard its voice begin to prattle on again, Marcus struck the mirror with all his might. It shattered, veins growing on the surface as his reflection multiplied by the hundreds. The reflection of his own eyes matched the reflections of the eyes on the walls, now in the thousands. The whisper was still silent. For the first time in his life Marcus wasn’t weighed down under a cacophony of noise and thought.

    “Marcus. Wash. Your fucking. Hands.” the whisper said. Calmly, but with a bite he wasn’t used to.

    “No, I’m done. I’m not listening to you anymore.” Marcus responded, blood dripping down his hand in much greater volume. The sink was filled with blood and glass. Micro shards embedded themselves into his fingers, still balled into a fist while the dry skin began to split itself yet again.

    “Marcus. Listen to me. You stupid fucking waste. You wash your goddamn hands right now. They’re watching you. They’ll come for you. They’ll come for your friends. They’ll come for your family. The eyes will fucking kill you. They’re watching you. If the infection you’re about to get in your hand doesn’t do it first.”

    The whisper continued but Marcus wasn’t listening. He was done. He’d done nothing with his life. He’d only been a slave to the compulsions, to the whisper, to the eyes. In between curses from the whisper and hate filled glances from the eyes, Marcus tried to find the silence again. The silence was drowned out, however, not just by the whisper, by the slow drip of blood pooling beneath him.

    Marcus tried to remain calm, but his nerves were rattled. The site of blood was a common one, if nothing else, but this was too much. The reflections of eyes had become freshly opened sockets in the wall, peering at him in his mounting panic. The whisper was right, this was an infection waiting to happen.

    He reached for a bottle of rubbing alcohol after repeating the ritual to clean his hands again. The whisper had quieted down, satisfied that its slave was following orders again. Marcus turned the bottle over his hand and felt the excruciating burn. The fresh wounds a searing canal for pain as the liquid made its way inside. The outsides of his hands were covered in a thousand biting pings that made him feel like a pin cushion. The dried cracks and small tears in the flesh meant many more points of entry.

    Marcus slammed his hands against the wall with a dull thud . He did so again, and again, and again. Each blow another throbbing ache in his hand. He was angry. He’d been listening to the whisper for years. He’s followed its orders and instructions to the letter—but his life was no better for it.

    How could he pay for stitches, or an exam? He’d lost his job due to excessive tardiness. Nearly every day on his drive to work, he’d hit someone with his car. He’d never seen a body though. No sign of injury or damage. He’d circle the block a few times to make sure. No bodies were ever found. Marcus was the most successful serial killer of all time, apparently. He couldn’t even turn himself in, as there was no evidence of any crime. The one time he tried, he was laughed out of the room, before being given a friendly, if stern, warning to not attempt a prank like that again. It wasn’t a prank, but Marcus knew better than to push his luck. Freedom was better than a nut house. Even if he wasn’t free of his conscience.

    His friends and family were out of the question too…if he had any of either. Marcus wasn’t even invited to Christmas. It was only a few weeks ago but the sorrow had burrowed deep inside of him and threatened to peek out occasionally. Everyone had clearly grown exhausted of his excessive cleanliness and his need for excessive cleanliness from those around him. His family may relish the opportunity to tell him that bleeding out or dying of untreated infection was only fair for losing his job. That was what the whisper had told him anyway, though he didn’t particularly care to find out. He’d already been laughed at enough when he was just trying to help.

    By the time the white hot knives in his hands began to soothe, the adrenaline rush had worn off as well. He now felt the swelling and bruising in his hands. He looked at the holes he’d knocked into the wall and hung his head in shame.

    “Maybe they’re right,” he said to himself.

    He looked at the pieces of broken glass for a heartbeat, before picking one up. A long, clean shard. Pristine and prismatic. The reflections of eyes echoing off the inner walls gave birth to a hundred more on the wall. By this point his bathroom hardly resembled a room anymore. The walls were covered in thousands of leering eyes, pupils reflecting thousands more, which bore thousands more still.

    He brought the shard with him, imagining he had a knife in hand as he walked. He thought back to what the whisper had said. “They’re coming for you”. He’d often wondered who they really were. Surely not the eyes themselves. The whisper never felt the need to elucidate either. He had survived a maelstrom of disease and death by following the whisper’s orders, so he never questioned it. He often wondered though. He lived in a house covered in eyes, someone clearly wanted to keep tabs on him. If following the whisper’s bizarre rules kept them away, what harm could it do? He was still alive, after all, clearly it was working.

    Marcus sank into a chair and looked at the window. He hadn’t been outside in quite some time. The whisper told him to cover his windows and make sure his door was reinforced, in case they came for him. The boarded up window stared back at him with a new eye right in the center. He knew he should cover it up, but his hands were useless for now. He could hear the pitter-patter of rain either way, interrupted only by the occasional bellow of thunder as the skies cried out.

    The hunger began to hit him again now that things were calming down. Since losing his job he’d been under-eating both to ration what food he had, and to keep the whisper quiet. The blood loss was making him dizzy, however, so he decided to eat without a second thought. His kitchen was once a pristine station of love. He’d been a talented little cook in another life, but since the whisper arrived, he dreaded it. That and the kitchen was now an uninspiring, ugly mess of post it notes covering eyes, and new eyes staring at him. Peeking between folds of papers, vying for the chance to shower him with cold glares.

    He washed his hands—despite the horrific ache—grabbed a frying pan, milk, and two eggs. Washed his hands again amid the whimpers that crept out of his throat, cracked the eggs, and washed his hands again. Hungry and impatient, Marcus cranked up the heat of his faithful gas stove. Leathery eggs were still food after all. He found he had a hard time navigating the field in this scenario. Apart from just the flashes of burning pain from the wounds, the dull ache of bruised skin and probably fractured bone made his grip increasingly hard to keep firm. As Marcus scrambled eggs, the spatula in his hands fell to the floor. Marcus cursed under his breath, washed his hands, washed the spatula, washed his hands again and attempted to salvage the now burnt eggs, anger swelling inside him again. Made worse by his inability to lift the pan without burning his hands.

    Marcus needed his phone. A thousand mile walk around the corner from kitchen to living room. The dizziness was getting worse, and Marcus felt his feet go a little farther than intended with each step. No matter the outcome, he had to try to call his mother. He needed help. As he inched towards the phone, the whisper found its voice again. Berating him, reminding him of how much his mother hated him.

    “If she fucking loved you, she would fucking call you, Marcus.”

    As he navigated the house, trying to not step on anything or fall flat on his face and introduce a new layer of contamination to this fiasco, he realized how dark his home was with the windows boarded up, save for the bedroom with no view anyway. Before the eyes appeared, people would stare at him through the window. Every car that drove by, every pedestrian walking. Their eyes were always glued to him.

    Finally, Marcus reached the phone, plugged into the wall as always. As he picked it up the darkness in the room grew deeper. All hints of light had disappeared. Sucked into a void so dark and dense that it had to have come from inside of him. The phone wouldn’t turn on. The lights wouldn’t either. Marcus couldn’t call anyone. He could barely see. The only light coming from the kitchen, a flickering red glow waned back and forth around the corner. After a moment's hesitation, Marcus willed his feet in its direction. Though his feet didn’t move. He fell flat on his face.

    The second his skin made contact with the carpet, the whisper’s already angry rant reached a new level. Marcus had heard the whisper berate him—that was nothing new—but this was something else entirely. What was once a rather gentle, albeit cold voice, was now a piercing shriek in his ears. Words of stern encouragement, for his own good, now full of loathing.

    “I tried to help you, Marcus. I told you not to bother calling your mom. They’re coming.”

    Marcus heard a banging on his door. Then a banging on his windows. Voices creeping in through the cracks in the wood. Taunting, shrill voices saying his name over and over. The words dancing off of their tongues.

    “Marcus, Marcus, we’re here for you Marcus,” the voices sang.

    The whisper was right. They were here. The banging continued. Three loud, slow blows on his door KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK repeating over and over. Tapping on his windows, through the board he heard the fingers tap-tap-tap. He heard hands raking along the side of his house. Fists beating on the backdoor. Feet stomping on the roof. A menagerie of noise, threatening to break both his walls, his eardrums, and his sanity.

    Marcus felt sweat bead down his face as the temperature in his home rose. The joyous flames spread in the kitchen as the living room slowly filled with light. He hurried to his feet, fighting through the pain as he heaved himself up. The banging all around him. He turned to his right, then spun around on his heels. Back to his left. The knocking came from every direction. His house must have been covered in them, whatever they were. Every time he repositioned his sight a hundred new eyes covered the walls.

    The green walls of his living room bled a dark shade of red. The color stretched out from all corners until it fully eclipsed the hues of nature he was once so happy to see every night after work, back when his home had light. Before the whisper had nested behind his eyes. The red walls began to pulsate, heaving in and out, gyrating every few seconds. Marcus scanned the walls, looking for any sign of normalcy. The eyes matching his, looking all around in a panic. They blinked, some closed, others began to bleed. He spotted the shard, his only line of defense. Picking it up and gripping as hard as he could as it dug into his hand—blood oozing out and hitting the floor in a light dap.

    Marcus charged towards an eye, sticking the clean glass right into its pupil. The eye shut reflexively. Marcus pulled the blade out of the lids, before taking several broad swipes at the eyes en masse. No sounds but his strained grunts and the continuous knocking; eye after eye forced closed, viscera covering the floor. Tendrils of flesh covered the walls now, as the room itself breathed faster and faster. Long strands of sinew clung to the glass as the pain of holding the blade became too much. His hands bleeding at a rate rivaling the eyes, the blade had cut right through his hand to bone.

    Marcus fell back to the floor. Despite the effort, he’d only managed to clear a small section of the wall. His face now covered in ash and blood. The whisper finally silent as his vision waned. The heat approached him as his sweat fell faster, an inferno devouring his home alive. Suddenly the knocking stopped. The eyes slowly closed and the room began to settle. The pulsating walls dissolved back to the familiar green. He wanted to live in the country so badly. He wanted to be surrounded by trees, instead of people. People poked and pried. People walked by his home and made him feel unsafe. People told him he was crazy and needed help. He didn’t need their help. He needed to follow the whisper’s instructions. It had kept him safe for years, but now it was gone. He’d disappointed it, just like he’d disappointed everyone else. No wonder no one wanted him around. He disappointed himself, most of all. He’d found himself living in a small house in a city, constantly surrounded by people who would never understand him.

    Silence. The silence he’d wanted for so long. It washed over him like a tidal wave of bliss. For just a moment. The pain was gone. The whisper was gone. For a few minutes he was alone and at peace. Nothing but the sound of sirens in the distance, his mother banging on the door, shouting his name, and the flames finally meeting his flesh after waiting for so long to consume their prey; and the scream that struggled to escape his lungs, and smoke burning his throat, and the rain gently falling overhead.

    0 Comments
    2024/03/26
    22:09 UTC

    11

    Mamaw

    Darren’s parents stood by his bedroom door with flat, forced smiles and exhausted eyes. They were still wearing their funeral best, her in a black shin-length dress and him in a matching suit and tie. His father had his arm around his mother, who was obviously trying hard not to break down in front of their son, who was laying in bed, having already changed out of his best little suit and into his plaid pajamas. Darren was almost ten years old, so they didn’t want to sugarcoat the devastation that comes with losing a beloved grandparent, but they also wanted to show a good example of strength in hard times. Darren looked up to them, figuratively, as the oldest of two children, and, literally, waiting on what they would have to say to him after such a day.

    “Darren, honey,” his mother began, her voice thin and overused, “your Mamaw loved you and Suzie SO mu-“ she paused, choking on her words before a quick swallow and a big breath, “SO much. She loved y’all more than anything in the whole world. Now I know she was very sick for a very long time, but I want you to promise me that you will remember her like she was before she got sick, okay? Please, please remember her like she used to be, okay?”

    Darren sat up in his bed, nodding, with his mouth slowly downturning. He hated seeing his parents so upset. At his almost ten years, he could only count on one hand how many times he’d seen either of them cry.

    “You and your sister meant everything to her, and I don’t want you to ever forget that. Now I know today was so hard. So hard. But you were so brave!” She left her husbands arm and walked over to Darrens bed, leaning down and stroking his hair. “So. Brave. And I know Suzie saw that. You were such a good role model for her today, Darren. I’m so...so proud of you and the young man you’re becoming.”

    “You’re gonna need to continue to be her rock, buddy.” Darren’s dad chimed in, still standing by the door. It wasn’t his own mother’s funeral but he was torn up, though not showing it, and wanted to offer some final words as well. “She’s always looked up to you, son. You’re five years older than her, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but to her it’s like a lifetime of experience between you two. She’s gonna need you to lean on in times like this, okay?”

    “Okay dad.” Darren answered, closing his eyes as his mother continued to stroke his short brown hair.

    “You’re such a perfect child, honey,” his mother said, smiling much more convincingly. “I don’t know what we ever did to deserve you and Suzie. Y’all are our little angels. We love you SO much. And so did your Mamaw. And now she’s a real angel. And she’ll always look after you and smile down on you from Heaven.” She kissed Darren’s forehead and stood back up, walking back toward the door and her husband, who took her back under his arm. “Now I want you to sleep well, and sleep in. Y’all have the day off of school tomorrow and we’re gonna do whatever you and Suzie want!”

    Darren perked up. That was fantastic news, the first good thing he’d heard in days.

    “Thank you Mom. Thank you Dad!” He said, trying not to seem overly excited given the days circumstances.

    “You’re welcome, son. We all deserve a day off. Maybe we can go to the movies or something!” his father said warmly, before kissing his mother on her cheek.

    “Well, we love you, and Mamaw loved you so so much. Promise me you’ll never forget that, and that you’ll always remember her for how she always was, okay?” His mother reminded him.

    “I promise” Darren answered in a nod.

    “Good. Night-light on or off?” She asked, looking down over by an unplugged little plastic football laying on the floor by the door of the bedroom closet.

    “Ummmm, on please.” Darren replied. He could’ve plugged it in himself, but the closet was only a few feet from the bedroom door, which was over by the opposite corner of the room to where his bed was. It would be a quick task for his mother. She smiled and nodded before going and plugging it in, before walking back over and putting her fingers over the main light switch to his room.

    “We love you son, rest well.” She said as only a good mother could.

    “Love you buddy. Hope you get some sleep.” His father added, before opening the door and beginning his way down the hallway. His mother offered one last big, close lipped smile before she flipped off the light and exited as well, closing the door behind her.

    Finally alone after the longest day he can remember, Darren was able to collect his thoughts. He laid back in his bed and pulled the gray comforter up to his collarbone. He breathed deeply, finally in a more relaxed state. The small football-shaped light shot pale-blue beams sharply up the wall, and then residually around his room, like moonlight on a cloudy night. He looked around his safe place. It was the only bedroom he’d ever known, but had everything an almost ten year old boy could need. By his bed was a small table topped with a lamp. In its drawer were football cards and Yu-Gi-Oh cards alike, along with pencils and even wrappers from a few sneakily eaten candy bars. Across the room from his cornered bed was a tv, which he thought about turning on, but decided he was too exhausted, and didn’t want to make noise. There next to the tv was the closet door, with a “No Girls Allowed” sign hanging proudly. To the right of Darren’s bed, eye to eye with the closet, was another door, that led out to the wrap-around porch that tightly hugged his one story home. It had a window that let in some natural light, since no night is completely dark. Darren didn’t mind, at least not anymore. When he was younger he had wished there wasn’t a window there, his growing imagination telling him that all sorts of terrifying monsters were looking in on him as he slept. But now he had outgrown those childish fears, at least for the most part. The nightlight was still a comforting friend, though. His parents didn’t seem to mind that he still asked for it to stay on. In fact, the only person who ever lovingly teased him about it was his Mamaw.

    Mamaw. Darren had almost forgotten. He laid there, staring at the pale-lit ceiling, with a deep mixture of feelings. He missed Mamaw so much. He missed the old Mamaw, the version his mother had asked him to remember. She was always so sweet and playful with him and Suzie. Then, a couple years ago, her husband, Darren’s Papaw, had died. Soon after, Mamaw got sick. At first she kept her spirits up, still sneaking treats and sly winks to him and Suzie when they would all visit her in the hospital. Eventually though, she got worse. Way worse. So bad that Darren and Suzie could only visit her on her best days, which were far from good. Burned into his memory were the visions of her in the hospital bed, rail thin, with sunken, dark eyes and frail, wispy white hair. When she wasn’t asleep she would either groan in severe pain or talk about insane things, like how witches from hell were coming to drag her down with them. It frightened Darren so badly that he began to not want to visit her anymore. He would pretend to be sick so that he couldn’t go to the hospital, and his parents and little sister would go without him. Luckily, he didn’t think Suzie could really process it, as she never seemed scared of Mamaw and only ever talked about her as if she had never changed from the sweet grandmother she once was.

    He did go one last time, though. It was only a few days before she died, just about a week from this night. She was in bed as usual, except she was laid on her side in a strange, twisted way that made her look almost inhuman. Her back was warped and hunched, her arms curled up to her chin, with all her fingers spindly and outstretched, like she was holding on to two invisible apples. Her mouth was down turned, baring her yellowed teeth in an excruciating scowl. In between nauseating moans she would try and inhale, making a horrible rattling noise. Darren remembered seeing his mother leaning down and holding her, sobbing deeply with her head on Mamaw’s shoulder.

    Darren was replaying in his head the last terrible sounds he ever heard Mamaw make, when a real life noise suddenly broke through the silence of his room.

    “Chshhhhh.....chshhhhh.....come in! Come in! Darren! Come in!!” A static-electric voice shot out from under his bed. He reached down there and pulled up a small walkie talkie that his dad had given Suzie and him. They hadn’t used them in forever so it startled Darren. He was surprised the batteries had still worked. He pressed it to his mouth.

    “Hello? Hello?” He asked.

    “Darren! Hey! It’s Suzie! I’m so glad the walkie talkies still work!”

    “I know it’s you silly...” Darren playfully teased, “what’s up?”

    “I can’t sleep. I miss Mamaw so much, and Mom forgot to read to me.”

    Darren closed his eyes as hard as he could, trying to stifle tears that at this point would be painful to shed. His little sister sounded so defeated, even if in her own sweet little way. He was thankful that she was reaching out to him.

    “I know, Suzie. I miss Mamaw too. And mom’s just really sad but I’m sure she’ll remember to read to you tomorrow night.”

    “Yeah, I hope so.” Suzie said softly. “I can’t believe mom’s an orphan now.”

    “Yeah, I cant imagine how she’s feeling” Darren didn’t feel like correcting her.

    “Yeah...hey! Come wave at me through the magic window! Pleeeeease?? We haven’t done that in foreverrr!” She pleaded.

    Up until about three years ago Darren and Suzie had shared the room that he used now. When their parents decided that the siblings needed their own personal space, Suzie moved into the guest bedroom right next to Darren’s room, sharing the wall where his tv was put in. Suzie had a hard time adjusting to being alone, so their dad had a small porthole window installed between their rooms, in the back of Darren’s closet. If Suzie was scared she could simply knock on the wall, and Darren would go to his closet and turn on the light and show his face in the little plate-sized window and wave at her. She could clearly see him from her bed and this would make her feel safe. They hadn’t used the porthole window in quite some time, but Darren didn’t see any reason not to use it tonight.

    “Okay! I can do that! Give me oooooone second” he said, leaving his bed and walking to his closet, walkie-talkie still in hand. He opened the door, turned the light on, and swiped hangers of clothes out of the way until he saw the small circular window. He leaned down to stick his face in view. All he saw was darkness.

    “Suzie, can you see me? I’m here!”

    “Yes yes I see you! Heyyyy!” She answered excitedly.

    “I can’t see you. Turn on your lamp silly!” Darren teased. A couple seconds later there was a small burst of light and he could see Suzie nestled in her tiny bed, one hand holding the walkie-talkie to her ear and the other lowering from under the lamp.

    “There you go! Hey Suzie!” Darren squeezed a waving hand into the porthole so that she could see. She flashed him a big snaggle-toothed smile and sat up, pushing down her light-pink comforter and hanging her little legs over the side of her bed, kicking them in relieved excitement from seeing her hero, her older brother. She was wearing white silk pajamas with a pink heart on the chest. The lamplight accentuated her platinum blonde hair, making it glow like neon against a mostly dark bedroom. All Darren could really see was her and her bed and bedside table, and the blurry shadowed area behind her where her closet was. He was glad she had asked him to use the magic window, though. For this moment everything suddenly seemed just like it was years ago when they were even smaller, when there was no sadness in their lives.

    “Yayyyy I’ve missed the magic window!” Suzie softly squealed.

    “Me too! It’s been a long long time!” Darren said, using his pajama sleeve to clear up the quickly fogging glass.

    “Oh Darren look! Look! Look what I found!” Suzie blurted, before hopping off her bed and to the drawer in her bedside table. She slid it open and reached in, closing her fist around something small. She held up a yellow, translucent stone to the lamplight.

    “It’s the special rock rhat Mamaw gave me! I found it!”

    “What special rock?” Darren inquired, not remembering ever seeing the thing.

    “She gave it to me one time when me and mom and dad visited her! You were sick I think!” She slowly turned the stone under the lamp with her thumb and index finger. Darren could see it gleam and sparkle in all of its tiny, yellow glory. “She said that if I hold it in my hand and wish really really hard, then she would be right there with me! No matter where I am!”

    Darren couldn’t help but send a warm smile through the window as he watched how dearly she held the little gift.

    “Thats very sweet of her to give that to you. She loved you very much Suzie! Hold on tight to that rock and don’t lose it again!”

    “She loved you too! And YES I will keep it forever and ever and never lose it! I’m gonna wish on it really really hard!”

    “That’s great! Now listen it’s kind of hard to keep bending down to the magic window.” Darren said, putting a hand to his young, but straining back. “I’m gonna go back to my bed now, but if you want, we can talk on our walkie talkies tomorrow night!”

    “Okay! Thank you Darren!” Suzie replied, still holding the walkie-talkie to her mouth and the stone to the lamplight. She hadn’t so much as glanced at Darren since she pulled it out of her drawer.

    “Go to bed, Suzie. We have a long day of movies and ice cream tomorrow!”

    “Okaaaaay, fine! Goodnight!” She clicked off her light, keeping the stone in her hand and not returning it to the drawer. After a couple of seconds her own little night light flashed on, her having to crane down almost to the floor to plug it in. It cast her room into a feint, sunset-orange hue. Her dark outline gave Darren a wave and then curled up under he covers.

    Darren gave her one last brotherly smirk before he removed his face from the porthole and backed out of his closet, fixing his clothes hangers back how they were and turning the light off. He left the door cracked and walked back over and into his bed heavily. He was once again alone with his confused thoughts. The dim blue glow of the room helped soothe him over though, and soon his eyes were closed, his sleepy equilibrium gently rocking back and forth like a boat in a no-wake zone. Soon the intentional pictures in his mind became more obscure and more vivid, and he gradually slipped past the edge of memory and into dreams.

    Cshhhhh Darren!! Cshhh Darren! Wake up! Cshhh Darren wake up!” He was snapped back into consciousness by the whisper-yelling of Suzie on the walkie-talkie. He inhaled deeply through his nose and stretched out his arms before turning and reaching back under his bed and picked up the little two-way. He felt like he had been hit by a bus, having been interrupted from the deepest part of his night’s sleep.

    “Mmm...Suzie? What time is it?” He slurred, rubbing his right eyelid with his thumb.

    “I don’t know I don’t know! I just woke up! There’s scratching on my door! I think someone’s at my door Darren! I’m scared!” She said desperately.

    Darren perked up for a second, but then relaxed once he had a simple explanation for her.

    “It’s just Mathilde, Suzie...she just wants to get in.”

    Their family’s cat, a large calico named Mathilde, was notorious for acting much more like a dog than your average feline, scratching on and even opening doors using her long limbs and big paws. She did this all the time, enough to where locked doors were seemingly her only true boundaries.

    “I don’t know Darren, she always sleeps in mom and dads room. Can you please go look? Pleeeeaaase?” Her softened voice truly sounded unsettled.

    Darren banged the back of his head on his pillow out of slight annoyance.

    “Ughhh...come on Suzie. I was sleeping so well.”

    “Pleeeaaase Darren? I’m begging you! I won’t be able to sleep if you don’t and I’m too scared to look!”

    Darren sighed hard, inconvenienced but trying to remember his role as a caring older brother. His little sister was scared and needed to be her hero.

    “Okay Suzie, hold on one sec.” he said calmly.

    “Oh thank you! Thank you!” She responded with sharp relief.

    He slowly got out of bed, leaving the walkie talkie behind, and stumbled to his door, still drunk with sleep. He could only barely see the doorknob in the lowlight. He turned it, before a sound made him freeze and flex his hand on the down- turned knob. Scratching, just like Suzie had said. He leaned in and pressed his left ear to the door. It was similar to Mathilde’s eager swipes, except it was slower and...heavier. Way slower, and way heavier, like someone was repeatedly scraping a rake down the wall. Darren felt his heartbeat pick up. For Suzie, he thought to himself. Hand still flexed on the knob, he slowly pulled his door open, mostly hiding behind it as he did, save for enough room to see the hallway. The scratching stopped before he could squint and get a look at a shadow moving slowly away from Suzie’s door and down the ever-dark corridor. His eyes woke up instantly. He didn’t get a good look, but whatever it was, it was bigger than a cat. At least he thought. He blinked hard and shut his door quickly, stopping and slowing his movement just before it closed so he could keep it quiet. He walked slowly, but way more consciously back to his bed than he was when he left it. He sat on his bed for a moment, unsure of what to tell Suzie. He truly didn’t get a grasp of what it could be. Shadows stretch in the middle of the night and tired eyes are unreliable narrators for the mind. It very well may have just been Mathilde. Picking up the walkie-talkie, Darren made an executive decision.

    “Hey! I just looked and it was Mathilde! I saw her run down the hall toward mom and dads room! There’s nothing to worry about!”

    “Oh okay good!” Suzie breathed with bone-deep relief, “Silly Mathilde! Ugh! I’m so happy it was her! I thought I had-“ she paused sharply, “I-uh...I’m just so happy it was her! Is she okay? I heard her meow and it sounded like she was sick!”

    “She looked fine to me! What do you mean she sounded sick?” Darren asked.

    “Her meow was weird! It was really low and sounded like she was hurt or something!”

    “Oh I didn’t hear that. She looked fine though! I’m sure she’s okay.” Darren felt strange, like he was making a mistake.

    “Okay good! Darren...can I ask you a huuuuuge favor?”

    “Yes?”

    “Can you read to me? Pleeeease?? Pretty please? I promise just for a little bit! It will be hard to go to sleep but I will real quick if you just read a story!” Suzie asked with sweet desperation.

    Darren looked at the clock. 3:17 AM. Ouch.

    “I, uhhh...I don’t think I have anything here to read that you would like.”

    “It doesn’t matter! Any book will be good! I just fall asleep so easy when I hear someone read. Pleeeaase Darren?”

    Well, the sleep was already ruined, but they could sleep in as long as they want, per their parents approval, so Darren sighed and reached into his bedside drawer and felt around. His hand found a small book in the back corner and he pulled it out, holding it to his face in the dim night-light. He exhaled in a small laugh.

    “I have The Bible? Will that work?”

    “Yeah sure! Oh read Do Not Worry! Please? That’s Mamaws favorite! She used to read that to us all the time remember?”

    “Oh I remember!” Darren knew exactly what she meant, and turned to Philippians chapter 4.

    “Thank you so much!” Suzie said, already sounding sleepier.

    “Sure! Okay...Philippians chapter four...” Darren began. He read to her for several minutes, using one hand to talk to her and the other to hold open the Bible. He read all of chapter four and even got halfway through chapter five. The words were calming to him. The timeless message touched him, making his heart smile softly and made him see his circumstances through a lens much bigger than his own perception. After he realized he had read more than he intended to, he paused, listening for anything coming from Suzie’s end. There was only silence. It was true, she had always enjoyed being read to, and usually went out like a candle quickly, even if it was during the day. Darren felt warm, happy to have helped her fall back asleep. He laid back on his pillow, still holding the walkie-talkie and the Bible in his hands. He exhaled for several seconds before raising back up and putting the Bible back in his drawer. He looked over to his closet. He forgot he had left the door cracked. He decided he would go shut it, and before that he would peek in to the magic window to make sure Suzie was asleep.

    He got up and walked over to the closet and creaked open the door. He winced, not wanting to wake his sister up with any unnecessary noise, and silently pushed aside his hanging clothes again. He leaned down to the porthole and stuck his squinting eyes in.

    He heard himself gasp as deep as his lungs could hold. The muscles in his chest and shoulders flexed to the point of pain, and the back of his scalp felt like his hair was trying to escape his head. There, in the low orange light of Suzie’s room, right behind her bed, was the silhouette of a person. The sickeningly thin, shadowed outline had arms with elbows raised and hands unnaturally bent to the sides, with bony fingers stretched and locked like half-plucked, black feathers. It’s back was crooked, and it’s head was unnaturally cocked to the left, with a dark cloud of transparent, wispy hair. It was reaching a warped arm down to Suzie, who was laying still in her bed, fast asleep. Darren looked on in horror, shocked into silence, still not having exhaled from his gasp. He kicked his right leg back and his heel caught a shoebox, making him lose his balance and fall backwards and out of his closet. He shot back up and threw himself back to the porthole and pressed his brow to the glass.

    There was nothing there. No horrible silhouette, no broken limbs grabbing for Suzie, nothing. Only a comfortable orange glow surrounding a cozy bed, holding a sleeping little girl. Darren exhaled finally, scanning all he could see of the rest of her room in the warm lowlight. He craned his neck to get a look toward her bedroom door. The soft shadows of her room gave way to a tall, slim column of pitch black. Her door was cracked, spilling in darkness from the hallway. He could feel his heartbeat in his neck. No, his eyes had not lied to him. Nor his ears. The only deceit was his own, when he convinced Suzie that the only nocturnal visitor to her room was the cat Mathilde.

    Against his own will, Darren knew he had to act. Whatever was trying to get to Suzie wasn’t going to stop. He had to be her rock in this moment. He would go to her room, wake her up, and they would then go wake their parents up, and he would tell them exactly what he saw, even if it sounded insane. His little sister’s safety was far more important than his ten year old ego or his parent’s night of sleep.

    He exited the closet and walked over to his door, once again flexing his wrist as to hold the knob down silently. He gently pulled the door open, the dark and cooler air of the hallway washing his face. All he could see was the skinny tower of orange glow through Suzie’s slightly opened door. His mouth felt instantly drier as he noticed dozens of scratch marks above and around her doorknob. Having opened his door wide enough to fit his body through, he weaseled himself into the hallway slowly. Eyes on Suzie’s room, he lowered himself and tiptoed almost halfway there, trying to avoid any unnecessary creaks in his step. When he was almost to her entrance, and could see in to her sleeping peacefully, he suddenly froze. Somewhere far down the long hallway came a noise. A soft noise, yet debilitating to Darren’s already waning sanity. It was a sound he recognized instantly, having heard it both in real life and in his worst nightmares.

    A painful groan, followed by a deep, wet, rattling inhale. The sound shot down the dark hallway toward Darren like a swarm of bats. Then came slow, heavy footsteps, like someone was struggling under an almost unbearable weight. “Ca.......lunk........ca.........lunk...........ca..........lunk” Darren’s vocal chords were paralyzed, so the scream he let escape was entirely mental. His legs thawed first as flight mode was suddenly activated and he shot through Suzie’s door like an animal escaping a cage. He slammed the door behind him, and in an instant his little sister was sat up in bed and fearfully alert.

    “Darren?” She sweetly squeaked in her disorientation.

    “Suzie! Suzie! Listen, listen, you have to listen! You are not safe! At ALL!” Darren shouted as he ran to her bedside. “We gotta wake mom and dad up NOW....we gotta go-“

    His plea was interrupted by the now-familiar sound of a scratch at her door, which Darren had slammed shut, but had forgotten to lock. One long, slow scratch, seemingly starting at the very top of the door, stopping about halfway down. Then the knob slightly twisted. Then it was jostled again, turning a little more. Then again, and again, until they heard a small pop and the door just barely moaned open.

    Suzie screamed as only five year old girls can; ice cold and as piercing as a needle. She dove under her blanket instantly, forming a shuddering little pocket on top of her bed. Her cries were muffled by the fabric but were desperate all the same. Darren was still standing at her bedside, his mind absolutely scrambling. The door was being scratched open wider and wider, inch by inch, spilling the deep dark of the hallway into the bedroom like so many gallons of oil. In a chaotic instant, Darren reached down and unplugged Suzie’s night light and fell on her bed, on top of the comforter, and put his arm around the shaking, crying little girl under the covers. There was no hiding anymore, but he could still protect her, taking the brunt of the forthcoming attack.

    “It’s gonna be okay, Suzie. Okay?” He said, laying on his side and squeezing his right arm around his sweet, scared little sister. The room was pitch black now, and the door had groaned almost all the way open with a dreadful, serrated creak.

    “This is all my fault Darren. ALL MY FAULT!” She cried.

    “What do you mean Suzie, no it’s not! It’s all gonna be okay.” Darren wasn’t convincing himself but tried his best to console her as she continued to shake under his arm. They were both roaming past the point of sane fear, and as their uninvited visitor entered the dark room, they were shocked into utter, breathless silence.

    “Ca......lunk.........ca........lunk.........ca.............lunk” The heavy, uneven footsteps began their way across the floor from the door to the bed. Then the horrible, nauseated moan gently called out to the children, following by that deep, painful death rattle inhale.

    Darren squeezed his covered little sister even harder. He felt himself sweating hard, and trembling. He clamped his eyes shut until it almost hurt. He only hoped that this monster would take him, kill him, and spare little Suzie. He was happy that even in this probably final moment, he still wanted to be there for her, to be her rock.

    “Ca....lunk.......ca......lunk”

    The footsteps had reached the end of her bed and were working their way over to the side where Darren was laying. The skin on his back and his neck electrified, chills screaming at him to flee. He resisted, tensing his entire body. Another groan, this time coming from right beside the bed, belted their ears, this time much louder than before, almost triumphant. Darren felt tears falling down his cheeks and tasted salt in his downturned mouth. Suzie was strangely silent, and had stopped shaking. Darren could hear her whispering, too softly to make out what she was saying. Another dreadful moan and painful inhale stung his hearing and painted a frightful picture on his blind eyes. The thing was now standing over him. He began to feel sharp, hard, bony fingers touching his back. He made a noise like a whining dog.

    “I take it back! I TAKE IT BACK!!!! I WISH YOU WOULD GO AWAY FOREVER!!” Suzie suddenly screamed from under the blanket. Another bony hand grabbed at Darren’s turned back, clenching spindly fists around his shirt and beginning to pull at him. He just pinched his eyelids shut and gritted his teeth. Another devastated howl cried out to the children.

    “GO AWAY MAMAW!! GO AWAY!! I TAKE IT ALL BACK!! I TAKE IT BACK!!!” Suzie screamed, still muffled under the blanket.

    Another moan, this time defiant and angrier, escaped from right behind Darren’s ultra sensitive ears. The clamped hands shook at his shirt, stronger than expected. Darren began to feel himself being pulled away from his sister. He fought it, but felt himself losing the will and the ability to hold on.

    “GO AWAY!! MAMAW, GO AWAY!!! NOW!!!” Suzie shrieked fearfully, yet with some sense of powerful certainty.

    Then the ghastly voice over the children erupted into a scream. A huge, slicing scream, like a doomed wailing of the damned. The bony hands clenched on Darren’s back shook violently, tearing into his shirt and pulling him harshly in all directions. The scream grew impossibly loud, as Darren began to feel himself losing consciousness. He couldn’t bear another moment of this blind hell. Just as he began to feel sharp nails latch onto the skin of his back, the room exploded into light, appearing red behind his clenched eyelids.

    “What the HELL is going on???!!!!”

    Their mother’s voice shocked their battered ears with sensitive relief. Both parents stormed into the room as if there was a raging fire. The world was still light red behind Darren’s closed eyelids but he could hear the concerned panting and quickly feel his fathers hands on his shoulders comforting him.

    “What happened buddy?? What happened? What’s wrong?! What happened to your shirt??”

    Darren slowly cracked open his eyes. His mother was sitting on the bed, holding Suzie, who had buried her head in her collarbone. He looked up at his father, who was still rubbing his back and shoulders. His eyes looked confused and exhausted. Darren then twitched as he anxiously scanned the rest of the room, awaiting another ghastly attack from that evil, unwanted visitor. There was nobody else there. Whatever that thing was, it had vanished. It was only his family around him.

    “I….I….I…” Darren began, but couldn’t get his screaming brain to calm down enough to where he could speak.

    “It’s okay buddy, it’s okay.” His father said as he sat Darren up and hugged him tightly. Darren only now realized how cold he was as he shook and rested his chin on his father’s shoulder. From here he could see the magic window over on the adjoining wall to his room. Through the translucent glass a dim light flickered pale blue. Darren clenched his eyes, not even entertaining the idea of seeing anything else that would further damage his inflamed psyche.

    “Suzie, what is this?” He heard his mother say. After a moment he felt his father stir and then pick him up and carry him over to the other side of the bed. He sat them both down and then turned Darren around, still keeping an arm around him. Darren opened his eyes again, seeing his mother with an arm around his sister’s stomach, the other holding the small, yellow stone in her hand that Suzie had been cherishing earlier.
    His mother turned the stone in her hand, her face calm, but her eyes filled with surprise and wonder.

    “Where did you get this, Suzie?” She leaned her face into Suzie’s, who had her head down, the way she does when she’s being reprimanded. “It’s okay sweetie, I just want to know.” She kissed Suzie’s forehead.

    “Uh….I…uh…Mamaw gave it to me. She said it was special, because…because…because I’m special too, just like her. She wanted me to have it. I’m so sorry Mom!” Suzie began to cry and turned back into her mother’s chest and hugged her tightly.

    “Shhh…shhh…shhh…it’s okay sweetie.”

    Darren looked up at his father’s face. His eyes were glued on the stone in his wife’s hand, which was in half a fist as she rubbed Suzie’s back. The look he gave was a still concern, eerily similar to when a really bad storm was about to come over the house, or when his favorite football team misses a field goal.

    “I thought we were past this, Julia.” He said flatly, obviously trying to keep his frightened children calm.

    She met his gaze and something lit up in her eyes. She glanced away, bringing Suzie back out onto the bed so they could be face to face.

    “Suzie…Suzie…listen to me.”

    Suzie wiped her damp eyes and raised her head. She was frowning and her cheeks were bright red with embarrassment.

    “Listen to me, Suzie. Your Mamaw loved you SO much. Both of you…” His mother shared a tired, loving look over to Darren, still shivering under his father’s arm. “And this gift that she gave you is very special as well. I’m very glad it’s yours now, but I’m going to keep it for you until you’re old enough to use it the right way, okay?”

    Suzie wiped her eyes again and nodded, locking eyes with her mother as her downturned mouth flattened out and even curled at the ends in a small smile. Darren shot a look up to his father again. His face was almost gaunt as his left eyelid twitched, before a long blink of defeated understanding.

    “We love you both very much, and we’re very sorry that you’ve had a bad night. But now let’s all go to sleep, and maybe we’ll even forget about this whole thing tomorrow, okay? Do you two want to come sleep with us in our room?” He asked. Darren and Suzie both gave a couple of small nods to their father.

    The parents picked up the children and started out of Suzie’s room. Darren was happy to not use his legs, and his body finally began to warm back up as his father carried him into the hallway, his head on his shoulder. Suzie and their mom were behind them, and suddenly the bedroom light clicked off. Darren’s father waited for them and let them pass before slowly closing the door behind them. Suzie had her arms around her mothers neck. The hallway was now darkened but in the silver pre-morning light Darren saw a look of heavy relief on her young face. They walked down the long hall and through their parent’s bedroom door.

    “Come on buddy, let’s go.” His father breathed in a deep, sleepy voice.

    He slowly carried Darren down the hallway. Head on his shoulder, Darren’s eyes began to grow weary and narrow. As his father walked, the bouncing view of the hall grew longer and longer. Through his blurred vision he saw the crawling scratches on Suzie’s door in the lowlight. He also noticed his own door, right next to hers, slightly cracked open, letting in the fumes of his blue nightlight. As they progressed further down the hall, he could see his door seemingly pulling open ever so slowly, and silently. Darren decided it must be his exhaustion, and turned his forehead down on his fathers shoulder as they made their way through the master bedroom door.

    Before he knew it, Darren, and all the rest of his family, were snug under the thick comforter of a king size bed, quietly escaping into the warm oblivion of sleep. Curled on top of them was Mathilde the cat, who’s dreams had been unbothered by the whole affair. In his final moment of consciousness, Darren almost thought he could faintly hear slow footsteps from far down the hall, making their way to the door of the master bedroom, before turning away and leading down the staircase toward the front door of their home.

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    2024/03/26
    15:33 UTC

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