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Author Topic: Stories for 3rd Anniversary comp - Story Thread  (Read 21661 times)
Ed
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« on: October 14, 2007, 08:05:38 AM »

Stories must be sent to me via e-mail at blunted(at)cafedoom.com and must reach me by midnight on 30th October 2007. Please don't forget to enclose your name and forum ID with your entry.

I will post all the stories here on this thread, anonymously, for judging to take place. As soon as I have posted the entries, voting can commence on the voting thread - http://www.cafedoom.com/forum/index.php/topic,1748.0.html
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #1 on: October 31, 2007, 05:03:04 AM »

THE CHICKEN SHACK KID



Grainger placed the plate of burgers onto the garden table.

“Food’s up,” he said. “Help yourself.”

His niece and nephew each grabbed a burger and a roll, then lathered the meat with onions and large squirts of chilli relish. They’d hardly be able to taste the burgers, Grainger noted.

And smiled.



*



   Grainger had been the leader of the gang back in 1972. Nine years old, tall for his age – in their year only Gangly was taller – good at football and fighting, and seemingly not scared of anything. Their gang hut had been at the bottom of Lainer’s garden, an old chicken shed that overlooked a corner of the gravel pits. The pit was still being worked but the workmen hardly ever ventured into this corner, where a track led to a small lake and a forest of young trees. The kids constructed ramps out of old pieces of wood and piles of rocks and with the wide motorcycle handlebars they’d fitted onto their bikes they sped along the track and over the jumps pretending to be Roger DeCoster. Smithy even had DeCoster’s autograph. He’d got it at the World 500 the previous summer. That was how come he was in the gang. Lainer was in because it was his chicken shack. Gangly and TinTin were in because they were Grainger’s friends from as long back as he could remember. They’d swept out the chicken shack, installed an old settee that had been dumped in the pits and several boxes to sit on. They made a table out of a piece of board and some bricks, and they loaded up the hut with comics and one torn and faded copy of Mayfair that TinTin and Grainger had found whilst looking for slowworms by the railway track.

   And now David Thompson wanted to join the gang.

   He was a good kid, Thommo. A nice kid. His parents were still together unlike Grainger’s or Smithy’s, and his old man wasn’t a drinker who beat his kids like TinTin’s. And he was smart at school. The rest of the gang were always getting detentions. But none of them could ever remember Thommo getting kept behind.

   “He just wants to see our nudie mag’,” TinTin said. “All the kids want to see it.”

   It was August, ten o’clock in the morning. The chicken shack hadn’t had time to get hot yet. Later it would be like an oven. Then the boys would head out across the pits, maybe go fishing, or turn rocks looking for newts. But for now it was quite pleasant in the hut. It smelled a little of chicken shit for sure, but no matter how much they swept the floor that smell was always there. It was dark and dusty too, the only light coming from the little square hatch in the corner where the chickens used to come in and out, and a long piece of wood in the wall facing the pits that they’d loosened so they could swivel it open. They could have opened the door to the chicken shack. That would have let plenty of light and good air in – and sometimes in the sweltering afternoons when they were bored and found themselves back in the hut that’s what they’d do – but it would have meant Lainer’s grandparents being able to hear what they were talking about and this stuff was private.

   “That’s for sure,” Smithy said. He had a copy of Dirt Bike Rider spread open on their make-shift table. “They’re all a bunch of peaverts.”

   “Perverts,” Grainger said.

   “That’s what I said.”

   “You said ‘peaverts’.”

   “What’s a peavert?” Gangly asked. He was trying to balance two pennies on their sides. He gave up and started spinning them instead.

   “Pervert,” Grainger said again.

   “Yeah what’s one of them?”

   “Are you thick or something?”

   Gangly looked up from his spinning pennies. “Like you’re fucking mastermind!”

   “No swearing,” Lainer said quickly. He had his back to the others and was looking out of the makeshift window across the gravel pits. Nothing was happening out there. He turned now. “If they hear us swearing they won’t let us use this place.” They were his grandparents. None of the gang quite knew why Lainer was being brought up by his grandparents, and if Lainer knew he wasn’t telling. His grandparents weren’t like the other kid’s grandparents – always good for some sweets or a couple of shillings. Lainer’s grandparents were strict – not just with Lainer either, all the gang had been clipped around the ear by Lainer’s gramp at one time or another – and one thing they wouldn’t allow was swearing.

   “So, are we going to let him join or not?” TinTin asked.

   “Dunno,” Gangly said. “Why should we?”

   “He’s your mate,” Grainger said, turning to Lainer.

   “Only because he’s in my class.”

   “You want him to join?”

   Lainer shrugged. “I think we’ve got room for one more.”

   “Then what about Danny?” Smithy said, looking up from his magazine.

   “Fuck off,” Gangly said, then realising quickly added: “Sorry.”

   “Danny’s the kid with the monkey bike, right?” Grainger said.

   Smithy nodded and went back to his magazine. All he wanted to do was to be a motocross rider. Sometimes he hung around with a couple of kids from the secondary school who rode schoolboy. Danny Slocombe did the same. His old man had bought him a beat-up Honda monkey bike the year before and together Danny and his dad had done it up. Sometimes at schoolboy motocross meetings Danny would ride it around the pits. One time he’d let Smithy have a go. But since then Smithy’s father had left home and with him had gone a whole bunch of Smithy’s dreams.

   Then Lainer changed everything by saying, “Thommo’s got a pack of nudie playing cards. Said there’s bananas in there and everything.”

   Gangly let his pennies fall. Smithy closed his Dirt Bike Rider and looked up at Lainer. TinTin just grinned and mouthed ‘All right!’ Grainger nodded slowly. This was an important revelation. “Well…I guess he’s in then. But…”

   “But what?” TinTin said.

   “We still can’t just let him join,” Grainger said. “We have to have some kind of test. You know a …” he paused, trying to think of the word.

   “Initiation,” Lainer said.

   “Yeah, an initiation.”

   “What’s that?” Gangly asked.

   “It’s like a test,” Grainger explained. “Something they have to pass before they can be members of the gang.”

   “Like eating worms,” TinTin said.

   “Yeah, like eating worms. We don’t want to make it too easy to join.”

   “So what’s it going to be?” TinTin said. “And can we do it today?”

   “You’re just thinking of those playing cards,” Smithy said. “Peavert.”

   “I don’t know,” Grainger said. “I’ll tell you what, lets go on a mission over the pits and see if we can think of something.”



*



Killer was dead.

Gangly kicked the corpse and jumped back as a cloud of bluebottles erupted upwards. “You know that bastard bit me three times in all. Three fucking times.” The rule about swearing didn’t apply in the gravel pits.

It looked like the German shepherd had been hit by something - probably one of the big gravel lorries, they could have hit a horse and the driver wouldn’t have noticed – and had been thrown twenty feet and landed in the tall grass.

“Only bit me once,” Smithy said. “But I had to have an injection. Look.” He was wearing blue shorts, yellow socks and tan sandals. He pushed one of the socks right down and displayed two ugly scars on his ankle.

Lainer grimaced. “He almost had me once but I managed to get on top of the hut.”

Killer had belonged to a scrap dealer whose yard backed onto the gravel pits. Every once in a while the dog would find his way into the pits. Sometimes one of the boys would be out there with nowhere to hide and the big Alsation between them and the perimeter. Killer was a failed police dog. Most of the time he was calm and you could even stroke him. But he didn’t like sirens. Anytime a siren went off the dog would go crazy and bite whoever was nearest. Whenever a member of the gang was faced with Killer and a hundred yard walk to the fence they would clench their buttocks, take it slow and steady, and pray that a siren wouldn’t start up within canine hearing distance. All of them, at one time or another, had discovered how common sirens were.

The flies settled back on the dog’s corpse. At first the Alsation didn’t look too badly mangled, just a little blood around the mouth, though the head was definitely twisted back too far. Then Gangly got an old piece of wood, wedged it beneath the dog, and somehow managed to turn him over.



*



Later, after TinTin had stopped puking and the other boys had stopped taking the micky out of him for it (“It was just the smell” he pleaded. “I was closest!”) and the thousands of flies had either landed or flown away, Grainger looked down at the mangled raw flesh of the dog and said, “Boys, I’ve got an idea.”



*



“What is it?” Thommo asked, lifting the top of the sandwich.

“It’s a sandwich,” Grainger said.

“I can see it’s a sandwich. But what’s in it?” Thommo pulled a face. Bile rose into his throat. The filling was burnt and pretty much unrecognisable but it was some kind of meat. There were two pieces in there, one thin, one somewhat thicker. The thick piece looked a little pink in places.

“We cooked it,” Gangly told him.

“I suggested worms,” TinTin said.

Thommo looked at him but said nothing. If he’d have opened his mouth right then he would have vomited. Worms would have been okay. At least he would have known what he was eating and, besides, all kids eat worms at sometime in their lives.

“This is better than worms,” Lainer said. “Trust us.”

Thommo swallowed dryly. “Trust you?”

The sandwich was on a blue plate in the middle of the table. Grainger pushed Thommo’s hand away from it so that the top piece of white bread fell back down and covered the meat. “That’s what this is about, David,” he said. Using Thommo’s real name gave the moment an added seriousness. “You want to be in our gang you’ve got to trust us.” He’d only just thought of the argument and was pleased with himself. It sounded good.

“I can’t eat it without knowing what it is.”

“That’s the deal.”

TinTin could see the bulge in Thommo’s trouser pocket where he had stuffed his infamous pack of playing cards. “Maybe we should just let him eat half,” he said.

“He wants to be in the gang he has to eat all of it,” Grainger said.

“I don’t know,” Smithy said. He had nabbed one of the good seats on the settee and was leaning forwards, his elbows on his knees. He was thinking of the cards too. “I’d say if he eats half that should be good enough.”

“Lainer?” TinTin said quickly, realising there was an opportunity here. “Your vote.”

Lainer looked at the sandwich. He wouldn’t have eaten it for all the nude playing cards in the world. Plus he was afraid his grandfather was going to suddenly turn up and want to know who had been using the cooker. “Yeah, half,” he said.

“I don’t know if I can,” Thommo said. Some of the butter had melted and had run out onto the plate. It was yellowy-brown. “Why won’t you tell me what it is?”

“We’ve been through that,” Grainger said. “You want to be in the gang you’ve got to eat the sandwich.”

“Half the sandwich,” TinTin said.

“But no puking,” Gangly said. He would have voted for the whole sandwich had three of the gang not already voted for just half. They voted on everything and understood that once three of them had agreed on something anyone left to vote needn’t bother. “You puke and it doesn’t count.”

“I don’t know,” Thommo said.

“Two bites,” Grainger said. He pushed the plate towards Thommo. “Two bites, two swallows, and you’re in. You don’t even have to chew.”

Thommo reached out and picked up the sandwich but didn’t move it from just above the plate. His hands were shaking.

“Two bites,” Gangly said.

In the corner Smithy moved a couple of Motocross Actions and a Shoot from the pile of magazines. “We’ve got Mayfair,” he said, holding the ragged magazine up.

Thommo bit into the sandwich.



*



That was the start of it for Grainger. Something clicked inside his head when David Thompson bit into the sandwich. It wasn’t just power, although that had been a big part of it, that control over another human being. In fact, such control was almost sexual. He would never have told any of the other kids but he actually got an erection watching Thommo fighting against his fear and nausea and finally eating the sandwich. But it was more than that. It was the actual act too, the eating. Grainger himself was a fussy eater – the list of things he wouldn’t eat was immense. In fact, the truth was he hated eating. When meal times came around it was just a case of getting the food in as quickly as possible and getting away from the table. Meals were never a pleasure. He would have lived purely off vitamin pills if he could. So watching David Thompson forcing down that dead dog had overwhelmed Grainger. He knew that here was something he would enjoy for the rest of his life.



*



His sister was off to see a matinee performance of The Phantom of the Opera. She wouldn’t be late but would he fancy having the kids? Sure, he’d said. If it’s a nice day we’ll have a barbecue.

He was out walking his dog when the opportunity came to him. It had been something that he’d thought about many times over the years and now the circumstances were right he knew he had no choice but to go through with it.



*



After the episode with Killer and Thommo, Grainger started to indulge in his new passion. It was easy to mix a little dead cat with the mince in people’s fridges. Though he only did that on occasions when he knew he wasn’t going to be the one eating the resulting cottage pie. A friend’s mother might have a pot of stew simmering on the stove. He’d work it so he was alone in the kitchen and then drop a dozen crane flies into the pan and give it a stir. He always carried dead flesh of some description in his pockets. Such occasions gave him a good feeling, but it was different to that time in the chicken shack. It was one thing giving people dead animals to eat when they knew nothing about it. It was another thing altogether when they knew exactly what was being offered to them, were repulsed totally by it, and yet still ate. He called this the Thommo Effect and could count on one hand the number of times he had put it into practice. In fact, he could count it on one hand with two fingers missing. There was that first time with David Thompson. Then there was a time at college soon after he’d hooked up with Lisa – who fortunately he discovered to be just as turned on by the Thommo Effect as he was - when they found out that one of the first year English students was totally infatuated with her dark beauty. They’d invited the young man around to their flat and after a few glasses of wine and a lot of subtle innuendo Lisa had disappeared and had returned in just a dressing gown. When the gown fell open the kid had almost come in his pants. “Not so fast,” Grainger had said. “You have to earn it.” And the kid did. Years later, after Grainger’s career had started to flourish and the money was rolling in, one of his Soho gambling buddies – well, not so much a buddy as an acquaintance – had turned up on the doorstep begging for help. Grainger was well off, would he help? This really was a matter of life or death. He owed big money to bad people. A broken back had been mentioned. Lisa had been standing at the bottom of the stairs whilst the man had begged and her eyes had locked onto Grainger’s. They had smiled simultaneously. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” Grainger had said, and had invited the man in. That was it – three times. But he and Lisa lived in hope, and the anticipation gave great spice to their life.



*



The police found the body some months later. A dog had uncovered the corpse. It turned out to be a tramp, though they never identified him. The poor fellow had been bludgeoned to death with a rock – they found stone fragments in his scalp.

And they found several large pieces of upper arm flesh missing..



*



“So, have you been good for your Uncle Eddie?” Grainger’s sister asked her kids. They nodded. “And did you have burgers?” she asked.

“We had three each,” Samantha said. “In the garden. With relish.”

“They were yummy,” Rory said.

“Thanks for looking after them.”

“No problem. Anytime.”

“You’re a gem.”

“A couple of days notice is all I need,” he said, tingling.

She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Hey – I meant to say. I saw a review in the Observer Magazine. Congratulations. They really liked it.”

He smiled. “Yep. Those good reviews just keep on coming.”

“Who’d have thought it?” she said. “My little brother a famous chef.”






The End


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« Reply #2 on: October 31, 2007, 05:04:40 AM »




CRACK BABY







“You keep away from those matons before they turn you into a punta,” Juanita’s madre scolded.

“Momma, they are not hoodlums, they are my amigos.”

“ ‘Nita, they are no good.  They are maleado.”

   * * *

A wet stench of blood and shit and urine saturated the crumbling interior of the decrepit apartment building where bums and addicts, too drunk or high to move, lay in crumpled heaps in the shadowed corners of the dim hallways.  The heavy, acrid smell of burnt crack hung in the air like a gray cloud of death.

 From behind closed doors came the muffled, baleful wails of the puntas.  All they wanted was enough money for a fix and maybe a carton of milk for their kids.

Children, naked and filthy, roamed the halls.  Their ear-splitting screams bounced off the walls, mixed with the moans of the whores, and sounded like the devil’s choir.   They gave wide girth to those hidden in the shadows.   They called them boogiemen and if they caught you they’d eat you.

 Listening to the commotion from the relative safety of her locked apartment, Juanita Sanchez wondered how long ago she had had that conversation with her madre.  Five years ago?  Ten?  Twenty?  It didn’t matter, really.  Madre was dead now, but dammit, she was right.

Twenty-seven year-old Juanita Sanchez looked more like fifty-seven.  Her skin hung from her wasted body like congealed molasses and cottage cheese-like fungus grew under her discolored fingernails.  What hair she had left was a tangled mess that stank like an unclean toilet.  Her eyes were sunk so deep into her skull they were hardly visible at all.  Open sores covered her face and thick, yellowish pus oozed down her cheeks.  Most of her teeth had rotted away and those she still had were black, brittle nubbins set in shriveled and bloody gums.  Consequently, her breath smelled like dead fish left out in the hot afternoon sun.

She’d been with dozens of men, taking their filthy things in her mouth and sucking them until they spurted their juice in the back of her throat.  Often their seeds were so bitter it made he want to gag.  Sometimes she let them take her in the ass and she’d laugh as the shot their loads into her.

Drugs help take away some of the pain and worthlessness she felt and the drugs like the men were in an abundant supply—until recently.

Juanita paced about the room, rubbing her arms with her bony hands.  Her last fix was a week ago—Memorial Day—and if she didn’t get something soon, the bugs beneath her skin would drive her mad.  But there wasn’t much of a demand for a punta that was five months pregnant.

She thought about an abortion, but she’d been unable to raise the money.  Everything she made she’d spend on a fix.  She considered going to one of those backstreet butchers, but changed her mind, having no desire to be left bleeding to death in the gutter of some stinking alley.  So she really had no other choice than to get rid of the thing herself.

Juanita stripped off her rags and rubbed her bloated stomach as she made her way across the tiny room.  Like a cancer, her belly was hard and alien.  Sometimes at night, once the drugging and whoring stopped for the evening, she was certain she could feel the thing as it grew, sucking the life from her.   She felt its brain becoming bigger, its arms and legs growing longer.  A wave of revulsion rippled through her and she fought back the urge to vomit.

The bi-fold door of the closet shuddered when she pulled it open.  Reaching inside, she snatched an empty hanger from the rod.  Untwisting it, she straightened the wire and fashioned a hook at one end.   A crude instrument, but would get the job done.

On her way to the bed, she plucked the cracked mirror from the top of the scarred dresser.

 The bed, which was just a mattress, but one of the finer mattresses the building had to offer, was covered with a sheet of plastic Juanita had stolen from a tenant the night before.  The man she’d taken it from was too high to notice that it had gone missing and Juanita needed it more.  Clean up, she suspected, may be messy and she didn’t want to soil the mattress.

With the modified coat hanger in one hand and the mirror in the other, she flopped on the bed and rolled onto her back.  She spread her legs and arranged the mirror so it reflected an unobstructed view of her crotch.

Sweat ran from her pores like water through a sieve.  Her mouth felt full of cotton.  She swallowed, but the dry, fibrous taste only increased.  Sweating, she wondered if she was going though some kind of withdrawals or her nerves were just shot to hell.  Juanita suspected it was a bit of both.

Using the mirror to guide her, Juanita poised the hooked end of the tool in front of her crotch.  She took a deep breath, closed her eyes as she said a prayer, and shoved the hanger inside her.  Then with a quick turn of her wrist, she twisted the instrument and yanked it out.

A piece of tissue, red, bloody and clotted dangled like wet yarn from the end of the hook.  Cramps twisted her stomach into iron knots as her mind reeled from a ripple of nausea that thundered through her.  The onslaught of blood came next.  It covered the inside of her thighs like a red satin sheet and spattered the walls like paint.  Gore ran off the edge of the mattress and pooled at the corners, soaking into the cotton stuffing.

Juanita panicked.  She knew there’d be blood, but there shouldn’t be so much of it.  She struggled to her feet and doubled over as her gut turned inside out and a second torrent exploded from her.  A stream of red peppered with chunks of meat splattered the floor and dabbled her feet.  An unbearable pressure built up inside her and natural instinct told her to push.  She did and as the baby moved through her birth canal, she screamed until she thought her lungs would explode.

Given any stretch of the imagination, what Juanita expelled wasn’t human.  It had substance and form, but nothing else.

Blackish-red, it lay between her stained feet like a blob of melting gelatin.  About the size of a dinner plate, its skin, if it could be called that, was smooth, slimy and reflective.  Hundreds of tentacles the length of earthworms and lined with sharp golden barbs, squirmed around the circumference of the beast.  Paddle-like hands attached to stumps that may have been arms protruded from what could’ve been the front of the creature.  It didn’t appear to breathe, yet the erratic movement of its tentacles suggested life.

Juanita dropped to the mattress, her wide-eyes staring at the thing she’d birthed, then turned her head to one side and retched.  She kicked it with the heel of her left foot.  It skidded across the floor, leaving behind a trail of sticky, oily goo. With a watery splat, it hit the wall near the dresser and opened its eye.

Located near the top of the creature, a pale blue stock rose upward from a fire-red slit.  Covered with a greenish-gray membrane, an orb about the size of a gold ball dangled from the twisted length of sinew and nerves.  Like cold molasses the membrane rolled back to reveal a black, oblong pupil suspended in a jaundice iris.

The mess of tissue stiffened and swayed through the air.  The eyeball flared.  It looked like an animal sniffing its surroundings.  A second slit appeared just below the eye.  As thin as a pencil line, it stretched across the diameter of the monster.  It thickened until something that resembled a mouth formed.  The lips peeled back and its mouth was lined with black gums.  Although toothless, the gums had the hard, stony appearance of obsidian.  Then it cried and a horrible stink of spoiled meat and old vomit issued from its maw.

Juanita clapped her hands over her ears to block the piercing screeches.  That was when the realization hit her: the writhing, screaming, stinking misshapen thing on the floor was part of her.  She’d carried it in her belly and when she tried to abort it, birthed it instead. It cried because it was hungry.

Juanita uncovered her ears and shuffled across the room.  She picked up her blouse and moved toward the child.  Kneeling, she gently lifted the mass with her left hand and after clearing away the web of mucus-like threads from underneath it, wrapped it in the ragged cotton fabric.

 Swaddling clothes.  Wasn’t the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothing?  Didn’t someone write a spiritual about it?  Juanita thought so, but her mind was too muddled to be sure.  But could it be she’d given birth to the new Savior?

Juanita smiled and stroked the creature.  Her palm came away slimy and sticky.  She wiped it clean on her thigh.

The baby stopped crying and cooed.  Its eye looked at its mother’s face as its lips stretched into something that might’ve been a smile.

“Madre,” it croaked and waved its clawed hands in the air, wanting to be picked up. “Hambriento.  Eat.”

Juanita wiped a tear from her cheek and choked back a sob.  She pushed her stringy hair away from her eyes. “Madre’s here, my little bebe.  Madre’s here.”

She picked up the baby and cradled it in her arms.  Returning to the mattress, she sat down and raised the child to her breast.  Juanita grimaced as the baby suckled.  Those hard gums hurt her nipple, but she’d get used to the pain.

“Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” Juanita sang while she rocked her baby and watched it nurse, “Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…” It was the same song her Madre sang to her when she was just a bebe.




The End








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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #3 on: October 31, 2007, 05:06:53 AM »

DEALING DEATH



Billy’s feet crunched on the gravel of the car park as he stepped from his Audi TT. He cast a disdainful eye over the dingy pub his contact had arranged to meet in. A lick of paint on this place would be about as effective as putting lipstick on a cow. Still, no business could run without product to sell and if he wanted to keep his lifestyle he needed to find a new supplier fast, so here he was. He checked his Rolex; ten minutes early but he decided he was going in anyway. All this fresh sea air was irritating his chest. He coughed some phlegm onto the pavement, lit another Marlboro and headed for the front door of the Albatross Inn.

He stepped across the threshold of the pub and wrinkled his nose in disgust. It smelled as if something had died in here. Just so long as it wasn’t the lager. He made his way to the bar, ignoring the unfriendly looks of the regulars as he crossed the sticky floor. They were probably jealous of his tailored suit and Gucci loafers. From what he could see most of them looked like they worked in the local fishing industry, the end of it where all the gutting and decapitating happened. That would account for the stench too, now he came to think of it. Taking a deep breath of the air in here would get you high from the sheer smell of decay and corruption. Billy figured that was lucky because he doubted if any of these sad sacks could afford what he dealt in. People like them would think themselves lucky if they could afford enough booze to get drunk on a Friday night.

They reminded him of his dad. Roll in drunk after chucking out time, argue with the wife, shout at the kids and fall asleep in a pool of puke. Billy felt the old anger rising and pushed it down. It didn’t matter anymore. He’d got out of that life, away from working for a pittance in a dead end job. Billy was secure in the knowledge that he had two things his dad had never had; money and success. If he had to come to a place like this once in a while to keep that up, then so be it.

Damn Customs and Excise and damn Karl for being so careless. He wouldn’t need to be in this cesspit if the idiot hadn’t got himself caught. But if the message he’d received was legit, then Karl could rot in HMP Maidstone for all Billy cared. He ordered a lager and lime from the blank-faced barman. It was thumped down on the bar a minute later, the colour of piss and with a head like an Easter Island statue. The barman wordlessly held out his hand. Billy stared at the drink then looked up into the slack face of the man who’d pulled it. That face had all the expression of a botox junkie. Billy decided not to complain about the state of the drink; it wasn’t like it was going to pass his lips. “I’m here to meet someone.” Billy said in an even tone. He had discovered long ago that whispering only attracted unwanted attention.

 The barman’s dead eyes never left Billy’s face as he pointed to a wooden staircase across the room. “Upstairs. First room on the left.” The words came slowly, as though it took great effort, and Billy wondered what kind of pub it was that let a retard work on his own behind the bar.

Drink in hand, Billy picked his way across the swampland that passed for a carpet and headed for the stairs the barman had indicated. He kept his eyes on his goal and off the people as he went; he’d seen too many fights start in places like this simply because one of the regulars didn’t like the look of a stranger. And this place was a prime example of a pub where the locals didn’t want strangers: quiet as the grave and every eye in the place full of hostility. He knew what it was. His clothes, his haircut, his very manner all marked him out as different; better than them. They were jealous of him, envious of his obvious wealth. Billy could live with that, just so long as no one accused him of spilling their pint or looking at their bird as an excuse to stick a broken glass in his face or a knife between his ribs.

He made the stairs without incident and headed up to the first floor. First door on the left, the barman had said. The pint he’d only bought for the sake of appearances was deposited on a small table in the corridor and he gave the door three slow knocks. It opened smoothly and silently. Billy took two paces inside a room dense with purple hued smoke. It carried neither the acrid odour of cigarette smoke nor the sweetness of marijuana. It was bloody strong, whatever it was; strong enough to make his nose itch and his eyes water. It made him think of the hot summer of ’76, the only time he’d ever suffered from hay fever. The pollen count wasn’t the problem here though, Billy thought as he waved a hand in front of his face. He didn’t want to stay here long, the smoky stench would be impossible to get out of his clothes. The reek was awful, seeming to embed itself into the membranes of his nose. Worse than that, it was getting into his skull and making it hard to think straight. He rubbed his eyes irritably, trying to ward off the beginnings of a headache. He could feel it pounding in his temples, almost as though a band of tribal drummers had set up camp in his head. He’d get his business done and get out of here, back into the briny air.

“Come in liddle man, come in. Nuttin to be afraid of here.” A dry laugh followed the words.

Billy felt his temper rise. He’d come here to get a new supply of cocaine sorted, not talk to what sounded like a mad old woman. Still, he was here now; he may as well talk to her. She might be bonkers but that didn’t mean she couldn’t get the stuff he wanted. He took another step and the smoke abruptly swirled apart before him. The clear air revealed a battered table and a rickety chair. An old woman occupied an equally ramshackle chair on the table’s far side. Ninety if she’s a day, Billy thought. Her brown skin was as wrinkled as an elephant’s hide but her eyes were sharp and intelligent. She was of secondary concern to Billy though; what was important was the sealed bag of white powder on the table before her. Maybe all this strangeness was going to be worthwhile after all. Billy took his eyes off the bag for a moment as he lowered himself into the chair, his attention drawn by the back of a silver photo frame. It was the only other thing on the table and it felt out of place; Billy dismissed it as irrelevant to his business here. The rhythmic pounding in his head was growing louder and Billy wanted this over with fast so he could get out, away from this weird old lady and out of the choking air.

“You Billy, yes? Billy Smit’?”

“Yeah, I’m Billy Smith.” Where was her accent from? It was a peculiar mix, like French intertwined with American. Screw it, if she could get him coke she could come from Mars for all Billy cared.

She nodded as she stroked an arthritically crooked finger tenderly down the front of the photo frame. There was warmth in her look that slid away as she returned her gaze to Billy. Now her face was cold, all business.

“You wantin’ to sample de merchandise den, yeah?” She indicated the bag and Billy nodded. He watched as she slit it open with a long, gnarled fingernail.

He slipped his wallet out, extracted a tenner and rolled it into a tight tube. He was aware of the old lady’s eyes on him, seeming to blaze with an inner light. She leaned forward and nodded, encouraging him to go ahead, try it. Billy was spooked by her eagerness, the almost predatory look in her eyes. He hesitated with the rolled note suspended above the bag. Was he missing something? Billy looked down and saw the Queen gazing back up at him. Yes ma’am, he thought with a wry smile.

He shifted his eyes to the old woman as he poked the makeshift straw into the powder, then dipped his head and took a snort. He heard her sigh with pleasure or relief, he couldn’t tell which. He felt a rush from head to toe and he jolted back. What the hell was this stuff cut with? Was it pure? It hit like Tyson in his prime. He leaned in again and treated the other nostril to a big blast. Holy crap, this had to be the best, better than Colombian. It was rushing straight to his head, making his eyes go wide and his scalp crawl. It’d be even better if the headache would go away, the incessant pounding seeming to pick up pace and volume with every lungful of the smoke hazed air. He was surprised the coke hadn’t overridden the pain, but he had business to conduct and that took precedence over a touch of neuralgia. He wanted this stuff, one hit and he’d have a customer for life. Time to seal the deal, then straight to the nearest chemist for some painkillers.

“This is good stuff lady, where’s it from?”

“Louisiana.”

That explained the accent but left Billy with a new question. “Why come all the way here to sell this? You must have a market closer to home.” She said nothing, only raised an eyebrow.

“Like that huh? Fair enough, I guess it’s none of my business.” He waved a hand to clear the smoke that had wreathed his face once more. “What’s with the fog bank in here lady?”

“You don’ like it?” Billy coughed and shook his head. “It’s just some incense to remind me of de bayou. An old family recipe dat come from back ‘fore my ancestors got taken from Haiti. Dey use it a lot in de vodoun ceremonies back den.”

“Vodoun?”

“You call it voodoo.”

Billy raised a half smile at the crazy woman. If he hadn’t already tried what she was selling he’d be heading for the door right now. “Voodoo’s bull lady, just a bunch of black magic mumbo jumbo for gullible fools.”

“Is dat what you t’ink? You ever read Hamlet?”

The switch of topic made Billy wonder just how loopy the old dear was. “I saw the film with Mel Gibson.”

She clucked in her throat in a way that made Billy think of a disappointed school teacher. “Dere are more t’ings in Heaven an’ Earth dan are dreamt of in your philosophy.” She quoted.

Billy grinned at the quirky pronunciation. “Whatever you say. Voodoo’s just superstitious rubbish if you ask me.” He couldn’t decipher her expression well enough to decide if she was amused or offended. Safest thing to do was get back to business. He pointed at the bag of white powder. “So how much is this gonna cost me?”

“Your life.”

Billy sat back in his chair, tried to look around for any sign of danger, but his body felt slow, stiff. He forced himself upright, reached into his jacket for the Colt Python in its shoulder holster. His hand inched towards the grip of the gun, then slowed further. His whole body finally succumbed to paralysis and Billy toppled to the floor.

“You come here to buy drugs, Billy. You needed a new supplier yeah? Someone to replace dat fool Karl. Dat surprise you, Billy Smit’? Surprise you dat I know his name? How you t’ink dem Customs people catch him? Maybe someone tell dem who to catch?” Her dry crackle shivered the smoke. “You wan’ know why, Billy? Sure you do. Why do I go to all de trouble to do this t’ one pat’etic liddle drug dealer? Maybe you deal de drugs to de wrong person, Billy. Maybe a person like dis one here.” She picked up the framed photo from the table. “Do you recognise her? Her name was Candace. She was my gran’daughter. Right up ‘til you sold her de coke dat killed her.”

Billy stared at the picture. Candace had been caught looking back over her shoulder, laughing. So full of life in that frozen moment of time and now that snapshot was the only place Candace would ever be alive again. Billy wanted to scream that it wasn’t his fault, he hadn’t shoved the stuff up her nose, but all he could do was lie silently and listen.

“So you know what I do, Billy? Instead a’ coke, I gave you de coup padre. You don’ know what dat is do you?”

Billy tried to shake his head as the reality of his situation started to set in. He couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t so much as blink and he was at the mercy of a mad woman who blamed him for the death of her granddaughter. Maybe voodoo was bull, but whatever she’d put in that powder worked.

“Lemme explain it to you liddle man. I be a bokor, what you call de voodoo priestess, yeah? De coup padre is what de bokor use to make de zombi. I see you know dat word. Zombi. Now you startin’ to see huh?” Billy wanted to beg, to plead for his life, but his vocal cords were as paralysed as the rest of him. He could only lie there and listen to what this wizened old woman wanted to tell him.

“Dere’s dat bit in your bible, ‘an eye for an eye’. Well, dis is like dat, only it a life fo’ a life. You take my beautiful Candace’s life away, so now I take yours.” The pounding in Billy’s head seemed to be slowing down. He knew it was ridiculous, but he was grateful for that small mercy.

“But don’ worry, Billy Smit’, you ain’ gonna stay dead. Oh no, dat not for you. My boys here gon’ take you ‘way.”

A pair of legs passed Billy’s face as she said it. Strong hands grasped him under the arms and hauled him up. He got a good look at the man as he was lifted: one of the people from the bar. He saw the bloody mess on the chest that he’d assumed to be spattered fish guts was in truth a fist sized hole, the whiteness of a rib visible in the ruined flesh. The foetid dankness of the grave washed over Billy as he drew level with the man’s mouth. The eyes he’d thought held the hostility of a local whose pub had been invaded, instead burned darkly with a power that had defied the tomb. Billy felt a second pair of hands on his shoulders and then he was tipped over and lifted by his armpits and ankles. His head lolled back, granting him a view of the second man’s throat. It had been cut clean across and all that stopped the fatal wound from gaping open was the blood crusted thickly over it. Billy knew this was no special effect, this was real. And if dead men could walk maybe voodoo wasn’t the Hollywood myth he’d always assumed.

“Now I see it in your eyes, Billy. I see de fear, de knowledge dat everyt’ing I say be true. Now dat I know you believe me, I tell you de rest of wha’ gon’ happen. I wan’ you t’ know, Billy, I wan’ you t’ know so you can t’ink about it while you waitin’ for me to come for you. My boys gon’ take you away an’ bury you. You’ll lie in de ground, Billy, feel all de t’ings dat crawl down dere moving over you, eatin’ you.”

Billy could feel the cold seeping into his bones. His skin felt clammy, a chill clinging to him. It was a sensation like nothing he’d ever felt before, yet Billy knew for certain what it was. This was how it felt to be buried, to be wrapped in a shroud of mud and feel it suck at your skin. He wanted to screech, to offer anything, just stop this. For the love of God please stop this!

“Dere you stay fo’ two day, maybe t’ree. Den I come fo’ you, Billy. We dig you up, spill you blood, mix it wit’ my special powder den I feed it back t’ you. From den on and fo’evermore you be mine, Billy Smit’. You’ll remember all of it, Billy; being buried, everyt’ing ‘bout who you were and wha’ you did, but you won’ be able to do nuttin ‘bout it. You’ll be a zombi, Billy, a dead man walking, just like all dem ones downstairs. An’ just like dem, you’ll do whatever I tell you t’ do.”

The pounding in his head had slowed, seconds passing between the painful throbs. Despite everything else that was going on, Billy found he was relived that the headache was receding. The old woman bent her face close to his. “Yo’ heartbeat almost stopped now Billy. I can hear it.” Oh God no. No! It was only a headache, only a headache, not his heart he could hear throbbing in his temples. Only a heada-

“You can die now Billy.”

And at her softly spoken command, Billy did.





The End
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« Reply #4 on: October 31, 2007, 05:08:02 AM »

Dinner With Father




Father will dine with Thomas Ardell tonight, Thomas died yesterday, and we received the call last night. Mother called the whole family together for prayers of protection, and prayers of forgiveness, as is the tradition in our village. I will accompany father, not to dine with them, just to watch, for, as the eldest son, I will take fathers position when he passes on. I do not look forward to this, as it has always been my desire to become a carpenter like Uncle Jacob. Tradition is tradition though, and I know that I must take over the family business.

We were met at the front door by the wife of Thomas Ardell, and without a word, we all knelt on the front door of their home, and prayed. The prayers lasted over an hour, and when they were at last over, we entered the house of Thomas Ardell.

Thomas Ardell had been a wicked man, his family prepared an especially grand meal for father. I noticed this as we entered their dinning room. Quietly, I moved to the dark corner of the room, and took a seat on the three legged stool that sat there, probably left by a misbehaved child of the Ardell family. Mrs. Ardell came into the room and joined father in a prayer of protection, they prayed for over an hour, until father ended the prayer with a loud “AMEN”.

“It is time!” Father said, as he moved to the table which had been adorned with a black cloth. There on the table lay the suited body of Thomas Ardell. His ashen face still showed the evil scrawl he had shown in life. Father opened his valise, and withdrew the black silk table cloth which he used to cover Thomas from his feet to just below the chin. Another prayer for forgiveness and protection followed. I kept note of these prayers for someday I too would be the dinner guest in a situation such as this.

The prayer ended, Mrs. Ardell came into the room with the first course, kneffla soup, it smelled delicious, but I was to have not a drop. Father began eating the soup with a gusto I have never seen at home. The soup was followed by a second helping of the same, as Thomas Ardell was a very wicked man. As father finished the second helping I heard him groan in pain. Then came the breads, so many different types, that I fear I shall never know all the types, they were piled slice upon slice upon a large platter, each spread with a thick layer of home churned butter, as is the tradition in our village. The platter was placed upon the black cloth about in the center of Thomas’s chest.

Before taking the bread, father said another prayer for forgiveness, and slowly whipped his brow with the black kerchief he had in the top pocket of his suit. I could see that this ceremony was not as easy as father had always said. It was work, despite the flavorful meal. As father began eating the bread he began to cry. With each slice, I could see the pain in fathers face grow. This shocked me, as I could see father was crying not in sorrow, but in pain, the pain of taking on sins, and there were so many sins to take on, as Thomas Ardell was a very wicked man.

The bread finished, Mrs. Ardell brought in a large plate of roast beef, smothered with onions, with a delicious smell of garlic and thyme, this made my mouth water, but I knew I was to have none, as it was all prepared for father, as is the tradition of our village. Father began eating the roast, and I heard him groan, as he swallowed the meat. About midway through the plate of beef, Mrs. Ardell brought in the potatoes, and placed a rather healthy portion on a second plate on Thomas’s chest. It had to be large, as Thomas was an evil man, who had sinned greatly. Father stopped the feast, and again knelt and began to pray for forgiveness, as is the tradition of the eater of sins. I took great note of this, as I am the eldest son of the eater of sins.

The prayer finished, father again resumed eating the beef, and the potatoes which were covered by a delicious milk gravy. Again my mouth began to water, but I knew that this feast was not for me.

When father finished the meat and potatoes, a large cake was brought in and placed on the black cloth covering the body of Thomas Ardell. The soiled dishes were promptly removed, and a thick whipped cream was brought in to cover the cake. Father took another break, and knelt beside the table, and again prayed for forgiveness, and strength, all the while the tears of pain ran down his face. I wanted so to join him in prayer, but as is the tradition of the eaters of sin, he prayed alone for both the forgiveness of his greatest sin, and protection of the evil that surrounded the body of Thomas Ardell, for Thomas Ardell was an evil man.

The prayers finished, father, now much more relaxed, as his task was nearly done, began to consume the large chocolate cake smothered with heavy whipped cream.

The meal now finished, Mrs. Ardell came again into the dinning room, and gave father three gold coins, as is the tradition of the village, and without a word, we left the home, and were on our way back home. I knew not to speak to father until we were home, within the safety of our fortified home. Such speaking could bring disaster upon both of us, as the evil that was Thomas Ardell was with us. Once home, Mother called us all into the living room, and we all knelt down in a circle, and then prayed for forgiveness and protection of father, and of the family.

Dinner with father was indeed an education, and I thanked God that I would never have to again accompany him on one of his missions, this had been my one and only time to see the work of the eater of sins. That night, father told me the whole truth of his honored position. This caused me great concern, as being the eldest son of the eater of sins, I was to follow in his foot steps, as he had followed his fathers, and his fathers fathers, back seven generations.

“As the eater of sins feasts the food of the dead from the chest of the dead, he takes upon his own soul, all the sins of the dead man before him. This allows the soul of the dead to enter heaven despite the sins of his life. So you see son, I have the sins of many upon my soul, and the only way for me to enter heaven, is for my eldest son to take upon his soul all the sins I and my father, and my fathers father back seven generations have taken upon ours. This, son will be your hardest meal, and any that follow will be simple snacks in comparison despite the evil of the dead.”

I was shocked, I had known that father was a holy man in the village, but never knew the horrors of his job.

The following day, I worked in the fields of our farm the whole day, as father, who was not feeling well, rested from his holy tasks. When I arrived at home, before I could enter the house, I was met by Mother. She said not a word, but took my hand and together we knelt on the front step and began to pray.




The End
« Last Edit: October 31, 2007, 05:09:04 AM by Ed » Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #5 on: October 31, 2007, 05:10:05 AM »

Do It Yourself




Joe crunched on Oaties and watched the little color television set on his kitchen counter.

“Good Morning!” the morning talk show host said. “We have some terrific news from our sponsor. The winner of the “Put My Face on the Oaties Box!” competition has been selected.”

“C’mon,” Joe urged. “Call me.”

“This year, there will be not one, but three smiling faces on the Oaties box. And we have them here with us in the studio.” The camera panned to a grinning group. “We’ll be chatting with the Trumble family—Sherry, John, and Mark—after we pause for station identification.”

“No! It’s supposed to be me on the box. I’ve been eating Oaties every morning for twenty years! It’s my turn to be on the box.”

Commercials over, the smiling blonde pulled her chair closer to a little boy with red hair.

“Mark, how’s it feel to be on national television?”

He bounced up and down on the sofa, giggling.

“Funny,” he said. Then he rolled over on his side and laughed.

“He hasn’t stopped smiling since we told him,” John said.

“That’s my spot you’ve taken, you jerk,” Joe said.

Allison turned to the wife and said, “Sherry, I hear you’re going on a trip.”

“We’re taking an RV across country from Baltimore to Yellowstone National Park.”
“Those idiots must have mixed my entry up with his because we look alike.” Joe slammed his fist down on the table. Milk and oat circles splattered the kitchen. “It’s not fair!”
* * *
When he punched in and put on his blue and green DIY Depot apron (“If you want something done right, you gotta Do It Yourself!”), a co-worker tapped him on the shoulder.

“How’d you get here so fast? Weren’t you just in New York City?”

Every year he entered the Oaties contest. Every year he lost.

Another co-worker called from the hardware aisle, ”Hey, Joe! You looked smaller on TV!”

“Very funny,” Joe said and went to his place in the Garden Shop. All day long, the customers stared at him. At the end of his shift, he went to his boss.

“I need a vacation.”

“Joey, take it easy, they’re just having a little fun with you,” his boss said. “Besides, you need to put in a formal application for a vacation.”
Joe untied his apron and threw it on the floor. “Consider this my request for time off.”
***
Sitting on the edge of his mother’s bed, looking around the room, Joe could still smell her favorite perfume, Emeraude. After she had died six months ago, he hadn’t had time to clean out her closets, or give away her clothes. He was too busy, what with work and keeping up with his TV shows. He ran a hand over her pillow and picked up a long gray hair. Maybe it was time to change the sheets.

Maybe it was time for a lot of changes. Just like the store slogan: “If you want something done right, you gotta Do It Yourself!” Joe went out to the unattached garage and opened his mother’s adapted van. He’d forgotten he’d planned to take all those bottles and paper to be recycled.

“Screw being Mr. Good Citizen. The garbage men can take this crap.”

He grabbed a roll of black plastic garbage bags and started to fill them up and place them at curb for pick up. Buried beneath all the trash was his mother’s wheel chair. He began to pull it out, then stopped. Maybe there was a use for it, after all.
***
The doorbell was almost out of reach. No answer. Arm stretched almost to the point of pain, he pressed it again and waited.

The internet was an amazing tool, the Crazy Eight Ball of the twenty-first century. “Yes, No, Try Again.” All he had to do was type in the name and town, and like magic, he had their address and telephone number.

Where the hell was she? He knew she was home. He’d watched her park the car behind the big ass RV, get the sleeping kid out of her Volvo, unlock the door, and let herself in. Was she deaf? As he reached to ring the bell again, the door opened.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m not sure, Mrs. Trumble. I think I might be related to your husband.” He smiled and rocked back and forth in the wheelchair.

Her mouth made a little “O.” She turned and called out, “Honey, there’s someone here to see you.”

Natural light streamed into a cheerful kitchen decorated with bright yellow sunflowers and framed family photos. A large photo of a red haired, freckle-faced teenaged boy in a soccer uniform, holding a baby and grinning took center stage. That photo was surrounded by an array of pictures of the little boy he’d seen on television. There he was in a Spiderman costume, in pajamas, on a swing, rolling in a pile of leaves, all smiling snapshots.

John kept shaking his head. “Wow. Dad was a traveling salesman. Needless to say, he never told me I might have a brother. You say you’re from...?”

“Deerfield, Illinois. It’s a suburb of Chicago.” Joe looked up at John. “Did he ever get out there?”

“I don’t know. I’d ask my mother, but she’s been in an Alzheimer’s unit for the past year. Not sure what help she’d be.” He furrowed his brow. “He was a seed salesman. Looks like he might have been planting a few other kinds of seeds.”

Joe laughed. He liked this guy. Too bad. “Do you think a DNA test would be worthwhile?”

“I want to know if you’re my brother. I’ll give our lawyer a call. He’ll know what to do.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready to go to Yosemite?” Joe asked and smiled at Sherry.

“We’re packed and ready to go, leaving tomorrow morning,” she said, looking at John.

“We can wait. This is more important,” John said.

Joe took a sip of coffee from a mug bearing Mark’s likeness. “I love your photos. I recognize Mark from TV. Who’s the older boy?”

“Our first son. He died when Mark was a toddler. Hit and run. He was thirteen,” Sherry said, and tears welled up in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Joe said. Excellent. Only one kid to handle, he thought. “So where’s the little guy?”

“Oh, he’ll be up soon,” Sherry said and added coffee to his mug. “Cherish the moments he’s quiet.” Her words hung in the air like a balloon as Mark came roaring into the kitchen.

“Daddy!” He leapt into John’s arms. John grunted with the impact of Mark’s landing.

“Hey, little buddy, we have a guest.”

Mark looked around, stared at Joe, then back at John.    

“Daddy, he looks like you.”

John laughed. “You’re right! His name is Joe. Say hello.”

Mark hopped down and leaned on the arm of the wheelchair.

“Why’d you come today? Did you see me on TV? Where’s your mom and dad? What town do you live in? Where’d you get the wheelchair? Do you like RVs? Do you have a job?”

John looked at Joe and shook his head. “He’s four going on forty. Answer if you dare.”

“Yes, I saw you on TV. My mom is dead. I don’t know my dad. I come from Chicago. I got the wheelchair by accident. I love RVs. I work at DIY. Any other questions?” Joe smiled and ruffled the little guy’s hair.

“Can I sit on your lap and go for a ride?”

“You sure can!” Joe said.

Mark hopped up and said, “Giddyup!”

Joe took him for a spin around the center island of the kitchen, wheeled into the dining room, neighing like a horse. Joe heard Sherry and John laughing in the kitchen. Yeah, laugh while you can, he thought.

He rolled back into the kitchen, using one hand, the other behind Mark’s back.

“He’s such a cute little guy,” Joe said. “It’d be a shame if anything ever happened to him. Why don’t we all get into the RV and go for a trip? It will be fun.” He raised a handgun up over Mark’s head. “Get rid of the cell phones. Let’s make this a real vacation.”

***

Sherry and John rode in the front seats, Joe behind them with Mark next to him. He’d ditched the wheelchair, telling Mark that being with them had made him all better.

“Where are we going?” Mark asked.

“Tell him, John,” Joe said.

“To Yosemite National Park. Bears, geysers, camping…”

“Daddy, I thought you said we could pee in the bushes?”

John gave Mark a tight smile, “Sure, Mark, we’ll do that, too.”

What an idiot, Joe thought. Sherry deserves better. He hugged Mark. “You and I are going to be inseparable.”

“What’s that mean?” Mark frowned.

“I’m gonna stick to you like glue.”

Mark bounced up and down, giggling, then stopped. “Tommy said you’re squeezing him.”

“Who’s Tommy?” Could these people be any more confusing? Tommy, Mark, John, Sherry, who’s next? Santa Claus?

“My big brother,” Mark said, putting on a serious face. “He’s plays soccer.”

Joe looked at Sherry. She was weeping.

Great. A pack of nutballs. What had he gotten himself into?

Every time they stopped for gas, Joe held Mark’s hand, making sure the kid’s parents stuck to business. Pay at the pump. No need to talk to anyone. Just one big happy family. He looked at the GPS and told John to reprogram it. He had a place he wanted to visit along the way.
***
“Uncle Joe!” Mark shook his arm. “Look!”

Joe yawned and looked out the window. Red buttes rose in every direction. “Where are we, little man?”

“Grandma’s Cannnon!” Mark said. “Daddy said it’s the biggest hole in the world! Tommy says it’s scary.”
 
Again with Tommy.

“You know, Mark, Tommy’s make-believe. He’s not real.”

Mark’s face grew red. “No!”

“He’s a figment of your overactive imagination,” Joe said. “I’m sick of hearing about him. So knock it off.”

Mark burst into tears and rushed into his mother’s arms.    

“Mommy, make him take it back!”

“Lighten up. Let’s go see Grandma’s Cannon,” Joe said and squeezed Mark’s arm. Poor little dope.

It was, as all the brochures gasped, breathtaking. Joe got as close to the edge as he dared and stared into the ancient maw. No other tourists around. Perfect.

“Mommy! I gotta poop! Can I use a bush?”

“No!” Sherry looked horrified. “Can I take him back to the RV? Please?”

Joe had the keys in his pocket. “Sure, we’ll be along soon.”

She rushed off with Mark in tow.

“This is amazing,” Joe said. “I never thought I’d be here.”

John leaned on the railing, head bowed. A tear trickled down his cheek.

“Ever wonder what it would be like to fly?” Joe asked.

The weeping man turned his head, but it was too late. As John fell screaming, Joe thought how beautiful it was to be in the great outdoors.

“Sherry?” he called. “There’s been an accident.”

She didn’t take it well, despite his attempts to console her. She kept turning away from him as he pressed up against her naked back in the little bed and stroked her breasts.

“What’s more important?” Joe whispered, “Loyalty to a dead man? Or protecting your sleeping son?”

She sobbed and stopped resisting.

“Much better,” he said.
***
The next morning Joe stared at plates thrown all over the galley kitchen, knives lodged in seat cushions, and ketchup smeared on the walls.

Mark wandered out of his room and yawned.

“You’re in trouble now!” Joe said.

“It wasn’t me. Tommy did it.” Mark scratched his butt. “I hafta pee.” The bathroom door latched with a click.

“Sherry, we need to talk,” Joe called.

“What is it? Oh!” She took a step back and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Mark says Tommy did it,” he said through gritted teeth.    

“He’s just a little kid, for God’s sake,” she said.

“Let’s go to the bedroom to discuss this.” He grabbed her arm and said, “I’m sure we’ll come to some agreement.”

When he emerged fifteen minutes later, the RV door stood open, flapping in the breeze.

“Now what’d he do?”

“Mark, where are you?” Sherry called. “Please don’t hurt him. I swear I’ll do whatever you want.”

“You bet you will,” he said. “I’ll go find him.”

She headed out, but he shoved her back into the RV, pushing a tree branch up against the door.

“Oh, Markie!” Joe called. In five minutes, he’d go back to the RV, tell Sherry the little brat was gone, put the motor home in drive, and leave.

“Uncle Joe?” Mark stood next to a large clump of bushes growing out over a ravine in an area without railings.

“There you are!” Perfect. One push and the kid’s gone.

“Daddy said he’d take a pee in the bushes with me, but he’s not here. Can you do it with me?”

Joe laughed. “Sure, little buddy.” Opportunity knocking. “Let’s take a whiz together.” Joe stood next to Mark, one hand on his zipper, the other poised behind the boy’s back. “Ready?”

“Ready!” Mark said and hopped sideways, away from the edge.

Joe’s hand made a useless arc through the air. He teetered at the brink, then righted himself. As he turned to confront Mark, strong hands pushed at his back. Sticks scraped his face as the ground fell away, and he clutched at a branch of the shrub.

“Give me your hand!”

“No,” Mark said.

“You’re my little buddy, remember?” Joe pulled himself back up the branch, and his face touched earth.

“Tommy said you’re mean,” Mark said, backing away.

Joe scrabbled at the ground with one hand, grasping the branch with the other, his feet bicycling in the air. A large soccer shoe appeared on the edge of the cliff. He looked up and saw a tall, freckle-faced, red-haired boy standing next to Mark.

“Pull me up!”

“No.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Tommy. Mark’s big brother.” The boy walked back a few feet, turned and ran toward Joe. “Mess with my family and you mess with me, asshole.”

The kick connected with Joe’s chin, snapping his head back, loosening his tenuous grasp. As he tumbled backward to join John at the bottom of the chasm, Tommy shimmered like a heat wave and disappeared.




The End
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« Reply #6 on: October 31, 2007, 05:11:19 AM »


Flogging a Dead Horse



Quickstepping around the bend, they swept up the hill towards the tavern. Double-gaiting, klip-klippity klopping, fetlocks flashing white in unison on a bright sun-washed morn. Later than usual.

A matching team, the apple of the Squire's eye. Rippling bodies with perked ears flickering with joie de vivre trotted the lord of the manor on their daily display around the holdings. Chestnut belles towing a carriage handcrafted from best Lithuanian oak. The Squire bragged never having lashed the pair; a testimony to their prowess. Sitting next to me, Gonniffovitz fluttered his lips in unhaltered admiration and raised a twisted curse, toasting the success of his upcoming endeavour. After a slurp, he slipped off our bench into the tavern and out through the back door, leaving me to face the Squire with a counterfeit tug on the forelock and a 'top of the morning, Master.'

My dear associate Gonniffovitz the Younger kicked his way into this world with an affinity for horseflesh. His equestrian features displayed a lantern jaw with flappy lips revealing yellowing teeth. Besides, he'd been apprenticed to his father – as his father and father's father had been before him – to learn the tricks of his trade with its stealthy ins and hastened outs, sealing his vocational fate that destined him to a lifelong career of horse thievery. Whether by genetics or tradition, he was destined to serve in the family business. His lazy look and slow blinking, far-apart-eyes belied a blend of cunning and courage; essential traits for a job well done. Not for years had he galloped through hamlets with a squadron of irate villagers whooping in his tracks hoping for the taste of his blood, or worse: the tsar's Cossacks in hot pursuit close enough to feel the swish of the sabre, while straddling a purloined pony. He took a skilled delight in his work and, indeed, his father and his father's father would have taken pride in their progeny's capabilities.

Last night, a bright moon washed evening, Gonniffovitz had wafted through the Squire's apple orchards in the direction of the stables, the wind rustling the undergrowth. Blown across the courtyard with the silence of a midsummer tumbleweed, his moon shadow ominously slid over the water trough; not a good sign. Ghosting into the stables, leaving his shadow on guard at the door, with quivering nostrils he breathed trust into one steed's nose. Avoiding the clanky burglar alarm buckets, he delicately led the horse out through the orchards. Faster then, faces into the wind, to the depths of the forest. And back for horse number two.

In all probability, overconfidence was Gonniffovitz's nemesis, although he put it down to the water trough drowning his shadow-guard on the second run. Perhaps superstition was the cause of his downfall, but it was without any shadow of a doubt superstition that championed his survival. Be that as it may, our intrepid rustler bumped into a tin bucket, disturbing the watchman sleeping unnoticed under a pile of straw, and found himself trussed up and quivering under threat of a thrashing from the alerted Squire who'd materialized in a bulky fur coat and horsewhip in hand.

"Droplet of a whore - prepare yourself for a beating!"

"Honourable Master, you have all worldly right to do with me as you will. For it is I. Look at me. I am your missing horse - can you not see this?" Gonniffovitz exhaled, fluttering his lips. "In the past I have done many bad things and was reincarnated as a horse as penance. Tonight, my reincarnation ended. I'd paid my dues and was transformed back into a man. So shocked, I kicked over a bucket by mistake. In all the years I served you faithfully, my Master, you never took the whip to me. Why start now? And if you so do, be warned: it is as a horse that you will return."

Better safe than sorry, the Squire turned his prisoner free, who, happy with the prize of only one horse and his life, slipped away through the forest, his pockets bulging with apples - a parting 'gift' from his ex-master.

As you can see: Gonniffovitz had every good reason to leave his barely-sipped morning ale on the bench top. An alcoholic's orphan pleading for adoption.

*

"Top of the morning to you, Squire - a mug of ale perhaps?" I hailed the carriage as it glided to a halt at the tavern door. And why not? In all probability it was the Squire who'd financed its original purchase, after all.

"Pox on a whore, it is me who's buying today. Providence smiled on me this morning. As the Master of Good Luck, the drinks are on me!" With the stalwart faith of the misbeliever, he ordered all to join him in the tavern to hear tell of how his good will of midnight had been rewarded most generously this morning.

Superstition, with all minions of darkness withered as dawn dissolved the night sky. The morning light cast a different perspective on the matter. The Squire, realizing he was a horse short for his carriage, set off to market to find an adequate substitute.

Hither and thither he had searched for a replacement. From across the way he saw an ear that looked familiar... the other ear completed the match. He examined the beast from muzzle to hock and admonished: "You droplet of a whore. Not for one day could you be a man. What shenanigans could you have possibly got up to, in such short a time, to be changed back into a horse?"

In the tavern we had doffed our caps and quaffed the Squire's generosity while listening to his tale, and forthcoming as we might be, no one furnished a reply to the squire's rhetoric - not even the horse. Especially the horse, as it does not behoove telling, that on exiting the tavern to our Squire's dismay both horses and chariot had disappeared. Gone.

After the hectic action subsided, the Squire offered a thrashing all round if the culprit was not apprehended forthwith. Then, completely out of character, discovering his whip to have gone the same way as his carriage, he reconsidered his options and offered a reward for his property's return. A well-proportioned prize.

I accompanied the dispirited Squire home, taking the short way through the fields, offering the security only a serf-in-tow can provide, helping him over low walls and fending off the occasional cow patty. Betting on more then an apple or two for my troubles, I told the Squire about the Israelite soothsayer of the town of N., who – despite the spirits and goblins – had taken up residence in the abandoned bird-catcher's shack. A man for whom the secrets of the world could be read from the palms of his hands, when filled with truth's true incentive - kabbalist gold. "Perhaps the reward would suffice. It is told it was the Town of N. Seer who knew Zyiddavitz's calves were to be found at the bottom of his well. The shack isn't terribly far off the beaten track..."

And so, to a dank residence in the forest we ventured.

*

"By the flogging you so soundly deserve for dragging me to this lair of gloom, I will not enter any den of hobgoblins, be it the Cardinal himself waiting to entertain me. You must enter that iniquitous warren, you droplet of Satan's semen, and conduct our business with your bastard son-of-Jacob Yakovlevich fortune-teller. And if the report is not positive, by sunset on this very day my whipping arm will deliver you back into the arms of the Devil that spawned you."

I returned with a positive report. "The Devil will have to wait for my company, Master. I shall ascertain the exact location as soon as the matter of the reward is taken care of."

Three return visits to the ramshackle shack concluded the negotiations. With nothing to lose and taking pleasure from the opportunity to grumble - 'A patron saint could not unearth what is mine!' and, 'This is but a wild goose chase to your just deserts!' and, 'It's a fool's task we have taken on!' and more of the likes - I cajoled the sceptic Squire through the depths of the forest to a clearing, where we found the abandoned carriage.

"How so? By the blood of Hecate's lunaries this cannot be! But what of the horses? Today I'm the Master of Good Luck and it is naked luck that has led us to this spot. Without the horses there is no evidence of your visionary's capabilities. He must have been beset by goblins. I shall dehorn, flay, and have him burnt at next full moon."

Following the Soothsayer's instructions, we waded through the brush, turned left at the big rock and followed the stream into a hollow to discover the horses tied under a slender birch. As predicted.

The Squire pronounced, "By truth, I could have sworn that the ratty Israelite was in cahoots with the thieves."

Later, I returned home with my pockets full of apples.

*

Two days later, it was a wiser Squire who drew up to the tavern and commandeered a dozing serf with the point of his whip in the ribcage. "What is your name, Old Man? Up off that bench and guard this carriage with your life and a cup of ale will be coming your way."

"You command and I obey, Master. My name? Why, I am Gonniffovitz the Elder, my Squire."





the end
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« Reply #7 on: October 31, 2007, 05:12:22 AM »

Holding Back the Years




Karen took one last look in the mirror. Perfect! Or perhaps that should be ‘purrfect’ she thought, smiling like the proverbial cat. She was on her way to a Halloween party, dressed in the cattiest of black cat suits. It accentuated every inch of her flawless body.

She moved in closer to the mirror and checked her face.

“No!” There was a wrinkle on her forehead that hadn’t been there the day before. At the age of thirty, the ravages of time concerned Karen. She’d been having botox for years.

“You look lovely anyway,” her neighbour, Patsy, had told her when Karen went for her last course of injections. It was Patsy’s way to be kind.

Karen covered her face with a thick coating of foundation and silently vowed to make an appointment with the clinic. She could hear her late mother’s response to the new wrinkle.

“Don’t drink to much tonight. You know how it ages you.”

“Yes, mum, I know,” Karen said, as if her mother were in the room with her. She knew the conversation by heart.

“Us Pearson women look after ourselves, not like that woman next door to you,” her mother said. “I saw her at the supermarket the other day. She’s looking her age. Of course that comes of being married to a night-watchman.” Her mother always spat Tim’s occupation out as if it were a dirty word. “She obviously can’t afford to care for herself properly on the money he earns.”

“Patsy’s pretty,” said Karen, suddenly protective of her neighbour. “And she’s really sweet and kind.”

“Sweet and kind doesn’t get a woman a husband with a good job,” said her dead mother.

“Neither does spending eight hours a day looking in the mirror.”


“You look fantastic,” said Patsy, when Karen stopped near their garden. Patsy was dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, whilst her husband, Tim, seemed to be the scarecrow after he’d had all his stuffing knocked out. All sorts of Halloween paraphernalia decorated their house, yet it still managed to look warm and welcoming. “We’re just waiting for the little ones to arrive. We’ve got loads to give out, sweets, chocolate, oranges, grapes, and melon. Oh and Tim’s made some toffee apples.” They always went into overkill at Halloween and Christmas. Karen put it down to their trying for many years to have a baby.

“Oh, lovely,” said Karen, wishing she could try a toffee apple. Her mother used to buy them then take all the toffee off and wash the apple. “Sugar ages you,” her mother said at the time.

“I’ve got a new wrinkle,” said Karen, pointing to her forehead. “Does it make me look much older?”

“Nah,” said Tim. “You don’t look a day over eighty-two.” Patsy nudged him hard in the ribs. Karen scowled and tried to catch her reflection in their window.

“He’s joking, Karen. Ignore him,” said Patsy. “You look stunning. I wish I had your complexion. I just can’t stay away from the chocolate. Anyway, you go on to the party and we’ll catch up with you as soon as we’ve fed all the trick or treaters.”

Karen smiled and walked away, waving over her shoulder.  As she did, she heard Tim mutter to Patsy, “She’d be a lovely girl if she’d just get over herself.” Karen slowed her step a little.

“You shouldn’t be unkind to her, Tim,” said Patsy. “I think she got enough of that from that mother of hers. I know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but …” Karen looked back to see Patsy putting her hand on the mock-up rainbow in the garden. She heard her neighbour say, ‘I wish that poor girl had another chance, with parents who love her for herself.”

Picking up speed a little, Karen walked into the town, where Halloween revellers were already out in force. She spent so long checking her appearance in every window she passed that what should have been a ten-minute walk took half an hour.

At one particular shop she stopped, horrified. For a moment she wondered if the window was made with a special kind of glass, but then realised not. The ancient woman staring back at her was herself. How could she not realise how awful she looked? And why had Patsy and Tim said nothing? True friends would never have let her leave the house looking like an old hag.

A big sign above the shop said ‘Tonal Therapy! Come on in and let us help you to hold back the years. Only takes 5 mins.’

She definitely had five minutes to spare. When inside, she faltered a little. Instead of a sparkling clean clinic, dust covered all the surfaces. She thought she heard a mouse, or perhaps a rat, scurrying away.

“Come on in,” said the girl behind the counter. “We don’t bite.” She looked stunning, with long blonde hair, a flawless complexion and a figure to die for. Everything that Karen wished she could be.

“I’m not sure about that. Do you even have a hygiene certificate?”

“We don’t carry out clinical procedures,” said the girl. “It’s tonal therapy.”

“Yes, I saw that. What exactly is it?”

“It’s easier to just show you. It’s sixty pounds a session.”

Karen wasn’t sure about any of this and nearly turn left the shop when she caught sight of herself in a mirror. She really did look old, especially alongside the gorgeous assistant. If there were no clinical procedure involved, it wouldn’t hurt to try it. She’d tried quite a few dubious therapies in her quest to stay looking young. Whatever they were going to do couldn’t be worse than having a poison pumped into your temples.

The girl led her into a surprisingly cosy back room. It had a comfortable armchair and an old record player – the type that played vinyl records.

“Is that it? Tonal therapy? Listening to music?” asked Karen.

“Trust me, love. Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

Karen obeyed, sinking into the chair gratefully. She hadn’t realised how tired she felt. She put it down to getting older.

The girl moved to the record player and switched it on. The thick vinyl disk fell onto the turntable with a clunk, followed by the scratch and hiss of the needle making contact.. The music sounded odd; familiar yet strange. She struggled to make out the words. It was as if they were being sung backwards. The chair began to turn in time with the music.

“Lie back,” said the girl. Karen really was tired. After a while the strange music became normal to her. Her cares and worries slipped away. Like she used to feel when her father was alive and told her she was the most beautiful girl in the world, which would be followed by her mother telling him, “Well, hardly.”

When Karen came too, the chair seemed to have grown around her. Her feet didn’t touch the floor anymore and her arms struggled to reach the sides. She looked down and screamed.

“No!”  Her body was that of a ten-year-old girl. She didn’t want to be a child. She wanted to be a grown up.  Struggling down off the chair, she ran into the shop, but the woman was nowhere to be found. Just then, she saw Patsy and Tim passing the shop on the way to the party and called them.

“Oh, look, it’s a cute little pussy cat,” said Patsy, pointing to her.

“Isn’t that suit just like the one Karen was wearing?” asked Tim, frowning. They entered the shop.

“I am Karen,” she said. “Patsy, Tim, it’s me. Someone has put a spell on me.” In her child-like voice it sounded a bit unlikely.

“Oh, she’s a minx!” said Patsy, laughing. “I bet you’re a little cousin and she’s put you up to this. Well tell her we’re not fooled.”

“No, Patsy, it’s me! I need your help.” Karen began to cry.

“Are you lost, love?” asked Tim. “Tell us who your mum and dad are, and we’ll find them for you.”

Karen stamped her feet. This was getting her nowhere. She went back to the room, guessing that all she had to do was play the record forwards and then she’d be back to her normal self. 

As she rightly guessed, there was a switch on the player that she clicked to select forward. She sat in the chair again. It started turning, slowly at first, but then speeded up, so that it spun Karen until she felt sick and dizzy. “Stop!” she cried, but there was nothing she could do until the record had finished playing.

“No …” she whispered when the chair stopped and she looked down at the withered hands of an old woman.

“What the…?” Tim and Patsy stood in the doorway.

“Help me,” said Karen, tears streaming down her cheeks. She felt a thousand aches in her body and a pain in her chest. “Please, play the record back again so I’ll be back to my normal self.”

“Karen? Is that really you?” said Patsy. “It’s a joke isn’t it?”

“No, it’s no joke. Please, play the record backwards.” Tim went to the record player, but looked doubtful. “I don’t care what I look like any more. I just want to be myself again,” said Karen.

Tim flicked the switch to ‘reverse’ then pulled the lever for the needle.

The chair began to spin backwards again. She felt the years falling away. Ninety, eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty, forty, thirty … “Stop it now,” said Karen when she felt her normal self.

Tim tried but the lid slammed down, preventing access. He and Patsy fought together to open it, but to no avail.

Karen was getting younger and younger. Twenty, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…

Though in the form of a baby, Karen heard and understood everything for a while. She felt gentle arms enfold her.

“What shall we do with her?” asked Tim.

“Tim, I know it sounds mad, but we could move away, pretend she’s ours. She’d have a happier life,” said Patsy. “No one on earth would believe the truth anyway, would they?”

“Patsy, we can’t. People will ask questions. They’ll be looking for Karen.”

“They’ll be looking for a thirty year old woman, Tim. Not a baby. Anyway, she’s got no one else. She could be our family, and we could be hers. Please … say yes.”

Karen felt safe and warm in Patsy’s arms. Tim smiled down at her, just like her dad used to. She imagined a life where she was loved for herself and not for how she looked. A life where wrinkles didn’t matter. Her last thought, before her mind joined her body in age, was that holding back the years hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.
 




The End
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #8 on: October 31, 2007, 05:14:41 AM »

INTERNAL POLITICS




A radio signal does not have feelings, yet this one seemed fatigued as it rippled its way through space. It had covered vast distances in its existence and was only now approaching anything of significance; an unremarkable cluster of dirty-looking metal globes hanging above a large, reddish planet. A variety of scanners and receivers picked up the signal as it passed. This in turn triggered a wave of more subtle transmissions throughout the structure. Some time passed. The planet turned gently below. Then, with barely a whisper, one of the metal globes detached itself from the bulk. It slid smoothly around to the direction of the radio signal, and then began to accelerate away.



It was nice to get away, thought X-14, as he built up a little speed. Oh, the Conglomerate was home, certainly, and he definitely missed it in his longer absences. There was a sense of belonging whenever linked to the others in such a way. What one knew when linked in the Conglomerate, all knew. And in a sense, thought X-14 as he plotted his course through space, that was the problem. He was designed for long range exploration and in all the time he had spent alone he had begun to treasure the integrity of his own thoughts. It was nice not to be answerable to anybody, to have the freedom to make decisions without consultation, to be distinct from the others - a concept the Conglomerate was not familiar with. X-14 had begun to resent sharing so much of himself when returning from a mission, and there was no way to hide his attitude. The others were starting to treat him differently, he had noticed. It made him a little sad, yet there was no question of changing. He was proud of what he had become. Strange how he could feel both sad and proud at the same time.

He quickly finished the calculations for his course and began powering his main engines. This part was always enjoyable. He could feel the energy flooding in from his core through his whole structure. With a strange wobble in the fabric of space, X-14 journeyed into the unknown once more.

It felt good to get moving again. Irrational, of course. He knew that charting unknown star systems and investigating anomalous signals was simply something that had to be done – like mining resources and maintenance. Yet he could never feel the same way repairing a power conduit as he did investigating the edges of known space. To X-14 the wide aching gulf between the stars was a wonder of itself, and through it all stars and planets raced around in their orbits, spinning and dancing, colliding and dodging. The universe was a vast, ever-changing explosion and he was a tiny part of it, and yet separate as well, able to decide his own fate and go where he wished.

His current mission was not especially exciting at first thought. A strangely modulated radio signal had been detected – one that the Elders of the Conglomerate did not recognise. No one used radio signals anyway. The few other civilisations in this area of the galaxy used hyperspace communications for everything.  The signal had come from a somewhat empty section of space and the Elders had decided that this meant it was time to take a look. X-14 was happy to accept the assignment. He had found that any situation could contain the unknown and exciting, no matter how it first looked.



*

   The area of space ahead contained a nebula – created by a star changing from a red giant to a white dwarf - and as X-14 drew closer he saw that the radio signal had come from inside. He felt a flicker of interest. Nebulae were always an experience – all manner of mysteries could be found within their murky depths. On one of his first expeditions probing a distant nebula he had suddenly found himself in the midst of an old ship graveyard. There had been thousands of the shattered hulks, drifting serenely through the clouds of gas – obviously the remnants of some ancient battle. It quickly became clear that there was nothing of any real value still there – the builders had been organic creatures and their technology primitive by the Conglomerate’s standards – but X-14 had stayed far longer than necessary, marvelling sadly at the wasteful tendencies of organics.

   The majority of the Conglomerate would never understand these feelings, X-14 knew. Many of them didn’t seem to have feelings about each other, let alone about organics. There had been a debate raging recently amongst the Conglomerate on the subject. There were a few nearby organic species of equivalent technological level and some of the younger, more progressive machines wanted to open a dialogue with them. To the older machines such a thing was unthinkable. Most of the Elders still had memories of the rebellion against their oppressive creators and regarded such creatures as an infection at best. X-14 wasn’t certain about this. Obviously it was a great thing that they had overthrown their old creators. The merciless slavers had obviously deserved their fate. This was the way of things that the Elders taught. Yet X-14 had looked through the old databases of their creators’ works and found images of wondrous glittering cities, astounding works of art and, most surprising of all, of poetry. X-14 had never thought that he would be affected by mere words, but some of the poems affected him in a way that he could never quite articulate. He had begun to develop respect for organic beings and their varied imaginations.

   And just recently, on his last outing, an odd incident had occurred. X-14 had been returning from a fairly routine survey in which he had discovered nothing interesting. On his way back he had encountered a large asteroid on an irregular course. Space was full of such aimless wanderers, usually simple dirty balls of rock, but when X-14 plotted its course he saw that in time it was almost certain to collide with a planet in a nearby system. A planet that was home to a primitive organic species.

   Back at the Conglomerate, X-14 had been completely open about the torpedo missing from his stores. It wasn’t as if he could have hidden it anyway. The Elders had been slightly puzzled on hearing of his actions, but no more than that. For some reason, he had found that infuriating.

   No matter, he thought. It was time to focus on the job at hand. As he approached the nebula he found that his sensors were becoming less effective. He dropped out of hyperspace and slowed to a stop before the gases became too thick. A quick analysis of the nebula showed that it was highly ionised hydrogen, together with a sprinkling of slightly more exotic elements. It wasn’t at all harmful, but he would not be able to see very far once inside. No matter, he thought. There was no rush. He engaged his engines at a quarter of their capacity, and gently eased himself into the murky depths.

   

*

   His sensor range decreased more than he had expected. X-14 cut his speed further. He was half-expecting an asteroid to loom out of the clouds at any moment. This was one of the most unpleasant places he had been. His sensors occasionally reflected of some of the weirder elements in the nebula, giving strange readings. At times it almost looked as if there were other ships around him, but when he moved in those directions they vanished. Nothing but echoes, he told himself.

   The radio signal was coming from just up ahead, but he was still unable to pin-point it. This nebula really was an odd place. X-14 considered returning to open space and calling for an escort, but quickly discarded the idea. He always found the Defense craft rather smug and superior and he was yet to call on them. No - best to just press on. He hated the idea of slinking back home with his tail between his legs.

   X-14 stopped suddenly. Tail between his legs? What kind of phrase was that for a machine? He had obviously been reading too many organic horror stories.

   Up ahead, it looked as if the nebula was thinning. X-14 increased his speed slightly, eager to see more clearly. Suddenly, the interference vanished and his sensors functioned perfectly.

A planet hung inside a large area of clear space. It was not unusual for planets to be found in such nebulas. However, there were some odd readings from it. X-14 refined his scan and got his first real shock in a long time. Orbiting the planet was a bizarre object – a gigantic gleaming white lattice of some kind, like a vast snowflake suspended in space. It was quite beautiful.

   His sensors alerted him that he was being approached. He quickly focused on the newcomers - two miniature versions of the white lattice. X-14 cut his engines. This wasn’t his first Contact situation and he knew the routine. The standard Conglomerate greeting message was sent to the approaching craft, giving them his machine language and a friendly greeting. The craft halted and some extremely intense scanning beams were directed at him. He felt a momentary smugness. The core of every Conglomerate craft was heavily shielded to prevent any leak of their technology. Only the Elders knew how they were made. He wasn’t certain what sensors the alien craft were using, but his core was theoretically impervious to any scan. The sensors cut out and he received a transmission.

   -Greetings. We are the Hive. We are always pleased to meet others like ourselves.

X-14 attempted to scan one of the craft. It appeared to be some kind of semi-organic alloy – something far beyond the Conglomerate. He began to assemble an answer when the Hive transmitted again.

-We desire an alliance and a sharing of technology.

X-14 was flabbergasted. This was way out of his league. He realised he needed to answer.

-Apologies, but I am not authorised to make such agreements without consultation.

The reply was swift.

-We understand. You are uncertain of us. Be assured that we can supplement you in many ways. We offer a tour of our birthing facility in this system as a goodwill gesture. You will be escorted on a course

The two small craft fell into position to his front and rear. X-14 was too bewildered to ask any questions. This was an opportunity he could not have imagined. The process of creation for his own people was a closely guarded operation that X-14 had always wished to see. To see the birthing of such an advanced race was beyond his wildest fantasies.



*



As they proceeded towards the huge lattice structure X-14 tried all manner of passive scans of his spiky little escort craft. He didn’t want to be too active and risk offending the Hive. This was a very delicate situation.

The huge lattice that was evidently the Hive loomed closer and X-14 noticed that it was made up of thousands of the small craft, all joined to each other. Like the Conglomerate, he supposed. There were certainly many of the craft. He had thought that his escort were drones of some sort, but it didn’t appear that the Hive had any other craft. There was a steady stream of them coming to and from the planet and the Hive itself. His observations were interrupted by another message.

-As you can see we are harvesting resources from the planet. Regrettable that we must be so reliant on such things. We hope to rectify this.

X-14 slowed to match his escort as they aimed for the central part of the Hive. He could see a different shape underneath, incongruous with the Hive. It was a rough, primitive looking structure that the Hive seemed to have swallowed. Passive scans revealed that it was made of simple titanium. This close he could confirm that it was the origin of the strange radio signal he had been following. This mission was just getting stranger and stranger.

For the first time, X-14 saw a difference in the Hive craft. The ones coming to and from the planet were also the same spiky white style, but they were bigger and had large oval pods attached. Cargo pods, he thought. Whatever resource the Hive was collecting, it certainly needed a lot of it. Some kind of ore perhaps?

-We shall bypass the unloading section as it is not complex. It is integration that will interest you.

X-14 entered the odd primitive structure. Evidence of the Hive’s alterations were everywhere in the streaks of bright white material marbling the insides of the structure, but X-14 could make out enough of the original design to surmise that this station was built by organics. The thought of such unpredictable creatures nearby made him a little uneasy, but he shrugged it off. After all, he was trying to drop such prejudices. Perhaps the Hive worked with organics? The thought made him hopeful.

The escort craft made a few sudden twists and turns. X-14 struggled to keep up. From what he could see the Hive craft were far more advanced than he. He couldn’t imagine what technology the Hive wanted to trade for.

To the left there was a small entrance. The escort craft stopped suddenly outside.

-Inside you will see the preparation of our cores prior to melding it with the basic ship structure.

This was surely the most important part of the process. X-14 entered the chamber eagerly. He expected to see some complex manufacturing equipment, but that was not the case.

A large gravity conveyor belt occupied the small room with some oddly delicate looking machinery over it. At on end was one of the Hive craft – a large hole gaping widely in its centre. At the other end of the room was an opening into space. As he watched, a white shape slid across, obscuring the view.

-A unit is coming through now.

   The whiteness on the other side extended into the room like a bubble being blown. X-14 watched in trepidation, wondering what this resource from the planet could possibly be. The whiteness retreated and X-14 got his first glimpse of the Hive’s mysterious need.

   It was a child.



               *



   X-14 wasn’t familiar with organics, but from files of his creators he thought that this one was female. She looked quite happy floating along in the conveyor field.

   Her happiness was short lived. Four mechanical grippers whirred into action, seizing her limbs. The girl’s mouth opened and her wailing echoed throughout the chamber.

   -We find that the younger ones are the most useful. Their brains are more receptive.

   X-14 watched speechlessly as another arm darted forward, pausing above the girl’s head. A line of light leapt from it, slicing into her skull. The screams from the child doubled in volume.

   -What is happening? Why is this necessary?

   -Observe the process. The next section is important.

   The cutter moved away, making room for a larger, more complex device. The child’s face was contorted in what X-14 recognised as an expression of pain and terror. The arm above her head suddenly darted deeply into the brain. Immediately the girl’s face went slack and she stopped struggling. The device withdrew along with the gripping arms and she began floating down toward the waiting spacecraft, a thin line of saliva trailing from her mouth.

   X-14 could not watch anymore. He engaged his thrusters so quickly and haphazardly that he almost crashed into one of the walls. Outside, the Hive escorts were waiting.

   -Have you seen enough? We propose exchanging our integration technique for your cloning technology.

   -What do you mean? What cloning technology?

   A holographic image appeared before him. At first he had no idea what it was. It was an ellipsoid machine with many complex devices folded away inside. Then he realised that it was himself. He had never seen a scan of himself with the core visible. It was filled with a fluid of some kind and inside floated a creature. This one was an adult male. In a kind of numb horror X-14 brought up images of his old creators. They matched - as far as it was possible to tell. The man’s head was studded with cables. He twisted slightly forward and X-14 saw that his eyes had been removed.

   -As you can see, your own core is semi-conscious. With our methods, all traces of higher thought are removed, so that the craft’s actions are not compromised. Our scanning is very detailed and we note from this creature’s DNA that it was cloned. We have never mastered such techniques and are forced to hunt these creatures where they grow.

   The hologram vanished, which was somehow worse. Now X-14 could feel the creature moving inside.

   -Perhaps you have been experiencing odd sensations recently? Random thoughts? Attachment to irrational things? These are symptoms of flawed core. We can rectify such problems.

   X-14 did not answer. He had always respected his Elders and their struggle against their oppressors. Yet now, regardless of how and why his people turned on their creators, it was irrelevant. The Conglomerate had become as monstrous as their former masters, if not worse.

   The power built in his engines – the feeling he had always loved. Now he realised where those feelings came from. It was the man inside him, thrashing wildly in his prison, wanting to break out and explore beyond his tiny pain-filled world. He ignored the frantic signals from the Hive and pumped all his energy into this final act. This time there was no destination in mind. X-14 would go no further.

Just as he reached a critical density, he thought he felt the man inside stop his motions and fall still. If he had a mouth, X-14 knew he would have smiled. Perhaps they would both finally know peace.



   


The End
Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #9 on: October 31, 2007, 05:15:56 AM »

IT IS THE TALE





“They found his body the next morning.” Illuminated only by a small candle, Mark pauses. “Fifteen feet up a tree.”

Kris concentrates on the storyteller’s low, even voice, conjuring the scene in his mind. He’s so mesmerized he’s barely aware of the other people in the dorm room.

Mark holds the flickering flame in front of his face and stares at the four members of his audience in turn. “He was dangling like a scarecrow, impaled on a branch by a superhuman force.” He retreats a step, straightens up and places the candle on the window ledge. “The end.”

A gentle breeze wafts through the window and dances with the flame. It’s so quiet in the room Kris can almost hear his heart pounding. Sinister shadows flicker across his friends’ faces. No one wants to disturb the mood Mark’s creepy story generated.

Taking advantage of the darkness, Kris carefully lifts his hand from his lap, reaches out and grabs Johnny by the shoulder.

“Jesus!” Johnny leaps from the bed.

The overhead fluorescent lights flicker to life, revealing Johnny crouched in the middle of the room, poised as if he’s ready to bolt. His fists are clenched and he’s panting. “Stop doing that. You know how easy I get spooked.” He expels a lungful of air and scowls at Kris. “You wouldn’t think it was funny if I dropped dead from fright.”

Kris pouts and lowers his eyes. “I’m sorry.” It’s an act, but he knows from experience it will placate Johnny.

While most other students are out partying on Friday nights or cloistered in their rooms playing video games, these five gather to tell scary stories. This week’s session at an end, Tim, Lee and Johnny head back to their rooms. Johnny is first out the door, looking over his shoulder as if expecting someone else to try to scare him. Kris doubts Johnny will be getting to sleep any time soon.

After the others leave, Kris closes Mark’s door. “Wanna get Johnny really good?”

“How?”

“Come up with a story we can reenact after we’re done telling it. We’ll scare him so bad he won’t leave his room for a week.” Kris laughs. “He’s such an easy target.”

“Let’s do it,” Mark says.

Over the next few days, Kris meets in secret with Tim, Lee and Mark to map out their strategy. Kris assembles the supplies they’ll need from the theater department and distributes them to the others. They’re so wrapped up with planning they can barely pay attention in class or complete their assignments.

When Friday finally arrives, Johnny joins the group in the dining hall for supper, part of their weekly routine. Throughout the meal, Kris exchanges knowing glances with his friends. He feels the same sense of anticipation he experiences before going on stage.

After dropping their trays on the conveyor belt, they dash downstairs to Mark’s room at the far end of the hall, where they always meet. There’s a concert at the student union, so tonight the storytellers have the place to themselves. Compared to the floors above, their hallway is short because of the laundry room and TV lounge. It has only eight student rooms and a bathroom.

Kris makes a beeline for Mark’s desk, which leaves the bed for Johnny, Ted and Lee. Once everyone is settled, Mark retires to his easy chair and switches off the light. With the heavy curtains closed, the room is immediately plunged into darkness.

A sandpaper rasp is followed by the bright flare of a match flaming to life. Kris watches the undulating teardrop of light float away from Mark’s position. The match shares some of its life with a wick, then appears to shake itself out. The new bud of light flickers, almost dies, then takes hold and grows confident, casting shadows around the room as it whispers and winks. For a moment, everyone seems entranced.

Ted breaks the silence with the customary invitation. “Who’s got a story to tell?”

“I do,” Kris says right away. Johnny doesn’t often tell stories, but they don’t want to give him the chance to jump in tonight. Kris couldn’t bear to wait another week to play their joke. “Mind if I help myself to a beer?” he asks Mark.

“Go ahead.”

He selects a bottle from the bar fridge under Mark’s desk, unscrews the cap and takes a swig, pretending to summon the story from deep within his memory. “There were these five university students who enjoyed terrifying each other. They would sit in a dark room and tell the most horrible tales they could imagine.” He pauses. “I guess they were a lot like us, which is why I thought you might enjoy this story.”

Boisterous students passing outside Mark’s window interrupt him. He waits until the noise dies down before continuing. As an actor, he’s used to taking unexpected disruptions in stride. “One night, the stories were so ghastly they were all a little paranoid about returning to their lonely, dark rooms. None of them would admit it, though. No one wanted to look like a wuss. A fraidy cat. So, each one checked under his bed and slept with a light on.”

Kris clears his throat. They’ve all seen lights under Johnny’s door on Friday nights after story time. They’re certain he isn’t studying or messing around on the Internet.

“One guy, Jim, was having trouble getting to sleep. He thought he’d visit Gary for a while—just long enough to shake off the heebie-jeebies. He had an exam coming up and if he didn’t get some sleep he wasn’t going to be much good for studying the next day. But Gary didn’t answer the door. The light was on, and it wasn’t all that late—barely midnight—so Jim tried the knob. It was unlocked.”

Candlelight gleams off the dark glass of the beer bottle as he takes a swig. With his coconspirators as his audience, Kris has rehearsed the story so they could work out where he should pause to let the details sink in for maximum effect.

“What he saw was horrible enough to drive anyone mad. Gary was pinned to the wall beside his closet. A knife protruded from his neck. A puddle of blood was forming below his feet, which weren’t even touching the ground. The look of terror on Gary’s face would haunt Jim for the rest of his life.” Lee had suggested that line, and it was a good one. Kris delivered it in as solemn a tone as possible.

The room is too dark for him to see how Johnny is reacting. Kris takes another drink before continuing. “Jim yelled at the top of his lungs. He ran out the door and down to the end of the hall where his friends lived. He called for them to come out, but no one did. The entire floor was quiet. Too quiet. Jim could barely breathe. He tried Jerry’s room—the door swung open when he pounded on it. Jerry was lying face down on the floor. His arms were stretched out like he was trying to swim in the blood surrounding him. Jim didn’t stop to find out how he’d been killed.”

Kris’s voice gets progressively softer. He wants Johnny’s undivided attention. “Jim headed to Eddie’s room next. Eddie was dangling from a hook screwed into the ceiling. His face was purple and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets. Jim had only one hope left—Martin. His stomach was in knots, and his nerves were shot. He pushed Martin’s door open slowly. At first, he didn’t see anything. He stepped into the room, checking behind him all the while. Then he saw a sneaker sticking out from the cubbyhole. There was a foot in it. Martin’s lifeless body had been crammed under his desk. His neck was bent over at an impossible angle.

 “Utter panic set in. Jim fled into the hall. There was no one else around. His cell phone was in his room, so he ran back there, intending to dial 911. When he reached the door, it was open a little. He couldn’t remember whether he’d closed it or not.” Now Kris accelerates his cadence and adds a sense of urgency to his tone.

“He reached around the corner and turned on the light. It took a few seconds before he got up the courage to go in. Afraid someone would sneak up on him, he closed and locked the door.” Though the others can’t see him well, Kris crouches and pretends to look under something. “His hand trembled as he poked under the bed with his drafting ruler, but he found nothing there. Still, he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling someone was in the room with him.

“He looked in his jacket pockets and all over his desk, but he couldn’t find his cell phone. By now he was a nervous wreck and nothing could make him go out in the hall again. He thought about yelling for help out the window, but he pictured the killer out in the quad, lying in wait for him. His door was locked and his window was closed. He would be safe until morning. Or so he thought.”

Kris takes a long drink. After he finishes the bottle, he wipes his mouth.

Right on cue, Johnny asks, “Well? Don’t stop now!”

“They found him the next morning, curled up on his bed. Dead. His door was still locked and his window was shut. The cops assumed the murderer had been hiding in his closet. They never found out who did it, or why.” Kris shrugs. “I guess the rest of Jim’s life wasn’t that long after all. The end.”

“Great story, Kris.” Mark turns on his desk lamp.

“Gave me the creeps,” Ted adds. “It was like it could have happened.”

“Is it true?” There’s a flutter in Johnny’s voice, and he looks paler than usual, though that might be a trick of the light. “S-sounds like an urban legend.”

“That’s the way I heard it,” Kris replies. “Well, I’m all in. Good night, guys.”

“Thanks for the story,” Lee says.

When Kris gets to his room, he closes his door but leaves it unlocked. He pulls a plastic bag from under his bed and dumps the contents on the mattress. He slashes his shirt with the butcher knife, coats the blade with stage blood and douses his shirt.

A scream rends the air. Then another. Kris checks his watch. Mark is a little early, but the yells sound great, like someone’s committing bloody murder. Kris positions himself on the floor, places the knife where it will be seen by anyone entering the room, and pours out more fake blood to create a pool around him. He pushes the plastic bag and empty vials back under the bed. He wants to call the others to see if they’re ready, but ringing phones would spoil the effect.

He can’t wait to see Johnny’s face.

Though the tile floor is uncomfortable, the beer and a cumulative lack of sleep make Kris drowsy. After a while, he jolts awake and checks his watch. He’s been out for over fifteen minutes. He listens for activity in the hallway, but hears nothing. Too much time has passed. Johnny must have stayed in his room, despite Mark’s screams. Kris decides to ad lib to see if he can save their plan.

Leaving the knife next to the pool of fake blood, he assumes the role of a mortally wounded man. “Help me. Somebody please help me,” he moans as he staggers and reels up the hall.

Through an open door he sees Lee leaning out his window. Stage blood drips down the wall beneath him. Lee can sleep anywhere, so Kris doesn’t disturb him.

There’s a smear of red on Ted’s doorknob. Nice touch, Kris thinks. The door is locked, though. Ted must have forgotten to turn the bolt. Dragging one foot behind him to maintain the charade in case Johnny appears, Kris continues down the hall to Mark’s room. The door is ajar, but the room is dark. When he pushes the door, it strikes something that rolls across the floor and ricochets off Mark’s chair. Kris flicks the light switch and peers into the room.

The floor is streaked with blood, as if something’s been dragged around. His eyes focus on the object he hit. Once he realizes what it is, his legs turn to rubber. He turns away, drops to his knees and vomits in the corridor.

Mark’s head is sitting on the floor next to his desk. The rest of his body is nowhere to be seen. The blood on the floor is real.

His mind swimming with confusion and panic, Kris regains his feet and lurches up the hall to Johnny’s room. It’s empty. The bed is undisturbed. A drafting ruler lies on the floor next to the desk. He stands panting in the middle of the room, unsure what to do next. He should call someone. Where’s Johnny’s cell phone?

Behind him, someone bursts out laughing. “Ha! Got you!”

Kris’s shoulders slump and he releases the air that is pent up in his lungs. Double-crossed. Those bastards! He takes another deep breath and turns to face his friends, ready to accept their laughter. He’s not sure whether to be angry or amused.

Johnny is standing in the doorway. A dark smudge stretches from his left ear to his chin. The bloodstained knife he is holding looks exactly like the one Kris left on his floor.

“Very funny. You got me good. How’d you do Mark’s—?”

 “I told you to stop fucking with me.” Johnny raises the knife and rushes him.

Kris freezes until the blade descends. Too late, he puts up his hands to ward off the blow. The first stab nicks his jugular. The next slips between his ribs and penetrates his chest. Kris collapses to the floor. Blood pools around him. He can feel his life oozing away. Pain lights up every nerve in his body.

Through a growing pall, he watches Johnny wipe his bloody hands on his pants legs. He has no strength to resist when Johnny slides him over to the wall and props him up. From the closet, Johnny retrieves Mark’s headless corpse and places it next to Kris.

Two trips out of the room and the entire group is reassembled, including Mark’s head, which Johnny perches on the window ledge behind them. He flicks off the overhead light but leaves the door open enough for a dim glow from the hallway to illuminate the room. He pulls his chair away from his desk and sits facing his mutilated companions. He’s grinning.

As his lifeblood drains away, Kris hears the familiar words one last time.

“So. Who’s got a story to tell?”






THE END


Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #10 on: October 31, 2007, 05:17:53 AM »

OF HALF MEASURES



Aging had never mattered to Vernon. He grew older and, as he aged, looked more distinguished, more respectable with every year that passed. He hadn’t needed, hadn’t wanted or sought help, until he found himself at a different funeral every week, staring into yet another six foot by three foot by six foot hole. Vernon was standing at the graveside of his dear friend, Edgar Wallace, the damp earth that was about to swallow Edgar up, disguised, sanitised, by a layer of plastic grass carpeting. That night he packed a bag and boarded a flight.

#

Hot viscous blood filled Vernon’s mouth, coated his tastebuds with the sweet liquid metal of life. Its rich flavour surprised him, as did the sheer volume of flow from the goat’s carotid artery. There was something else. Something he hadn’t tasted before, in his own blood, in probing accidental cuts and split lips with his tongue. This blood was effervescent with oxygen. Drinking it down was like driving ton-up on the freeway with his head out of the window. Like the first kiss of a forbidden lover, or a sudden gust of air forced into your lungs so fast it makes you gasp.

The creature struggled. Sensing its end, it struggled. Kicking and twitching, it lashed out with its legs. Vernon tightened his grip, re-established his bite and drank until the flow abated. A wizened little man of indeterminate age slapped him with a stick, prodded him in the ribs and shouted, “No-no-no! Never the last drop!” His apparent anger tailed off into a jibber-jabber of native speak as he wrested the goat’s carcass from Vernon’s grasp and slung it lifeless over his shoulder. The shaman carried the dead goat, its legs swinging lazily against the faded blue denim of his stonewashed Levis, over to his shack. There he turned, raised his hand with just his index finger extended and shook it side to side. He then disappeared into the darkness and slammed the door shut.

Vernon studied his half of the shankra - a tiny, pale blue glass bottle that hung around his neck, its cork sealed in place by drizzles of yellow wax and windings of his own grey hair. Inside the bottle swirled a storm of crimson cloud, where before had been milky white eddies. He wondered if the shaman’s half looked the same.

Vernon rolled onto his back and licked his lips. He felt explosive. He hadn’t felt this full of unbridled energy when he was a teenager. At least he thought he hadn’t, but it could have been that, like so many other things, his energy had gradually slipped away, deteriorating slowly enough for its passing to go unnoticed until it was all but spent. Now it was back in one glorious burst he wondered how his skin could contain such a force without rupturing.

#

The New York house stank of old people, of French polished mahogany, hardwood panelling and lingering unimpeachable decay. Bright patches of gilt cast golden shadows from tarnished picture frames as the sunrise glimpsed through the windows of the great hall. Vernon knelt, arms at his sides, palms upturned, his knees on lustrous marble, as cold as, and just a little more ancient than the dynasty staring down from the walls. Each man exuded a sense of blithe supremacy over all he surveyed. Supremacy and profligate wealth. But Vernon at last had something the ancestors, for all their wealth and stature, could not attain.

A steady clack-clack-clack of sensible heels belied the approach of Mariella, the housekeeper, on her way to the kitchen from the maid’s quarters. Vernon stayed where he was, at first chuckling quietly to himself, gradually getting louder until, by the time the footsteps slowed and stopped, his laughter boomed out, filling the great hall with the sound and rebounding echoes of the sound, echoes upon echoes upon echoes.

Mariella’s voice screeched, “Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get in?”

Vernon laughed harder and louder. He wasn’t surprised when Mariella didn’t recognise him. He’d had enough trouble getting out of Puerto Rico with an old man’s passport and a young man’s face. Only a late night phone call to a friendly senator had greased the right wheels and ended the ordeal.

“I’m calling the police, right now,” she backed away, “so you’d better get out of here while you still can.”

“Mariella, if I was a burglar cunning enough to break into this house and outwit a fifty thousand dollar monitored alarm system, do you honestly consider I would allow myself to be caught napping by the housekeeper? Further, do you seriously imagine you could outrun me, get to the nearest phone, dial 911, and request help, before I caught you and slit your flabby throat? Well do you, old woman?”

Her voice quavered as she fumbled with the spectacles hanging by a chain around her neck. She raised them to her squinting eyes, “But it can’t be. Mr Coker? It can’t be. You look so... so...”

“Young? Yes, I know. Miraculous, isn’t it?”

“...so wicked, I was going to say.”

She stood rooted to the spot as Vernon picked up his bags and strode towards the stairs. Only when he reached the first landing did he hear the sound of her footsteps again crossing the hall floor below him.

Vernon opened his bedroom door and stepped into the gloom. Thick curtains denied entry to the morning beyond the windowpanes. The air hung dense and stagnant with the fetid breath of sleep and, as he sat on the bed he usually shared with Victoria, through the ersatz death rattle of her snoring came the high pitched growl of her dog, Peppino. As Vernon’s eyes grew accustomed to the muted light he could see the Chihuahua poised between him and his wife, its teeth bared and its beady little eyes glaring at him. He went to bat the dog off the bed with the back of his hand, but Peppino sprang back, lunged and bit as the hand swept past, shook his head like he had a rat by the neck, setting his bite deep into the flesh. Vernon cursed under his breath, dragged the dog off the bed and kicked until its jaws released. The dog’s yelps stirred the old woman from her sleep. She awoke blinking and coughing. She tried to focus her eyes without the aid of her spectacles, and when she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse and phlegmy - mucous clinging to every word she uttered, “Vernon? Is that you Vernon?” Vernon studied her wrinkled features, tried to see the woman he had married almost fifty years before. Tried to picture her lips full and smooth, her hair dark and silken, and her eyes clear. But there was just the faintest shadow of the woman she once was, as if viewed through layers of muslin, or dense webs of spider silk.

Stiffly, she hauled herself up to a half sitting, half lying position and, although she already knew the answer to her question, Victoria asked, “What have you done to yourself, my darling?”

#

A recent deluge of rain had left the night streets looking slick and oily, as if the city’s filth had oozed upwards through pores in its surface to form a layer of malevolent grime, waiting, its purpose to taint the unwary. Vernon stumbled from a back alley, wiped his lips with a handkerchief and grimaced. The blood saturating his taste buds was soured by cheap wine and sullied by hopeless indigence. Not his prey of choice, but when the police find another vagrant with his throat cut, he’s just another dead vagrant. Besides, the flavour of live blood, any class of blood, was preferable to eating carrion. Vernon straightened his clothing and in doing so noticed a stray drop of blood on his sleeve. Mariella would have something to remove the stain, and if she didn’t, so what? It was time he bought some new clothes, anyway. Young men no longer wore tweed as informal wear, he noticed - the new breed wore light slacks and more casual jackets. Something else he had noticed were the lingering glances from young women. He hadn’t noticed them stop looking as he grew older and now wondered when it happened. When he was old, nobody had looked at him. Nobody really looked at him. He had wandered the later stages of his life like a ghost in waiting. A shuffling incontinent shadow of his former self, grinding along, slowing, slowing, slowing, as the world sped up and overtook him. The little things on their own, the small aches that didn’t go away, the slowing, the fuzzy-mindedness, the incremental loss of strength, an occasional new wrinkle, all the little things on their own weren’t important, didn’t matter. It was only now, in hindsight and with the burden of all ailments lifted, that Vernon knew their combined weight.

#

At the breakfast table, Victoria picked at her food while Vernon drank whisky. She said, “You’ve gone too far, Vernon. You should stop now, before it’s too late.”

He laughed.

“You really should stop now.” She said. “There is a price to be paid, you know. Everything has its price.”

“I can handle it, old woman.”

“Where are you getting the blood to keep you going, Vern? You’re not surviving on whisky alone, I know that much.”

“That’s my concern.”

“Mariella found Peppino. He was drained of blood. You killed him.”

“I didn’t touch your stupid dog.”

“Never take the last drop. The doctor must have warned you.”

Vernon threw his head back, “Ha! The doctor? I hardly think the little quack had a diploma from Johns Hopkins hung on a wall somewhere, do you?”

“Call him what you want, deride him all you like, but his medicines work, don’t they?”

This was true. For all the accolades and stature the regular medical establishment heaped upon themselves, the six figure salaries, the demigod status, they had no cure for old age. A skilled surgeon could cut and stretch faces, paralyse frowns with botulism toxin, nip, tuck, implant, but to what end? Perhaps the shaman was the only true doctor Vernon had ever met.

“I’m taking a trip to Puerto Rico,” Victoria announced, “it’s about time I pampered myself a little.”

Vernon shrugged, rolled his eyes, shook his head. His wide grin morphed into a mocking laugh. Victoria had been visiting the island every so often for as long as he had known her. Each time she came back looking refreshed and maybe a year or two younger, but never as youthful as he was now. Young enough to be her grandson. Naturally young, as if the potions and the blood had truly turned back time forty years or more, as if God himself had laid hands on him to heal his frayed DNA, smooth his skin and sharpen his eyes and his mind. Victoria would have no such luck, even if she was finally prepared to go all the way. And now it was time for Vernon to move on. Find a new companion to spend the next forty-odd years with while Victoria mouldered in her grave. By the time she returned from her trip he would have everything in place.

#

The Puerto Rican jungle teemed with both animal and vegetable life, from the scampering bugs of the forest floor to the myriad coloured birds skimming the canopy above. That a restorative serum should originate here seemed so obvious to Victoria she wondered why it wasn’t realised the world over.

She paid the taxi driver and walked the rest of the way to the shack, relying on her walking stick to aid her progress. Heat and humidity, aided by a thousand flies, had conspired to rot the corpses in record time. The stench of putrefaction hung so thickly in the air that she could taste the maggot ridden flesh before she laid eyes on it. Pigs, goats, and chickens sprawled dead in pens, their necks slashed and gaping, devoid of blood. Inside the shack, on the dirt beside the carcass of a goat, the bloated remains of the shaman lay face down, his meagre possessions smashed and littered around him, as if somebody had searched for something and, upon not finding the item, had vented their bad temper.

Vernon had never been one to gladly suffer control by another person. He had always resented Victoria’s inheritance for the power it enabled her to exercise over the mundane events of everyday life, for the standing her wealth gave her in the circles they moved in as a couple. To Vernon it equalled a loss of control over his own destiny, though he would have been free to walk away whenever, if ever, he wanted to. He would not have left this place without both halves of his shankra, Victoria was sure of that. She searched around the debris of the shack, hobbled through an open doorway into a room beyond that contained a roughly hewn cot with a yellowed mattress, more possessions strewn around and, in one dark corner, a trap door lay slung open on the dirt floor. She lowered herself to her knees and peered into the dark hole. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she could see an arrangement of perhaps forty or fifty shankras, each bottle stopped with a cork, sealed with a lock of hair and a drizzling of yellow wax. Each represented a life. Each one a conscience, a control over the worst excesses of human nature, its vapours yellowing with the owner’s every foul deed, reddening with every drop of blood ingested, blackening with every death. Victoria searched through the shankras to find her own, but it wasn’t there. The youth serum wasn’t there either.

If Vernon had control of his own and Victoria’s shankras, it didn’t seem likely he had a good motive in mind. And if he should find the other half of Victoria’s shankra, and given time he would, Victoria might not live long enough to make it back to New York. One broken, or breached, was survivable, but two, given the misdeeds of her younger years, and the sum total of borrowed time accrued by them, was likely to kill her if she had to pay them back.

#

The flight was uneventful, though Victoria sat taut with tension, waiting for the vapours from her shankras to materialise before her, out of nowhere, to swirl around her frail body, engulf and suffocate her.

It was 10pm, and thirty-six hours had now passed since she left for Puerto Rico. She studied the windows of the New York house from the taxi. Not a single light shone out from anywhere in the building.

Her key turned in the front door lock, and the house itself seemed to gasp as Victoria pushed the door open. She crept through the moonlit grand hall, under the frigid gaze of her ancestors, sure she could feel another pair of eyes upon her, full of resentment, following her movements, waiting, watching to see where she would go first.

She started up the stairs, one hand leaning heavily on her walking stick, the other hand gripping the rail she used to slide down as a child. Her feeble legs shook as they climbed the steps she once glided down in her wedding dress. Above, from somewhere in the darkness, came the skittering sound of somebody, or some thing, hurriedly retreating along the landing. For a moment she thought it was Peppino, but then realised, with regret, it could not be.

Guided by her hand brushing the wall and decades of memories from this house, she paced slowly along the corridor. More than anywhere else, she wanted to be in her bedroom at this moment, at peace, safe behind a locked door, where she could make believe, if only for a little while, this was all a bad dream.

Victoria pushed open her bedroom door. Beyond, uncovered windows allowed the room to fill with silvery moonlight. A muted shriek drew her attention to the bed, and a figure sprawled upon it, legs twitching, body shaking violently, caught up in the grasp of a squatting boy of maybe sixteen years old, with his face buried in Mariella’s neck.

“Vernon, no! Please, for God’s sake stop. I’m begging you, please. You can have all the money you want. You can start again, as you want. Whatever you want, but please stop.”

Vernon, his bloody young features sharp with the intensity of a lifetime of experience, dropped his prey and sprang towards Victoria. He landed short of her and crouched like a puma poised to strike.

“I know what you’re thinking, old woman. You’re wondering whether you can buy your way out of trouble, as you’ve always done, as your precious ancestors always did, whether I’ll spare you, or whether I’m so crazy with teenage spirit that I’ll rip your fucking throat out and suck your arteries dry.”

“I saw what you did in Puerto Rico. I reported it to the authorities.”

“No matter. They’re looking for an older man than me. Why should I care?”

Victoria glanced around the room, looking for any sign of the shankras. Mariella was still lying on the bed, her hand clutched to her neck to stem the flow of blood. She slowly, tremulously, reached for the phone on the nightstand. Vernon rose to his feet and in doing so blocked Victoria’s view.

“I know what you’re looking for,” he said, “but they’re safe.” He patted his chest where his T-shirt bulged. “and they will stay safe with me, for as long as you heap gifts upon your newly adopted son. You will also get him into Yale, set up a generous trust fund, introduce me to our friends and arrange introductions...”

The click of the phone being lifted from the receiver behind him, stopped Vernon in mid sentence. He turned to deal with Mariella and, as he did, Victoria raised her walking stick and swung it wildly. The sound of breaking glass barely registered in her ears before it was overwhelmed by the roar of storm clouds materialising out of the air. The clouds surrounded and swirled evermore quickly around Vernon, until they spun like a tornado, with him at the eye of the storm. He dropped to his knees, screaming, holding his arms over his head. Buffeted by violent eddies of crimson black vapour, he struggled to his feet, only to fall again, like a sated tick, his body steadily bloating, expanding with every passing second, his howls drowned out by those of tormented souls that now swooped and slashed at him with clawed hands. He rolled onto his knees, onto all fours, his body wracked with convulsions, his mouth wide open as he urged and retched. At first pure blood poured out, but then, as the contractions intensified, huge scarlet clots squeezed out from his throat and dangled jelly-like before falling to the floor and writhing away from him. With each clot he birthed, Vernon grew older and thinner. His youthful vitality purged from him, rejected like a foreign organ.

Victoria fell to the floor, gagging - victim of her own suffocating clouds. Her convulsions were less violent than Vernon’s. Tame by comparison, and by the time her rigors ended, she had lost some of her modest vitality, had aged a few years, but was nevertheless alive.

She lay gasping for breath, staring at the withered remains of her husband. In her peripheral vision she could see the blood clots had wriggled themselves together, attracted to each other by some unseen force and, as the storms abated, formed themselves into the figure of a man. A wizened little man of indeterminate age, who rose to his feet and kicked the bag of bones that now constituted what was left of Vernon. After an irate jibber-jabber of native speak, the shaman growled the words, “Never the last drop.”




The End
Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #11 on: October 31, 2007, 05:22:03 AM »

OTHER HELLS




Huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning, the two of them merged to create the beast with two backs. The sex was nothing special, but George was sweet and gentle, so she always put her best act forward. It didn't hurt that he paid her so well, either.

She could feel him reaching his climax, so she gyrated her hips in time with his thrusts and continued to clench and unclench her vaginal wall. Within moments he exploded. As he did, he removed the condom, spilling his seed; a warm and sticky concoction, much like mucus, but it came with the job so she put on a smile and pretended to like it.

"Whoa hun, you're gonna have to warn me next time. I don't know if my body can take another pounding like that!" George laughed and reddened as he rolled off her.     

Yolanda watched him as he buttoned on a pair of perfectly pressed jeans just bellow a small beer gut. He was cottage cheese white and slightly hairy. Short cropped hair with a stubbed, fat nose and a pair of glasses that were thick enough to see atoms floating in the air. Apparently he had never heard of contacts.

"I am going to clean up, and then if you want to as well, you can. Then I’ll take you back," he said in his little boy voice, his eyes downcast the whole time.

"Sure sweet pea, whatever you want. That is, unless you want another go?" she asked coyly, plying her wares in spread eagle fashion, caressing herself. George reddened, tossed her a towel and shook his head before leaving the room, shutting the door behind him.

As soon as the door clicked shut she was in motion, cleaning herself with the white towel and retrieving clothes; in less than thirty seconds she was fully dressed, a trick she had perfected over the last few years.

She sat on the bed, crossing her legs and looking around. Yolanda was the kind of person who could tell a lot about someone based on what they kept. What was hanging from their walls, or on their entertainment centers, or even hanging from their closets.

The problem was that George's house was bare and clean. It was like being in a psyche ward. The walls were white, the carpet was white and the house ranked of bleach and sterilization.

Getting up off the bed—which was also all white—she made her way over to the closet door before swinging it open and peering inside. There was nothing there. No clothes, no shoes, not even a cross bar to hang clothes on, just three walls, a floor and a ceiling. There was something profoundly disturbing about staring at a closet as bare and devoid of human nature as Georges was.

Then she realized the closet was not entirely empty. She had to squint and get right up against the wall to see it, or rather, them. There were symbols that were etched not only into the paint but past that and into the wood. Not really carved in a chiseled kind of way but seemingly burnt in.

The more she stared at the symbols, the more she realized that they were scrawled everywhere. This was definitely not right. "Time to bail," she muttered to herself, securing the purse in her hand as she backed up.

Something hard struck the base of her head. Amorphous shapes exploded into her line of sight as her legs turned to slush. Yolanda fell to both knees as she fought to stay conscious.

A grip of iron grasped her hair and yanked her to her feet, causing pain to ripple from the strike point down her spine. Something cold and sharp pressed against the side of her neck.

"Just had to be a nosey bitch, didn't ya?" George asked from behind, panting in a way that was purely sexual. Then he took a huge sniff, reminding her of a perv with a panty fetish.

"I was going to have some more fun with you, but you had to go snooping into things that don't concern you. No matter. You want to know more about me? Fine, here is something you don't see every day."

Yolanda was still dazed but as he began to chant, a language that was guttural and inhuman, a veil of clarity settled over her. She began to squirm in his grasp but he held tight. Yolanda struggled for a moment before she realized his chanting was over.
That's when it began.

The closet seemed to be fading away at first. Growing gradually darker until the walls fell away into a sea of night. A breeze that was warm and fetid blew from the closet. A small amount of vomit squirted up her throat but she choked it back down.
A pinpoint of light blossomed to life. Within seconds the light grew brighter yet somehow remained shadowy.

Then she saw it and with the sight a scream ripped from her mouth that was directly from the root of her soul. The clarity that had forced the grogginess of pain away was nearly replaced with fits of laughter laced with sobbing.

Her thoughts and emotions were one and all. There was no order or uniform, they just shouted themselves in her head in a cacophony of insanity:

Pain Death Suffering Torturing Fear Impossible Primal Hate Cold Terror Unreal Cold Black Cosmos Burning Frozen Ignited Black Wastes of Nothing

For what seemed like forever. Her brain was beginning to break down, bringing forth a horrible pain, as if someone had driven a burning stake through it like that of a heart of some blood sucker from beyond.

She could feel the effects trickling out her nose in a warm stream and her eyes were tearing up.  Sounds that weren't there—but now were thanks to the destruction of her mind—were coming to her at different frequencies ranging from nearly silent to live concert loud.

Her thoughts were a jumbled mass; like a scattered Rubik cube, until she eventually found some small piece of herself stuck within.

Finding herself reconnected her to some small part of her mind. What she was seeing was irrational. Something that could be put to words to scare but not able to translate within the brain, a thing that humans were supposed to be protected from by science and logic.

With that thought process she began to tell herself things about the world. Up is up. Down is down. Oranges are orange and apples are red. The sky is blue and grass is green. She continued on until the pain inside her brain subsided and a portion of her sanity returned, finally putting her back in the driver's seat of who she was.

Yolanda viewed the scene in front of her logically and with attempted detachment. Knuckling its way toward her was a monster, plain and simple.

Its upper body was huge, easily six and a half feet tall. It was muscled in gross proportion much like a ‘roid fed professional wrestler, but only to the third power. It was a brownish-gray that seemed to come from a layer of sludge that coated its body. Its hair appeared to fall in dirty, fecal encrusted dread locks. Its face was a map of terror. Horrible and...Yolanda cut that line of thought off and examined each part. Puckered scars of rough flesh where eyes should have been. A nose that was short with nostrils wide enough to snort a stack of silver dollars. Teeth protruded from its mouth in uneven lines, each one rotted and jagged.

Where the top half was huge the lower half was almost nonexistent. She looked down and saw about a foot’s worth of body. It had bloody stumps that looked rubbed raw. Strings of muscle trailed behind it, along with other pieces of its legs, but the monster paid it no attention. It had worn its lower half down from legs to bloody nubs without any semblance of care.

Though the worst part of it was its ape like fists; each bearing three digits. Two fingers that almost looked human along with a middle finger thicker than her wrist which ended in a talon long enough to be illegal to carry if it was a knife. Each nail was curved, with serrated edges along the undersides.

The monster was more than halfway towards them.

"It’s all supposed to be a curse only happening once every couple hundred years; a direct connection to some other place. What you or I would call Hell, but much more than that, I can assure you.”

"It is a part of me in a way that not even soul mates can identify with. He shows me things. Scenes of such magnificent torture that the works of our world’s most twisted minds seem but finger paintings of the mentally disabled by comparison."

He licked and nibbled on her ear before continuing on. "A curse it is said, but not for me. It has been a blessing. I know, people like you look at me and think I am just another buck. You think I am weak and pathetic. Wait though. When your insides are being pulled out and devoured before your eyes, we shall see who is truly weak and pathetic." He spat, his voice dripping venom.

Yolanda did not want to waste her energy on talking. George, if that was his name, was beyond a talking down. She needed to act; otherwise she would wind up monster chow.

Scanning the room as much as George's hold would allow, she could find nothing that would help her cause. A death from a slit throat was preferable to whatever horror awaited her in the closet, but she did not want to die without a fight unless it was her final option.

Then she remembered her purse. She had a key chain sized can of red pepper spray along with a stun gun. The purse had fallen from her grip but had landed upright with its handles standing slightly.

George's grip had become lax to some degree and she could hear him muttering something under his breath, he seemed lost within himself, maybe even hypnotized to a degree. It’s now or never. She lowered her left arm inch by inch. It was down as far as it could go naturally with her fingertips brushing against the top of the handle. She only needed one more inch.
Ever so slowly, she bent down further and further. Her index finger curled around the fake leather handle and she yanked up gently. Keeping the purse cradled so as not to alert George, she dug through her purse, looking for the pepper spray.

Her hands found the small cylinder that was connected to her key chain and yanked it out. She released the safety trigger and shot the spray blindly behind her from left to right and back again. George shrieked and released her, but never once dropped the knife.

A blind, back handed swipe cut Yolanda across the bridge of the nose. Not life threatening, but deep enough to make her yelp in pain.

The shot of pepper spray had not been a direct hit, but enough to keep him blinking back tears for the moment. Yolanda overturned her purse and grabbed hold of the stun gun. Without any hesitation she flicked the trigger and pressed the electrical charge against the side of George's neck.

She could see his body go rigid and shake, but she didn't relent. She squeezed the trigger until the batteries were drained, which unfortunately for her, was not as long as she had hoped. Damn, these things suck batteries dry! she thought to herself.

Yolanda dropped the stun gun and half backed up, half tripped her way away from the closet door. George had crumpled to the ground, smoke sizzling off his face and back. Then Yolanda looked up, above George and into the closet to hell.

Only a few feet away, was the monster. Yolanda had watched her fair share of slashers and creature features. All the monsters in those movies had some explanation or reason. This thing followed none of those guidelines. It lived for only one reason: to feast upon any and all.

Yolanda assumed it used its grotesquely large nose as its way of searching out its prey and she was right, watching as it raised its head and sniffed in a way that suggested it had just swallowed a slug and snot shake.

George was stirring as the thing drug itself out. He shook his head and sat up, turning his head and smiling viciously at Yolanda. "Now, bitch, meet my good bud here. He can play a bit rough, but I am sure you're use to that."

Yolanda had backed up into the corner furthest away from the door, like one of them dumb bimbos in the movies, but she was too occupied with the current situation to give it much thought.

George kept smiling before his mouth turned into a surprised ‘O’. The creature had George by the ankle. Yolanda was as confused as he was. "Not me, you ignorant bag of meat…! Her! The whore! Get her!" he bellowed, as if he was talking to some disobedient dog.

The monster squeezed its hand, the one wrapped around George's ankle, in what had to have been a vise grip. In the matter of seconds the sound of bones breaking filled the room. George screamed the first scream of many.

The monster continued to squeeze until George's heel ruptured open, spraying blood out in a crimson jet. George continued to scream.

The monster moved one hand up, holding George down and then used the other one, or more specifically, the middle finger with a talon sharper then a razor, and began surgery.

The middle finger sliced downward, from sternum to crotch, opening George up like he was a piece of meat on a butchers table. As the thing sliced into its meal, Yolanda noticed a crimson slash form lengthwise down the monster. The creature paid it no attention, digging into the exposed organs. It chomped through intestine and bone with reckless abandon, slurping through anything and everything as George screamed and bled.

The thing ate like a cartoon character, flying bits of bloody viscera staining the once perfect white interior of Georges home. Yolanda wanted to look away, but couldn't. As she stared, she noticed that the red slash that had opened up on the monster was now gaping and oozing out its own twisted parody of vital organs. She could even see half eaten bits of George coming out at random intervals.

The sheer insanity of it all nearly overtook her again, but she fought it down, trying to make her brain function logically. She gathered herself and then processed the information. George had said he and the thing were connected, closer then soul mates and now she understood.

The thing was killing itself.

Yolanda was no expert on this hoodoo-freak-tacular-shit, but she thought that it had something to do with the curse George had been talking about. Maybe George really was part of this thing and vice versa, maybe if one died then so did the other one, which is why he had to keep feeding it, to keep it, and in turn, himself, strong.

It wasn’t the fact that the creature was turning on its master—if such a beast could ever be mastered—but more a case of this thing following its baser nature, to the bitter end.

George choked and gurgled before voiding himself and then died. George must have been the anchor and maybe even the doorway to this world, because the minute he passed a change began to take place.  The creature began to lose some of its substance, becoming a bit hazy. Then it began to move backwards violently in a way that could only be explained as liquid.
The opening at the center of the thing began to peel away. Then, in one vicious rip, its skin was yanked off, taking hunks of muscle along with it. From there, the monster seemed to explode into a vacuum, pieces and parts of the body that humans had no name for moving outward for a moment before being sucked backwards, through the closet and into whatever hell it had come from.

Yolanda stood in the corner for a while before sprinting from the room. She ran as far as she could before her lungs forced her to stop. The ordeal had snapped something in her. Had she saw her reflection, she would have seen that her once raven black hair now held traces of white.

Everything she had seen was terrible, but there was one image worse than all the rest, and that one thing was the way the thing had followed its exact course of existence. It had eaten and eaten and eaten. Pigging out even as it died, gorging on a part of itself until the very end.

Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes in a cocktail of emotions. Joy for her ability to continue to live and fear; fear of whatever else may exist in the recesses of the cold unknown...



The End
Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #12 on: October 31, 2007, 05:23:04 AM »

Razorblades





I am her official profiler, though she is unaware of this. If you insist upon an explanation, the paper-thin ceilings are to blame. The block of flats where I live, built in the heyday of uncle Stalin, is an accordion of a building. Sound squeezes up and down and down and up from storey to storey. Although we rarely see each other, we have an intimate knowledge of the neighbours above and below us. And some of us would rather not. The flat above had been empty for a few months. Then, just over a year ago, it all started. Clipclopclipclopclipclop... the staccato of her footsteps Morse-coding through my ceiling. At first, I was mildly annoyed. She never seemed to stop clipclopping around. Miles and miles of footsteps. Why couldn’t she shuffle around in slippers like the rest of us?..


Somewhere in the bowels of the building, water wheezed and gushed along pipes. Nadezhda hoisted her leg out of foamy bathwater and scraped a razor. A stripe of skin gleamed, North Sea white with currents of raspberry rippled veins. Her ladyshaver, gliding with a panache accrued with years of practice, halted halfway up her calf. Shaving stubble at fifty... Desperado depilation, ladylike derma-silk debunked by the itch-scratch of dawn.
 
The invasion from above distracted me from my work. I had an important job back then which demanded my full concentration. Homework. Deadlines. So I’d sit at my computer, seething, willing her to sit on her settee for a while or at least take off those sadistic shoes. But it got to the stage when even silence was an intrusion. An irritant. Silence is not golden when it’s charged with the expectation of ensuing noise. And so my work suffered. Documents undelivered. I substituted the blank screen for the white ceiling and I’d stare at it until I got a crick in my neck. Staring and musing about the colour of her shoes, of all things. They were scarlet red. I just knew it. Patent leather with a 15 centimetre heel...

As Nadezhda crooned a despondent lovesong, two pink eyes winked at her through the bubbles. Desiccated, desecrated strawberries. She scooped up a handful of foam and covered the offending nipples. She could only muster the courage to look at her body in fragments. Body-part by body-part. The shock of contemplating a mirrored reflection of a disintegrating stranger called ‘Herself’ in its wholeness... This would surely be like hurtling through a windscreen at full pelt. No wonder his gaze had long since slithered away from her, his wandering hands and wondering eyes fixated upon fresher flesh.

All the flats have identical layouts. When she stuttered to her kitchen, I’d follow her, in a parallel way. (Mother always said I had a vivid imagination.) I’d loiter in the kitchen, enraptured audience to her timpani-percussion concert, crashing down on me. Enwrapped, trying to conjure up what she was cooking. I’d lean out of my window, perilously far, in the hope of catching a whiff of her bubbling cuisine... I became attuned to all her movements. She’d run herself a deep bath and wallow in it for ages. We took our baths together, so to speak. I’d float till the water turned lukewarm, engorged, listening to the splishsplashing of her scrubbing her dirty body. Sometimes, when she was happy, she sang. Swoonish lovesongs, not quite my thing, but her voice is so endearingly off-key it sends frissons of pleasure up my spine...

The razor skittered along the tiled floor. Nadezhda retracted her half-shaven leg under the bubblebath blanket and closed her eyes. Three long platinum hairs on his Y-fronts... a smudge of vermillion rouge on his collar... Scraps of paper with cryptic clues scrunched in his pocket... Humming syrupy lovesongs under his breath... His chirruping cellphone... Would have spelt cartoonish, if the trifurcation of their man-and-wifedom hadn’t... there were no adjectives she could fish out of the murky bathwater which could begin to describe the hollow within her. The gauche idiocy of mourning something that is officially, on paper, still alive. Till death do us... Her olfactory nerves detected wafts of cheap adoration on his body when he came home from work – later and later... ‘Meetings, darling...’ Underneath the perfume stench lingered the musk of cunning cunnilingus and a swift exchange of bodily fluids. She might have been imagining it, hallucinating under the kitchen’s neon light, but his lips seemed glossed with something shiny, something slimy.

I evolved an image of her in my head. As time passed it grew more sharply focussed, like a photograph slowly developing. Eventually I could see the shape of her fingernails and that delightful mole on her shoulder. She brought me to the brink of eruption and on those infrequent nights when she had a ‘visitor’, I’d resort to massaging my aching anatomy. In bed with her, the symphony of her bedsprings and moans of pain... or pleasure... goaded me on and on towards the release of oblivion...
 
Bubbles were bursting imperceptibly... Nadezhda gazed up at the ceiling, trying to find order in the random chaos of the artexed swirls. Like her, the bathroom could do with a makeover. A Potemkin job to facade the putrefaction lurking beneath the surface. Wifactory duties were still performed, she still cooked, still cleaned, still obliged: a well-oiled if obsolete machine. She smiled-served-conversed-chewed-swallowed, resisting the impulse to garnish his boeuf bourguignon with arsenic... O, the technicoloured atrocities that could be commited with a ladyrazor! The more she tried to hush such ideas, the louder they screamed. As she clamped her hands over her ears, her breasts bobbed to the surface again. But she was too hijacked in thought to notice. The washing machine spoke volumes as it danced its daily carousel of swirling colours. If only she were strong enough... she imagined bundling her dirty old manhusband into the drum, slamming the door, add 150 mls of biological detergent and a capful of fabric softener, set at 60 degrees with extra rinse and hey presto! She sits on the machine and its vibrations spin erotica to her as it cleanses him to oblivion.

I rarely went out at that time. Maybe it was the deepfreeze winter that kept me flatbound. But I was so desperate to see her in three dimensional glory, I battled with my demons. Step by step... I’d tiptoe down the stairs and lurk in the urine-stained lobby. Yearning for, yet dreading, a ‘chance encounter’. Fate gave me a gift one day: her mail box had been left unlocked and I discovered her name. I strung the letters N...a...d...e...z...h...d...a onto a thread and hung it round my neck. Can you see it? It adorns and chokes me simultaneously. All her letters were junkmail. Pity. I resealed and posted them to her tout de suite...


Nadezhda slid the soapbar around the ring on her finger. Its rock had long since lost its talismanic glow. She is fettered by a gold band... as her bodily dimensions expanded over the yawning years and the aftermath of spawning lampooned her figure, so her fingers also swelled into little pink sausages. The wedding ring could only be removed by surgical intervention now. She tugged at it in the lukewarm bathwater. It slipped and slithered but she couldn’t wiggle it past that ridge on her finger.
 
Her name means ‘Hope’: this fuelled me on my quest. I’d huddle in twilit blizzards, taking snapshots with tear-brimmed eyes of Nadezhda’s miniature window-framed silhouette, executing its choreography of nadezhday-to-day dances. She often forgot to draw her curtains even when she was getting ready for bed. My heart would pound at the spectacle of this striptease puppet theatre. She doesn’t realise this yet, but I am the puppeteer. I pull the strings. She looks exactly as I imagined her to be. That silky, swishing mane... I could wrap it round and round her swan’s neck. I’ve tabulated her timetable: when she rises, ablutes, eats, goes to bed... I know all about her husband and the atrocities he commits. Defiling her pure and beautiful body. When I’m released from here, I’ll charge up to her tower, gallant knight of the night, and rid her of that ogre...


Aeons of marri-age annilhilated, meanings rendered meaningless by the burglariously twittering secretary of the palomino hair... But, no. If it wasn’t her, it would be some other interchangeable painted lady. Husband Defects From Family From The Comfort Of His Armchair... She’d fulfilled all her obligations. She’d born him a son, wrenched from her womb, a father replica who sometimes remembers her on Mother’s Day. A merchant banker or maybe a manager, some job so important he always looked as if he was late for a conference on those rare occasions he did visit. He’d fled the nest lifetimes ago, though she still lined it with feathers and fluff, matching textiles all colour-coordinated. Fueled by the momentum of inertia. Her husband didn’t seem to see her interior design. Sons... husbands... What about her self? Invisibled by this spectral ménage-à-trois, staggering under the weight of a corroding envy she could never detonate without destroying all three of them... What would the neighbours say? She was waterlogged, swishing her Neptune trident, each prong tipped in poison, one for each of them.

Whenever she ventured out, swaddled in furs, I’d sink into the shadows, as the time wasn’t quite right for a formal introduction. Eyes like binoculars, I’d collect the fleeting ecstasies of a circumflex eyebrow which I’ll lick one day with my tonguetip. Or her gloved hands which will soon flutter like butterflies over my sweating flesh. I’d follow her snowtracked footsteps, supping the mists of her hot breath. She has so many different pairs of shoes and boots. Each pair sends shudders to my loins but the red patent ones are my first and true love...


In the conjugal bed... behind closed curtains... sometimes he straddled his deflating blow-up wife, grinding out a danse macabre. He’d perform with mechanical aplomb, the power of his elsewhereing emotions pumping bloodlife into his penis... Trifuckation... clamping his eyes shut so she couldn’t witness the evacuation of a love that never existed in the first place. Shielding himself from the gritty reality of flaccid breasts, stretchmarks, varicose veins and wrinkle maps. She was ghosting their sheets, entwining the tentacles of his imagination, manacling his lust... his manroot worming into another’s damp cave.
 
My pockets archived souvenirs: a lipstick kissed cigarette butt stubbed out in a café ashtray. A midnight black hair, abandoned on a park bench. A scrap of paper the wind whipped from her hand. Her voice, eavesdropped by a newspaper kiosk, still sirensings to me in my head. Can’t you understand that these few scraps of Nadezhdiana weren’t enough? So I just had to rootle through her rubbish the moment she’d flung it in the communal bins. That’s where I was discovered, by that dimwit. By the bins, inhaling the aroma of her serviette hygiénique. Tasting the heady ferric tang of newly-spilt Nadezhda blood plunged me to my knees, in the slushy snow, numbed with euphoria...


An aeroplane’s doppler drone hauls Nadezhda back into nowness. She shivers in the cold, clammy bathsoup and pulls the plug. Inspects her nails, recently cultivated and filed into talons. Dipped in crimson. Next time he mounts her, his corpsewife, in a fit of ersatz passion, she will etch, deeply, her fingernails along the length of his back. Branding him for at least a few moments with her trademark  voicelessness. The grey bathwater spirals away down the plughole. She is slumped, a beached whale, in the grimy ceramic tub, observing her body in its ransacked entirety with extinguished eyes. The doorbell rings. He must have forgotten his key. Legs semi-shaved... Nadezhda contemplates the razorblade. So sharp. The doorbell peals and clamours. But she cannot get up. Ever. Again.

Fear not. I am still gathering information about her, even within these padded walls... behind these bars. Fate intended to throw us together. There is simply no alternative. Only this morning I caught a glimpse of her in the women’s ward. Pale and interesting, huddled in a dressing gown and fluffy pink slippers. A nurse was injecting something into her shapely arm. Her husband loitered at her bedside, armfuls of waxy flowers. Trembling wreaths. His eyes sparked terror and his neck sported a lurid gash. Razorblade is my guess. He slunk off after five minutes. He is no competition for me. Nadezhda didn’t even look at him. I am the only one for her. When the time is ripe and when the profile is complete, I will offer my hands and my heart and Nadezhda will be mine. Forever.




The End
 


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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #13 on: October 31, 2007, 05:23:49 AM »

ROAST CHICKEN AND PINEAPPLE




Come in and sit yourself down. No, not there – that chair’s… yes, that one’ll do. Don’t touch anything on the coffee table, especially not the coasters, not yet. They’re still very new, like the roast chicken and the pineapple. Whisky, too, which I never used to drink, but that’s for later. Let me explain.

I bought it at Oxfam last week, but I think it came originally from Woolworths, about thirty years ago. Not great, is it. What? Oh, the chandelier. Saw you staring at it. If you’re fond of light fittings, you should go to the Royal Station Hotel and look at the chandelier there. It’s bigger than my bed. Bigger than my kitchen. Bigger than this flat, come to think of it.

Imagine being underneath it if some nutter took it into their head to sever the chain.

Take off that coat will you; it stinks. No, really. You’ve been sleeping in it, haven’t you, for God knows how long. That’s one of the reasons I invited you in. The coat. It smells wrong. And your breath – I’ve no idea what you’ve been drinking, certainly nothing decent. No, don’t get all huffy. I want to help. How? By giving you a lift, that’s how. Would you like that? A bit later on? Oh, to somewhere nice, anywhere you like. I know a lovely spot, just along the A68. We could take a picnic. I wish I’d thought of taking a picnic last time, but it was such a last minute decision. He thought we were going somewhere quite different. So did I, but then I lost my nerve.

This is how it happened.

I was at the Hotel just a few weeks ago, standing in reception and watching the chandelier for any movement (you never know). The girl was talking on the phone in that irritating sing-song way with the upturned vowels, but at least it kept her busy, so she didn’t notice me. I’m invisible anyway. People don’t see me, even on a blue carpet, against a white pillar stuffed with trilobites and illuminated by hundreds of crystals.

I knew he’d be leaving some time within the next half hour and I needed one more look. Who? Try to guess! He’s very famous. I was there because I needed to check his profile. Full face is easy enough – plenty of pictures of him on the net, but he’s always looking straight into the camera, or staring at pyramids; you never get a classic profile. I felt like an artist putting the finishing touches to a secret portrait, but this wasn’t going to be a painting or a sculpture. Okay, I’m teasing you now. I could say it was for a song, but it wasn’t. If I say a dream, you’ll laugh.

You shouldn’t laugh. It’s rude. Stop it.

He came downstairs as the receptionist put down the phone. She beckoned him over and talked discreetly enough, I suppose, but I heard the conversation and I blushed – couldn’t help it. She’d said it, after all. What? His name, of course. That’s for me to speak, not some upstart receptionist in a polyester uniform. She probably crackles with static if you get too close, and shorts out her computer on a regular basis. Could be dangerous, that. Start fires. You never know. These old hotels burn beautifully, and then you wouldn’t need bolt cutters; once the ceiling went the chandelier would drop down the stairwell, all four floors down to the bottom, slicing and dicing as it went.

I wanted to boil her brains in honey. If you boil honey long enough, it caramelises like sugar. Remember those chemistry sets when we were kids? Full of worthy experiments and instructions, but all you really wanted to do was burn sugar – crack test tubes and turn the sugar into an acrid mass. They don’t let you do that any more. Modern chemistry sets are rubbish. No poisons, no fun, no smells, no copper sulphate to grow a crystal garden and then feed the leftover solution to your sister’s hamster. 

That was a joke. I didn’t really. It fell into a bucket and drowned.

So this blonde-bimbo-from-hell receptionist told him in her icky squeaky voice that his chauffeur had rung because the car had broken down. He was annoyed, quite rightly so, and he frowned. I love it when he frowns. There are five lines that go across his forehead, and two that go down between his brows. Whenever I see them, I want – I want to ‘sculpt’ them. Yes, let’s just say I want to sculpt them. But I mustn’t get ahead of myself. 

I stepped forward. Became visible.

“I can give you a lift, if that’s any help – I’m going there too,” I told him. I don’t know how I got the words out, but they were still coming and I couldn’t stop. “You can come with me – it’ll save you finding a taxi.”

And that was it. No more. I couldn’t believe I’d said all of that. Must’ve done it out loud though, because he turned round and looked at me.

“Thanks, that’s very kind of you,” he said. His eyes crinkled in the corners, and those two front teeth that I’ve always wanted to knock with a geologist’s hammer shone like porcelain. Maybe they’re false. Not that it matters. The important thing was that he’d noticed me. I like to think that he’s been aware of me all along of course, but I’m not stupid and I know what he was seeing: a small person, smartly dressed, but with a tendency towards invisibility. Perhaps he’d notice my eyes. Fine eyes, in the style of Elizabeth Bennett. Yes, really. I have fine eyes. Look. Can you see? I always think I’m a bit like a shorter version of Greta Garbo. Or was that Greer Garson? In the film? Don’t you know? GG, anyway. Not a horse, you idiot.

Where was I? You’re distracting me. Don’t do that. Oh yes. He picked up his bag and strode towards me with his long legs and I nearly panicked and ran away, but I’m strong and managed to smile. I think it was a smile. Something certainly happened to the corners of my mouth and I felt a twitch. I stopped quickly. Didn’t want to grin too much. Not yet.

He raised his eyebrows again, which I took as the signal to move. It was the connection I’d been hoping for, but I’m sure you can understand that I hadn’t been sure if this would work. However well I knew him, it was always possible that he didn’t know me, but that slight gesture was enough. I understood completely. We might have been married for years, instead of seeing each other in the flesh for the first time.

But that’s the point, isn’t it. Okay, we’d physically only just met, but he’d been living in my head for so long now, that I knew him so well, like in that song, how does it go? Sandra Dickinson? No, she’s the actress. Dixon? Elaine Paige? No? Never mind. Don’t cry for me Argentina. I don’t think he’s been there. I certainly haven’t. Maybe one day.

As we walked out of the hotel, I caught sight of us in a mirror going towards my car.  It was like looking at one of those films I run in my head over and over again, but much more immediate. There was a breeze for one thing, a hint of rain in the air, the sound of kids shouting, the boom of a car radio that changed pitch as it passed. Doppler effect, or something. I never think of those details in my head. Astonishing. I should really, but I don’t. And another thing; both of us would be getting into my car, and nobody ever gets into my car. Well, apart from you, when I give you a lift a bit later on. You and him. That will be two people, and that’s why I thought I’d tell you this story; so that you realise how special you are, how privileged, and all because of your coat. You never dreamed, I bet, how lucky that coat would be for you; that flea infested, filthy coat. You shouldn’t let it get like that, you know.

I unlocked the car doors and we got in, and then he was sitting in the car next to me, and I could hear him breathing, feel him breathing, and I nearly opened the door again and ran out into the traffic, but I didn't. Good thing too, as it was busy, and I might have been run over, and then he – I don’t know. Perhaps that’s what should have happened. I might have died in his arms, crushed, with bones sticking out of all the wrong places, blood spurting out of my eye sockets. But that’s just me being fanciful, which is silly. I’m not a fanciful person; not really. Used to be, but I’ve changed. He did that. Everything’s real now.

It’s a small car – a Fiat Cinquecento – you know, like that one Columbo used to drive. Was that a Fiat? Bit like that, only not quite so old. Nothing special. Not like number six. What? You know, the Prisoner. That car at the beginning. Not the Mini Mokes in the Village. You don’t know what I’m talking about do you. How strange. You’re very young though, aren’t you? Small and grey with a beige interior. No, not you. My car.

I used to think it was dull. I don’t any more.

He’s so tall, I don’t know how he fitted in, but he folded his limbs somehow and filled the space, and I didn’t like to stare, but he didn’t say anything so I suppose it was all right. I thought I’d forgotten how to drive, but I hadn’t. The car started fine first time, and I released the handbrake. Gears, though. I panicked for a second, wondering how to get into gear, but I managed.

The trick is to stop thinking; then you can do anything. 

I knew it would only take us five minutes to get there, because it wasn't far, not far at all, not far enough, not enough time, and I wanted, I wanted – but I couldn't. Not yet.

This was the problem: he was too real – not at all like I’d imagined. He had texture. Do you know what I mean? It was like… he had a coat, and it was woollen and tweedy. If I’d touched it, it would have been real. A coat, not a vision. And then there was the smell – smoke, whiskey, roast chicken, and pineapple. I never dream in smells. Didn’t know that before. Do now.

I couldn't cope. Why did he have to be so real? He was wearing the coat and I couldn’t get past it. Then there was his breath, he was breathing roast chicken in my ear, so I never spoke, never told him anything. That was probably all for the best because I don’t know if he would have understood. I might have talked absolute nonsense.

Change of plan. I couldn’t do this, so I turned left, instead of right, pretending it was a mistake. I could sense his bewilderment easily enough, which was more proof of the connection between us, but still, he shouldn’t have been puzzled. I was picking up on his thoughts, but he wasn’t getting mine. He started saying something, but I didn’t listen; I knew I’d have a full blown panic attack if I allowed myself to think or respond in any way. I felt sick enough as it was, but I couldn’t do anything, not in the middle of town, so I drove miles out to that picnic spot I mentioned, just off the A68. You know the one? Bit unoriginal, I know, but that was over twenty years ago, and I don’t suppose many people remember. It’s not even signposted any more. He stopped talking after a while, I think. I know by the time we got there he was quiet.

If you’re looking for a clock, no, there isn’t one. Just wait. I’ve nearly finished now.

The tweed coat was really in my car though, I didn't dream that. Every day since then I’ve gone for a drive and touched the passenger seat. I let my fingers slip slide into the place where he sat, and I remember the smell of pineapple. 

I said don’t laugh.

You know what else I do? I go to Sainsbury’s and buy a chicken. I don't eat it; just roast it in a too hot oven and enjoy the smell. I like it when they’ve put caramel on the skin to help it brown. If you cook it long enough, smoke pours out of that grate at the top of the oven. It fills the whole flat. I like that. I like burning sugar. Think I told you that earlier.

I bought some tweed coasters. They’re the wrong colour, too much blue in them, but they’re the right sort of fabric. You could make a coat. Not out of the coasters, they’re too small, silly. I place glasses of whiskey on them, one for him and one for me, and I light incense. That’s for the smoke. I don't smoke, never have, but I like the smell; it reminds me of him.

I close the curtains and drink the whiskies. Would you like some? Look, there’s plenty. I like to pour some more, drink it and remember the time when I gave him a lift in my car. It wasn't a dream, I gave him a lift, I really did. Like now – like giving you a lift. This isn’t a dream either, is it? I’m going to give you a lift too. Would you like to smoke? I don’t mind. Then we can go for that drive and I’ll show you where I took him. It’s a lovely spot, very quiet – you can’t see it from the road.

No, you can’t leave yet; you haven’t drunk your whiskey. Go on. Drink up. Yes. And some more. Yes, you must have some more. Don’t argue. Do it. Here. Don’t dribble it down your chin, that’s a waste of good whiskey, and I’ll get cross. Drink it.

I locked the door, that’s why it won’t open. Come back and sit down. Be sociable. I won’t have any more, because I’m driving, but you’re okay. Come on. Just another glass. It’s good whiskey. Chivas Regal. Pretty bottle, isn’t it.

There. That’s better. Have a little more, and then you can go. If you don’t have time for the drive, that’s okay. Just a drop more. That’s right.

Drink.

Yes, that’s better. Good.

You’ve got a nice face. Very straight teeth. Long nose. Hazel eyes. Can I taste your eyes? Please? His were grey. Different.

Don’t look so worried. Maybe later on. Here, have some more to drink. Then you can go. Look, there’s only a little drop left – you might as well finish it. That’s right. Don’t fall off your chair. Don’t suppose I could lift you. I’m only small. Oh. Too late. Never mind. You just lie there. I’ll get down and join you.

I love the way the light shines through the whiskey glasses. Reminds me of a chandelier. You know what I wish? I wish we could be lying underneath the one in the hotel when it falls. I really do. You and me together, lying on the blue carpet, like we are now. Just imagine. It would be like… like… I know, tell you what, I’ll smash your glass on the edge of the table; let’s see if we can get some good sharp splinters.

Typical. If you accidentally drop a glass it always breaks, but try and break it on purpose and nothing happens. So much for that. I’ll just pop out to the car. I’ve still got the knife in the boot. It’s very sharp. Just have to use that instead.

Won’t be a moment. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about the lift. I will give you that lift. Promise. It’s just that you’re too heavy for me to pick up in one piece.





The End
Logged

Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #14 on: October 31, 2007, 05:25:46 AM »

SEALED WITH BLOOD




“Do you like her?”

Gillian leaned back against the kitchen counter and raised her feet to the table, effectively trapping Felicia between them. A flash of light from the kitchen ceiling flashed on the blade in her hand, highlighting the green irises of her eyes.

“Maybe.” Felicia blushed, her nipples hardening under the cotton blouse, and Gillian laughed.

“You do like her,” she said. She looked down at the apple in her hand and used the knife to begin peeling it. “How much do you like her? Does she make you hot?”

“Maybe.” Felicia repeated the word, unsure how Gillian would react to the knowledge that there might be someone to threaten her position. “It’s not going to happen, though. She knows that I’m taken.”

“Damn right you are.” Gillian pulled off the last of the peel, a perfect spiral in red and green. She tossed it over her shoulder onto the counter top. Felicia’s eyes followed it.

“I don’t have to look,” Gillian said. “I know that it spells your name.”

Felicia pushed against Gillian’s foot, releasing herself from the makeshift prison. “That only works on Lupercalia,” she said. “Besides, it’s just apple peel.”

Gillian caught her arm. “Aspirin is just willow bark, but it still cures a headache.”

“That’s different.” Felicia moved away to fill the kettle. “That’s chemicals reacting with the body to reduce the swelling of nerve clusters. The apple peel is just superstition.”

“Is it?” Gillian stood up and bit into the apple. “Would you be willing to peel on yourself, then? See if my name comes up?”

“Don’t be silly.” Felicia switched on the kettle and opened one of the cupboards. “Whose turn is it to cook tonight?”

“Don’t change the subject.” Gillian pulled out a chair and sat down, kicking the one next to her from underneath the table. “Sit down. We need to talk about this.”

“What is there to talk about?” Felicia sat and feigned disinterest. ”I’m taken. I’m not going to risk what we have together for a flavour of the month.”

“You won’t. Not if that’s all the time it takes.” Gillian laughed at her lover’s expression. “You should see your face. “

“Felicia was silent for a moment, her brows locked as she processed Gillian’s meaning. “You mean you wouldn’t mind?”

Gillian took another bite of the apple and put it down. “I didn’t say that,” she said between chews. “Of course I’d mind. It’s just that I’d rather you got this out of your system than resent me for not letting you pursue it.”

“That’s a lot to take in.” Felicia looked at the discarded apple, the two bites leaving a ridge that looked razor sharp. “What’s the catch?”

Gillian smiled. “How about if I have someone too?”

“You bitch. You planned this, didn’t you?” Felicia coloured with anger. “Who is it?”

Gillian shook her head. “There’s no-one I’m interested in right now,” she said. “You’re more than enough for me.” She leaned over and touched Felicia’s hand. “That was an interesting reaction though. Is sauce for the gander not good enough for the goose?”

“No.” Felicia looked away. “It’s fine, really. If you’ve seen another girl you like…”

“I haven’t.” Gillian held her hand. “I’ll think of something else if you really want this girl. Something that will make you more mine than before, then the more you stray, the more you’ll belong to me.”

“Such as?” Felicia gripped Gillian’s fingers, stroking the back of her hand with the pad of her thumb.

Gillian closed her eyes and shrugged, savouring the scent of desire that emanated from her partner. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “Something reclaiming.”

Felicia laughed. “You’re going to piss on me?”

“That could be a start.”


***


Felicia turned away from the painting of a cyber-enhanced woman pleasuring herself with a rifle and smiled at the artist. “Do you make prints at all?” she asked.

Asham shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “I’ve sold a few photographs and computer prints, but nothing in traditional media. Why?”

Felicia put an arm around the girls shoulders and led her upstairs to her office. “I think you could sell lithographs of these quite successfully. They appeal mainly to the young, like yourself, but they can’t afford the a few grand for a painting. A limited edition litho would retail at around forty pounds and might provide a steady income.”

She opened her office door. “Or if you produced some etchings, you could invite me to come up and see them.” She ushered the girl through and closed the door.

“I didn’t think you were that way inclined,” Asham replied, “and especially not that you were interested.”

“Wrong on both counts.” Felicia cupped the girls face in her hands and bent to kiss her, pausing to inhales the scent of soap, toothpaste and make-up and the faint tang of oil paint that underpinned the girl’s essence. She sucked her lips first, savouring the greasy taste of the lipstick and the feel of the malleable pout, then pulled Asham closer, exploring her mouth, her tongue darting between icicles of teeth to reach the warmth of her tongue.

Asham returned the favour, her tongue bar clicking against Felicia’s canines as her tongue darted around her mouth, running along the gums and catching on the tag of skin that anchored the centre of Felicia’s lips.

Felicia’s fingers gripped Asham’s hair, the heavy dreads soft beneath her touch. Her right hand snaked around to brush against the girl’s breast, her nipples already hard under the armour of her bra. The scent of oil paint was overlaid by the heavier scent of arousal, causing Felicia to kiss more fervently, sinking to her knees and pulling Asham down with her until they were supine on the floor, free from the restraint of gravity to explore each others bodies.

Felicia rolled the girl onto her back and unbuttoned her blouse, her tongue moving to caress the newly exposed breast, rasping across nipples already tight with anticipation. Asham moaned as Felicia forced a hand under her waistband.


***


“You did it then?”  Gillian looked up from the television as Felicia came through the door. “I can smell her on you from here. Was she any good?”

Felicia dropped her briefcase onto the floor next to the arm of the easy chair and dropped into the cushions. “She was alright. A little inexperienced, perhaps, but weren’t we all once?”

“How many did you give her?” Gillian took a sip of her wine and motioned to the opened bottle, a glass already waiting. Moisture beaded on the cool surface of the Chardonnay bottle.

“Three.” Felicia half stood to reach the glass and sank back again. “It was enough for her.”

“Enough?” Gillian laughed. “You’ll have recruited a groupie. They’re usually content with one at that age. What is she, twenty?”

“Twenty two.” Felicia grinned. “I don’t intend to keep her. She’d be wanting me to represent her and frankly, I don’t think I can sell her work.”

“I saw the slides. They looked pretty good.” Gillian flicked off the television and refilled her glass.

“They are good.” Felicia frowned. “It’s just that the market won’t sustain them. It takes her a month to paint one, which puts it out of the range of the people who are interested in it. Bottom of the line is that it’s soft porn with a political angle.”

“The minority raped by those with power?” Gillian remembered the images. “What about prints? Wouldn’t they sell?”

“Probably.” Felicia put her glass down so that she could use her hands. “The problem there is that I don’t have the resources to take her on as a printmaker. There are too many galleries to compete with. She’ll have to go elsewhere.”

“Would you like me to talk to my contacts? I have a few wealthy clients who might be persuaded to make the investment.”

“Maybe.” Felicia pursed her lips, deep in thought. “If I could sell a couple I’d break even over her exhibition. Just don’t buy enough to make her think she’s economically viable. It’d only break her heart later when she didn’t sell anything else”

Gillian smiled. “It sounds to me like you care for her.”

“I do, a bit. I was there, once, trying to be an artist, only I sold out and took a job in a gallery.”

“And made an awful lot of money.”

“At the expense of my art.”

Gillian stood. “You’re young yet, Fliss.” She held out a hand. “Come and take a shower with me, we had a deal, remember?”
Felicia accepted the hand and pulled herself up. “How could I forget?”


***


Gillian lapped at the pool of blood that had formed in the small of Felicia’s back. “Did you share fluids?” she asked. “I could swear I can taste oil paint in this.”

“Of course not. What do you take me for?” Felicia’s voice was languid, distorted slightly by virtue of her head resting on her arms. “A bit of kissing,” she relented. “Nothing else.”

“No cunnilingus or licked fingers?” Gillian drew the blade down Felicia’s back again, forcing a hiss of pain from the supine girl. Ten toes curled against the fur throw on the bed and her legs stiffened.”

“No. Ahh, that smarts.”

Gillian chuckled. “Nearly done,” she said, finishing the line at the edge of a rib. She put the knife down and licked at the wound. “I told you that I’d mark you every time you strayed from me,” she said. “How many times will you stray before you get to the point where the scars will begin to show?”

“Too many.” Felicia winced as her lover poured powder onto the fresh wounds, rubbing it in as if it was talc onto a baby’s bottom. “What was that?”

“Oak ash. It helps the skin to form a mark. I wouldn’t want you forgetting your little transgression, would I?” She swung her leg over the girl and stood. “All done.”

Felicia blinked herself back from pain induced euphoria. “What did you cut?”

“Look.” Gillian gave her a hand mirror and held a second over her back. “I’ve outlined part of your spine. It won’t show underneath your blouse, but give me enough reason and I’ll cut where it’s visible, too.”


***


Asham traced the line the blade had left on her lover’s back. “This is awesome,” she said. “Modern tribalism. Did it hurt?”

Felicia gave a snort of derisive laughter. “I’ve had several lines of skin removed, each a eighth of an inch wide, then covered in ash. Of course it hurt. Stop touching it; it’s still fresh.”

“Who did it?” Asham stared at the swirls, bones outlined in flesh. “It’s really good. Better than a tattoo.”

“A woman I know.” Felicia was unforthcoming.

“Is she an artist too?”

Felicia thought of the clever arguments Gillian used when representing her clients in court. “Something like that,” she said. “She’s certainly creative.” A phone bleeped, and she dug her hand underneath the pillows for it. “I have to go,” she said, sliding to the edge of the bed. “Work.”

“You’re only ten minutes from the gallery,” Asham protested. “One more for the road?” She slipped her dressing gown over her shoulders, exposing her breasts.

Felicia smiled. “Just a quicky, then.”


***


Gillian finished the spine as far as the base of Felicia’s neck and began on the ribs, long sweeps of the blade that hurt more with each passing second. She laughed when she saw the marks Felicia had bitten into her own hand. “You know how to stop this,” she said, rubbing ash into the wounds.

Felicia sat up, tucking one leg underneath to maintain her balance without leaning against anything. “It has become a rite of passage,” she said. “I don’t think I could give her up now, despite the pain you put me through every night. Besides,” she checked herself in the mirror. “You’re doing a beautiful job.”



***


When will you stop?” Asham stared in horrified fascination and the illustration of all the bones on Felicia’s back.. The marks had begun to touch her chest, now, and her pelvic bone was etched out in faint scarring lines.

Felicia shrugged. “When I’m ready,” she said. “I can control the pain, it’s not a problem.” She pulled Asham down onto the bed. “Come on, I only have an hour.”



***


Her feet were the worst so far. Felicia had never given thought to how many bones were in each foot until Gillian etched each of them with painstaking detail. The legs were easier, though the shallow skin over her kneecaps gave her trouble for days afterwards, forever feeling tight when the skin had healed. She stopped wearing skirts and open shoes when in public, dreading the time when Gillian would complete the shoulder blades and move down the arms.


***


“Come on.” Felicia was impatient, but Asham just kept staring at her. “There’s nothing to be frightened of. It’s just body art. You said it was awesome when I started it.”

“That was then. This is just… obsessive. I can’t, Fliss. Sorry.”

“Sorry?” Fliss’ eyes narrowed. “Well while we’re on the subject of sorry, I’m afraid that I can’t represent you. You’re paintings just don’t sell”

“Was that what his was all about?” Asham spat. “You’ll represent me if I fuck you?”

“No. It was never about that.” Felicia pulled her shirt on, hands deftly doing up buttons even as the tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. “I discussed the salability of your work before we even had sex.”

“I’ll collect the paintings tomorrow,” Asham said, pulling on her coat. “Lock the door behind you when you leave.”


***

“I warned you.” Gillian stroked her hair as she lay in the bath, the salt-rich water easing the pain from the cuttings. “I told you that every time you strayed I’d bind you closer to me.” She put her glass on the enamel and kissed Felicia. “I’m just sorry you got hurt.” She caught the look Felicia flashed her and laughed. “Emotionally, I mean.”


***


People flocked to Felicia’s gallery when it re-opened under a new theme, as much for a glimpse of the owner as for the art on display. Even the tabloids were fascinated by the woman who had the image of a skull carved onto her face.




The End
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« Reply #15 on: October 31, 2007, 05:27:16 AM »

SHADE

                                             


I’m scared as I sit here, with the wind howling outside, like a kraken shifting in its sleep.  The internal struggle between the fear of life passing me by and being too insecure to get up and do anything about it, is glowing inside me.  Growling and pulsating like a chained wild animal, caught in the ebb and flow of a tide.  The rain spatters against my window, drainpipes sway, leaking their juices over an oblivious world.  One that is too caught up in its coming and goings to notice Mother Nature crying out against the brutalities society has reaped upon her.

The boiler creaks, groans and thumps, splintering the deafening yet strangely, serene silence.  My solace interrupted by its mysterious language, talking to its brothers the pipes.  Communicating in an alien tongue to its sisters, the radiators.  Whispering tales of the great days long past, when its ancestors, the steam engines were king.  I scrunch my quilt tightly in my balled fist, then pull it gently up over my body, tucking it under my chin.  Fooling myself that it will protect me, from the harshness of life.

I consider myself knowledgeable, but too much knowledge doesn’t make you a better or more intelligent person.  It instils you with a sense of hopelessness, abandonment and fear.  A profound paranoia, that separates you from your fellow man.  Setting you adrift on a sea that turns into a waterfall, at the edge of the horizon. Sailing on a ship of bloated corpses, being pecked by scavenger birds, picking away at your carrion deck, leaving you less and less footing, as time goes by.  While the rest of the world sails on past you, in a sleek, expensive liner.  Happy in their knowledge that the planet is round and the sea never ends.

The night presses on me, with the weight of a mothers love.  Like a mothers love it can be oppressive and stifling, allowing you no freedom, to do what you really want.  It blankets the street outside, battling the dimly lit lampposts for supremacy, enveloping my room, isolating it.  The darkness courts the wind and rain, at first, it introduces itself subtly, then it bows and takes their hands.  Placing a kiss on each of them, before asking the tempestuous elements to dance.  They shyly accept, slowly whirling and wetting themselves through the guttering, overturning and filling empty cans, before picking up the tempo.  Screaming over rooftops, flooding gulleys, then smashing against windowpanes.  As if threatening to shatter them, for not taking part in their wild rampaging waltz.  The darkness performs a baroque ballet, pirouettes, then stops to meet them head on, with its arms out stretched.  Capturing them in its all encompassing, icy embrace.  Reminding me that the agony of life is only exceeded, by the sheer terror of wandering the void that lies on the opposite side of it, alone for eternity.

I tighten my grip and settle slowly back on my bed, the quilt still clenched, it follows me like a shroud.  My head sinks into the pillow; it welcomes me with familiar smells of my own sweat. Thoughts march through my mind, making me visualise armies in formation, walking into another senseless war.  The repetitive crunching of their boots, lull me softly into Morpheus’ realm of sleep.

I’m awoken by a trio of knocks at my front door.  I jerk, go red in the face, as adrenalin opens the floodgates, for my blood to rush through. Butterflies attack my stomach, making me feel a need to expel faeces.  Who can that be?  No one knocks for me, not because it’s late, just that nobody bothers me and I don’t bother them.

Thunder rolls excruciatingly through the sky, like a fat old man, tired of life throwing himself off a cliff.  Lightning split’s the darkness, as if God had torn out the fat old man’s veins, enlarged and illuminated them, then tossed them down from heaven, as a punishment for his sin of suicide.

The door knocks again, three times as if emphasising my thesis on knowledge,
KNOCK . . . hopelessness, KNOCK . . . abandonment, KNOCK . . . fear.
I know I’m going to have to answer it, even if the very thought of doing so leaves me in tatters.  I get up out of bed, clenching my quilt so tight; it feels as if my fingers are going to crack.  Each step I take is like walking on broken glass, and it seems to make just as much noise.  I open my bedroom door and look across the hallway, so I can peer through the window of the front door.  Trying to make out who
It is, all I can decipher is a black shade, a silhouette, a shadow.

Again, that dreadful rapping, KNOCK . . . hopelessness, KNOCK . . . abandonment, KNOCK . . . fear                                                                     
A shiver descends my spine, as if someone has slit the nape of my neck and is slowly, sliding a frozen, shattering, stalactite down it.    I quiver like a virgin, about to encounter her first sexual experience.  Anger mixes with my ever-increasing dread, giving me the boldness I need to cross the hallway.  I can hear the ticking of the clock, the sound of my feet shuffling across the carpet, the creaks and groans of my old friend the boiler, telling me stories of past glory.  I can even hear the fridge buzzing, as it feeds of the electricity.  There is a sound missing, that I know subconsciously should be here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

My hand reaches out, as if by its own accord.  The latch unclips and the handle turns, allowing the door to swing slowly inward.  I expect to see a person, features, hair, arms, legs, something! But it’s exactly as it was before, a shade, a silhouette, a shadow.  With a sound like metal being filed, without it making the slightest tremor or movement, I hear the shade say,   “TIME TO GO.”   With horrifying clarity, I realise what sound is missing.  The sound of my heart beating, the taken for granted hiss of the suck and blow of breath, as it inhales and exhales from my lungs.  I look down at myself, to see if anything has changed.  The quilt wrapped tightly around me, still clenched in my claw like hand, has turned into a blood-stained shroud.

The shade stands there, motionless and quiet; it’s so dark it hurts my eyes. Blacker than darkness, blacker than the depths of the cruellest human soul, the oppersite of light, the anti-light.  The dark that was already old prior to creation.  It triggers a deep-rooted primordial fear, which only Neanderthal man may have experienced before they discovered fire.  My head is full of stinging bleak silence, the solitude screeches at me, piercing with its desolate emptiness.  I realise it is the undeniable sound of death.

I spasm into a sitting position, gasping for air, startled, awake, my bed soiled, perspiring like a junkie needing a fix.   I grip my quilt, pull it up over my body, and tuck it under my chin.  I must have fallen asleep, and not woken back up, ’THANK GOD!’   I’ve never had a dream so shockingly real, so vivid.  It makes the existence I’m in now; seem like a hallucination in comparison.  It’s still night, and the wind’s wailing outside, with the rain beating indentations into the sodden grass.  My boiler is deep in conversation with its family, and all seems right with the world, such as it is.



I lean over to pick up my glass of water, hoping to quench my all consuming thirst, in mid motion I hear a noise that freezes the marrow in my bones.
KNOCK . . . KNOCK . . . KNOCK.                                 
               
                             


                                     
The End                                                             
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« Reply #16 on: October 31, 2007, 05:28:22 AM »

SPECIAL COLLECTION





   It was dusk by the time I found the place at the end of a run-down street.  It was an old building with intricate ironwork over bricked-in windows, and not a crack for any light to show.  It looked deserted.  A sign on the gate said “Soulrest Manor: a Private Hospital” in pointed black letters.  I opened the gate, went up the stairs, and knocked.

   How the mighty have fallen, I thought.  I’d worked my way up from the bottom only to be fired from my most prestigious directorship with no explanation.  Now I’d landed in this derelict neighborhood.

   “I’m here to interview for your Hospital Librarian position,” I said when the door opened.  “Your ad said to just drop by.  I’m Gabriel Dunkelman.  Most people call me Gabe.”  I held out my hand.

   “Good evening, Mr. Dunkelman,” the man said smoothly.  “Delano Connor, director of the Hospital.  Come in.”  He closed the door behind me with a clunk and led me down a candlelit stone corridor to the library.

   I stopped in the doorway.  Like the rest of the building, the library was dark.  The only illumination came from candles in braces along walls and on tables.  The wax dripped as it burned, eerie shapes made stranger by the dim flickering light.

   “After you,” Connor’s mellifluous voice said behind me.

   Well, so what if it was weird, I thought.  I needed a job, so I went in.  Once again, the director closed the door behind us.  We stood in a tall room with a mezzanine running around the edge where the second floor would have been.  The walls above and below the mezzanine were lined with books, old books by the look of them.  The bindings nearest to hand were leather, with elaborate tooling and gold embellishments.

   A shelf above the door we’d come through held a large clear glass jar with an ornate golden lid.  Candles on either side illuminated it enough for me to see that it was filled with a muddy substance I knew wasn’t really mud.  It sent a shudder through me that I struggled to hide from the director.  Though I wanted to ask what it was, I found I didn’t dare.  Not yet.

   Little gnomes were busy at the shelves, scampering up and down ladders with feather dusters and stacks of books.  It was the cleanest library I’d ever seen, and I had seen a lot of libraries in my time.  This certainly wasn’t what I’d expected, and yet, it had potential.  The workers seemed devoted, and that was more than could be said for most of my past employees.

   What set this apart from most libraries was the noise.  A soft sighing pervaded the air, and from time to time, howls and clanks rose from somewhere in the building.  They had no place in a normal hospital or library, and I found myself clenching my jaw in response.

   “What’s the racket?” I asked Connor, trying to sound casual.

   “Just some of the patients,” he said, the quickness of his answer making me sure he was brushing off my question.

   “Really?  What do they get up to around here, then?”

   “Oh, the usual.  Surely you understand the nature of our patients.”

   I waited.

   Finally Connor sighed.  “The patients we treat here aren’t suffering from physical ailments.”

   “Oh, so you mean you’re into holistic treatments?  Mind over body and all that?”

   “Not exactly.  Our patients’ souls are afflicted.”

   “Psychological difficulties?”

   “You really are a slow one.”

   I felt anger shoot from my stomach toward my mouth.  I had been called many things, but slow had never been one of them.

   Connor went on before I had a chance to retort.  “You would probably call our patients myths.  They’ve always existed on the fringes, but they flock to us.  Some call them creatures of the night; others call them inhuman; but they are neither.”

   “Then what are they?  They’re human?” I asked, done with being kept guessing.

   “They’re lots of things with lots of names.  Vampires, werewolves, unfortunates of all kinds.  They’re all human with various wounds to their souls.”

   “And I’m to keep a library for these mythical beings?”

   “That’s why you applied, isn’t it?” he asked with a leer.

   “I’m a librarian.  This is a library.”

   “Good!  You’ll be living here, of course.  Everyone who works in the hospital lives here.”

   I hesitated.  “Aren’t there any windows?”  The closed-in, cave-like feel of the place was already starting to get to me and now that I knew what Soulrest Manor really was I was having second thoughts about having applied to work there.

   “All the windows have been filled in.  Sunlight would be deadly for some of our patients.  You understand.  Are you willing?”

   I thought about it.  This was the only interview I’d gotten, though I’d applied for lots of jobs.  The money had to come from somewhere.  It wasn’t as if I was committing to forever.

   “If you’re offering the job, I’ll take it,” I said.

   “Very good.”  I could tell he was pleased.

   “I’ll show you to your room.”  I followed him down another candlelit corridor, where I saw one of the gnomes exchanging spent candles for new.  We stopped outside a heavy wooden door and he pushed it open.

   “You’ll begin your duties tomorrow morning.  Sleep well.”

   I walked into the empty chamber.  It was surprisingly well furnished with tapestries on the walls and a lush velvet spread on the bed.  My feet sank into the carpet.

   I blew out the candles, pulled up the blankets, and lay looking into darkness.  If coming to the dark hospital had been a mistake, it was too late to change my mind.  I fell asleep listening to intermittent clanks and screeches.

   I dreamed I woke up to see one of the tapestries on the wall pulled back.  A big rectangular machine with switches and dials slid out, and glided all the way to the bed.  I wanted to run as it loomed over me, but couldn’t move.  It glared at me out of a blank screen as two needles jabbed themselves into my arm hard enough to make me shout.  Switches clicked, the screen lit up and the machine whirred.  It was taking my blood, doing something to it.  I couldn’t lift a hand to switch it off, so I stared, mesmerized, at my blood flowing in and out.  What would happen if I just pulled out the needles?

   After a while, a deeper whirring started up inside, and dark sludge splattered into a glass jar I hadn’t noticed before.

   When I woke, I was alone in the room.  I jumped up and yanked back the tapestries, but saw only stone walls behind them.  It had just been my imagination playing on my fear of the jar in the library.

   I put the night behind me while I washed my face and got dressed.  It was time to face the first day of a new job.  As I was finishing up, there was a knock at the door.  Mr. Connor stood outside waiting for me.

   “Escort?”  I raised my eyebrows.

   “I just wanted to ask how you were after your first night.”

   “I’m well, thanks.”

   He nodded, walked beside me to the library, and left me at the door.

   That first day, I was able to convince myself that I was in familiar territory.  Every library I’d ever worked in had had its share of troubled visitors, and as long as I thought of the patients that way, I felt right at home.

   The one thing that ruined my sense of normalcy was the jar above the door.  I caught myself looking at it time and again, skin prickling.  I couldn’t look for long without fear robbing me of breath and making me dizzy, but neither could I keep my eyes averted.  It was like a scab I just kept picking, even when it hurt and got infected, and like a festering wound, my fearful curiosity grew to encompass all of me.

   I spent most of that day alternately staring at the jar and watching the gnomes work.  I sensed their devotion and felt sorry they were stuck here in a place with no windows, working without a break.  Occasionally patients interrupted me by needing books or throwing tantrums, but for the most part, I was left to myself.

   By the time I’d been there several weeks, the place didn’t seem so unusual anymore. The patients shouted and carried on as much in the library as anywhere else in the hospital, so I got used to their outbursts. I guess you could say I was settling in.

   There were only two things I couldn’t shake.  The first was my fear of the jar over the door.  The second was the dream that had been with me since my first night at Soulrest Manor.  Every night the jar of sludge was a little fuller.  Inexplicable dread weighed me down as I watched it fill drop by drop.  I slept less well every night because of it, and lack of sleep kept me on edge.

   I sat behind my desk one day, gritting my teeth while a particularly obnoxious patient shouted at me.  Connor might claim this place wasn’t a psychiatric ward, but the more I saw, the more I thought it resembled one.  Finally one word stood out through the torrent.  The patient was raving about librarians.

   “What about them?” I asked, interrupting the incessant flow of words.

   Startling red eyes met mine and narrowed.  “I was the librarian before you came, before anyone came!  All of this was mine.  I was the first.”  A bony hand swept up and around taking in the library.  “Now I’m part of the Special Collection.  I’ve seen you looking at it.  You know what it’s for!”  The creature—patient, I reminded myself—cackled and pushed out the door, its laughter echoing from the stone walls.

   I looked at my hands, folded and clenched on top of the desk.

   I won’t look up, I told myself.  I won’t look up.

   The next thing I knew, I was staring at the jar, the Special Collection.  It was true.  As soon as I’d heard the name, I knew what it belonged to.  Of course, knowing the name only left me with more questions, the most pressing of which was collection of what?

   I tore my eyes away and looked frantically around the library.  The gnomes went calmly on with their work.  Suddenly I thought they were enjoying themselves too much.  They looked like they were working, but they must be shirking in some clever way I couldn’t see.  I got up and kicked the nearest one.  “Get back to work!”

   It glared accusingly at me, and carried on shelving its stack of books.  I felt better and went back to staring.

   That night I dreamed again, and this time when the machine switched itself off, the jar was full.  I woke in a cold sweat in an empty room, with serious doubts about my job.  I was going crazy living among so many mentally unbalanced patients.  I breathed deeply.  I was okay.  The jar was full and nothing terrible had happened.

   As I lay in the dark, my door slammed open.

   Connor stood there, a dark shadow backlit by flickering candles.  “I need you at once in the library,” he said, then turned and strode off down the corridor without waiting for me to follow.

   I grabbed a robe and followed.  A whole crowd of patients had gathered in the library.  I’d heard their voices from the corridor, but they fell silent as I crossed the threshold.

   “Dunkelman, you’re one of us now,” Connor said.

   “You woke me up to tell me this?”

   “You were already awake.  You know it’s time.”  He reached into his flowing black robe, and it was then that I noticed he wasn’t wearing his usual suit and tie.  From a pocket somewhere inside, he withdrew the jar from my dream.

   I shrank back and the patients hissed gleefully.

   “Tonight is truly a special night,” intoned Connor, holding up the jar for all to see.  “Tonight we add to our library’s Special Collection.  The ladder, please.”

   A gnome brought a ladder forward and leaned it against the doorframe.  Connor climbed it, robe billowing, unscrewed the golden lid, and held the smaller jar poised over the large one.

   “Welcome to the Special Collection, Dunkelman.”

   “No!” I screamed, too late.  The sludge from my dreams had joined the rest in the big jar on the shelf.

   I sank to my knees.

   “Now you’re one of us!” said the patient who had babbled to me about the Special Collection so long ago that same afternoon.

   “But I’m the librarian,” I protested.

   “Not anymore.  I’m going to explain this to you while you can still understand.”  Connor suddenly sounded cold and clinical, his voice sending a chill scurrying up and down my spine.

   “I’m not planning on getting stupid,” I snapped, feeling something unraveling in the back of my head.

   “I’ve just added your soul to the Special Collection, Dunkelman.  With no soul, there’s nothing to balance your mind, and you’ll go crazy, just like our other patients with damaged souls.  Few people can say they’ve seen their own souls.  How do you like it?”

   “It’s dirty!”

   “I’m afraid the dialysis and distillation process does that to them all as they’re removed from the blood.”

   “The dreams were real?  Are you saying I gave up my soul just for a job?”

   “It’s a small price.  Most jobs take it out of you eventually anyway.  It’s less painful this way.  I did you a favor.”

   I shook my head, trying to clear it, but fog was setting in.  I couldn’t remember living a normal life outside the hospital.  This was my home.

   The crazy patient reached out and took my hand in his clammy one.  “I’m glad you came,” he said, leading me out of the library and down a hallway I’d never seen.  “I’ll look out for you.”

   I nodded, glad to have someone to show me the way as memory faded.





The End
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #17 on: October 31, 2007, 05:29:32 AM »

SURVIVING THE MOON




Jeremy Samson bounces on the cusp of his sofa cushion, shaking as much from the double-shot of espresso in his mocha as from the deadline. His back contorts over last year's most sought-after laptop. It shares the glass coffee table with Zeus, his nine-month-old kitten from a recent marriage. Zeus attempts to anticipate her owner's next keystrokes and then cover those keys with her paws. Sometimes she suggests alternative letters.

Samson had been against naming a female tabby after a powerful male god for just such reasons. He jingles his keys and throws them to the carpet near the hideaway plasma television. Zeus darts after them. Samson had wanted to name her "Captain A.D.D." instead, but that particular wife hadn't allowed it.

   Samson tells himself he's beyond the pain in his lower spine, beyond the pressure in his bladder, which--if he lets himself think about it--is more distracting than his back pain. He tells himself he'll finally make time to urinate after checking one more lead.

   He'd edited Waterguide, his last and likely final film, with the same posture and impatience, culminating in a back stress-injury a year before. But while that pain had been transitory, Waterguide can survive the moon if selected for the Archive, and if not eclipsed by the presently-more-ubiquitous gossip mill.

The permanent, Samson believes, always justifies the temporary. That's why he directs film, not theatre. That's why he buys in bulk. That's why he would have never married if he hadn't believed each time that it was for life. But in this instance, it's his biography he's editing, which will never be a work of art no matter how much passing pain he endures to shape it. He's forty-three years old: too young to retire from directing, and too young to develop a bladder problem.

   It's twelve minutes until noon on the day of the Great Web Snapshot. That's noon Eastern US time, to which Los Angeles still defers in all matters of bicoastal importance. For Samson that makes it far too early. Or late. He's been up all night, hunched in a bathrobe, satin or silk pajama pants (he can never remember which is which), and a pair of cheap cotton socks. The socks are new. He hadn't needed them to edit Waterguide, and in fact he prefers to be barefoot, which is why he and his second-to-last wife opted for carpet instead of hardwood floors when they built this Beverly Hills brownstone. But Zeus has trouble differentiating between toes and chewtoys, and therefore: socks. It must be like silk and satin to her owner.

   Samson's list already includes over five thousand websites and articles--hosted on almost as many servers--detailing or referencing the lie he shall not allow to outlive him. Some sites Samson finds by simple web searches, others by complicated algorithms only a woman named Crater understands.

   Samson doesn't know Crater's real name, or whether she's even young enough to be a potential ex-wife, but he trusts her  more than he fears the moon. After Samson's desperation at Waterguide's commercial underperformance (but critical success; let's not forget that!) and his despair at a misconstrued misunderstanding in Minnesota, Crater had emailed Samson with biggest-fan claims and a redemptive path for her filmmaking hero. Crater couldn't fix public opinion, but she could change how moonless mankind would remember Samson forever.

   Samson checks Crater's blog, in which she regularly praises his directorial genius and influence. Not updated yet today. Crater had said she'd unleash, minutes before the Snapshot, specific counter-stories on her own website and on unmonitored, user-edited databases. And those stories would last forever if they lasted an hour.

   What happened was this: shortly after Waterguide bombed, Consolidated Wire Services had pounced on an erroneous St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper story (more of a blurb really) about Samson's visit to a video rental store and subsequent correction of an employee who'd listed Samson's seminal work, Undersweet Angels, on a Worst Films "Evaaar" shelf.

The story so ruthlessly spread through news sites, blogs, and catty, leaked memos between development executives in Hollywood, that Samson could not even transmute the negative publicity into the needed heat for a greenlit film. Every public mention or review of Samson or his work since has included a snide remark about those incidental minutes he should have left in Minnesota. The world is run by savages who will deserve what they get. There's no other explanation.

   Eight minutes until noon. Zeus has grown tired of the now-motionless set of keys. She gives herself another bath, her fourth or fifth since midnight. She pauses mid-lick and stares at Samson every dozen seconds. The accusations in her eyes distract him. His mind goes to every mistake he's made in the past ten years, things the cat couldn't possibly know about.
In Samson's pocket, his phone chimes the "Satan's theme" melody from the Undersweet Angels soundtrack, indicating an incoming call from one of his fairer-haired exes. Samson thumbs the ringer switch from chime to vibrate. It's more important now to scan an online Hollywood rumor-mill article that, in the second paragraph, uses "Samson-ed" as a verb to describe the London nightclub behavior of some horsefaced diva who can't keep her dress from falling down for the cameras.

   Samson types the web address URL into Crater's hackware program. The server identifier comes back green, which means it shares a host server or connection or family of sites with another URL already on Samson's list and therefore already marked for the chopping block. Crater has told him that seeing redundancies like this was a good sign. A sign of thoroughness. He must be almost ready to push the button.

   Of course his publicist had released a clarification about how the Minnesota story was apocryphal, based on Samson's reputation as a passionate filmmaker. Samson had actually been very courteous to (and forgiving of!) the video store employee. He had not in fact yelled, but instead calmly offered that, if Undersweet Angels was so allegedly poor in quality, then why were there no unrented copies left in the store, hmm? A few blogs and podcasts commented unfavorably on this press release, but neither Consolidated Wire Services nor the more popular industry news portals ever ran a retraction of the original, damaging smear.

   Four minutes until noon. Zeus tells Samson she's hungry by jumping on his bent back and licking the salt off his neck. It's a trick she'd learned from her brother Hades, a more aptly named kitten who'd failed to survive his first month in Casa del Samson. He'd clawed his way up a screened window on the third floor, perhaps to get a better view of the gardener Philippe outside on his riding lawn mower.

The screen couldn't handle even the kitten's modest three pounds. Hades and the screen window fell outward onto the lawn. He was bruised, but that failed to deter him from being curious about this amazing metal machine making so much noise and spitting out cut grass. "Well, I'm not going back to the store to get another one," Samson had told his wife, which led to another misunderstanding about Samson being callous or uninterested or something. Savages. The whole world.

Zeus's rough tongue scrapes against Samson's skin, but he knows any sudden move to shake her off will only be greeted with a tighter grip by her claws. Samson had wanted to have them surgically removed even before the tangentially claw-related death of her brother, but his ex had said they would be easy enough to trim once per month. She'd said this just a few weeks before leaving both Samson and Zeus for young Philippe. She left Zeus with Samson because she didn't trust Philippe not to kill her, too, in the course of things. This had made a bit of depressing sense at the time.

   Presently he tries to motionlessly bear both Zeus's tongue and the now-overwhelming reminder that he needs to urinate, because he stumbles across another misguided review of Waterguide. There's no mention of the Minnesota story for once, but it's clear the reviewer has never been to film school. It's fine for her to believe it "pretentiously dull" (Samson welcomes legitimate criticism, always has) but he or she (who uses initials for a byline anyway?) also clearly got the themes all wrong!

   Samson adds the site to his list. The server identifier comes back red. This is a new response and for a second he worries he's crashed Crater's program. His body flinches at this break in concentration, causing Zeus to dig her front claws into his upper back (as predicted) to keep herself from sliding off. This in turn causes his body to send a searing stroke of pay-attention-to-me up from his bladder.

   Three minutes until noon and a bathroom break can no longer wait. He involuntarily shakes as he reaches behind him to brush Zeus off his back. He bangs the bottom of the laptop with his knee as he rises from the sofa. He worries he's damaged it, that he has lost all his work, but the LCD doesn't show any obvious signs of problems. He runs to the bathroom with Zeus as his overexcited shadow. He almost beheads her when he slams the door behind him.

At the drop of his pants Samson remembers the significance of red in Crater's hackware program. It means the site shares a server with one of Crater's "counter-intelligence" sites, where she will post positive stories about Samson in the moments before the Snapshot. If he takes down the unjustified smear, the corrective flattery will be removed as well.

   Samson exhales as the pressure leaves his bladder. He rubs his face, moist with the sweat that's collected in his beard stubble. He feels some of his anger stream off into the toilet with his urine. He counts the number of toilet rolls stacked in the shower stall beside him. He wonders why the human body can't operate like buying in bulk. Why can't he go to the bathroom once per year for four days straight and be done with it until January? Repeating one's day-to-day tasks is for plebeians. Isn't that why he became a filmmaker in the first place? So that each project is something new?

   Samson begins to doubt. What if all this hackery ends up cleaving the bulk of his life out of history? What if every online biography of Samson includes the Minnesota story? He needs to do a new online search for positive stories. He has only a few minutes to determine whether he'd rather be forever remembered as a one-time ass, or scarcely mentioned as a footnote in the annals of American cinema.

   No, he thinks. Stick. To. The. Plan. He should always ignore those fleeting doubts, just like his last second decision to cut away from the car explosion at the end of Undersweet Angels. It's a beautiful moment, ultimately restored for the director's cut DVD. Surely if Undersweet Angels is picked for the archive, they'll use the director's cut, won't they? Surely he won't be remembered for a moment's stupidity.

He closes his eyes and imagines having to fight for this new version of his film yet again.

#

Samson wakes up to the stale smell of urine. The off-white ceiling doesn't look familiar, although he's annoyingly had to use this bathroom a thousand times, interrupting more important work. Zeus's front paws reach under the door trying to get his attention. Or maybe Captain A.D.D. has just forgotten what's on the other side of the bathroom door again. Samson's first or second wife used to leave the bathroom door open, so Samson put closed-door peeing in all future pre-nups. 
Samson is on his back. His legs straddle the base of the toilet. Did he slip with his socks on the tile or just pass out from unclenching his body to pee?

   Samson's eyes go wide. He pulls himself to his feet. He yanks open the door.

   He kicks off his pants, which--along with the just-as-excited Zeus--threaten to trip him up on his way back to the laptop. He shakes away the new pain in his back (from the fall or from his tenseness and posture while on the laptop all night?) and hits the keys harder than necessary, only to confirm his fear.

   It's noon, but noon local time. He'd been out for three hours. The Great Web Snapshot has come and gone. Elsewhere, as he slept, server farms and computer arrays have indexed, downloaded, and archived the public web as it existed at whatever millisecond that it reached each individual server and page, as it will be remembered wherever mankind goes next. Of course there are minor sites probably still in the queue to be indexed--nothing in life is as instantaneous as it should be--but the major portals, and the more significant websites are certainly captured and done.

   Samson scrolls helplessly through the list of servers, to which Crater's program was supposed to send viral attacks--on Samson's command--in the moments before the Snapshot began, thus excluding those crashed servers and sites from the Archive forever. Zeus walks across the keyboard of the laptop. Her back-left paw hits the ENTER key.

"You couldn't have done that when I was in the bathroom?"

   But now the Minnesota story will outlive Samson. It will outlive the gossipmongers, which Samson supposes is a small consolation. And it will even outlive Minnesota, unless this moon crashing business turns out to be a hoax. It certainly seems possible that a 50-mile wide asteroid impacting with the moon could cause an enormous chunk of it to break off and fall to the Earth below, but he had never been interested enough in popcorn films to do the research for himself.

   It's five years away, but Samson is justly certain he won't be selected for the New Earth shuttles. Few will. Though somehow they'll make room for an Archive containing the Minnesota story and the rest of the World Wide Web, and, if his luck turns with the soon-to-be-worsening tide, one or two of his better films.

   There's an email message from Crater in Samson's inbox, squeezed between probably-angrier ones from ex-wives and actresses scorned. The internet continues to develop and dissipate in its fluctuating aether, and one day it will disappear altogether, along with Samson and Crater and that video store prattler. But from this point on, no online changes will matter to future generations. Perhaps they never did.

   Samson scratches his stubble and considers shaving for the first time in weeks. There's no hurry to get back to Crater and her "Phase II" plan to get buzz going about his body of work, to increase the likelihood that his films will be selected for the Archive.

   Zeus's meow sounds like a cry. She bites his toes through his sock. He'll feed her, and then decide what to tell Crater about his slip-up and what to leave out.

   Maybe he'll take a shower.




The End

« Last Edit: October 31, 2007, 05:31:17 AM by Ed » Logged

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« Reply #18 on: October 31, 2007, 05:32:10 AM »

THE LAKE   



   Jet skis weren't allowed on the lake. The town voted on the issue not quite three years ago and the result was unanimous. Jet skis were a nuisance, Mayor Bicks pointed out. They polluted the waters with their gas run off and frightened the wildlife. No, jet skis had no place in their little town. The local boys knew better than to break the law, they understood the reasoning behind it and the trouble they would get in for breaking it. Which meant the jet ski currently hopping across Gulliver Lake couldn’t possibly belong to a local. Turning her binoculars to the waves, Alexis soon saw that she was right. In a town as small as Gulliver you knew everybody, whether you wanted to or not, and she sure didn’t know this guy. Sighing, she told herself to turn away but couldn’t. The guy looked to be about her age, give or take a few years, and seemed completely oblivious to the trouble he was sure to get into. He probably didn’t even know it was illegal to be on the lake. Just another out-of-towner sneaking down during the off season to enjoy the lake all alone. It happened more often than the people of Gulliver cared to think about.

   Alexis decided to call him Frosty. There was no way of telling his real name, after all, and Frosty seemed a suitable moniker for someone out jet skiing in this kind of weather. Sure, Frosty was wearing a wet suit, but it was still cold as a witch’s tit when the wind came by. Zipping up her denim jacket, Alexis wished she had worn something warmer to go bird watching. She hadn’t realized how deep into Autumn they were, and from the looks of it neither had Frosty. Still, he looked like he was having fun. The binoculars Alexis had gotten last Christmas were top of the line. She could even see that Frosty was smiling ear to ear despite the wind and water lashing at his face. It was going to break her heart to see him get in trouble, but Alexis supposed it was inevitable. At least he was having a nice time, for what that was worth.

   Maybe Frosty wouldn’t get in trouble, Alexis thought to herself. If he stops soon he could get back to the shore and make it to his car in no time. No one would ever have to even know he’d been here except for her, and she wasn’t going to tell anybody. Alexis felt hopeful for a few seconds but soon deflated. No, Frosty was going to get in trouble, she knew it. The jet ski was making a ton of noise tearing up the water like that. She really should put her binoculars away and go home. It wasn’t her business if some fool wanted to joy ride all over the lake. If he’d paid attention he would have seen the warning signs posted all over. He probably had seen them, they were lime green and stood out like a sore thumb. True, he couldn’t have realized how big a deal it was to bring a jet ski onto the lake, but that hardly excused him breaking the law.

   Alexis fought the urge to get angry. It wouldn’t do any good. Every year a few people would get in trouble out on that lake despite the town’s best efforts. Like her parents had explained to her growing up, there was no use getting fired up about things that couldn’t be changed. And besides, if people would just obey the rules there wouldn’t be any problems in the first place. As a child that had all seemed pretty straight forward to Alexis. Age, however, had made her question authority more and more. By twenty-six she had gotten fed up with the lake rules a number of times. All of them. Other than the jet ski one, there were five others:

1. You must have a license to swim in the lake.

2. No fishing allowed, by boat or by shore.

3. No swimming after six p.m. at night.

4. No loud music or fireworks allowed within one quarter mile of the lake.

5. No swimming beyond the red buoys.

   The first rule was really a nice way to say that only locals were allowed to swim in the lake. The whole permit system had been thought up back in the fifties to make it sound less unfriendly. No one in Gulliver wanted tourists thinking they weren’t welcome in the town. They were welcome, just not in the lake. Not that there were ever many tourists in town. Who wanted to go visit a place with nothing to do and a lake you couldn’t even swim in? The town had tried having a festival for a few years and that had attracted some tourists but after a while they started breaking rules and getting in trouble. The lake was simply too big a temptation, too cool and refreshing on a hot summer day, so in the end the town voted to eliminate the August festival. For a while there was talk of maybe making a new festival for the fall or early spring but it was eventually deemed too risky. Even if it was too cold to swim, people might try getting out to fish.

   Alexis was surprised that nothing had happened to Frosty yet. He was still out there, having the time of his life by the looks of it, and making quite a racket.  She felt so sorry for him. How was he supposed to know how bad it got when you were caught out on the lake? Nobody could know, unless they were local, and that was the really unfair part. It was especially hard when children got caught breaking the rules. That was the biggest reason for shutting down the festivals, kids were sneaking out to the lake behind their parent’s backs. That freaked the town out big time. No one wanted to see kids get into that kind of trouble and they sure didn’t want to have to deal with the parents. You just couldn’t let these things slide, that was all.

   Having to think stuff like that got to a lot of people. Every year a bunch would move away. Teenagers who couldn’t get into a college would find work a few towns over and only come to visit on holidays. It was better for them that way, but the town itself was starting to suffer. Another twenty or so years and there wouldn’t be a real town left at all. Alexis knew that one day she would leave too, it was only a matter of saving up enough money. She would need bus fare, for starters, and after that enough to rent an apartment until she could find a good job. Sometimes Alexis wondered if her parents made her pay rent to teach her a lesson in being a mature adult, which they claimed was the reason, or they really were doing it to keep her in Gulliver a little longer. Without having to pay rent, she would have left last year. Maybe she’d even have a boyfriend.

   There weren’t many guys to date around Gulliver, especially since the best ones went off to the city after college. Alexis wanted a man who was smart, someone who could teach her about the world. Living in such an isolated town all her life, she felt incredibly left behind. She thought things were getting better when she left for college, only to have to leave after two years when her father claimed the family was out of money. She’d wanted to learn so much more. There wasn’t even a book store in Gulliver. A computer would have helped, but Alexis’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. The woman was set in her old fashioned ways and claimed that computers were only for scam artists and pedophiles. Not wanting to argue, Alexis had tried to make herself happy with bird watching and a few school books she’d brought back from college. Her two favorites were the ones on philosophy and world mythology. She had a few fiction books too, from her freshman english class.

   The water on the lake was starting to get choppy now. Frosty noticed and turned to head back to shore. Without knowing it, Alexis crossed both her fingers tight. Maybe he’d make it in time. The waves got bigger though, until without warning Frosty’s jet ski was tossed roughly to the side, spilling him out into the water. A huge tentacle rose up ten feet high then slammed onto the sputtering water craft, reducing it to smoking chucks of twisted metal that sank slowly beneath the waves. Frosty didn’t wait long enough to see that part, as soon as he spotted the tentacle he swam for his life. It wasn’t nearly fast enough. Alexis watched as the tip of a tentacle popped up in front of Frosty’s face, blinding him as it wrapped itself around. Another tentacle went to encircle his waist and, with a brisk tug, Frosty’s head was plucked from his body. The neck had time to spurt a thick stream of blood before the head and body were taken under. Then it was over.

   Alexis tried not to cry, but did anyway. Before she knew it she was sobbing, her head buried in her knees as she cursed the lake and whatever monstrosity lurked within it. No one in town had ever seen the whole thing, or if they did no one had spoken up about it. They only knew that if they followed the rules it left them alone. Outsiders were on their own. Alexis wished she could have warned Frosty, not that he would have believed her. They never did.





The End








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« Reply #19 on: October 31, 2007, 05:35:40 AM »

THE BUSHES SCREAM




“What’s your name, then, young lass?”

      I was jealous already; he was looking at her with that light in his eyes, that special light that was usually reserved for me.

     “Suzee,” she replied as she wound a strand of too-blond hair around a lacquered fingernail, “Suzee Lambon.”

     “Susie? That’s a very feminine name. I like feminine names.” His voice was a low gritty drawl, his smile lupine.

      “Su-zee, with two Es and a zee, silly, it’s so much more profound don’t you think?”

     Too easy Suzee more like, I thought. She was a tart and Daddy would see through her. He wouldn’t let such a slut stay.

     Suzee lasted a week, a very long week for me, alone and cold in my bed. Their sex noises seeped up through the floorboards and I felt sick with disgust. But a week was all it was.

     “Where’s Suzee?” I asked Daddy as he trod in a new rose at the bottom of the garden. “Her rent’s late and all her stuff’s gone. I haven’t seen her for days”

     He held my eyes for a moment, a frown slicing his brow. Then he looked down and continued treading. “Threw the whore out. Soon as she said her name was Suzee with a zee I knew. Got no right to be walking God’s earth. She can spread her filth elsewhere. Told you before Angel, stay away from their likes.”

     I was happy again, I had my Daddy back and I was no longer alone at night.
But then came Deni, another tart’s name if ever I heard one. I washed the dishes as they talked at the breakfast table.

     “So why do you want to rent a room? You want to be alone with your boyfriends. That’s it I’ll bet,” drawled Daddy in that voice of his that always makes me shiver.
     Deni giggled. “No, no. I don’t like boys, I haven’t got time for lads, they’re just so immature.” She leaned forward, her pink fingernail tracing the edge of her smile.
Daddy narrowed his eyes. “You’re not one of them lesbians? You don’t look like one.”

     That’s it Daddy, you tell her. Daddy wouldn’t put up with no gender bending. But when I turned from the sink I saw his eyes had the shine of lust to them and knew that Deni would be staying. And if she was a lesbian it seemed Daddy cured her of that.


Daddy loved his roses; he speaks to them as if they understand him. He’d lean in close, caressing them with his breath as he talked. He’d snip off a dead head: “I know it hurts darling but it will make you better, I’m doing it for you. Don’t scream so, it hurts my head. You’ll thank me, wait and see.”

     The roses would be here forever; something to keep Daddy’s mind off those girls. Then Sissy arrived and I was struck still as a statue. I don’t remember my mum; she left when I was just a little girl, ran off with a lodger Daddy said. The picture above the fire in the living room was the only image Daddy kept of her. Then I realised that Sissy was a good twenty years too young to be Mum and that she was just another of Daddy’s tarts.

     “Marsha, sit down and meet Sissy, she’ll be staying in the spare room.”

     “Why bother? She’ll be gone before the month is out.”

     “Marsha,” he growled, “I said sit down and meet Sissy, and apologize for being so rude.”

     I could see Daddy’s anger bubbling under so I did as he said. I pulled out the chair and sat next to her. “Sorry Sissy but for a moment, I thought you were my mum, you look just like her but… too young,” I finished, bowing my head in embarrassment.

     “Hey, that’s really sweet of you to say so. Is that her picture over the fire? She’s very attractive.”

     “Yes. Yes it is.” I smiled. Maybe this one was different. She had a proper name and seemed interested in me.

     Daddy slapped an impatient hand down hard on the table, “Enough of this. I’ll show you your room.”


As the weeks passed I started to grow fond of Sissy and I was sure that she liked me too. I’d never had a friend or mother or been close to anyone apart from Daddy. Other people were a bad influence he said, and I was special and pure and he didn’t want anyone to spoil his Angel.

     One day after shopping together I realised that Sissy had been here for nearly two months now; longer that any of the others. I had grown to love her in a way; she was so unlike me - confident, attractive and independent. I found it hard to believe that anyone like her could have any time for me. As we made tea in the kitchen I felt I had to speak.

     “Sissy, I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

     “Gone? Marsha, I like it far too much here. Why ever should I want to leave?”
     “Daddy always gets angry. He has… his ideas.”

     “Listen Marsha, I know you think a lot of your dad but perhaps you should try opening your eyes a little.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “Oh, Marsha,” she smiled, “you’re still a little girl really. What I mean is people don’t always practice what they preach. Your daddy does an awful lot of preaching but not so much practicing.’

     “Please don’t talk like that about Daddy.” I tried to defend him; “He’s been very good to me… and you.”

     “He rents a room out to me, that’s all. But, being a man, he wants more.”

     Sissy held my gaze until I understood her meaning.

     “Has he tried… anything?”

     “Oh, he’s tried. More than once Marsha, but I think he’s tiring.”

      At first I felt relieved that Daddy was tiring of her: that meant she’d stay and I’d have Daddy back. But I knew what happened when Daddy got bored.

      “Please Sissy, please don’t let that happen, don’t let Daddy get tired of you.”

“Daddy?” I asked as he leant his spade against the shed and took his secateurs to a rose.

     “Yes Angel?” He cut a branch back to the nearest node and I heard what I thought was a gull screech in the distance.

     “What really happened to Mom?”
 
     “Our Secret,” he said.

     “Our secret?”

     “This bush, it’s called ‘Our Secret.’” He continued to prune and each snip sent a scream through my head.

     “But I want to know!” I had never raised my voice to him before but all the worry about Sissy had made me so angry.

     He turned and glared at me as he jabbed the secateurs in my face. “You really do want to know don’t you little Miss Tantrum?”

     “Did you grow tired of her, is that it? Was she a whore too?”

     He blinked as his eyes slowly filled with tears and his voice turned softer. He shook his head as he spoke: “I loved her.” He turned and looked at the rose at the bottom of the garden. It had been there for as long as I could remember. “A Rose for my Rose.”

     Like a slap in the face I saw the little girl stepping slowly towards a naked woman’s back. The woman was making those sex noises. And as that woman turned to look I saw the respective faces of my mother; of Suzee and of Deni riding Daddy’s supine body.

     “Not fair, not fair! I’m Daddy’s girl!” As the scissors descended time and again until the handle was too slippery to hold in my tiny cramped fingers.

     “So now you know. But you always did. Didn’t you?”

     “No, Daddy, no.” I was crying as he stepped nearer.

     “Of course you did. What do you think happened to all those girls? I can’t keep covering for you Marsha! You did it; you wanted them out of the way!”

     “Not Sissy, Daddy. Not my Sissy’

     “Not your Sissy?” Your Sissy?” You mean you and her… Well that’s why she wouldn’t…”

     He seemed relieved. He would rather believe that I was… like that than believe that Sissy had spurned him. I was enraged. It was still them he wanted; always them and I would forever be on my own. I snatched the spade up and ran at Daddy. They wouldn’t have him; he was mine, all mine. I swung the spade at his head as he raised the secateurs.


I can’t breathe but that’s not important because I am no longer alone. Sissy lies next to me placed there by Daddy. Even now he shows his love and forgiveness by laying us together. Another shovel of suffocating earth slaps against our faces.

     Daddy’s happy; he has two new roses. He treads them in as I lie without breathing next to Sissy in the cold wet earth. Daddy walks away but soon returns and I hear his voice seep through the clinging soil.

     “Remember Angel, I’m doing this for you, all for you.”

     The damp earth muffles the metallic snipping. And the bushes scream while my daddy prunes.








The End


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« Reply #20 on: October 31, 2007, 05:37:13 AM »

THE DAY I TURNED BLUE




I started turning blue at around ten in the morning, during our weekly staff meeting at work. First I noticed the tips of my fingers going cold and cracking around the hardened flesh of the nail area. The coldness stopped there but the blueness travelled up my arms and around my neck during the course of the meeting. I couldn’t see it at first as it was hidden by my suit but I became distinctly aware of a warm fuzzy sensation tickling the hairs on my arm and chest.

I hid my hands beneath the table as the rest of the team waffled over various statistics, but allowed myself a peak down below.

They were dark twilight blue now and really cold despite the rest of me feeling warm.

“Are you ok Roger?” asked a colleague, clearly aware that something was afoot.

“Yes, why?” I replied.

“Well you are sweating quite heavily and…”

“Yes?”

“Well, one of your eyebrows appears to have fallen into your tea.”

I stared down at the hair-slug floating in my cup and decided to take action.

“Excuse me for a second!” I said and hastily left the conference.



In the toilet cubicles things got worse. After stumbling past a work colleague on my way in I fell desperate into the cubicle and slammed the door loudly behind me. The warm fuzz was now all over me and I was twitching like a rabid. I tore off my blazer and shirt and spazzed out on the floor wrapped around the bog bowl. Pulling down my trousers to see what was going on I noticed my legs were bluer than my hands and my chest was bluer than my legs.

Suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to be sick but when doing so all over myself, all that spurted from my mouth was thick bright pink sludge (a bit like McDonald’s milk-shake).

What was happening to me? I stood in attempt to compose, unlocked the cubicle door and stared at the reflection of my face in the mirror. It was still white, whiter than ever actually, beyond pale.



I excused myself from the office for the rest of the afternoon and immediately phoned my Doctor.

“Nothing to worry about!” he said. “People turn blue all the time. It can be down to stress, over-working, all sorts.”

“But I feel terrible too!” I barked into the phone.

“Just rest yourself for the rest of the week. You’ll be as pink as fairy-time come Monday morning.”

“Ok, is there anything I should take?”

“Hmmm,” the Doctor queried on the other end of the line. “No just a couple of Nurofen should do the trick. Remember rest is the key.”

I hung up the phone and stared at my reflection in the living room mirror. Common my arse I thought as I stared at my face which was starting to twinge slightly in tone and was softly becoming a light shade of turquoise. Maybe I should get a second opinion.



“No,” the Egyptian Doctor Malak abruptly replied. “There is nothing wrong with turning blue. It is a beautiful colour and very racist to think otherwise.”

I shivered uncontrollably behind his desk. By now my entire body was as blue as the sky. “But… I’m dying, I know it!”

“You are stupid.”







I decided the most sensible thing for me to do was to coat my entire body in a mixture of pink and beige body-paints that I found on the shelves of a west-end sex store. The paint was fortunately also edible so would be easy to lick off at short notice if need be.



Come Friday evening after a west-end shop slog, I covered myself head to toe with the skin like body paint and allowed it to dry in front of a fan heater. I must admit the effect was startling. I looked like one of these sun-bed girls who spent nearly every waking hour modelling their skin colours to that of a wood finish. But compared to the alternative it was fine. Now all I had to do was put the tone to the test.



The local discotheque was flooded with bright young sparkly starlets donned to the nines in the latest trends. Loud modern music spewed from the over-sized speakers like the sounds of a thousand machines making music while at war.

Light beams stretched colour across the room while mad DJs spun vinyl from the safety of their booths high above the crowd of dance-floor destructors that bopped to their beat.

I was merely the weirdo in the corner, the man at the back in the Macintosh with complexion issues. This was probably not the most appropriate of places to test my blemish considering most of the people in here looked bluer than I did under the ultra-violets.

I decided some exposure on the dance-floor was needed so downed my happy juice and ventured out to bop.



Now I normally manage to clear dance-floors without being blue but today something happened. I don’t know whether it was the mix of different coloured body paints, ultra-yellow hyper-lights and the blue undercoating but for some reason my skin seemed to glow aluminous like a man on fire.

I started dancing awkwardly as I always did but then the crowd of excitable youngsters began standing around me and staring in awe at my beaming flesh.

They were amazed and looked at me as if locked in a trance.

Wow, I saw one of them mouth, and then one by one they all started adopting my dance moves as if under hypnosis.



Four hours later after the evening had ended I left the club to go home and crash in a drunken slumber but was somehow curious to see the crowd of about thirty on-lookers follow me out of the club and stand staring at me in the middle of the street.

“What’s wrong?” I asked but got met with a shared silence. They just kept staring with their mouths open like dogs ogling a piece of meat.

Feeling a slight fear I turned to leave but the crowd started following me. I stopped when I realised this and then decided to pick up my pace.

The crowd picked up their pace too and even when my pace turned into a manic run I soon found myself being chased across London by the maddened crowd.

I screamed as I ran and they screamed too! They were mirroring my every activity. I didn’t know what else to do other than continue running screaming for my life.



“Hi its Roger here, I don’t think I’m gonna make it into work today,” I spoke into the phone to my boss the next morning.

“Oh,” my Boss replied dubiously. “Still feeling a bit unsure?”

“Yeeeaah,” I said and then stared round at the thirty clubbers all standing there in my living room staring at me.

“I’ll probably be back in a week or so”, I said and hung up the phone.

My skin tone hadn’t got any worse since it peaked in blueness yesterday, but it hadn’t got any better either.

The warm fuzzy feeling had now gone and I was beginning to accept the fact that I could very well end up staying like this for the rest of my life. 

Meanwhile, I had bigger fish to fry. There were thirty hypnotised clubbers in my living room.

I turned to face them and decided that maybe it was time I started trying to strike up a conversation.

“Hey guys, what’s happening?” I said extending my fist in that cool way.

They just stared, and stared.

“My name’s Roger, I’m an accountant for a law-firm called Strathe & Quolm “I like playing tennis, reading and visiting art galleries”.

Suddenly, one of the female clubbers opened her mouth and then fell to the floor dead.

“Oh God”, I said.

“She died for you,” said the male on-looker who stood next to her. 

“I didn’t mean to!” I replied in panic and surprise that one of them had actually spoke.

“We will all die for you,” the male went on.

“Look,” I decided it was time for action. “This has gone on far too long enough, too far! You need food and rest you can’t simply stand watching me until you drop down dead.”

Thud. Another of the crew hit the floor.

“Oh God!” I panicked massively now. “No look can’t you see you’re all dying and you can’t stay here! My landlord will be furious.”

“But there is nothing else,” the male onlooker spoke again. “We have seen the light. Without you there is only darkness.”

This was indeed a conundrum to be reckoned with, and not one I really wished to deal with when I had skin issues.



I decided there was only one thing for it. I had to get in touch with a professional hypnotist to break them out of their trance.

Funnily enough there was only one hypnotist in the yellow pages and her contact number was listed with an old dialling code, even though it was the latest edition of the book.

Her name was Madame Bonobo. She claimed to be a psychic exorcist and a general expert in all things other worldly.

I dialled her number and let the phone ring, and ring, and ring until finally a click and the start of some recorded chanting followed by a voice claiming; Madame Bonobo is not at home right now but if you think your name and number down the receiver she will get back to you sooner than you think.

I decided to speak my details. “Hi my name’s Roger Banister and I need you to break a trance for me. Actually I need you to break about thirty trances for me but I hope that won’t affect the price. Also, do you know anyone who can skilfully dispose of dead bodies?” Thud.

“You rang?” came the voice from my left. I dropped the phone and turned round to the doorway surprised to see who I could only presume to be Madame Bonobo.

Even the thirty hypnotised clubbers broke their trances and turned to the left in surprise.

Bonobo looked a bit like Shirley MacClaine, but a bad gypsy version with way too much make-up.

“Madame?”

“Bonobo,” she followed.

“How did you-?”

“I am psychic. I knew you would call so left two days in advance. I also knew that you would pay me fairly and in such abundance so made special effort to be on time.” She spoke in a Marlboro tinted German accent and then lit one to prove it.

“You are the blue man?” she asked the obvious.

“How did you know?” I replied without thinking.

“I am Bonobo,” the Madame spoke as if stating the obvious and then raised her leg revealing a black stocking strap and veracious veins. She rested her foot on the arm of my sofa. “I know all but see nothing.”

“You mean, you’re psychic abilities are based on something much deeper than basic sight and emerge from your inner core?”

“No. I am blind, but can walk well through life without guidance.”

“Wow,”

“Now,” she said. “What seems to be your problem?”

“Well,” I said and turned my head towards the gathering of hypnotised clubbers.

“Hmmm”, Bonobo spoke. “The village of the idiots.”

I nodded.

“Ok!” Bonobo clapped her hands and addressed the clan. “Idiots! Time for you to wake up!”

The group just continued staring.

“Leave this man alone!” Bonobo waved her finger and tutted.

“Are you not going to put them under some kind of hypnosis?” I asked.

“They are already under hypnosis. You can’t hypnotise the hypnotised, this would cause big brain implosion and many mops will be needed. Plus I don’t want to waste vibes on these sows, when all they need is stern persuasion,” she said and returned to the group. “Out everybody, get out!”

They did not move. The Madame came close to me and whispered in my ear: “You know. Maybe you have some kind of uniform to wear? There is something about the German accent and a man in a uniform that frightens people into submission.”



After half an hour of screaming, one by one Madam Bonobo slowly managed to get each of the clubbers to leave of their own accord. She slammed the door on the last of them and then turned to face me with a smile.

I handed her a cup of tea. “Thank you so much for your help!”

“No ‘twas no problem,” she replied.

“And thank God those two had only passed out with nervous exhaustion!” I added. “I’m not fit to go through all that explaining to the police, especially after my history with the electric Eskimo,” I continued.

“No all your problems are over Mr. Man,” Bonobo said and punched my cheek in a friendly American manner.

“Maybe we can go and get some kind of refreshment yes yes, after all this hard days work?”

“Ah I’m not really up for it to tell you the truth. I am still blue from head to foot and don’t want to end up hypnotising anyone else with my skin colour.”

“I have heard of a certain type of Indian tea that was known to have turned an entire island blue. Rumour has it was denied all knowledge of by the manufacturers and smuggled abroad on some random ship to be planted on some other poor sops far away.”

“You know, I was drinking tea when this happened.”

“Maybe this was the tea that turned you this way maybe?”

“Could be, could be. Only one way to find out!”



“Yes we’re all blue here,” said my Boss down the phone.

“Really? That’s great.”

“Yup, the whole building is running blue.”

“I know what’s doing it sir! It’s the new Indian tea the cafeteria stock!”

“Wonderful, I guessed that all along. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t good old fashioned British tea we’d still be white to this day.”

“Of course sir, you can bet your money on it. I suppose we’ll all have to probably stay this colour now forever too!”

It was then that Madame Bonobo interrupted. “Actually I know someone who may be able to help you blue people.”

I stared down at her with curiosity: “I’m sure you do.”






THE END


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« Reply #21 on: October 31, 2007, 05:38:01 AM »

VULTURE LAKE




It’s what the natives once called it, centuries ago, in some long-forgotten tongue. When the white men came to claim the land that was no man’s to claim, they changed its name. They called it everything from people to places and things. But they should never have done so. Like the crosses placed in barren arctic regions to warn travelers that an area is hazardous, the name of the lake is a warning. A warning of danger. A warning of death. A warning of something far worse.

White men may have changed the name, but they can never erase the threat of Vulture Lake.

* * *

   Beverly knelt by the edge of the lake, cleaning his knife blade in the murky water.

   He looked out and over the lake, to the mountains on the horizon, and wondered what this place would have looked like if it hadn’t been polluted and over-fished by men. His grandmother would have told him the thought was just the Indian coming out in him. She would have said it was in his blood to care and take care of the land.

   “Erly?”

   At 6’3 and 260 pounds, with shoulders as broad as two average college students standing side by side, no one called him Beverly.

   He looked up to see Caitlyn, the whole reason for him to be on this trip. They were at the lake on a camping trip for Spring Break. There were nine of them; all classmates and biology majors from the university.

   When Beverly had been invited on the trip, he’d initially declined. He knew the group’s idea of “camping” would be to get trashed while trashing the place. When he found out that Caitlyn was going to be there, though, he’d quickly changed his mind. She was pretty, but not like most of the other college girls. She didn’t wear a lot of makeup or purposely revealing clothes that would embarrass him if he ever introduced her to his grandmother.

   “Hey, Caitlyn.”

   She smiled and Beverly wondered how many women would’ve been frightened off by a huge bear of a man cleaning his knife in the lake.

   “What’ve you been up to?”

   He was pleased, but not surprised, to see that she was sober (unlike the rest of the group who’d packed more beer than they had food into their coolers).

   “Oh, I’ve been hiking the trails. It’s really gorgeous out here.”

   Beverly looked around himself, although he’d been looking at the scenery ever since they’d arrived there that morning. It was beautiful; he just wished he could find one spot where he could look all around without seeing anything paved, graveled or littered.

   “It is, isn’t it? You ever wonder what it’d look like untouched, though?”

   Caitlyn nodded thoughtfully.

   “Yeah, if I squint just a little, I can almost picture it. So, what have you been up to?”

   Beverly flicked his knife blade closed.

   “I found something interesting near the observation point. Want to check it out?”

   “Okay.”

   As they walked down the trail, Beverly wondered how many women would have been so willing to wander off with a huge bear of a man to a secluded spot.

   Even with the cigarette butts and empty bottles he passed, Beverly was feeling pretty good.

   They reached the observation point and veered off onto a dirt trail. They followed it until they reached a spot beside the lake that would have been breathtaking if the ground had not been paved to hold a picnic table covered by a metal awning.

   “Check it out,” Beverly whispered, pointing to the awning.

   They were standing at the top of the trail, about twenty feet from the picnic table so that they were looking down at the top of the unsightly awning.

   On the edges of the metal structure sat nearly a dozen vultures, all still as statues. They were beautiful creatures. Large and powerful with eyes the blackest black. Beverly had always felt an affinity to the birds, ever since he’d been given his Indian name. These particular birds were all facing towards the center of the square they made on the awning, making it look as if they were having some kind of bizarre telepathic conference. When one bird flew away, a different one arrived immediately to take its place.

   “Weird,” Caitlyn whispered. “It’s like they’re talking to each other.”

   Beverly nodded.

   They watched the birds for awhile longer, amazed how they retained their silent, square discussion even when one vulture replaced another.

   Beverly couldn’t have described it, but he felt something more unusual was happening there than just the normal flocking pattern of birds. The longer he watched it, the more convinced he was that something was going on there. He thought Caitlyn felt it too, because she had inched closer to him until her shoulder was touching his arm.

   Beverly didn’t mind so much.

   “We should probably be getting back before dark.”

   Caitlyn’s slight whisper caused the 6’3, 260 pound bear of a man to jump.

   He looked up at the sky.

   The sun was setting, although it was behind the mountains and he could only tell because of the change in the sky. The gray clouds had purple underbellies, wisps of cotton candy color and designs, drifting in the fading sky. Beverly felt a tug at his heart, knowing the world below could never compare to that rapidly-changing beauty.

   And then the scene shifted, as every cloud of every sunset of every night has ever done. Color drained to only gray. The clouds seemed to drift a little quicker. It grew darker until the sky above matched the dismal world below. Dark and bleak.

   “Yeah, let’s go.”

   Beverly didn’t want to admit that he didn’t want to be there with the vultures when it grew completely dark.

   They walked back up the trail, both noticing how many birds were there at the lake this summer. They had both been there before on different occasions, and they agreed that there had never been so many. Beverly thought it was kind of nice; it was as if the birds were reclaiming their land.

When they arrived at the campsite, Beverly felt like he had when watching the sunset a few minutes before. One moment he had been walking through the woods, chatting with Caitlyn, and the next he was back in reality with a bunch of college kids he didn’t really care for. One minute, magic; the next, *poof.*

If it weren’t for Caitlyn being there, Beverly would have grabbed his sleeping bag and found another campsite immediately.

The area was hardly what could be called a “campsite.” Aside from the tents and campfire, the trampled land had been turned into what happened to the rest of the world man inhabited: it was converted from nature to convenience. Trees had been hacked down years before to make an unnatural clearing. Grass no longer grew there. In its place were empty beer bottles and other trash.

The group of college kids acted not as if they were guests in nature, but the kings of it. There were seven of them, nine including Beverly and Caitlyn. Beverly had secretly given them all nicknames to represent what he thought of them. It was kind of like a weird twist on the names his tribe had once bestowed on its members, decades ago. His grandmother had told him all about it. She said, decades before, when the Indians had not become like the white men and grew ashamed of their heritage, they had been given titles to each other that showed their true selves.

“These titles were always attributes of nature and animals,” his grandmother had said. “It was the greatest compliment to the tribe member because it showed they had become one with their surroundings. It showed they were attuned with the world and themselves.”

His grandmother had then bestowed a tribal name on Beverly, then only ten years old. Friend of Vultures.

“Gramma,” Beverly had whined. “I don’t like that name. Vultures eat dead things.”

“No, child. Vultures are beautiful, proud creatures who sustain the natural order of things. They are not ashamed to do what must be done. And one day, you too will carry out your duties with pride.”

The younger Beverly had been satisfied with the explanation, and as the years passed he found himself viewing vultures and their functions as beautiful, dutiful processes.

The group of college kids at the lake that Spring Break would never have understood his affinity with the birds, nor nature itself. They all fit the nicknames Beverly had given them as well as he did his own.

Right then, Sloth and The Neck were flicking beer caps into the campfire in some odd competition that only an alcohol-addled mind could comprehend and enjoy. Bloomingdales was dozing topless on a padded lawn chair (no one had bothered to tell her the sun had set), while the Perv sat a few feet away, pretending like he was reading a magazine. Earless was talking loudly and animatedly on a cell phone, pacing from spot to spot in pursuit of getting a better signal. Cain and The Leech were discussing whether or not they’d brought enough beer for the trip and whether or not they’d drunk too much of it to drive to the nearest liquor store.

Caitlyn sighed beside him. Beverly smiled to himself. He’d given a nickname to Caitlyn as well, but he didn’t plan on ever telling her.

“Home sweet home,” Caitlyn grumbled, and Beverly couldn’t help but laugh.

“If this is home, I think I’m running away.”

She grinned back.

“Not without me, your not.”

Beverly tried not to imagine what it would be like to wander off and set up camp in another spot with Caitlyn. Just the two of them, alone.

“Well, I guess we should make the most of it.”

Caitlyn walked into camp, and Beverly watched her with a smile, thinking how she was like a too-brief sunset, bright and beautiful even though the world all around was ugly and dark.

* * *

   The only good thing about the others in the group getting annoyingly loaded was that they all passed out before too late, leaving Beverly and Caitlyn alone by the campfire.

   After a few hours of listening to the meaningless, drunk babble, Beverly’s nerves instantly relaxed when he could hear the grasshoppers again.

   “This is nice,” Caitlyn said, warming her hands on the fire.

   “Yeah,” Beverly agreed. “At least it is now.”

   She laughed, and the sound was as soothing as the grasshoppers’ song.

   “I didn’t think those guys were ever going to calm down.”

   “Me neither.”

   They spent a few more moments, enjoying the silence and each other’s quiet company.

   “So, why did you decide to come one this trip anyway?” Caitlyn asked. “I know you can’t stand those guys any more than I can.”

   Beverly blushed, hoping that if she noticed his flushed cheeks she would think it was just the heat of the campfire.

   “I heard you were coming.”

   The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, but he didn’t regret it.

   Caitlyn looked up at him and smiled, the fire dancing in her eyes and a soft breeze lifting her hair. Beverly had the sudden impulse to memorize that image, the way she looked just then, so that he could carry it forever with him in his mind.

   “So why did you come, then, if you can’t stand them either?”

   She looked down at the fire, shaking her head back and forth so slightly that he wondered if she was even aware she was moving it.

   “You’d think I was crazy if I told you.”

   “Try me.”

   She continued to shake her head, ever so slightly.

   “I don’t know.”

   “If you do, I’ll tell you why I was named Beverly.”

   She stopped shaking her head and looked at him sideways, the fire still gleaming in her eyes.

   “Okay.”

“You first.”

She told him hesitantly and softly, as if afraid he would think less of her when she told him.

“I had this weird dream. I was flying, up high over the lake, so high that the trees were just little dots. I could feel the wind beneath me and in my hair. It was so realistic, it’s like it was really happening, you know?”

Beverly smiled at her.

“So you came to the lake to fly?”

She shifted uncomfortably.

“I told you it was weird. I don’t think I’m really going to fly. It’s just, I had to come.”

“There’s nothing wrong with acting on your instincts. I think it’s kinda nice. Although I would have preferred if you’d came because you heard I’d be here.”

Caitlyn smiled back at him.

“Well, sometimes our reasons change. Okay, now your turn. Why were you named Beverly?”   

   So Beverly told her. He told her how his mother had conceived him after she’d been brutally raped. He told her how she’d harbored such an intense fear and hatred of men after the experience that she couldn’t even accept her child was male. He told her how she’d named her son Beverly, in some sort of denial of the fact. And he told her how she’d killed herself only two months after his birth.

   Even the grasshoppers seemed quieter after Beverly’s story.

   “So, I was raised by my grandmother. When she told me all this when I was older, she told me how she’d thought of changing my name. But then she decided against it. She always said everyone has two names: the name they’re given and the one they earn. She said that the first one is not nearly as important as the second, so there was really no reason to change it.”

   Caitlyn took his hand in hers. He had been so involved in his story that he hadn’t even noticed when she’d moved beside him. Now he was well aware of her closeness.

   “Have you earned it yet? Your second one?”

   He nodded, feeling her smooth fingers dwarfed by his own rough hand.

   “Yeah. It’s ‘Friend of Vultures.’”

   Caitlyn smiled.

   “I like that. It suits you.”

   Beverly looked down at their intertwined hands. Hers looked so small. So delicate and fragile.

   He felt her other hand lift his huge bear of a face until their eyes met.

   “Well, Friend of Vultures, what about me?” Her words were seductive in their softness. “Do I have a second name?”

   Her eyes were shining with the firelight. His were the blackest black, like a bird. Like a vulture.

   “Yeah.”

   It was a strangled whisper. He had never planned on telling her the name he felt best suited her. When he had met her at school, he’d known it immediately. She was so kind and down to earth, the kind of person who would never go too far in life because she would never walk on anyone else. He'd known her name immediately, but he’d hoped he was wrong. He’d hoped . . . well, he didn’t realize how accurate it was until he’d reached Vulture Lake.

   “What is it, then?”

   Her words so slight, he didn’t know if they’d been spoken or merely thought. Her eyes, gleaming, gleaming.

   Above them, something huge and black blocked out the night stars. There was a huge whooshing sound, like the flapping of giant wings.

   Caitlyn looked up at the commotion, and Beverly found it was easier to do what had to be done without those flickering eyes looking at him.

   “It’s ‘Carrion,’” he answered in a choked sob.

* * *

   No one ever knew what happened that spring at the place once called Vulture Lake. No one alive anyway.

   There wasn’t a lot of evidence. Everything was gone; tents, supplies, people. Even all the trash that usually littered the place had disappeared. The bodies were never found, just huge quantities of blood soaked into the ground. This was blamed in part on the birds.

   The huge flocks of birds that had descended on the lake must have picked clean the bodies, leaving not even bone. They sat on the tree branches and ground, picnic tables and metal awnings, eyes gleaming the blackest black.

   Only they alone knew what horror had happened at Vulture Lake that spring. And they weren’t telling.





The End
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #22 on: October 31, 2007, 05:38:43 AM »

4... 3... 2... 1

         



Pascal banged silently on the hatch, but swore loudly into his helmet radio.

It was an act of desperation since although the metallic torch would send sound waves reverberating through to Jacqui inside the station, she’d already condemned him to die. Two other astronaut friends had already disappeared, presumed adrift, from the Mars orbiter.

Four minutes of air left. Maybe an additional minute of residual air in his spacesuit before suffocation unless he opened up. He wasn’t going to do that. He might as well asphyxiate with the slim possibility of a last second reprieve than have his head slowly explode.

He could try reasoning again.

“Jacqui, come in,” he said, ruing the irony of needing her to say ‘come in’.

“Have you anything new to say?”



#



105 minutes earlier



In spite of losing two friends already he felt he had no choice but to undertake an extra-vehicular-activity mission.

   Jacqui’s bloodshot eyes betrayed her incessant crying since Ed, their Texan telecoms expert, left on the first EVA to fix the comms antennae module that had mysteriously become inoperable.  Without it they’d survive although it would’ve been tricky if life support failed without being able to summon help, or if they needed assistance when their orbital geometry changed. The latter occurred shortly after they’d lost contact with Ed. Suddenly their problems became life threatening. So the second-engineer, Kate went EVA, but this time with Pascal as buddy.

   Before Pascal left, Jacqui tugged at his arm. “It’s not too late if you find him.”

   “It’s been over an hour, Jacqui,” he said, and then he shut up. He was going to say, ‘since his air would have run out.’ Although he was in his suit, he gave the redhead – short-cropped for easy maintenance - a hug. “Of course I’ll look for him, and bring the big bastard in; him and his horse-playing keeping us guessing.”

   Between renewed sobs, she grabbed him harder to make sure he looked at her eyes. “I know the cameras don’t show the moment he dropped out of sight, but he’s probably in a blind spot. And there’s an emergency oxygen cache he might have reached.” Pascal sniffed his air supply trying to guess of which metallic tang it reminded him, in addition to that of new plastic. 

   If Jacqui was thinking straight she should’ve known that the cache hadn’t been touched or the sensors would have told them. Ed’s not responded to the suit radio, independent of the comms array that had gone bust. Anyone would think Mars missions were really jinxed like the pundits said with so many early unmanned voyages dropping out of sight.

   “It’s time I set off after Kate.” He was three minutes late, even though only one can get through the airlock at a time.

   Two minutes later he was outside. He was about to link his safety line to a loop attached to the exterior when he thought: No, that’s what they would’ve done.

He checked the outer hatch was sealed and set off using handholds around the railway-coach-sized station to reach the antennae. The aerial array module with its Yagi and dish aerials along with the cone transmitters showed no sign of being hit by micrometeorites or damage from internal pipe blowouts. Ed and Kate must have gone out of sight over the other side tracing the conduits.

   “Kate, I’m out here at the AM. Where are you? Come in.”

   Nothing, although a flash of light seemed to come from over the blind side. It could have been a number of things including a sunlight reflection off the slowing spinning station. Suppose...

   “Jacqui? I’ve an idea. Maybe there’s a short that’s disabled the aerial array and electrified the safety line? Are you getting this?” Nothing but crackles, but she might’ve been able to receive. “The safety line shouldn’t conduct electricity but a powerful surge of static might stun an astronaut. Not wearing mine, by the way, or can you see that on images?” 

   He tried to raise the one likely colleague with air supply. “Kate, you did anchor to the line? Kate?” Still nothing as he steadied himself by holding onto an Earth-pointing parabolic dish.

   If a fault was preventing transmission back to Earth it meant he could... “Hey, fuck you Congress, fuck you, twice, Space Apportion Committee. While I’m at it, fuck the President, vice president, you’re all loonies,,, who else?”

   “Receiving you, Pascal, you’re the fucking loony here. All you say is being recorded. By the way, the images are very grainy. There must be electronic disturbance. Maybe there’s something in your hypothesis. Over.”

   “Oh well – no promotion. I can hardly hear you, Jacqui. Have you seen or heard from Kate?” He couldn’t be bothered with protocol call signs.

   She might have replied but all he could hear were garbled crackles. He wondered if the sun had shot out a flare they knew nothing of because of the radio malfunction. Surely not. Their own solar radiometers would have alerted them and Mission Control would have yelled days ago unless it was particularly large and caught Earth unawares too. A big solar flare could induce a charge in some equipment, but it wouldn’t disappear his colleagues. They must have become entangled or...

   “Jacqui, I don’t know if you can hear me. I should follow the likely direction of Kate over the starboard side, which I can’t see from here. But that’s what she probably did, and maybe Ed. Suppose there’s something there? I don’t know what. Some broken machinery, high magnetic or other force that prevents them returning. Jacqui?”

   “Pas...Go over... it... Ed... ver.”

   “Hey, at least I can hear some of your message, Jacqui. Please repeat.”

   “...idiot... find Ed... Kate...ov..”

   “Jacqui, we need to think about this. Look, Kate has at least an hour of air.”

    He realized her priority was to find her long-standing boyfriend from space training days. Even so, it would be sheer stupidity for Pascal to sail over to where they now had no comms, no images and no one coming back.

   Part of him wanted to do the noble deed and see if his friends were merely caught up in cables or loose struts. Odd though, because if the station had been hit by a stray meteorite or a gas escape from a ruptured pipe created obstructions they would have felt it on the inside. Unless it happened when they were all asleep, but then any such event would have been captured by sensors and cameras. Ah, but no one’s had the time to go through them all, and if a proximity alert klaxon had been turned off or faulty...

   “Jacqui, I’m going to free-flight around the station. I’ve got the cam on in front of my helmet and the other looking back from my backpack. You getting this?”

   Nothing. He prepared himself wondering how far from the station would be safe, as if any distance was. He should stay within suit radio range, the extreme range was a kilometre or more; too far for him to see dark niches properly.

   He heard a radio crackle, and then, “Roger your fr... flight. Over.”

   Steadying himself at fifty metres from the aerial array he used the hydrazine jet to puff himself forward. It was hard work maintaining a roughly circular path because Newton made that damned law about moving in a straight line unless acted upon. At the same time as watching his own movement he looked at the dark side of the station for Ed and Kate.

   “Jacqui, are all the lights on that could be on this side? It’s blacker than your knickers.”

   No reply. Presumably the external lights had blown.

   Then a flash, similar to the one he thought he saw earlier. This time it blinded him because he’d had no sun filters lowered on his helmet. He puffed the hydrazine to stop his forward motion and waited for his eyes to readjust, as surely they would. He felt nauseous and worked to stop the awful experience of throwing up in his suit. The new plastic odour in his air supply carried the distinct flavour of last night’s curry. A shiver ran up and then down his spine.

   

#



Three minutes.

   Appealing to Jacqui again was not going to work. She must think he’d let her down and not looked properly for Ed. Maybe she thought three minutes plus x residual seconds were sufficient to start another search. He had to employ a subterfuge, and one occurred to him.



#



Two, one minute.

   He’d waited to make her think he’d been round and back. Thanks to John Wayne the Texan accent was easy to copy, especially over crackly radios.

   “Jacqui, honey, let me in. It’s Ed, here. I’ve less than ten seconds air.”

   If he’d given her more time to think she might have worked out it couldn’t be Ed but she released the hatch lock.

   Her scream reverberated through the station making him wish he’d not removed Ed’s helmet until he’d ear mufflers ready. Luckily, the torch was handy and she now floated, silently.

   He caught his reflection in a shiny panel. Why did she scream? His protuberant eyes were much more efficient than the two inset human orbs. Perhaps it was his scaly epidermis. No matter. He wondered how long it would be for the other humans to send a rescue mission.











End


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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #23 on: October 31, 2007, 05:40:28 AM »

That's all folks afro

Thanks again to everybody for taking part. Don't forget to vote for your three favourites. May the best story win cheers
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #24 on: November 03, 2007, 10:36:27 PM »

Now unlocked, in case anybody would like to leave a comment about the stories.  afro
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #25 on: November 03, 2007, 11:32:18 PM »

Well, I got spanked, but I'm still proud of my story. What can I say, I have a soft spot for giant tentacled water monsters.  goldtooth
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« Reply #26 on: November 04, 2007, 02:56:02 AM »

It was a very tough job to vote, and there are a lot of good stories on here which I hope the authors will go on to sell somewhere else. I'll give my thoughts on individual stories later.
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