It Has Always Loved You

She’s there for you when you step from the pines, your feet wet, the soles plastered with needles, and the detritus of the forest clinging to you like flotsam in the sea. She wraps you in a towel, your skin cold and damp, the towel warm from her body heat, the nap rough against your bird’s chest and too-sharp shoulder blades. She tucks you under her arm, a mother bird taking in her fledgling, and you can feel the softness of her stomach at your elbow, her breast at your cheek. It’s one of your first memories, the forest quaking behind you like a birthing goddess, your pulse loud in your temples. She looks down and smiles and her teeth are needles, her eyes pinpricks in the black of the sky.

You shudder and wake, coming from the dream like a bird flinging itself from a cliff. You fall, fall, fall, and then – wake, the room dark, the sheets cool and wet. The desert sits patiently outside your window, the rock and dust as ignorant of the moon as they are of man. You rub your hands together, the remnants of pins and needles dancing their way across your dry skin, and you reach for the glass of water there. The warm water washes your tongue, soothes your throat, and you stare out the window, the forest superimposed for a moment over the orange and yellow. A blink makes your lids rasp across your eyes, a swallow sends your throat bobbing like a fish coming up for air.

Aimee stirs in her sleep, murmurs a word – it’s unintelligible – and shifts. The play of muscles in her shoulder, the lay of her hair, the whisper of fabric over her skin- tiny tremors in your reality, and your heart clenches, a fist of fibers in your chest. You love her. It’s not a question. Still, there is doubt. Does she love you? Of course. She’s in this bed, isn’t she? She’s still in your life. And yet the question eats at you sometimes when you lie in the dark. It happens that way, all the questions you can’t ask in the daylight tear their way around your head like a pack of hungry wolves, devouring reason and rationality.

You reach out for her, your hand hovering over her shoulder. Do you wake her? Do you pull her close in her sleep and cling? No. Your hand drops. Would she understand? You settle for another sip of water and slip back under the sheet, your back to hers. She sighs small and presses into you, her shoulders digging into yours. Contentment wraps you like a blanket for a while. You sleep.

 *

She shakes you awake – no, that’s not right. The room shakes you awake, the neat drywall vibrating on its studs. Aimee is there, and she’s shouting something you can’t hear, her lips a pantomime of concern. It’s so hot, the desert is creeping in, and oh God why did you move to Vegas? You kick off the sheets and roll off the bed, landing on all fours, but the desert refuses to let you be. The heat crawls under your skin, and you’d give anything for the cool shade of the pines and the soothing wet of leaves on your feet. A lizard skitters up the wall – not unheard of in Nevada – and stops, its head hung in a judgmental angle, its eyes burning pits, and you know the desert can see you through it. You stand and shout and wave your arms, and it scurries up and disappears into a bad join in the wall.

Then Aimee is there, and she’s holding you, and though you are so hot, you let her, because her breath on your skin, in contrast to the hot room, is cool, and her tears are a balm for your fever. Then, her words come through, and you relax, sagging back onto the bed.

“…just a dream, just a dream. Shh. Shh.”

You close your eyes and lean your head against hers, and the room is cooling, and you wonder how she could ever love you.

*

“It’s time for a vacation,” she says. Then you’re driving north past miles of hot brown wasteland, and as you go, flat rock changes. It becomes tall rock dotted with scrub and then taller rock covered with snow, and then finally, blessedly, hills covered in trees and you don’t think you’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in your life, and you know here you can make it right, the terrors will stop, and she’ll love you.

It’s several miles in, and a way from home when she asks you. “Did you miss your mother?”

You shrug, your face turned to the window, the trees throwing shade and reflection at you. If you look up, the motion of the car makes the tops look like they’re dancing, and for a moment, you’re lost in the movement, a ballet of living wood. Then she asks it again, and you have to turn to her, because if she thinks you’re ignoring her, she’ll get mean, or what you think of as mean, and you don’t want to fight, not so close to home.

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

An image of a clearing, a thousand trees in every direction, green boughs still wet with morning dew, the smell of pine and loam, the squish-crackle of mulch between your toes. Warmth fills your chest, and you think of the woman-but-not-woman who met you when you stumbled from between the boles, the badgers and chipmunks and robins silent for once.

You struggle for the words and settle on “She was kind.” She was, after all. Only the men who came looking, the men with their knives and guns and loud, loud dogs were not, and then only for a short time.

“Is that it?” she asks.

You shrug again and then amend it. “You’ll see. Easier to meet her.”

You turn to the forest, fleeing past your window, and the soles of your feet ache, your tongue is dry. Not long now.

*

Aimee turns the car up a dirt path, little more than a rut in the road. After a moment, she stops it, and peers at the map on her phone. Magellan lost in the weeds. Her face scrunches up, her features a fist, and you smile. It’s easier now; the closer you are to home, to know you’re loved.

“Is this right?” She turns to you and jabs a finger at the map.

You nod. “Yeah. Just keep going.” And she does. She loves you, and she trusts you, and you smile again. So close now.

The car jounces and rattles, and every little scrape, Aimee cringes and lets a hiss out between clenched teeth. “She better be a damn good cook,” she jokes.

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

The car rounds a curve, and the road widens out to a flat drive, packed earth and pine needles, and you’re practically vibrating, and when it crunches to a stop, you leap out, your feet skidding in the loose dirt. Aimee follows, laughing a little at your eagerness, and then the door to the home ahead opens, and a woman, plump but not too much, old but not too much, stands in the opening, her smile wide. Her teeth are people teeth for this day, and her eyes a woman’s eyes, and she smiles at you, and then at Aimee. They hug on the porch, the overhang throwing them into shadow and mother says something into her ear, and they go inside, leaving you with the forest. You walk to a tree, your hand caressing the bark – just for a moment – and breathe in deep the smells of good earth, and not that blasted hellscape, and then you follow them in.

Inside, they sit across from each other – your mother and your lover – tall glasses of bright yellow lemonade sweating on the table between them. They’re chatting in low tones, and your mother pushes a tin of cookies – probably walnut – across the table, and they talk about little of importance while you drift through the house, your fingers finding every dent and rut of your childhood in the walls. In your room, the bed you spent so many summers on, listening to the rain pound the simple roof, smelling the ozone of lightning, is still soft and clean and cool. In the hall, finger paintings you’d done hang in crooked frames. In the closet, the bones of those long gone still sit in neat boxes, away from time and tide.

You make your way back to the kitchen, where your mother is alone.

“Where’s Aimee?”

Your mother chews her cookie, her needled teeth puncturing the dough like the blades of a thresher, and she chews, sips her lemonade. She gestures vaguely and then regards you with those pinpoint eyes.

“She wasn’t right for you, dear. Dragging you off to that damned desert. Dinner is in an hour. Go play.”

You step out the back door and pull off your shoes and your shirt, then place them next to Aimee’s body. The forest is so loud here, so close, and you only want to feel it beneath your feet. You look at Aimee, and you wonder – did she love me? I loved her. If she had loved me, she would still be here. She would have fought to stay.

You look at her a moment longer, her eyes staring at you, at nothing. The desert crowds into memory and you think of Aimee alone in that place had your mother sent her away. This was a kindness. Then the forest calls, and you step into the trees. It welcomes you, the wind through the branches the sigh of a long distant lover made close.

It has always loved you.

Gnome More

An old piece I picked up and finished, because the adage for every writer is ‘finish your shit’, and I tend to leave too many shorts undone. Enjoy.

 

Gnome More

                Arthur Pym was both surprised and a little dismayed to discover that his lawn gnome granted wishes.  After all, it wasn’t the sort of thing lawn gnomes usually did, was it?  Normally, they’d just stand there, the grass at their feet a little longer than the rest of the lawn, tall hat pointed toward the sky, beard resting across their belly.  Now though, it lay on its side, a bare patch of earth where it had stood exposed.  A single beetle trundled across the patch, and over one of Arthur’s fingers.

He sucked in a breath and clutched at his ankle.  He was sitting where he had fallen, having knocked the gnome over, his ankle throbbing.  He had stepped in a gopher hole and twisted his ankle, and at that moment, was having particularly vicious thoughts about rodents in general.  He sat for a moment, rubbing the bruised area, and when the throbbing abated somewhat, picked up the gnome.  He inspected it, checking for chips or cracks.  It seemed to be fine, so he set it down, his hand lingering on the hat.

His ankle gave another pang of pain, and he thought, I wish there were no more gophers.

There was a pop, like someone had sucked the air out of a plastic bottle, and a mild shock passed through his hand.  He jerked away and popped his fingers in his mouth, sucking the tips absently.  He looked around, hoping his neighbor, Cheryl, hadn’t seen.

After a moment, he turned his attention back to the hole he’d tripped over.  He froze in place, frowning at the lawn.  The hole was gone, and the mound leading to it, too.  The earth was smooth in its place, and littered with dandelions.  He looked around his yard and noticed more of the same, smooth green grass dotted with more dandelions than he’d seen in years.  He turned toward his garden patch, and noticed the row of carrots, which had previously been sparse and anemic, was full and ripe.  His brain struggled with the sudden change, as though someone had snuck in and done set dressing on his yard in the time it took him to blink.

He gathered himself, stood, and wandered back into the house, a bit dazed.   On the way in, he noticed his ankle no longer hurt.  He stepped into the house, letting the screen door bang behind him.  His wife, Renee, looked up from the kitchen table, where she had been reading a magazine with her feet up on a chair she’d pulled out.  Arthur went to the sink, and grabbed a glass from the cupboard.  He listened to the water fill the glass, aware that Renee was looking at his back.

“Hot out there?” She asked.

He took a long swallow of water.  “Yeah.  I think the gopher problem’s solved.”  He turned to look at her, but she was already back on her magazine.

“Mm-hm.  Good.”  She said.  He could tell she wasn’t really all that interested.  He set his glass down on the counter, and turned back to her.  He had opened his mouth to tell her about the thing with the gnome, when a knock at the door interrupted him.  It came again, almost immediately, loud and fast and angry.  He went to the door and peered out the peephole.

His other neighbor, Frank Cubbins, was standing on the porch, his fist raised to knock again.  He was red-faced and scowling.  Arthur opened the door just as Frank had reached forward to knock again, leaving the man standing for a moment with his fist in the air.

“Hello Frank.”  Arthur said, a hint of resignation in his voice.

Frank lowered his fist, but kept the scowl.  “When’s the last time you weeded your lawn?”  He asked, with no preamble.

Arthur shrugged.  “I have the lawn people out at least once a month.”

Frank shook his head.  “Not good enough.  Look!”  He pointed a fist over at his own lawn, which was overgrown with dandelions.

“Okaaay…” Arthur said.

“You’re costing me money, Art.  Get your shit together.  You can pay my next weed bill, or you can see me in court.”  That seemed to be the signal the conversation was over, and Frank turned smartly and marched back to his own house, slamming his front door shut with a bang that echoed in the quiet suburban air.

Arthur closed the door, and leaned against it.  He ran a hand over his face, then walked back to the kitchen.  Renee didn’t look up.

“Who was that?”  She asked.

“Frank.”

“Oh that’s nice.  Did you invite him to our barbecue next week?”

“Er – no.  Forgot.”

She sighed, as though Arthur’s memory was a burden, and said nothing more.  Arthur left the kitchen and walked into the back yard again, letting the screen door slam behind him.  He stood in the shadow of the eaves of his home, and stared out at his lawn.  After a moment, he walked over to the gnome, sat down next to it, and pulled it close to him.

I wish there were no Frank Cubbins, he thought.

The popping sound came again, as soon as he had the thought, and he felt a mild jolt, as though he’d just accidentally touched a live wire.  At the same time, there was a scream that came floating through the open kitchen window.  Arthur dropped the gnome.  It hit the ground with a soft thud and rolled on its side.  He stood, and ran into the house, banging the screen door behind him for a third time that day.

He skidded to a halt on the linoleum, his shoes letting out a squeak of protest.  His wife was standing by the table, the chair she’d been sitting on tipped over backwards.  She was looking at her belly, terrified, and running her hands over it.

“What is it?”  Arthur asked.

She looked up, tears smudging her mascara, her mouth distorted in an ‘O’ of shock.  “My babies!”

She lifted her shirt, and Arthur could see that her pregnancy had ended.  The skin of her stomach was taut and smooth, and her bellybutton was once again inverted.  He stood there staring at her for a moment, then looked around the kitchen.

He didn’t see blood, or amniotic fluid, or any other indicator that said she’d had a miscarriage or a surprise birth in the middle of the kitchen.  He only saw that her belly was flat, and she was distressed, and then he remembered his wish, and a cold rage worked its way into his stomach.

No more baby.  No more Frank, no more baby.  No more.

Renee was still staring at him, as though he might have an answer.

“Well?”  She demanded, letting her shirt drop.  “Are you going to say anything?  Are you just going to stand there?”

He struggled with himself for a moment.  Rage flowed over him, through him like cool, clear water.  It was refreshing to see the world for what it was.  He choked down the shout that had bubbled to the surface, and said through tight lips, “No”.

He turned on his heel, and walked through the back door, and across the lawn.  He picked up the gnome.  Then he made a very specific, very purposeful wish.

I wish my wife, Renee, would go away, and never come back.

                There was a pop, and a jolt, and then quiet.  He was aware of a bird singing in the sycamore tree in the corner of his yard, and the way the leaves rustled together as the wind blew the branches.  After a moment, he heard the slam of his front door.  He put the gnome down, and went back inside.  He got a glass of water, sat down, and began to think.

Wishes.  Are they unlimited?  I’ve already made three.  Maybe it’s only three.  What else do I wish for?  Pfft, that’s easy.  Money.  Cheryl?  Am I being petty?  World peace?  Hm.  What if it’s only three?  One way to find out…

                He stood, went to the back yard one more time, grabbed the gnome, and brought it inside.  He set the figurine on the table, ignoring the bits of dirt from the base that smudged the finish.

Something simple, he thought.

He put a hand on the gnome.

I wish I had a ham sandwich, on rye.

The familiar pop and shock came again, and a sandwich appeared on the table.  Arthur peeled back the top layer of bread.  No mayo, cheese, or lettuce?  He made a face.  He’d have to remember to be more careful with his wording.

He got up and rummaged through the fridge for a moment.  When he was done, he added some mayo and cheese and lettuce to the sandwich, then took it back to the table.  While he ate, he tried to think of what to do next.

You’re thinking too small, too petty, he told himself.  You need to be helpful.  You need to do the most good where it counts.  You need to be a hero.

The idea struck him, and his brain rang like a bell.  Some deep-seated part of him stood up taller, imagined a cape blowing in the wind, maybe reporters gathered around, and the strobe of flashes.  He finished his sandwich, feeling much happier than he had in the past couple of hours.  He picked up the gnome and carried it into the living room, where he sat on the couch, cradling it in the crook of his arm.

He turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until he got to the news.  A middle-aged anchor in an Italian suit stared out at him, bobbing his head in time to his words, his gray hair absorbing the light.

“…and in other news, thousands of owls and hawks have been dying all over the world.  Experts say they were likely suffering from severe malnutrition due to a lack of readily available prey, most notably, gophers.”

There was a pause as the newsman shuffled his notes.

“In international news, the drought that has plagued Syria over the past few months has steadily grown worse.  An estimated three million families are now without water.  The Turkish government has said it is now seeing the biggest influx of refugees since the civil war.”

The newscaster went on, but Arthur had tuned him out.  A chance to save three million people?  Perfect.  He pulled the gnome close.

I wish there was enough water in Syria for all the families.

                The now-familiar pop sounded in the living room, drowning out the TV for a moment, and Arthur almost dropped the gnome as the shock passed through his arms.  He yawned and set the gnome to the side, then turned off the TV.  He’d done his good deed for the day.  He thought he would sleep well for the night.

He left the gnome in the dark; made sure the house was locked up, and went to bed.  His last thought as he turned out the light on his bedside table was an image of him having coffee with Cheryl while he revealed his secret to her.  He smiled slightly in his sleep.

*

                The next morning, Arthur woke with a grin on his face, and excitement tingling his nerves.  He threw his covers off, and ran down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  He walked to the living room with a spring in his step, and flopped onto the couch.  He set his coffee down and rubbed the gnome’s hat, grinning as he did so.

“So, shall we see what we’ve done?”  He asked it.

He grabbed the remote, and turned the TV on.  It took a minute to warm up, and as it did, he sipped his coffee.  The quiet in the living room was broken by the newscaster’s voice, sounding grim.

“If you’re just joining us, the nation of Syria is gone.  It was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea.  Initial reports are still coming in, but the estimate is that of more than 20 million lost.”

An icy pit of fear filled Arthur’s stomach.  His coffee threatened to come back up, and he felt acid fill his throat.

“Okay.  Okay.”  He said to the room.  “Okay.  I can fix this.”

He grabbed the gnome, and closed his eyes.  I wish to undo my last wish.

Nothing happened.  There was no popping sound, no jolt of electricity.  He tried again.

I wish Syria was normal, and all those people were alive.

Still nothing.  He swore furiously under his breath.

I WISH THOSE PEOPLE WERE STILL ALIVE.

                There was a pop, and a surge of electricity.  Arthur let out a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes, and then watched the news.  As usual, they had gone to commercial break.  Sure, all the world’s dying, but here, buy some soap.

I wish the commercials were gone.

He thought it before he had a chance to stop himself, and with a look of horror, pulled his hand away from the gnome.  PopZap.

The commercial ended mid-sentence, and the picture went black.  The newsman was back on, and looking somewhat confused.

“Oh?  Oh, all right.”  He said.  His hand went to his earpiece.  “Oh.  Oh God.”

The picture cut to a coastline, where the shot was shaky, and Arthur could hear the chop of helicopter blades overhead.  Dark shapes were emerging from the surf, in an unbroken line that went on for miles.

“This…this just in.”  Came the newscaster’s voice over the feed.  “Something is coming out of the sea that used to be Syria.  Eyewitnesses on the ground claim it to be the – no.  No way.  I’m not reading this.”  A sigh.  “Fine.  The dead.  They claim the dead are walking out of the sea.”

Below the pictures being beamed back, the stock scroll was nearly all red.  Arthur noticed, and blanched.  He’d done that, as well.  Without ad dollars, companies were failing.  The dollar would be worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper at this rate.  He thought of his pension, and his plans for a little boat.  He thought of his ideas for a future with Cheryl, and cursed under his breath.

“Make it right.”  He said, rubbing the gnome’s head.  “Make it right.”

Nothing happened.  He dropped his head.  In the background, the newscaster was drifting between the two stories – the living dead in the Middle East, and the fall of the dollar.  There was already talk of foreign markets falling as well.  The president was due to make a statement at any minute now – not that Arthur thought much of him.  Weasel of a man, hiding behind his vice-president’s skirts.  Weasel of a man.

Pop.  Zap.

                Cold dread fell into Arthur’s stomach like a bomb dropped down his throat.  He watched the news, horrified, as the feed cut to the White House lawn, where the Secret Service was chasing a man-sized weasel in a blue suit around the perfectly manicured grass.  The weasel was squeaking, and the reporter’s mic kept picking up noises that vaguely sounded like ‘USA USA’.

A knock at the front door interrupted Arthur’s frozen, horrified viewing, and he clutched the gnome close and got up to answer it.  Halfway there, it came again.  He wondered who it could be.  The CIA?  Secret Service?  Pizza guy?  He doubted the last one.  He opened the door to find Cheryl standing there, a worried look on her face. Her hand was still raised as if to knock, her mouth open. She lowered her hand, and a frown creased her forehead.

“Is that – is that a gnome?”

Arthur nodded.

“Why?”

He shrugged. Once you’re holding a garden decoration outside of a garden, it’s hard to explain why. He suddenly wanted her to touch it, though he couldn’t say why. In his head, an elaborate fantasy spooled itself out – Cheryl loving the gnome, and then him. Then he could share his secret. There was another pop, though distant, weaker. As if on cue, one corner of her mouth curled up and she reached a hesitant hand out.

“May I touch it?”

He held it out like a child happy to present his favorite toy. She took it, stroking its cap. Arthur blushed. She looked up, and the other side of her mouth joined the first, a Grinch smile if he’d ever seen one. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as they stared into his own mud-brown.

“Oh, I love it! I may never let it go. May I come in?”

He nodded dumbly, and she passed him, her hips brushing his, her free hand tousling his hair. He stood at the door, looking out. He almost wished someone had seen her going into the house. Sudden pain flared through his head, and he staggered. Arthur craned his neck to see what was happening, and caught a glimpse of Cheryl raising the gnome for another blow.

“Wha-” he managed to get out.

“I just love you both so much – there’s no way I can let you go. I just wish you could be mine forever. You’ll see, Artie. It’ll be good.”

The gnome descended, and blackness followed.

*

                Arthur woke in the garden. It was hard to move. It was hard to blink. Not that he could do either. His eyes were frozen open, his body rigid. On the upside, his head no longer ached. He tried to call for help, but his voice came out a thin squeal, like the world’s tiniest teakettle. The back door to his home opened, and Cheryl stepped out, cradling the gnome. She placed it next to Arthur and patted first it, and then him on the head.

“I don’t know what did it, Artie, but my wish came true. I have you, and this gnome, and we have our own little place. I’ll come out and visit you every day. We’ll be so happy.”

She turned and went back into the house. Black smoke rolled across the sky from the corner of his eye, and from the open door, Arthur could hear the newscaster. “They’re in the city! The dead are in the city!”

He wanted to sigh. He wanted to close his eyes. He couldn’t do either.

 

 

A Splinter in the Mind

Jan. 23

I’ll tell you how it starts. Maybe you’ll see. Maybe you’ll know.

It starts as an itch, a splinter in the mind. You can feel it, worming its way forward. The headaches are the worst. Feels like an ice pick lodged in your veins. Feels like someone taking a ball-peen hammer to the side of your head, and just when you’re ready to give in, to move on, and take a sabbatical – ideally, where there is no light and noise and scent – it stops. You breathe relief. Your skin relaxes. You didn’t know that your skin was tight, like someone was holding electrodes to your flesh and making it tighten involuntarily. Then, it’s in your eye. The feeling of something there that isn’t. A pulsing, throbbing, stabbing pain. You close your eye; rub it, thinking something is stuck inside. An eyelash, a crossbeam from the Empire State Building. Water flows from the ducts, but it doesn’t go away. You take a breath, and you think it’s going to burst from your skull, your eye a deflated sac, vitreous fluid streaming down your cheek. Then it stops, and you see. You see them. Them.

They’re shadows. I don’t know where they come from. Maybe some alternate universe where light is dark and dark is light and somewhere, Martha Stewart fucks Mitch McConnell on screen every night precisely at 5 pm. Maybe that’s all they are – shadows. It’s the reflection of a long-dead sun, or a star that burned out millions of years ago, and the spaces where they stood are just now hitting our irises. Maybe we broke something when CERN went online, and they’re something else entirely, swimming through higher dimensions the way birds drift on currents.  Maybe they’re devils, and we’re close to the end. Whatever. They’re there, and just because only a few of us can see them, means shit in the long run.

 

Feb. 3

Saw four of them, hanging around the bodega on Ninth. They drifted around the entrance, transparent. The way they move, I’m not sure they know much. Maybe they really are some sort of new species, just learning the ropes of their nascent life. Fuck, that’s a lot of maybes. Anyway, they just sort of hang out. They remind me of finches on a branch, waiting for seed to settle in the feeder. A woman came out, carrying a bag of groceries. The shades just fluttered around her for a moment, like startled mice. She walked on, and they settled by the door again. Part of me wondered if they could go inside, if they’d buy a burrito, maybe a pack of smokes. Maybe burritos and Marlboro are illegal where they come from, and they’re hoping for an adult to buy some.

I waited for an hour before the cops drove by, breaking up my surveillance. They’re not keen on strange men standing and staring too long at any one thing. I’m not keen on having my head broken. I moved on.

 

Feb. 5

More of them, in the park. They flitter among the children. The kids don’t know – they skip and run and shout, bright colors on their coats making ribboned blurs against the eye. The shadows just float there, watching. I wonder what they’d do if they saw a child skin his knee, or bloody their nose. I wonder if there are little shadows back home, Timmy and Sally Dim, maybe with their shadow dog, Sparky. I wonder if maybe they’re closer to animals. Do they eat their young?

Some kid loses his ball and it veers into the road, and he runs after it. I hold my breath. I want to scream out as the traffic on Fifth ripples past the light because he doesn’t see it. My heart skips a beat, and I hear tires squeal on the pavement. Someone’s shouting, but I can’t see who because I’ve closed my eyes. More shouting and I open them. Someone – an au pair, a mother – is carrying the kid back into the playground. My heart slows. The shadows watch.

 

Feb. 7

I keep thinking. What if? What if they’re refugees? Survivors of a dying sun, remnants of us, humanity, slipping back in time, people fleeing from some Xenu-like construct, and they can only get one foot in the door? If it were true, if more people knew, could see them, would we legislate their existence? Would we try to help? Could we? Would causes spring up around their existence, men with guns and men with signs? Would someone try to shoot one, to see what happens? Would someone try to feed them? How would they react?

My head won’t stop with the questions. They bore into me like beetles, doubt and conjecture. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all shadows and light, anyway.

 

Feb. 12

I met a man. Hiram, I think. He smoked, like a chimney, and watched the streets like they were filled with wolves. I bummed a smoke off him and stood with him, his scarf wrapped around his neck like a gorget, his eyes hollow. He told me about the shadows, the way they watched everyone. We were in the park, the sky threatening rain. The trees kept making clacking sounds as the branches banged together, and he told me about how he kept seeing those things everywhere, and how he was a raw nerve because they hadn’t done a damn thing yet. I listened and nodded, but couldn’t commiserate. Of course, I saw them. Of course. But they weren’t in my head yet, and I wasn’t letting them in. He left with wet eyes and a hack that told me the cigarettes were in his lungs. After, I watched the leaves on the trees shiver until the rain came.

 

Feb. 15

One of them is in my building. It hangs out in the hallway by Mrs. Kossakas’ apartment. Every now and then, it drifts down the hall and back, like it’s bored, or maybe looking for a way in. I don’t think they can go through walls or doors. This one must have slipped in behind a resident, or the UPS man. I skirted it and took the stairs by the laundry room. I keep my door locked, just in case. Just in case.

 

Feb. 17

I saw Hiram again today. He looked worse, pale, and skinny. Sweat collected on his forehead like dew in the spring. Purple bags rode under his eyes. We found a bench and talked a while, mostly about nothing – football, the local deli, the weather – neither of us followed it, but our mouths made the sounds. In a small copse of trees nearby, three of the shadows drifted. Hiram showed me the gun in his pocket, a little silver thing, and old. Looked like one of those revolvers they’d have on bad cop shows. He pulled it out and stuffed it away real quick, his hand doing a little jitter, like palsy was the thing on tap. He smoked and looked out at the woods, and I could see it in him. The internal math. Do I shoot them now? Does someone hear? What happens? What happens? In the end, he left again, his hand jammed in his pocket, a cigarette drooping from his lip. If the cigarettes and shadows don’t do anything, he’ll find a use for that pistol. I could almost see Damocles’ sword hanging by its thread. The shadows didn’t notice.

 

Feb. 19

I can’t find the thing from the hall. I’m not sure where it went, but I haven’t seen Ms. K in a while. I knocked, but no one answered. She was old. I’m sure she has family, has someone who knows where she is. I don’t know, I’m not her keeper. I thought of something, an idea that clung to me for a while, but when I dug out Hiram’s number, the phone only squealed and the voice on the other end did her little disconnect dance. Maybe he found the solution to his math.

 

Feb. 22

There’s more of them. Less people on the street. Is it Sunday? I only know the number. I only know there are less people on the street on Sunday. I think about them, crammed in their churches and synagogues and mosques, praying, genuflecting, singing. I wonder what they would make of this. Punishment? Angels? Demons? I wonder if I should stop by St. Anthony’s. I call information, but the phone only hums. That’s normal, right? Is Google down? If Google’s down, everything’s down.

I think about going to the library – they have computers there. They’d know. Then a shadow passes on the street, and I think about home. I check the sky, and it’s gray, like steel wool. I think about the way you could unravel it, set fire to the end, and watch the sparks climb the metal spindles like a burning ladder. I wonder if that’s what’s going on in my brain, if that’s why I’m seeing these things. I wonder if that’s how the world ends, a steady slow burn that leaves only black in its wake.

 

Feb. 24

Is it a leap year? I wonder briefly if that’s why this is happening. All those stolen seconds leeching into hours and days and years – are we breaking time? A nice lady picked up Hiram’s phone today. She said she didn’t know where he was, and wanted to know my name. Why would she need that? I hung up. I thought about disconnecting my phone, but what if one gets in here? I’d need to call for help. I could say I was having a panic attack, or I had fallen. Instead, I went to the park.

 

Feb. 24

They’re everywhere. I can’t – I thought I heard Hiram, hacking in the woods, and went to him. They were close enough to touch – I didn’t. I couldn’t. What about space AIDS, or possession, or melting my skin off? I slipped between them while they watched. His pistol was lying in the leaves. There was an empty shell in it. No sign of Hiram. Did he try to kill them? Did he do himself? I took the gun. He’ll want it back. They just watched. What did they see? I didn’t ask – couldn’t find my voice. Would they have answered?

 

Feb. 26

Why don’t they do anything? It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a cheesy burrito. Taco Bell would be fucking proud. They just stand around and watch. I don’t see many people outside, but it’s been raining for a day. People don’t like the rain. These things, it doesn’t bother. Nothing much bothers them. I doubt their humanity. I wonder at my own. Why can’t I say something to them? Am I afraid of the answers? I hold Hiram’s gun at night and think until my brain hurts. Until the headache throbs and my vision doubles. Nothing. Nothing.

 

Feb. 28

There’s another in my building. I couldn’t talk to it, but I waved the gun. It didn’t notice. Or pretended not to. My skin itches all the time now. I honestly can’t tell if it’s because I got too close in the park, or because anxiety is ramping my senses up to twenty. I almost left today. I called Hiram instead and listened to the dial tone for a while. I wonder if he’s somewhere safe – maybe the cops picked him up after he fired the gun. Maybe he ran off. I wonder if he’s got cigarettes, and my lungs ache for that old burn. I’m not leaving.

 

Feb. 28

Woke up by the sound of something scratching. Could be rats. This is an old building. Tried watching Kimmel. There’s an old girlie mag under my bed, but I’m not that kind of keyed up. Finally decided to open that bottle of Wild Turkey from under the sink. I brought my chair to the entry so I can watch the door. The whiskey burns, but it’s a comforting burn. I wonder when they’re going to do something. That’s what strangers do, right? They wait, and they watch, then they hit you when your nerves are high so you make a mistake. They give you a smile, and you relax, and then you give them your money. Or they slit your throat. I think of Hiram, pale and sweating. I feel the weight of the pistol in my lap and mentally count the bullets. Will it matter? They’ll do something soon. They have to, right? Will it matter? I count the bullets again. Will it matter? One of them will. One of them will.

Ancestry

cnn.com

WOMAN, 32 CHARGED WITH MURDER

As details of a grisly murder surface, questions arise

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Maria Rathbone, 32, of Howard’s Falls, Idaho on Wednesday. After speaking with the homeowner, one of the officers asked to see the inside of the home, alerted to something amiss by what he described as a ‘suspicious odor’. Ms. Rathbone was compliant, and led the officers on a tour of the home, culminating in a small den, the scene of which investigators said reminded them of a butcher shop.

Ms. Rathbone had murdered her father, Elias Rathbone, 72, and was attempting to connect his organs to the internal components of her desktop computer. Ms. Rathbone has not been forthcoming about her reasoning behind the murder, and investigators are currently awaiting the results of a psychological evaluation.

Sherriff Stephen Clarke of Howard County was unavailable for comment.

 

The Ones We Left Behind (excerpt)

by Amy Wong

Simon & Schuster

…and in the context of family, it’s the weight of a thousand years that drags us down. Our grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents’ grandparents all lead to an unbroken genetic chain that informs everything from our eye color to the things we fear. Can we look back on that chain, at the sacrifices and mistakes and lost loves and wonder what if? Can we truly say we are doing them proud, or that we have our own future generations’ lives and livelihoods at heart? What happens when we forget those things that build our heritage? Who lives for the ones who died? Who loves those? Is it all worth it, or would they find disappointment in their modern descendents? Is there any one thing we can do to bring them joy? Or are we only serving the memory of a life that simply doesn’t exist, a light that winks out when the void closes in, clinging to religion and belief and tradition like lichen to a stone? No one really knows, but I like to think there’s something there. Even if it’s only in our hearts and minds. My grandmother used to say There is only one life, but it goes on forever. In that, maybe we have all the answers we need.

 

honeydo.org

Seeking Mr. Wrong

Oh, SamMy, I KNOw you see me. PLEasE Call.

 

Sun-Valley Tribune  

Obituaries, May 9

Vera Sawyer, age 63, passed away today at Carrol Family Care. She was preceded in death by her husband, John Sawyer and her parents, Claude and Juliet Hopper (Baumann). Vera leaves behind a son, Samuel, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. The family has asked in lieu of flowers, a donation be made in her name to the Voight-Kampf Memorial Fund.

 

wechat.com

flowergurl has entered the room

dingdong97: Hey!

humpa: Hey!

samman: hey

[samman to you]: hey, you like flowers? what kind?

[flowergurl to samman]: Gardenias, lilacs.

[samman to you]: you like Georgia O’ Keeffe?

[flowergurl to samman]: Who?

[samman to you]: the vagina lady

[flowergurl to samman]: Shame on you, Sam! You were raised better!

flowergurl has disconnected

 

theguardian.co.uk

WORLDWIDE OUTAGE AFFECTS 75% OF USERS

Internet row could cost well into the trillions

by James Canon

On Tuesday, a massive outage affecting nearly the world’s entire Internet user base was attributed to solar flares. Experts in IT, commerce, and infrastructure are still reeling from the shutdown that affected commerce, transportation, and medical care.

Perhaps more interesting are reports that alongside the outage, many users experienced visual or auditory errors upon logging on, including the voices of people they knew, or files on their desktops they couldn’t remember saving.

When asked about the situation, one MP referenced the harsh new conditions the Tories wish to place on Internet in the UK.

 

abovetopsecret.com

[Mr. Higgles] Theory: The government not only knows about magic, but is keeping it secret. In 1997, they started building the largest database of death certificates in the world. You know who else manipulated the dead? Necromancers. I’m telling you man, they plan on using our dead relatives in a future conflict, most likely against their own people. Sure, a well-armed populace can stand up to their government, but how the hell do you fight ghosts?

Before you poo-poo me, take a look – there’s an entire database online. It’s like they’re not even trying to hide it. And they sort them all by Social Security Number. I keep telling you guys – pay to get that shit erased. Otherwise, you’ll be serving well into the next seven lifetimes.

[HubbleEyes] Have you filed an FOIA request?

[JFKWASNOTALONE] How do we know you’re not a Russian plant, man? Who says ‘poo-poo’? A quick Google search tells me that phrase isn’t US-based.

[MKULTRAHIGH] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necromancy

 

twitter.com

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Hello? Hello?

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy? It’s dark in here.

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy

 

cnn.com

COPYCAT MURDER BRINGS QUESTIONS

The second murder in a week, this one raises more questions

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Samuel Sawyer, 40, of White Plains, New York on Wednesday. A call was placed by neighbors who reported screams coming from the home of the White Plains lawyer.

Mr. Sawyer had murdered his wife, Celia Sawyer, 38, and in a scene similar to the previously reported murder was attempting to connect her organs to the internal components of his desktop computer. When questioned on the scene, Mr. Sawyer claimed his mother was ‘so, so lonely’.

Vera Sawyer passed away last month.

Lawyers for Mr. Sawyer declined to comment further on the case.

 

twitter.com

Celia @samwife

Sammy?

 

 

Panphobia

Airplanes.  Flying.  Heights.  Spiders.  Insects.  The dark.  Germs.  Thunderstorms.  Highways.  The list went on.  Harry tried to think back on when he hadn’t been afraid of all these things, and why, but all he got was nostalgia without reason.

He hardly watched the news anymore, or read it, for that matter.  Floods, fires, war, and rumors of war.  Murder, envy, and greed.  It was as if every time he picked up the paper or flipped on the tube, he gathered a new phobia to himself, and he already felt full to bursting.  He knew the ridiculousness of it, knew the news catered to sensationalism.  He knew there was enough good in the world to balance out the bad, yet another part of him sat in its corner and scowled out, and refused to believe it so.

That part of his mind had always refused to behave.  When he was younger, it held less sway over his life, though no less pessimistic; no less sour.  It came out in bouts of dour humor and cynicism, and occasional anger at the ridiculousness of the world.  The older he got though, the more that part of him took hold, entrenched itself in his way of thinking.  It reminded him that there was always a catch, always a downside.

When he finally grew to the point he could fight the pessimism, he found that the cynicism had turned into a dour fatalism that insisted the world was a dangerous place, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.  As a matter of course, the rest of his brain reasoned that must mean the world was to be feared.

For the most part, he was able to suppress his fears.  He found a job that let him work from home.  He had his groceries delivered.  He meticulously cleaned his home every three or four days, and himself every night.  (Not without making sure the adhesive ducks on the bottom of the tub were firmly in place, though.  Wouldn’t be right, being cautious, only to be done in by a tub faucet.)

He had considered therapy, maybe medication, but that would mean leaving the house.  It would mean exposure, both physical and mental.  He didn’t know that he was ready for that.  Until he found an MD willing to diagnose via internet, he was content to stay put.

*

The day Harry found the spider in his shower drain was the day that changed his mind.

It had been an ordinary day, as far as days went for him.  He had done some work for a client, a simple piece of freelance code for a website, and managed to wrap that up before noon.  The rest of the day he spent cleaning the house, since it had been three days – making sure the surfaces were wiped down, the floors swept and vacuumed, and the tub scrubbed of soap residue.  After that, he sprayed everything with sanitizer, and waited in his office while the fumes dissipated.

As he waited, he read a bit of news, though he couldn’t get much past the first story, an article about death squads in the Congo.  He wondered for a moment if such things were exclusive to third-world countries, and decided not to leave it to chance.  You never knew who was watching, and what they might deem punishable.  Maybe just visiting a global news site rather than local had already dropped him on a watch list.  He took a moment to dump his browser history, and then turned the computer off.  He should probably have alarms installed, just in case.

He walked to the bathroom, and dropped his clothes in the basket by the door.  He turned the faucets on, tinkering with the hot and cold until it was just right, and tested the ducks on the bottom by trying to slide his hand across the floor of the tub.  It stuck, and he was satisfied.  He got in, and wet his hair, humming to himself.  There was a song stuck in his head, ‘Fall Down’.  He thought it was by Toad the Wet Sprocket.  A part of his brain checked off the coincidence, and carried on.

He turned to grab the soap from the ledge by the showerhead, and stopped, mid-reach.  He had looked down, to make sure the drain wasn’t clogging with hair (though his wasn’t long, and he wasn’t balding).  A clogged drain meant soap and water build-up, and almost guaranteed slippage, no matter how many adhesive ducks you had in the bottom of your shower.  His gaze was frozen on the drain, still clear, water still swirling down.  Despite that, he could see two long legs poking from the holes.

His heart skipped a beat, and he took a step back, trying to make space between himself and those legs.  As he did, they began to move, as though they sensed his fear, trying to gain purchase on the wet surface of the tub.  Harry stood frozen for a moment, then with a curse, shoved the shower curtain to the side, and stepped out while watching the legs squirm.

Without turning the water off, he edged to the side, eyes still on the drain, and flipped open the cabinet under the sink.  He groped around for a moment, feeling his fingers brush a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a block of soaps still in their cardboard boxes and cellophane, and a container of disinfectant wipes.

The legs seemed to notice he was up to something (maybe it was his imagination, though he didn’t care to make a distinction at this point), and seemed to be scrabbling harder for purchase.  He saw another set of legs worm their way through the drain, and he choked his fear down.

His fingers finally found the handle of the bleach bottle he kept under the sink, and he pulled it out with a triumphant grunt.  He spun the cap off, and without any ceremony or hesitation, poured it into the drain.  The legs fought for a moment against the added flow from the bottle, then lost the battle, and slipped away.

Harry let the water run for another minute, until the smell of bleach started to dilute with the steam in the air, and he was sure the spider wasn’t going to try again.  He hoped the damn thing burned all the way down the drain.  He dried off, deciding that was enough shower for one day.

He lifted the lid of the toilet – he really needed to pee after all of the excitement – and let fly.  He watched the stream hit the water, and looked down.  Legs the length of his pinky sprouted under the water, coming from the siphon hole.  They disappeared into darkness, though as he watched, they squirmed, as though trying to pull the rest of the thing attached to them to the surface.

His flow cut off like someone had kinked a hose, and he slammed the toilet lid shut.  After a second, he picked up the laundry basket and placed it on top.  He flushed once, and then twice, holding the lever down for longer than was strictly necessary, then left the bathroom.

He could hold it until he got to the therapist’s office tomorrow.  He looked at the toilet, and considered checking it.  Nope.  He could hold it.  He had to.

*

The therapist’s office was cool, white, and nearly sterile.  Harry liked it.  Two rows of two chairs sat across from each other in the waiting room, and an indoor waterfall babbled against one wall.  It was all very soothing.  The door to the therapist’s office was frosted glass, with stainless handles.  Stenciled on it in small neat letters was the name ‘Havel Patel, PhD’.

Harry was reading a paper someone had left on one of the small tables between the chairs.  It was, admittedly, a rare occurrence for him, but he figured he was already taking the right steps, surely another couldn’t hurt.

The news itself was surprisingly benign.  A new study had come out; revealing murder rates had dropped to all-time lows.  To Harry, that just meant his odds were better than ever to be killed by some psychopath or idiot with a gun.  As far as he was concerned, smaller odds for everyone else meant a higher rate for those within the target demographic.  He had left the house today, after all.  Surely that meant he had dropped himself into the likely target lottery.  He reminded himself again to check into an alarm system.

He moved on to another story.  Disease rates were down – better antibiotics, better treatment, and a greater knowledge of how disease worked were all collaborating to decrease why people got sick, for how long, and how severe a sickness could last.  Harry figured most of those people didn’t go out of their way to catch a bug.  Not like him, sitting in an unfamiliar office, holding a used newspaper, with a fountain sending unfiltered mist into the air.  He tossed the paper on the side table and brushed his hands on his legs.  He hoped Dr. Patel was coming soon.

As if on cue, the door to Dr. Patel’s room opened, and the man stepped out.  He was on the short side, a bit stocky, his head shaved to baldness, and a pair of glasses in rectangular frames perched on his nose.  He smiled at Harry.

“Mr. Dora?”

Harry nodded and stood.  Dr. Patel waited for Harry to enter his office, then closed the door behind them.  He hadn’t tried to shake Harry’s hand.  That was good.  There were two overstuffed chairs in the room, bracketed by walls of books, and a small window that looked out at the therapy center’s grounds – rolling lawn and trees that led to a small creek.  Harry took one of the chairs and waited for Dr. Patel to sit.

Patel sat, digging his backside into the chair for a moment before pulling up a notepad that had been nestled between the cushions.  He smiled over at Harry again.

“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Harry?”  He said.

Harry hesitated for a moment.  Could he tell a stranger all of the things he thought?  What about the things he felt, the things that frightened him, even in the warm light of day; especially in the cold dark of night?

Baby steps he thought.  One at a time.

He took a breath, and began to talk.

*

He told Dr. Patel about his childhood, and his adolescence, his drift from fearless to phobic as he moved to adulthood.  He found himself talking about his belief in the degradation of safety in society.  He talked about how he knew his fears to be irrational, knowing what was versus what he felt, and not being able to reconcile the two.

Dr. Patel listened, taking notes through the entire session, and when Harry was done, he set the notepad down.  The room seemed more still than it had when he started, as though filling the air with his fears had hushed even the air.  The doctor glanced at the clock on the wall, and then leaned forward.

“This is a good start, Harry.  I want you to think about the things you’ve told me, and come back in two days.  Specifically, I want you to think about that cognitive dissonance you hold – the idea that your fears are irrational, and yet you cannot banish them with rationale.”

Harry let out a breath, and nodded.  He was a little disappointed.  He had built up a good head of steam, and it felt like he needed to get some things out.

Doctor knows best, he thought.

He stood to go, and Dr. Patel stood with him, leading him to the door, and opening it for him.  The doctor must have seen the look on his face, because he laid a hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Harry, we’ll get it all out.”

Harry nodded, and stepped out of the office.  The door closed behind him.  He waited to hear the click of the latch in the doorframe, and walked out.

*

Night found Harry lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  His nightlight cast a dim yellow glow into the corner of his room, bright enough to comfort, soft enough to not stab his eyelids with light.  He wondered for a moment where the spider in his toilet had gone.  He’d taken the time earlier to move the laundry basket, and lift the lid, and found the bowl was blissfully empty.  He had bleached it anyway, and then flushed it for half an hour, just to be sure, and he felt he could use the toilet tomorrow with a reasonable amount of confidence.

He thought about what Dr. Patel had told him – that he held a cognitive dissonance, a fracture in his mind.  He knew the statistics and the facts.  Spiders were rarely venomous enough to kill (more people were killed by champagne corks than spider bite every year), flying was safer than driving (redundancies on redundancies), and you had a higher chance of dating a celebrity than you did of catching the bird flu.  Still, they remained.

It was almost as if his fears were the symptoms of a virus he had contracted, a malignant strain that invaded his mind and rooted itself there with iron barbs.  He could talk all he wanted about the rational, the real, but when it came down to it, when the fear took hold, his body betrayed him.  Sweating, heart pounding, short breath, and an anxiety that drilled into his gut like an electric wire all drove him to avoid the things that caused those symptoms, forced him into a corner where avoidance was preferable to confrontation.

He was snapped away from his thoughts when something in the house creaked.  He knew it was probably just the place settling, but his mind immediately went to the things that lurked at the dark corners of his imagination – great misshapen furred beasts, and thieves with knives and little to lose.  He cast a glance at his bedroom door, and saw it was still locked.  He considered flipping on his light, and reading a bit more, but pushed it away.  With effort, he closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing.

He still listened with half an ear to the hall outside of his room, but the noise never repeated.  Sleep started to claim him, and for a moment, he thought of all the things outside, all the things in the world that could shake a man to his core.  He let it slip by, and fell into darkness.

*

Two days slipped by quicker than Harry expected.  He spent them much as he usually did – cleaning, writing code, and wrapping himself in the comfort of his home, away from the fright of the outside world.  There were exceptions.

In the morning, he opened the paper, and saw two stories that interested him.  The first, a short piece in the nature and science section, was about the decline of poisonous spiders and subsequent fatal or near fatal.  It went on to say that due to climate change and aggressive pesticides, several species were either dwindling or migrating to climates that weren’t hospitable.

The second article was in the same section – a piece about new avionics.  It was said to be so reliable, the planes nearly flew themselves.  Even the pilots were happy about it – far less micromanagement involved in the general workings of the cockpit.  Further down in the article, one of the engineers was quoted saying what the article had already stated.  “The planes practically fly themselves.”

When he was finished reading, Harry put the paper down and frowned for a moment.  He was jealous of these people.  Every day, less things to be afraid of, and he still couldn’t force himself to see past it.  He tossed the paper down with a grunt, and went to clean the bathroom.  The spider still hadn’t appeared, but he’d been bleaching the bowl and the shower every day, just in case.

A plane passed overhead while he was cleaning, and he imagined, just for a moment, the landing gear tearing free, or an engine working itself from its moorings, and smashing through the roof of his house, leaving him a broken mangle of flesh.  It passed after a moment, and he shook the vision off, and finished scrubbing.

Later that day, he was finishing up some chores, and had the television on for background noise.  He happened to look up just when the newscaster started to speak.

“A new study shows that violent crime – specifically murder – has dropped in the past few months.  It is now at an all time low, nationwide.”

The television cut to commercial, and Harry stared at it for a moment, not really seeing it.  Murder was down?  What was happening to the world?  The things that haunted him, that frightened him to the core, were slipping away.  It was as though the things that were real dangers, no matter how irrational the fear, were leeching from the world, and into him.

As soon as he had the thought, he shook his head, as if to clear it.  Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough, as far as Harry was concerned.  He was starting to worry for his sanity.  Fear welled up in him, and he tried to quench it by pinching himself.

No, this is real, I am real, and I am NOT crazy!

He pinched until he bruised, and then pinched a little more.  When he was finally able to calm himself, he wandered to the bedroom and lay down.  Tomorrow he would see Dr. Patel.  Tomorrow it would be better.

I’m not crazy.

*

Dr. Patel’s office was the same.  Sterile, white, and soothing.  Even with only two visits, Harry was starting to feel comfortable.  He listened to the waterfall tinkling in its frame, and took a deep breath of cool air.  He ran his finger idly up and down the white fabric of his chair, making idle patterns in the fabric.  Generally, he tried to think of nothing.

The door to Dr. Patel’s office opened, frosted glass giving way to an inviting interior, lit by sunlight and lined with bookshelves.  Dr. Patel stood in the doorway and smiled.

“Mr. Dora.  Glad to have you back.”  He gestured toward the room.  “Come in, come in.”

Harry got up and entered the office, sitting in the same overstuffed chair he had last time.  Dr. Patel closed the door behind him, and sat across from him, picking up his notepad as he did.  Once settled in, the doctor crossed his legs and rested the pad on his knee.

They exchanged pleasantries for a moment – words about the weather for the most part, and when that died down, Dr. Patel began the conversation.

“The last time you were here, we talked about your fears, the irrational versus the rational.  How have you been doing with that?”

Harry sighed.  “Honestly?  Terrible.  It seems like the harder I try to convince myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the more afraid I become.”

He took a minute, and told the doctor of his new fears.  Dr. Patel listened, nodding and making notes on his pad.  When Harry finished, the doctor sat back and regarded him.  He looked concerned.

“Harry, I want to try something.  It’s a bit different, but if it works, we may be able to halt this…degradation…you’ve been dealing with.”

Harry could feel a pit of anxiety starting to worm its way into his stomach.  It must have shown on his face, because Dr. Patel’s tone changed; became soothing.

“I won’t lie.  What I have planned, you’re probably not going to like, Harry.  But it is effective.”

Harry swallowed, hard.  It felt like there was a lump in his throat.  He could already feel his heart rate trying to climb.  Dr. Patel set his notepad aside, and leaned in.

“It’s your best hope, Harry.  Ask yourself – do you want to live like this anymore?  Do you want to get worse?”

The answer was no.  It was easy enough to answer.  At the same time, that trickle of anxiety was working itself into a river, and he was starting to regret coming.  What if the doctor wasn’t a doctor?  What if he was trapped with a madman?  He started to push himself off the chair, and Dr. Patel held up a hand.

“Wait.  I know you’re feeling it again.  Sit down for a moment, and give me a chance, Harry.”

Harry did so, reluctantly, and Dr. Patel studied him for a moment more.

“There, behind you.”  He said, gesturing at the wall behind Harry.  “Would a madman have those on his wall?”

Harry turned to look.  Arranged in a loose square were several diplomas and certificates.  Harry leaned closer to get a better look at the largest one, decorated by flowing text and a gold seal.  As he did so, something pricked his finger, and he jerked it away from the chair, instinctively sucking on it.  For a moment, his vision blurred, and he gave up trying to read the diplomas.  He turned back to the doctor.

Dr. Patel was just leaning back in his chair, tucking a syringe into a small black case Harry hadn’t noticed when he entered.  Panic tried to well up in him, but it was felt distant, disconnected from him somehow.  He knew the doctor had stuck him, but he was having trouble caring.

“How do you feel, Harry?”  The doctor asked.  The lenses in his glasses reflected the overhead lights, making them look like white panels in wire frames.  Harry couldn’t see the doctor’s eyes.

A part of Harry screamed for him to run, to get the hell out of the office, and run until he was safe at home.  That part too, felt disconnected, and distant.

“Fine.”  Harry lied.

“Good, good.  You’re going to feel a little fuzzy for a bit, but when it wears off, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.

Now, I want you to listen, and think about what I’m going to tell you.”

Harry nodded, and felt a stupid grin creep across his face.  He fought it back, but not before he saw himself in Patel’s lenses, looking like an idiot.  Didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

Dr. Patel leaned forward again, and the illusion of shuttered windows in his glasses disappeared.  His eyes were intense, and held Harry’s own.

“The universe does not care.  This is the thing you must remember.  There is no vast conspiracy, the world is not out to get you, you are not statistically more significant than anyone else; you are not beholden to predestination.

If a thing happens outside our realm of choice, it does not boil down to fate, or destiny, it does not mean a damn thing other than that thing happened.  Move on, recover, and grow stronger.

Most importantly, remember this: you are not special.  You are not singled out by the machinations of world, and never will be, aside from the decisions you make directly impacting your own life.”

Dr. Patel finished speaking, and Harry felt the words sink in.  Combined with the disconnection he felt from his fear, and the intense gaze of the doctor, the way his gaze seemed to hammer home every word, Harry felt a weight lift from his shoulders.  Harry felt his eyes grow heavy, and they began to droop.  He felt Dr. Patel pat his knee.

“You can rest here, Harry.  Go home when you wake.”

Harry let his eyes close fully, and took a deep breath, then another.  In a moment, he was asleep.

*

He woke in darkness, the only light in the office a desk lamp the doctor had left on.  Harry stood, and stretched, then ran a fingernail over his tongue.  It felt like a cat had slept in his mouth.  He looked around, but saw no sign of the doctor.

“Dr. Patel?”  He called.

He stopped.  The desk lamp was on, and outside, he could see the neatly manicured lawn of the clinic, lit by carefully placed lights in flowerbeds and shrubs.  He wasn’t afraid.

He wasn’t afraid.

He felt a mix of emotions at that – elation, anger at Patel for tricking him, and an odd serenity.  Nothing mattered that he didn’t do to himself.  It was an odd kind of comforting thought, but there it was.  He made to step out of the office, and stumbled when his shoe bumped something.  He frowned and looked down.

A dark shape lay on the floor, but he couldn’t quite make it out in the dark.  Harry reached over and flipped the switch on the wall, flooding the office with warm light.  He looked down again, and stepped back.

Dr. Patel lay curled in the fetal position, his face swollen and blue.  His eyes protruded almost comically, and his tongue jutted just slightly from his mouth.  Harry nudged him with the toe of his shoe, and the body rolled slightly, exposing a lump the size of a Clementine just above Dr. Patel’s collar.  He bent down for a closer look, then straightened as a spider, black and swollen with venom, crawled from under the collar.

After a moment, Harry shrugged, and walked carefully over the body.  He opened the door, and left the office.   He passed through the waiting room, noticing someone had left the door on the other end open, the waterfall still gurgling away, and through the nurses’ station.  He didn’t notice the pretty receptionist who was sprawled in her swivel chair, congealed blood crusting in her pores and orifices.

He walked out of the office, and to his car.  In the distance, he saw a jogger stopped mid-stride by a large man.  She stood there, her body language indicating she was torn between fight or flight.  The big man grabbed her, and as Harry watched, drew a long blade from his jacket and opened her throat.  He turned away.  None of his business, not his problem.

He got in the car, and pulled out of the lot, out of the neighborhood, and started to drive.  It was a quiet night, aside from the cars that littered the side of the highway, and the fires in the distance.

He looked up at the sky, and something passed overhead.  For a moment, a jet blacked out the stars, and as Harry watched, a blossom of fire bloomed on its wing, and half the fuselage ripped away.  The two halves went spinning in opposite directions, and another moment later, he saw dark shapes silhouetted against the stars as well, each the size of a man.

Harry shrugged to himself again, and continued driving.  Not his problem.  The universe didn’t care.

Someone else could shoulder his fears.

Cold

 

The trenches were laid out across the earth like a zigzag of scars, men huddled deep in them against the glowering sky and the cold rain that fell from it.  Between them, fields of barbed wire grew from the ground like a steel harvest.  Here and there, bodies bloomed on the ground and in the steel, sightless eyes staring upwards.  They wore the uniforms of friend and foe alike, victims of failed charges and successful sorties.  The sun had been down only a few hours, but already the temperature had dropped several degrees.  A chill wind had sprung up in the interim, driving the rain into the trenches and the cold into the bones.

Down below, men dug into packs and pulled out ponchos to keep the worst of the wet off, or had erected makeshift shelters with bits of canvas while mud squelched beneath their boots.  Others forwent comfort entirely, eyes or mirrors occasionally peeking above the rim of the trench, always on the lookout for any sign of movement from the Germans.

John Valentine was one of the men below.  He leaned his back against an earthen wall, the bulwark cool and hard through his uniform.  He lit a cigarette, grateful for both the habit and the cold.  Between the two, it was almost easy to believe the smells of decay and cordite were fading, and that death could be forgotten as easily as a scent carried away by the wind.

He stood in silence, watching the smoke from the end of the cigarette rise in lazy spirals, and then get torn apart in a cold gust.  To either side of him, he could hear the low murmur of conversation about home, of comforts left behind, and occasionally, of the current situation.  Somewhere to his left, someone had started up a card game under their makeshift shelter, and he could hear the soft snap of cardboard striking wood, and a quiet chuckle.  He even imagined that if he was very still, he could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees of the Ardennes – a long way off, but still visible on a clear day.

The fighting had gone on for six days.  Six days of fire and blood, of the Germans shelling their positions, the explosions coming so loud and frequent it felt as though the earth itself would shake and split and swallow them whole.

John was almost grateful for these moments, as well.  Fear and noise and the shouts of his fellow soldiers served to drown out the noise in his head, a constant assault of memory and vision that threatened to drown him and pull him under in its persistence.

In the cold dark though, the sounds of wind and rain his only companions, memory flooded back.

 

*

Summer, and the sun slipped across a clear azure sky, while a warm breeze stirred golden fields below.  She sat across from John on a blanket they had spread under an old oak at the edge of the field.  In the distance, sunlight shimmered on the roof of the old farmhouse, sending up mirage waves of heat, and off the windows, turning each into a silver mirror of light.  Gnats gathered in small clouds in the middle distance, boiling in the air like steam from a kettle.  John could smell wheat chaff and lilac from the bushes by the house, and closer, the scents of her hair and skin, fresh and sweet like sun-dried linen.

Under the emerald leaves of the oak, they leaned in and kissed, his hand sliding under her hair to the back of her neck, skin as smooth as flax.  He tasted the apple they had shared for dessert, heated by her breath, and when they parted, she whispered his name.

 

*

“John!”

The voice snapped him out of memory, and he looked around, flicking away the cigarette that had burned to a nub.  He heard the sound of dirt sliding on dirt, and a soft scrabble.  A second later, a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and he turned to look at the speaker.

It was Merryweather, a slight ginger-haired private with a ruddy complexion and a smattering of freckles across his face.  He smiled, white uneven teeth shining in the moonlight.

“Hey man.  Sorry, thought you’d checked out.”

“No, no.  Just woolgathering.”  John said.

Merryweather nodded.  “Right.  Well, Sarge says it’s your turn up top.  Good luck, man.”

He patted John on the shoulder one more time, re-slung his rifle, and turned to go.  John watched him walk down the trench until his back disappeared around a curve in the trench wall.  He sighed, picked up his own rifle, and made his way up the embankment to take his place as lookout.

Up top, iron plates with slits in them had been placed in intervals along the trench line, ideally to keep snipers from picking off lookouts, but the idea hadn’t been one hundred percent, as some German shooters had taken to using armor-piercing rounds.  As a result, John had been showered with bits of skull and brain after an over-eager private had stayed too long peering out.  He could still remember the sound the bullet had made as it passed through the plate –metal on metal, making the iron plate ring like a bell – and the sound the private’s body made as it slid down the trench wall.  Because of that, John only looked out when he had to – every three to five minutes, and only long enough to be sure no one was creeping across no-man’s land.

Once at the top, John settled into the hollow behind the iron plate, making sure to unsling his rifle and have it at the ready.  From where he stood, it seemed the smells of decay and fire had redoubled their efforts to overpower the senses, and he had to fight to keep his gag reflex down.  The rain was stronger here too, driven by a wind not hindered by the earthen walls.  He shivered, and then did his best to suppress that too.  It would be hard to draw a bead if he was shaking like a puppy.

John took a deep breath and took his first look through the slit in the plate in front of him.  Scorched earth, craters, barbed wire, and bodies greeted him.  He scanned left to right, and tried not to look the corpses in the face.  When he was satisfied the field was empty, he ducked back down and tried not to think of the rotting bodies the mud and the earth were already trying to reclaim.

John looked around at the other men behind their plates, men that were for the most part, little more than teenagers thrust into adulthood by the war.  Most had come into an awareness of this, men’s minds forced into young bodies by death and cruelty; others still innocent, and wearing it on their sleeves.  He worried about the latter most of all, knowing that the ones who believed this was just a bad spot in a good life would one day wake up from dreams of fire and the clutching hands of dead men and realize a part of their souls had been burned away.

 

*

A cold December, and John had spent the majority of his time either looking for work or doing odd jobs and maintenance around the old farmhouse Emily’s father had left her.  They had been married in the fall, and her father had passed away shortly after, cancer claiming first his lungs, then the rest of his once hale body.

He had lain in the hospital bed, his withered frame barely stirring the sheets as he breathed, tubes snaking into his body like tendrils of vine.  He had held Emily’s hand and smiled, his eyes watery.  Then he drew one breath and released it, a long slow rattle that wheezed from his ravaged lungs like a rusty teakettle, and when it was over, he was gone.

Emily cried on and off for three days, the sound of her sobs punctuating the sighs of the winter wind outside.  John drifted through the house those days like a ghost, unsure of himself, or the comfort he could give.  He would go to her at times and hold her, until his chest was wet with her tears and his arms trembled with the force of her sobs.  Other times he would sit and listen to her grief, and stare into space, and sometimes he could feel a hole in his chest as though something had been lost to him too.

In those times, those dark quiet times, surrounded by grief and wind and winter, he would cry too.

*

His cheeks were wet.  John reached up and wiped them, and felt cold on his palm.  He looked up at the sky and saw a white star field falling slowly down.  He watched it drift and blow and swirl in eddies, dancing in the wind.

Three soft pops, and then a sizzling sound, almost like bacon in a pan, and the night sky was lit in red and orange, turning the battlefield into neon nightmare.  John looked to his left and saw a private staring out of the slit in the iron plate in front of him, his eyes wide and white.  John didn’t blame him.  He knew what came next.  He rolled over and looked out of his own opening; to be sure the flares weren’t simply a feint by the Germans.

He scanned the battlefield – bodies, wire, and snow a blur as he ran his vision over them.  He did it twice.  Right to left, left to right, and halfway back he heard it – a deep thump and then a whistle that reminded him of a train barreling down its tracks.  John knew what was next again – a bright flash and torn earth, and a shudder in the ground as though it too was dying.

Before that though, before the sound and the fury, he saw her.  Emily, barefoot and naked and pale, walking to him in the snow.  Then the tears came, moments before the whistling stopped and a white-hot flash seared her and the world from his vision.

*

He found her in their bedroom.  While he had slept in her father’s old overstuffed chair in front of the fire downstairs, Emily had found her father’s hunting rifle, pressed the barrel against the roof of her mouth, and pulled the trigger with her toe.

John had torn up the stairs at the sound, the pit of his stomach clenched so hard he wanted to vomit, sleep still clinging to his eyes.  When he got to the top of the stairs, and saw what Emily had done, he did.  He looked again, and sank to the floor, his wife painted on the wall and ceiling, and his own hopes and dreams drying on the floor beside him.  He sat there, and didn’t cry, and when the smells of blood and cordite and vomit became too much, he got up and called the coroner.

After all was said and done, they buried her in the spring, in a plot next to her father, but by then John was gone too.  The war had come calling, and he had embraced it.

*

John blinked.  He blinked again, and his vision cleared in fits and starts, white fading to orange fading to dim spots at the edge of his vision.  He stared out of the slit.  No more explosions bloomed in his view, though a haze of smoke and dirt and snow hung in the air.  The wind and snowfall had died as well, and the glow from the flames was long-dimmed.  Then the haze shifted, as though the wind was pushing aside a curtain, and she was there again, Emily, closer this time.

John stared, his eyes roaming her from hairline to ankles and back, stopping at the dark crease between her legs, and her full pink-tipped breasts.  She was more than that to him, but it had been so long, and seeing her again had pushed those tied feelings of love and lust to the surface, rose and razor bound together.  He felt himself move below the waist, that part of him defying rational thought and seeking refuge in animal instinct.  He snapped a look right again and stifled his thoughts.  The private beside him hadn’t noticed, and didn’t seem to care, instead huddled in his hollow behind the steel plate against any debris and shrapnel that might stray his way.

John turned back, and peered out again.  Emily was still there, watching him, pale skin untouched by the miasma surrounding her.  Their eyes met, and then she was moving, in stutters and flashes, first whole and perfect, then dead and rotting, as though reality were trying to remind her that she shouldn’t be – couldn’t be.  Her eyes were pitch black, the color of tar in sunlight, and when they turned on John, he could feel his bowels clench.  The pit was back in his stomach, and though he wanted to, he didn’t vomit, and then she was there, in front of that iron plate, and he could hear her breath, rasping and cold, behind it.  Emily squatted.  Perfect, rotting breasts swayed in front of her chest, her mouth a gaping not gaping wound in her skull, her eyes black pits of fever.  When she pressed her lips against the opening in the plate, the pit in John’s stomach let go, and he pissed himself.  He watched frost rime the opening of the port, watched her full lips open in anticipation.

So long…it’s been so long, he thought, and he felt something let go inside of him, like a gear stripped free of its machine.  He raised himself up and met her lips with his own, and tasted apple and cold earth.  For a moment, he thought he heard a sound like metal on metal, or a bell, then it was gone, and there was only Emily.

 

Muse

This is the last of my published work to date, a short story titled ‘Muse’. It’s Lovecraft-influenced, and as such, was considered a good fit by the kind editors over at shoggoth.net. It’s ostensibly about where authors get their ideas, or specifically, where one man does, and the price for talent.

 

Muse 

“Where do you get your ideas?”

The question came from a voice out in the audience.  Sam squinted, but couldn’t see past the stage lights.  A bead of sweat tickled his hairline and threatened to roll down his face, smearing the pancake makeup.  Those lights were so hot.  He struggled with a feeling of irritation and pushed it down, then smiled.

“My ideas?  I have a muse trapped in my closet.”

Cue laughter, next question.

It went on that way for the next fifteen minutes, with the host interrupting every now and then to deflect the hard questions with a quick joke or sly obfuscation.  What do you think of the criticism that your female characters are sexist?  How do you feel about groups like PETA protesting the treatment of the Robinson’s dog in Shattered Bones?  Are you a supporter of LGBTQ rights, and why isn’t there more diversity in your novels?

The questions came on like a deluge at times, but Sam weathered it, the easy questions making it easier, and the thought of a fat payout for a speaking engagement making it even easier still.  A part of him was even slightly pleased.  He had a new novel coming out next month, and the better this went, the better it would sell.

Then, the interview was over, and the host thanked him, a tall older man with graying hair and breath like a menthol cough drop, and shook his hand, and then a PA ushered him from the set and to the hall beyond amid the echoes of applause in the background.  He let pride swell his chest for a moment.  One small step for man, one giant leap for hardcover sales.

They assured him his check was in the mail, and the exit was straight down the hall to his left.  He paused in the light, the sunshine bright beyond the door.  He could still hear the echo of the host’s voice in the studio, and the approval of the crowd.  He soaked it in, even though it wasn’t his.  Then he moved on.

*

Sam flopped on his couch and loosened his tie.  He took a pull from the beer he’d grabbed from the fridge, savoring the way the cold coated his throat.  He looked around at his apartment, a sprawling loft with a desk in one corner, a bathroom in another, his bedroom up a short flight of stairs, and a kitchen with an honest-to-God island and granite countertops.

He thought of the critics who said his writing wasn’t worth the paper it was on, and thought to himself – this is what the author hath wrought, look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.  He snorted and finished the beer.  He sometimes wondered if his critics had ever read Shelley, or if they were all disciples of the kingdom of Marvel.

He glanced back at the desk and the closet beside it, a narrow thing with a wooden door and a brass knob that seemed out of place in a room with tile floors and steel and leather furniture.  As he watched, it rattled softly in its frame, a sort of persistent ticking that reminded him of a clock whiling away the hours.  He waved a hand at it.

“Hold your horses.  I haven’t even changed yet.”

He got up and went to the bedroom.  He threw on pajamas and a robe and grabbed his glasses from the nightstand.  That done, he went back downstairs and grabbed another beer, then it was over to his desk, where a sleek laptop waited for him, the screen dark.  He sat down and powered it up.  The door behind him rattled again, more insistent this time, as though it were ready, as though it were excited.

The screen lit with the glow of electronic life, and he opened the document he’d been working on.  He stared at the last paragraph he’d written, and tried to find the thread again.  Something something.  C’mon Ozy, be brilliant.  The door rattled behind him, and he took a sip of beer and turned toward it.

“It would be much easier if some people would just. Be. QUIET!”

The door stopped rattling, and he turned back to the laptop, setting the beer down maybe a little harder than he necessarily needed to.  A dollop of foam escaped the lip and rolled down the side, forming a puddle around the base of the beer.  Sam looked at it and frowned.

He got up, grabbed a towel from the kitchen, and spent five minutes cleaning the desk and the bottle.  When he was done, he dropped the towel in his laundry basket, and returned to the desk.  He put on his glasses, and settled in to work.  Spotty, he thought, and spent another five minutes cleaning the lenses.  When that was done, he slipped them back on and stared at the paragraph on the screen.  No new words had shown up.

He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of beer, his brow furrowed.  The door rattled behind him, once.  He continued to frown at the screen.  The door rattled.  Frown.  Rattle.  Frown.  Rattle.

He blew air out through his nose.  “FINE!”  He took a deep breath and stood.  He placed his glasses on the desk, and walked to the door.  The knob felt warm to the touch.  As though in anticipation, the door pushed against the frame.  A part of him warned against opening the door.  Another part chastised him for stolen genius.  He pushed those thoughts away, and turned the knob.  The door swung open.

Beyond the door was a black vastness so wide and deep it made Sam’s head swim.  Somewhere within, a thing glowing with an inner radiance spun slowly by, ice caking its massive body and flaking off with each agonizing rotation.  Tentacles and eyes protruded from its shapeless mass, and it continued to ride cosmic waves in its blind idiocy.

Sam held his breath and waited, his toes on the edge of the gulf.  He could feel the chill wind that blew from that place, and a shiver walked his spine.  It was only a moment, and an eye, the color of lavender and the size of a beach ball hove into view, its gaze unblinking.  Mottled skin the color of jaundice and stippled with coarse black hair surrounded it.

Feelers, thin and questing, broke the plane of the door and wrapped themselves around Sam’s torso.  He breathed out in ecstasy as they wrapped his neck and the tips found his temples.  The feeling was like breathing honey, like rediscovering sex.  He found he had an erection, and neglected to feel shameful about it.  He felt a presence enter his mind, eager and fertile, questing for the words.  They found them, and he felt the seed planted.  His mind’s eye burst with imagery, symbolism, meaning.

Then it was over, and the feelers pulled back, withdrawing into the dark.  He felt the absence of the presence, and the hole it left behind, and sucked a great breath, as though he’d forgotten to breathe the whole time.  The eye blinked once, and slipped into the black, and he was left staring at mindless things drifting in the great dark.  He closed the door.

*

He sat at his laptop, and the words spilled out, like headwaters, like ink from an overturned pot.  The story began to take shape, the words crawling across the page at first, then walking, then sprinting, a race of imagery that left him feeling elated, and when he typed the last word of the day, spent.

When he was done, he went back over what he had written.

Joe Abercrombie was a hard man.  He liked his whiskey neat, and his women warm.  MaryAnn was one of those women, soft where it counted. He preferred to eat the souls of the young and split the sun in black.  Shia Ia Fthog.  Then there was the Cleveland case.  It was the wolves, they ate his brother on the freeway.

Ha ha, very funny, he thought.  He frowned, and corrected the paragraph, and wondered if he’d had too many beers.  He could get morbid when he drank too much.  He went over another section.

In the beginning was the dark and the throne and the throne was flesh and gristle and the eye that sees burned bright on its crown.  We are the path and the door we are the way to the world beyond the world where the light is never and the dark burns eternal.

His hands shook as he deleted the paragraph.  What the hell?  He flipped the laptop power off and made his way to his bed.  He flopped there and lay, staring up at his ceiling.  Must’ve been corrupted data.  Maybe I shouldn’t have had the beers.  Maybe I pissed it off, making it wait.  He began to drift off.  It’ll be better in the morning.  The light went out of his world for a little bit.

*

He dreamt of the door, of the book that had opened it, De Vermis Mysteriis, and his first frightened and wondered reaction.  He heard a voice in the black of his mind, where the light of reason failed.

PAIN.  COLD.  ENDLESS VOID.  A CRACK IN THE DARK.  FLESH, WILLING AND FERTILE.  PAIN.  PAIN.  PAIN.

*

Sam woke clutching his hand.  He looked down at it through bleary eyes and saw a suppuration had opened in his palm.  He used the bed sheet to wipe away the oozing pus, an action that hurt as much as it helped.  Once it was clean, he could see the palm had split in the middle on a horizontal line, the flesh drawing back in a terrifying imitation of lips.  He pried at one of the folds, and winced in agony as it moved, and he got a glimpse of something black behind the flesh.

God, I hope that’s not tendon, he thought.  He made his way to the bathroom, and dug out the antibiotic cream and a gauze bandage.  He smeared the cream on, and a wave of nausea passed through him.  When it passed, he wrapped the hand in gauze, and grabbed coffee from the kitchen.  After a moment of doubt, he sat at his desk and flipped the laptop on.

It purred to life, the glow of the screen dimmed in the morning light.  He opened the document he’d been working on, and fought the cold dread that made him want to delete the whole thing and start over.  He began to read, his frown lightening as he went.  When he was done, he sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.  The words were just words.  He scrolled back to where he’d left off and stared at the last paragraph he’d deemed worthy of keeping, fingers poised over the keys.  Nothing came.

He wanted to scream in frustration.  Maybe if I just burn down the apartment and start over.  Maybe as a lumberjack.  Maybe as a crash test dummy.

His hand throbbed in time to his pulse, and it was distracting.  He got up and searched his medicine cabinet.  He found a tablet of Clindamyacin, a couple of Tylenol PM, and half a bottle of Vicodin left over from carpal tunnel surgery he’d had a couple of years ago.  Jackpot.  He swallowed one dry, stuffed the bottle in his robe pocket, and sat back at the desk.

A few minutes later, and the Vicodin had kicked in, making the throb in his hand a dull ache that was tolerable.  He poised his fingers over the keyboard, and waited.  Nothing came.

“SONOFABITCH!”  His voice echoed off the glass wall that looked out over the city and rang in the rafters of the loft.  The door behind him stayed quiet.  He turned his chair toward it, and sipped his coffee.  Not even a rattle.  With no little bit of trepidation, he approached the door and grabbed the knob, the brass cool under his hand.

He turned the knob, and the latch clicked, the door opening a crack.  He pulled it wider, and saw only a closet, bare boards as mundane as cornflakes lining it.  A cool dread filled him, that of the threat of his livelihood being cut off, his inspiration drained away like water through a sieve, and he shut the door with a slam.  His head spun, and the ache in his hand redoubled.  He staggered over to his desk chair and sat, his stomach in knots.  He passed a shaking hand over his forehead and looked around, his gaze aimless.

Maybe you pissed it off.  Maybe it needs something.  You take but never give back.

The thought flashed through his brain.  He tried to think of what his muse would need.  What did arcane, eldritch horrors snack on?  He racked his brain.  Doritos?  No.  People, obviously.  But he couldn’t do that, could he?  Maybe he should start small.  There were plenty of rats in the city.  The thought of trying to catch one – sneaking around the sewers with a hunk of cheese and a hammer – made him give a snort of derision.  He thought of hamsters.  That might work.  Hamsters.  People fed them to their snakes all the time.  Why not elder gods?

He stood and felt his cheeks, where stubble lay like a poorly-shorn forest.  He jumped in the shower, taking care not to get his hand wet, then shaved and dressed, and left for the nearest pet shop, a spring in his step.  Best-seller list, here I come.

*

The hamsters were more expensive than he’d expected.  They were cheap, sure, compared to a dog or cat, but ten dollars a rodent was surprising.  He bought three, and a cage, and just so the clerk wouldn’t question his use for said hamsters, a bag of cedar chips and a pouch of food.  He took them to the cab and set them beside him.  As they drove, he watched the little fellas play, scampering this way and that, and felt a pang of remorse for what he was going to do.

Omelet, eggs, buddy.  You can’t write a good book without sacrificing a few adorable rodents to an alien horror.  He barked a laugh and the cabbie glanced back at him in the mirror.  Sam put on his best smile and said “They’re funny.  The little one was dancing.”

The cabbie just shook his head and muttered something in Farsi, but left him alone.  The rest of the ride was spent in silence.  They arrived at Sam’s building, and he paid the man, and then went inside.  Three blind mice, see how they FEED THE SIGHTLESS ONES.

He shook his head to clear it, the thought like static on the radio, and went on up to his apartment.

*

Inside, he kicked off his shoes and tossed his jacket on the floor.  He laid the cage on his desk, pushing the laptop to the side.  The hamsters inside scurried around, unaware of their impending doom.  The thought made him giggle a little.  No Mr. Bond, I expect you to diiieee.

His phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket.

“Yeah?”

“Sammy, how are ya?”  It was his agent.

“Good.  Look, Saul, I know the deadline’s coming up.  I’m almost there.”  The hamsters played in his peripheral vision.

“I know you’re good for it, Sammy.  Look, I booked another show for you.  Sally Michaels, on Friday.”

Sam’s attention was pulled back from the hamsters.  “Tomorrow?  Jesus, Saul.  Could’ve given me more than twenty-four hours.”

“I know, I know.  But you know how important these pre-sale pushes are.  Just tell me you’ll be there.  I’ll make it up to you.”

“You going to take a cut in your percentage?”

He laughed.  “How about a steak dinner?  At that place on 54th?”

Sam sighed.  “Fine.  But I’m getting appetizers, too.”

“Great!  Thanks, buddy!”

Saul hung up.  Sam laid the phone down and opened the closet.  Still empty.  He turned to the cage and sighed.  Nothing to it, but to do it.  He opened it and grabbed a hamster, its little feet scrabbling against the gauze on his hand.  For a moment, he thought he felt something push back from the other side of the gauze, and ignored it.

He skipped ceremony, and set the hamster in the back of the closet, and closed the door.  He sat down, and waited.  His hand itched, and he scratched it absently.  It sent a warm pleasant buzz though his arm.  After a couple of minutes, there was a scratching at the door.  Excitement filled the pit of his stomach, and he stood and approached the closet.

The handle was that same cool brass.  He turned it, and the hamster scurried out, over his shoe, and through the kitchen.  He sighed, and grabbed the cage.  Not enough, maybe?  He pushed the cage to the back, and closed the door.  After a moment, he grabbed a beer, and sat back down.  His hand was starting to throb again, so he hunted down the Vicodin and popped one, washing it down with the beer.  After a while, the world grew fuzzy, and drifted off.

*

Sam awoke to his hand burning, his head throbbing, and a squeaking coming from the closet.  He stood and opened the door, wiping his eyes with his palms.  The bandages on his hand felt as though they were bulging, and he peeked under them.  Something black and thin and ropelike was protruding from the wound on his palm, and as he watched, it quivered.  He dropped the bandage back over it and ran to the sink, where he puked up his beer.

He wiped his mouth, and wandered back to the closet.  Inside, the hamsters still ran in their circles.  He opened the cage and lifted one out.  The thing on his hand snaked from under the bandage as he watched in horror, and circled the little beast.  There was a sensation of pulsing life, of pleasure, and then a snapping sound as the animal was crushed.  It died with a squeak, and he dropped it, half horrified, half fascinated.  He closed the closet door and sat back in his desk chair.

So…maybe people?  Maybe a doctor?  The thought made him hesitate.  He needed help.  He also needed to finish the book.  A voice in his head, loud and sudden, like a buzzsaw on metal, agreed with that last thought and flushed other concerns from his mind.

Talent feeds TALENT bring us the GRISTLE and let us suck the MARROW.  THE EYE BURNS THE TEETH TASTE THE BLACK.

Sam shuddered.  The voice had been loud.  It had been insistent, and now he knew what to do.  He knew how to make the words come back.  He changed into his pajamas and lay down.  Tomorrow would be a new day.

*

The Sally Michaels Show was new, and popular, and catered to a crowd that was less buttoned-down than the soccer mom set that watched Oprah, and smarter than the set that watched Maury unironically.  Sam was backstage, in his best suit, a fresh bandage over his hand, wrapping to the wrist, and only sweating slightly, a side-effect of the stage lights and Vicodin he’d popped earlier.  He had woke with a headache and a throb in his hand that screamed with his pulse, so he had downed two of the pills on an empty stomach and now he was a bit bleary, but numb.

Sally had so far featured a radio jock whose comments had nearly inspired a riot, a fresh-faced writer from Oklahoma who had penned a book about the humdrum life of Midwest bedrooms, and a model who was being touted as ‘brave’ for being a size 2.  Sam rolled his eyes at that last one.  Then Sally was saying his name, and the PA at his elbow was pushing him out onto the stage, under the hot lights.  Applause swelled around him, and he gave a wave and a smile, and strode across the stage to clasp hands with the blond 40-something wearing too-red lipstick.

Their hands touched, and the thing in his palm throbbed.  He could feel it, moving against the inside of the bandages.  THIS.  THIS.  THIS.  He caught himself reaching for the woman’s face, unaware that he was doing it.  In the front of his head, behind his eyes, a low throbbing had begun.  Sally had a look of trepidation in her eyes.  The audience had fallen silent.  Sam tried to recover with a smile, and raised his other hand.

“Boo!”  He said.

The audience broke into nervous laughter, and Sally pasted on a fake smile for him.  It said, nice recovery, but you’ll pay for that.  Out loud, she said “What else would you expect from America’s best horror writer?  Sam Jessup, everyone!”

The audience broke into applause again, and he waited for Sally to sit in the hostess seat before he sat on his own, next to the model, who smelled faintly of sweat and magnolias.  It was making his head hurt.  He leaned away from her.

“So, Sam, tell us about your next book, Blood Ties.”

Sam smiled.  This was where he shined.  He opened his mouth.

Shaggah fthag naggoth.”  He frowned.  Sally’s smile had frozen in place, and his head hurt something awful.  He smelled the woman beside him again, and turned to her.  “You fucking stink.”  He said.  He regretted the words as soon as they came from his mouth.

“What?”  Her face looked as though she’d just discovered something unpleasant on her shoe.

“Sorry, what I meant to say was crabbah hrdah frthag.”

What kind of shit are you pulling here, Jessup?”   It was Sally, in a whisper.  Sam snapped back to her.  She was close.

An urge came over him, an electric thrill like touching the rails of a model train, or licking a nine-volt.  He watched as his hand made its way to her face of its own volition.  The bandages had fallen away, and he saw the black thing reaching out toward her, undulating as it went.  He saw his hand close on her face, and felt the tentacle punch through her eye, and into her brain.  He felt pleasure, and knew his erection was back.  He relegated it to so much flesh and ignored it.  She tried to scream, but his other hand was over her mouth.  He was dimly aware he was no longer driving.

His head hurt, and he felt them, words forming in his mind as the woman who struggled and flopped against his grip died, blood streaming from her eye socket.  The audience had decided they didn’t like this, didn’t like it one bit, and had begun to flee.  The woman beside him had already run from the stage after letting out a high keening wail, leaving behind a piss stain on the couch.  Somewhere in the distance was more shouting, though coming closer, and Sam knew it was security, or the cops, or just a few goons with tasers.  He didn’t care.  He could see the words, like fire in his brain.  He’d waited so long.  He spoke them.

“SHAGGALAH FORNOTH CTHUUUN RTHAGGA GRACHKE.”

His forehead split, and pus rolled down his cheeks.  He could see clearly now, the world in the correct dimensions.  He breathed air that was air and not the endless cold of the void.  He smelled the warmth of flesh and the pulse of the world, and knew it was fertile.  The purple eye rolled in its new socket and sensed the men coming.  It didn’t matter.  The words were the gate and the way, and they came even easier now.

Abandoned cameras continued to roll under the too-hot stage lights, and the insidious creep of the words played on.